Black Box

Adjani - Self portrait in the Noci Sonoma Bathroom.  July 2018

Adjani - Self portrait in the Noci Sonoma Bathroom.  July 2018


Noci has officially opened. We have swung open our black x gates to the world.  It hasn't been a flood of people, but it will be.  We just need time to finish this thing.

The central questions people ask me are, why is everything black and who is the designer of Noci?

Before I begin to answer these questions, I just have to tell you where it all began. I have been designing digital things for 20 years. By things I mostly mean websites.  I created big ones, complicated ones, tiny ones and I even developed my own broadcast online Network called G Living. I was comfortable with designing, I wasn't comfortable designing buildings. Buildings would be a stretch. Now creating gardens, forget it. Where would I even start?  I am clearly not qualified.

Or so I thought, somehow over the years as I got deeper and deeper into creating Noci, I just knew what to do. There is no replacing time being on the land. If you put in the time, the land will help you design. It also helps that I am here, day in day out, building, welding, digging, directing, planting.  I am in it.  As buildings go up, the more I am comfortable creating the next structure.

IMG_5764 2.jpeg


The Whitney Chapter

My life hasn't always gone smoothly. There have been dark times.  But darkness has always pushed me to grow and find the light, kind of like a plant.  I am literally describing how a plant starts life. I guess I was destined to be a gardener.

One of the dark moments in my early 30's landed me in the home and offices of Whitney Sander, a young Architect in Venice California. 

How do I describe Whitney?  A tall, slender wise professor. Maybe I see him that way because he was a professor of Architecture and he still has that teaching approach when he talks about his work. When I met him, he was a semi-young man building a small architecture firm, and I was standing in his laboratory of ideas, his Canal House. He was in his early 40's.  We are almost exactly 10 years apart.

Whitney let me into his life, he shared his love of design and architecture. His excitement for collaborating with others and for teaching the art of Architecture.  He loves what he does.  He also didn't take the traditional architecture path.  He wants to make structures that stand the test of time. Architecture that pushes the boundaries of design.  

He lives his life in the open. Really open. His Canal house had no bathroom doors. Imagine this, an all-glass and metal building, open space, with a spiral staircase taking you to open loft spaces on three connected floors, ending with an open wall and no door bathroom.  From the dining room in the center, you could continue to have a conversation with the person showering or doing something else in the upstairs bathroom. Too open for me.  I requested a door on the bathroom in our part of the house.


At his office, he would spend hours, cutting out small figures of buildings, clueing them up on cardboard landscapes. He would draw rough sketches of shapes and then toss it out in the office for everyone to rethink what he just did. 

He wouldn't get defensive.  He wouldn't try to control. He would listen. He would let the idea grow, expand and become something better. Most of the time.  But in the end, he would make the final decision.  He has taught me a lot if he realizes it or not.  

He is my first mentor in a way. He changed my life, and when he met Cathrine, his wife, she did as well. I am grateful for them and that time in my life. 

Starting Noci with them, I knew we had different visions when it came to designing spaces.  We are like-minded in many ways, but we are very different people. I don't think Whitney has ever gone black. We made an agreement to co-design the buildings. This is a big deal. He is the architect, I am not.

I took on the layout of the land, the gardens and all the garden structures (pools, decks, barns, fences, trellis, portals, roads, entrance) by myself.  

As Whitney reads this, he will be shaking his head. I am writing this from my perspective. Yes, Whitney doesn't need me, he is a professional, a Yale grad, an Architect and can design circles around me. Not to mention, draw more than a square. But for this project, for Noci, I need me.  The buildings and spaces have to reflect me. They have to be authentic to what Noci means to me to Aria and to what we are creating.

Off we went. I would design the first versions of the buildings in a straightforward form.  Box, box, and another box. I would find photos and other inspirations. We went back and forth. He would draw, and then I would draw.  In the end, it turned out, Whitney took on the heavy lifting of the main buildings (see the design page), which won't go up for a few years and I had more influence on the structures that are almost done now. The retail buildings are just a mirror version of the trellis portal I designed to sit in the middle of our long black fence.  The gardens are made up of a series of 10'x10' boxes.  They serve as portals into the gardens, they are the end caps to long 1800 foot trellis lines, and they make up our center tunnel that divides the gardens.   The house too is pretty much a more extended version of the retail buildings. I think in the end, Whitney and I ended up with a delicate balance of glass, concrete, wood, and metal.  The house feels like it is part of Noci. It belongs in the garden.


