This Backyard Triumphs Over Trouble to Become an Oasis of Calm

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By Dwell and Kelly Vencill Sanchez / Published by Dwell
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Prompted by a collapsing retaining wall, a couple transform their Hollywood Hills backyard into a modern retreat.

Like any dedicated do-it-yourselfers, Carmen and Todd Cherniawsky have had their share of missteps and successes. Alone or with the help of contractors, they’ve whitewashed floors, redone a bathroom, and gutted the kitchen of their 700-square-foot home in the Hollywood Hills. But it was a near-disaster that paved the way for the modern garden that is their property’s undisputed star.

Todd, an art director and production designer for such films as Avatar, Oz the Great and Powerful, and The BFG, and Carmen, a hairstylist and avid dressage rider, had rented the 1924 house for several years before buying it. They loved the convenience of living small, but they knew they had work to do. Atop their wish list was improved access to the backyard, a 15-by-37-foot patch that they could reach only via the driveway, or, if they were feeling especially agile, by climbing out the bedroom window. They also wanted to give their cats—Bukowski, Ernie, Benjamin, and Louie—a place to roam without becoming the target of scavenging coyotes.

But when the wall at the back of their property began to buckle, those plans were shelved. Not only had an unretained pool and faulty drainage at a property up the hill left their soil saturated, but their garage had become a de facto buttress for dirt migrating down from a grading project up the slope.

The new retaining wall at the rear of Todd and Carmen Cherniawsky’s 550-square-foot yard protects against damage caused by water and seismic activity. A Radial chandelier from CB2 hangs from nylon cords above a Jensen Jarrah dining set from Universal Patio Furniture.  

The new retaining wall at the rear of Todd and Carmen Cherniawsky’s 550-square-foot yard protects against damage caused by water and seismic activity. A Radial chandelier from CB2 hangs from nylon cords above a Jensen Jarrah dining set from Universal Patio Furniture.  

Enter contractor Steven Blake, who specializes in challenging hillside construction projects. "Carmen and Todd had a horrible water problem," he says. "If there had been an earthquake, they would have had a catastrophe."

Todd, who studied architectural engineering in his native Canada before earning degrees in industrial and production design, came up with a scheme based on the geotechnical and civil engineers’ reports. The only solution was a massive retaining wall, which required Blake to drill down 65 feet to pour friction pile foundations and install drains to carry water to the road. Many months and $45,000 later, the residents had their wall, along with the peace of mind that their home wouldn’t be wiped out in the next major temblor. Notes Carmen, "It’s the best money you could ever spend if you live in the hills."


Easy-to-maintain Mexican Feather Grass and succulents have reduced the yard’s water consumption.

Easy-to-maintain Mexican Feather Grass and succulents have reduced the yard’s water consumption.


"We’re both modernists at heart. We don’t like to change materials too much—we prefer them in their most natural form."—Todd Cherniawsky, resident


A wicker sectional from Target and a custom fire table that Todd designed sit under Sunbrella shade sails. 

A wicker sectional from Target and a custom fire table that Todd designed sit under Sunbrella shade sails. 

Finally, they were able to turn their attention to the garden itself. "We said, ‘Now that we’ve done this, what else can we do?’" Carmen recalls. "It was kind of exciting," Todd agrees: "Once you’re left with a big dirt pile, it’s a clean canvas."

Since the existing yard sat nearly two feet above the house’s foundation, regrading was their next undertaking, another collaboration with Blake. Todd and Carmen also searched out unconventional fencing, deciding upon hardwood flooring laid horizontally at a height of up to six and a half feet to keep the cats secure. French doors to the bedroom solved the access problem and established an easy flow from inside to out. After experimenting with a traditional lawn, the couple opted for low-maintenance gravel and square pavers, as well as lavender and succulents. When they couldn’t find an affordable fire pit they liked, Todd put his design skills to work to create the rectangular fire table that’s the centerpiece of the sitting area.

Borrowing a set-design technique, they raised the dining area at the rear of the yard. "We all love big sky," Todd explains, "but if there’s depth, it’s amazing how you don’t feel claustrophobic—even if the space is narrow."

Now complete, the garden is the culmination of years of collaboration. "This is what we do," says Carmen. "We love puttering."