Modern white house with black trim and orange door at sunset.
The Fall 2019 issue features Robert Maurer’s house on the cover. His landscaping is cohesive throughout the property, with DIY features, desert plants and lush green lawn.

Blending the minimalist geometry of Modernist design with the easy-going atmosphere required for comfort is the creative challenge of MCM homeowners everywhere. In his Mid Century Modern backyard, Robert Maurer makes it look simple.

The most impressive part? Almost all the work was done by Robert himself and his business partner, Glen Warren. Don’t be fooled by the yard’s relaxed nature—the polished result disguises the intense labor that it required. Sketches, digital design tools and groundwork all played a part. 

Robert’s interior renovation is featured in the Atomic Ranch Fall 2019 issue, where his home offers insight into renovation done right. Now, we get to step into his backyard and get a good look around. For our DIYers, we asked Robert a few questions to get the inside scoop on his creative process and backyard renovation strategies. 

Mid Century Modern backyard with mod planters and grass lawn
A wide view of Robert’s backyard shows the creative results. Architectural planters found at West Elm.

  Q. What was your goal for the look, feel, and usability of your backyard?

A. I wanted to maintain the private, park-like setting that already existed in the backyard when I acquired the property. I lucked out with my home being positioned at the top of a hill, which also happens to be one of the highest elevations in Sacramento County, so I have a nice, flat rectangular space to work with.

This kept my options pretty open when it came to landscape design, so I wanted to create a space that offered a variety of areas with flexibility to expand and further develop as my vision continues to evolve. Ultimately, I see the backyard as a space to entertain and escape, so having various areas for guests (and myself) to retreat has been a big part of that vision.

Q. What inspired your vision for the space?

A. I’ve pulled inspiration from a few places for this space. Visiting home tours in the Bay Area and Palm Springs have offered a lot of great ideas for minimalist landscapes. I’ve also gathered a small library of vintage architecture and landscape publications that feature beautifully planned spaces with understated features.

Mod backyard landscaping with grass lawn and desert plants in retro planters
The backyard is divided into different zones and unified by the laid-back landscaping and architectural details. The outdoor fireplace in the distance is by ModFire.

Q. With so many DIY projects, how long did the renovation process last?

A. The backyard has been an ongoing project since I purchased the home in the fall of 2016. With major renovations going on inside, I’ve chipped away at the backyard landscaping little by little, and there’s still much to be done. I started by cutting down poorly placed trees that were preventing me from maximizing my yard’s potential in early 2017, then replaced the fence around the entire perimeter in the summer of 2018.

From there, I had a clean slate, and was able to start focusing on more specific areas. With the exception of the fence installation, the work has been done by me and my business partner, Glen Warren. We are the co-founders of Commuter Industries—a creative firm focused on all facets of design, including residential, retail, graphic design and branding. My home has acted as a mid century sandbox for restoration and renovation ideas, and the backyard is a prime example of that ideology

Q. What was your biggest challenge?

A. One challenge I’ve faced is being overwhelmed by an open, nondescript rectangle lot. While having an open canvas like this is certainly ideal as far as planning goes, it’s a lot of space to know what to do with. A quarter acre may not seem like much for a lot size, but that’s over 10,000 square feet to design with care and intention. Knowing how to divide that into usable, livable and inviting spaces that still flow together has proven to be a little daunting at times. Utilizing our design software to plan out the space has been essential in mapping the backyard.  

Another area of concern was the 10×10 concrete slab in the back corner of the yard. The previous owners had poured this slab for a future hot tub, but it was never fully realized. I’m not much of one for hot tubs, so I wasn’t sure what I would do with this area of the yard, and the abandoned concrete didn’t look great.

The vision for this space continues to evolve, but I wanted to clean up this forgotten space by creating an outdoor living area. Shopping some cost-effective, DIY solutions proved to make all the difference for this corner of the yard, and I was able to relocate some pieces I already owned to make the space feel finished and inviting.

Outdoor Mid Century Modern living area
The backyard living room provides partial shading in the summer, and an outdoor fireplace for cozier conversations when the weather gets cooler.

Q.What products do you have in the seating area?

A. The flooring in the seating area features a click-and-lock outdoor decking system from Ikea. It’s proving to be an excellent, cost-effective, and easy-to-clean surface that helps define the space. I furnished the area with 2 acacia lounge chairs from Ikea, a vintage slat bench/coffee table that expands for additional seating, an avocado Modfire propane fireplace, side table from CB2 (no longer available), and sculptural pottery from West Elm (no longer available). I repurposed 2 pieces of wall art from CB2 to hang on the fence for a living room feel. These metal sculptures were originally brushed nickel, but I gave them a vibrant pop with a few coats of bright orange spray paint. 

