Interior Designer Took Talents Poolside

By Kevin Kirkland, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Saturday, July 14, 2007

As an interior designer, Selma Sherman knows all the right names, brands and styles to get the look she wants.

But the name of that pretty purple flower in one of her huge square containers? Not a clue.

"I don't know the names. I chose it because it looked nice with that coleus. I work with color and texture, just like indoors," she says.

In the beginning, she bought more annuals than perennials to fill in the gaps. Then, as the astilbes, lacecap and oakleaf hydrangeas, and other perennials and shrubs began to spread, she cut back on annuals. These days, nearly all of her color -- salvia, hibiscus, coleus, croton and geraniums among others -- is in hanging baskets assembled by LMS or in large fiberglass containers by the pool, which she puts together.

Ornamental grasses -- whose names she doesn't remember -- anchor many of the beds. Besides being very low-maintenance, their narrow blades contrast nicely with the fat foliage of hostas and hydrangeas, and a stray wind can set them swaying for a tropical feel. Mrs. Sherman used the grasses' texture again as a foil to the needles of blue spruce and other evergreens along the driveway leading to the house.

Mrs. Sherman, who's been a designer for 28 years, says she's like any other homeowner shopping for plants at the nursery -- in her case, LMS Greenhouse & Nursery in Hampton. She chooses plants that appeal to her and reads the tags to make sure they'll grow in the all-day sun beating down upon the in-ground pool, containers and beds in her Fox Chapel back yard.

What sets her apart from other amateurs is her designer's eye, which sees not only winning color combinations of annuals (she changes every year) but also the differences in plant height and texture (type of leaf) that combine to create a pretty garden.

It helps that she didn't have to start from scratch. When she and her husband, Leon, moved to this nearly 30-year-old house in 1987, the asymmetrical pool was already there, surrounded by beds containing rhododendrons, andromeda (Pieris spp.) and lilacs.

Photo by Annie O’Neill

Selma Sherman added hydrangea and ornamental grasses to andromeda and other shrubs already growing by her pool in Fox Chapel.

Photo by Annie O’Neill

When interior designer Selma Sherman bought her Fox Chapel home, she opted to keep the stone arch that stretches over the shallow end of the pool.

A master often makes it look easy. Looking at the pool and surrounding 3 acres of lawn and woods, it's tempting to chalk up Mrs. Sherman's success to a great setting, a lot of money and a little luck. But then you begin to notice all the decisions -- big and little -- that led to it.

The big choices included replacing the exposed aggregate concrete pool deck and railroad-tie raised beds with dark red Omni-Stone pavers and Versa-Lock blocks. The deck was also widened on the right to make room for a dining table and chairs -- perfectly set this day with hand-painted Deruta china from Italy and matching cloth napkins and goblets.

While repainting and adding accent tiles to the pool, Mrs. Sherman opted to keep the rustic stone arch over the shallow end, its curve echoing the built-in, underwater seat.

Nearby she added a striking red-and-yellow metal sculpture by Marina Warren Nash. Named "Nike," it has the image of a diver in the negative space between the two sections. The designer met the artist while designing the interior of her home/studio.

From an upper deck off the master bathroom or a larger one off the kitchen, the pool appears like a perfectly composed picture. Leon Sherman says his favorite spot in the world is the seat of one of a pair of modernesque Adirondack chairs on the lower deck. They were designed by Jack Weiss, former owner of Weisshouse, and painted a soothing key lime, at Mrs. Sherman's request.

"I love that it's so private back here," she says. "But it's a great party place, too."

Subtle landscape lighting ensures that guests don't lose their footing. Mrs. Sherman was delighted to discover that R.I. Lampus, the maker of Omni-Stone and Versa-Lok, makes lights that blend in with the wall blocks until illuminated.

"I said, 'Oh, good! Let me play with lighting -- I can do that!'"

She also discovered solar globes that float in the pool and change color in the Frontgate catalog.

Growing up in Westchester, N.Y., Mrs. Sherman always wanted to be a designer. But she ended up an educator instead, teaching history at Mt. Lebanon High School when she first moved here.

She learned to be a designer by working around others and cultivating her eye for what worked. And that's how she gardens, too.

That bluish-purple flower in her container? It's 'Black and Blue' anise sage (Salvia guaranitica), according to Susan Banks, the Post-Gazette's garden editor. Mrs. Sherman doesn't really care.

"Color and texture, that's all it is," she says, laughing.

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