To answer the question, who is designing this thing, that would be me. I am leading the way in the overall design and the business model. I am  the Director of Noci if this project was a movie.  I have endless help and input from Whitney and Catherine from Sander Architects, Bob Ost Engineering, Michael and Zena our lead gardeners, the entire gardening staff, the builders and welders and, of course, my wife, Aria. 

My smart, funny, sexy, crazy wife (you should watch her videos, straight up nuts, Aria has let me run with this project.  She may think I am wrong most of the time at first.  She may always question my ideas and thinks I am the one who is CRAZY. She says things like I don't get it, why is there a metal box sitting by the road, it looks like an old freezer. But in the end, she pretty much always says, great, let's see what you do with it.  Or she just stops fighting me.  But sometimes she fights until the bitter end and sometimes, only sometimes she wins because she was right.  


Noci has a simple design code. Just a few core colors, shapes, and materials. Black alongside natural raw materials, copper/brass, unfinished light woods, rusted Corten metals. 

Now for the shapes that make up the buildings, walls, gates, pathways, signs and even the pools. The iconic square. I don't know why, but it turns out I love squares. Yes, squares. The Biodynamic guys out there are rolling their eyes. They all love circles, soft curves, spirals. You know the things you find in nature. I have a love affair with straight lines and squares.  It might have something to do with not being able to draw anything more complicated.  Whatever the reason, I have made the square the second most important element at Noci.

The color palette started with my love of the buildings in the northern part of Europe.  They have these deep black buildings contrasting in the snow.  I love them.  I found out they use pine tar to preserve their buildings and so I started using pine tar with magnesium and linseed oil mixed in as a way to protect our woods.  All the barns, fences and garden buildings are covered in pine tar.  The black is an excellent backdrop to the greens of the garden. The buildings almost disappear.  The green leaves, bright color of the flowers pop off the black. Your eye is allowed to focus on the plants.  It is a special effect.


No matter what I am creating on the property, I keep using the same palette.  I mirror almost everything, the buildings, the pathways, the trellis walls.  Balance.

This has been pure instinct. I didn't set out with this in mind.  I just started with the love of black.  The squares came along a year into the project.  Only 12 months ago, X's and Triangles began to appear in gates and as roofs over the shade decks.

The design of Noci has been an evolutionary process. One element giving birth to the next. Each failure spawning new designs, new ideas and new vital elements.

Most of the gardens are design by myself, with long conversations in the field with my Assistant Director of Gardening, Michael Arsenault.  Michael has turned out to be my rock.  My go-to guy to pull the gardens together.  I can't thank him enough.  And now  our Lead Gardener Zena Kolbe-Saltzman is quickly filling out our team and honestly just taking over. She is a force and has the endless passion for gardening and garden design.  I also have to thank Leo and George.  They are the no stopping get shit done, guys. I say let us weld up a box, and they say when do you want it done.  Noci wouldn't be Noci without Leo and George.

Keep in mind, this has been nearly a four-year process that isn't over yet.  We still have to complete the house and start re-designing the main buildings before they go up.  The purpose of the main buildings have evolved just like everything else, and the design will have to reflect that.  One example of that is the root cellars we designed.  They look great, they have grass roofs that tie into shapes the roofs of the buildings next to them.   However, now three years after that design was completed, I find out, we don't really need root cellars.  We need greenhouses.  We will have to transform them into greenhouses somehow.

Back to design, I love it. I am not formally trained, I just have a passion for it.  I think about it all the time.  Everything in my life, I see through the lens of design. 

I want to live within the space, use it, and have it enhance the lives of people, plants, and animals who will interact with the designs. Creating Noci has taught me endless lessons.  The things I thought I knew at the beginning of this process, turned out to be completely wrong.  My ideas were fantasy versions of farming. I had to live in the space to really understand it, to design for the place, not force the place to work around the design.