Mid Century Modern backyard landscaping with lava rocks
Lava rocks, stepping stones, and plants fill out the gravel feature area that flanks the lawn.

Q. The fence has an awesome texture to it. What can you tell us about it?

When I purchased the home, the original 1974 tri-stake fence was still standing. The condition was rough to say the least, and after a record rain season in 2018, a significant portion of the fence came crashing down. With so many renovations going on inside my home, I wasn’t necessarily ready to take on a new fence, but it had to be done. I considered a variety of options, but ultimately decided to keep the original look of redwood tri-stakes. This was one of the more expensive routes I could take, but it provided visual interest, durability, and a classic feel that isn’t seen in every backyard.

Tri-stake fence in black in the mid century modern backyard with an orange feature screen.
Driftwood is a versatile piece that can be rustic and modern. Bed rocks from Go Hasties

The yard has a slight grade as you go toward the back of the property, so I had to account for that in the design of the fence. Rather than let the stakes slope downward, I wanted one level plane continuing from front to back. This required three 1-foot redwood kicker boards along the base of the fence, which also added to the cost. However, it was a necessary addition that makes the space feel unified and balanced. The added height also maintains privacy on all sides. 

Many of the architectural details of my home are painted black (Sherwin-Williams Black Magic 6991), so I wanted to stay in that color scheme. The dark backdrop and faceted surfaces give surrounding colors, textures, and plants a visual pop. Overall, the look of the fence is period appropriate to the home, but with a few upgrades to make it more livable for today. A more in-depth look at the fence-building process can be seen on the blog at midcenturymaurer.com (Tri-d and True).

Mid Century Modern backyard sculpture
Robert and Glen built

Q. We’re a little obsessed with the screen sculpture. What can you tell us about it?

This addition to the backyard went up pretty quickly. Just 2 weeks before the Sacramento Mid-Century Modern Home Tour, in which I was participating, we opted to take this project on to make the backyard shine. I had this design on my radar for a couple of years as I had seen a small, 3-foot version in a Sunset magazine publication from the early ‘60s.

The decorative screen was constructed from 2x4s, and the overall approach looked to be pretty straightforward. Glen and I designed and constructed a 12-foot configuration from pressure-treated redwood. The staggered design and bold orange color add visual interest and contrast to the extended black backdrop. A more in-depth look at the screen-building process can be seen on the blog.

Mid Century Modern backyard with MCM bar
A mid-century backyard getaway can’t be complete without a set of modern patio chairs. Photo by Robert Maurer.

Q.Were there any delays or difficulties in the process that you had to conquer?

A. The unforeseen twists and turns of home renovation and improvement plague just about anyone who ventures into DIY territory. Project challenges have been a driving force behind my desire to create the blog. I’m always pleased to show beautiful, finished spaces, but delays, difficulties, and road blocks are a real part of any renovation, and I want readers to know they’re not alone in facing challenges along their journey.

As you read through the blog, you’ll see that we’ve had our share of interesting moments – from sewer pipe bursting to drywall damage – we’ve seen our share of difficulties along the way. Most recently, I had to replace the drainage system in the backyard before constructing the decorative screen and surrounding landscaping. This set me back a day in my fast-paced mission, but it was an important step I had to take to ensure a long-lasting end product. 

Q. What advice or encouragement would you give to someone looking to renovate/decorate their yards by themselves?

A. Of all the home renovation projects we’ve tackled in the past 2.5 years, landscaping has proven to be some of the most intense and challenging work. I think any DIY renovation can be intimidating for many homeowners, but If you’re willing to get in there and do the work, I am behind you 100%. I’ve found that doing a little research before diving into a project goes a long way, and gives you the confidence to start into your vision. Before you go grab a shovel, seek inspiration from publications and from spaces you’ve visited, measure, devise a plan, and make sketches. If you get to a point that feels beyond your abilities, there is no shame in calling on a design professional. At the end of the day, we all want the job done right, so that should be a constant theme in every pursuit.

Mid Century Modern outdoor armchairs on a backyard patio
Bring the indoors out, with plush seating under the shade.

Q. Do you have any more projects in mind?

A. A designer’s job is never done, and the backyard is far from finished in my mind. I have grand plans for an in-ground aggregate pool, casita/bar and sun deck, raised garden beds, and additional dryscaping.