Vinyl-liner pools have come a long way from their humble beginnings as rectangular holes covered by sheets of blue vinyl, trimmed in the most contrived white plastic.

While undeniably functional and cost-effective, these simple pools of the past offered little to look at in terms of style. Builders were limited by what manufacturers could accommodate, and high-end hardscape materials and accouterments available to soften the synthetic look of vinyl were in short supply. Consequently, the idea of a naturalistic vinyl-liner poolscape was practically an oxymoron.

Luckily, as the trend toward more elaborate swimming pool designs has progressed over the past several decades, vinyl-liner pools have truly come into their own.

Manufacturing technology has evolved to a level of sophistication that can accomplish nearly anything a designer can imagine. Vinyl suppliers have risen to the challenge of creating more styles and patterns. And designers have grown savvy about techniques for integrating natural materials and free-form designs to achieve naturalistic results on par with gunite pools.

Even so, vinyl is inherently artificial, and still can present challenges to builders. But for many skilled designers, achieving a natural look with their vinyl-liner pools is possible. It just takes some extra time and effort.

Here we’ll examine a few common mistakes to avoid, and explore insider “tricks of the trade” for achieving naturalistic vinyl-liner designs that can be the centerpiece of a back-to-nature backyard.

Look to the liner.

Nothing screams synthetic quite like the presence of bubbled, wrinkled or stretched- out vinyl. It’s a tricky material to work with, to say the least. And while technology has improved the product, achieving a flawless appearance requires deft precision, exact measurement, and good communication between the builder and vinyl manufacturer.

A design concept that is truly magnificent can look tacky and synthetic if its execution is blemished by unsightly bulges and imperfections.

“Seeing firsthand just how wrong things can go if vinyl is not cut to exacting specifications is all it takes to underscore the necessity of working with a manufacturer you know and trust,” says Michael Truehart, president of True Blue Swimming Pools in Northport, N.Y. “This is not a place to pinch pennies. While the majority of manufacturers offer an array of standard kit shapes, only the best are able to cater to requests to custom-build more complicated free-form designs.

“With any design, precise measuring and templating go a long way toward ensuring a snug fit,” Truehart continues. “Working with vinyl, there is really no margin for error. I always recommend leaning toward the smaller side, rather than larger. You can tug and pull a smaller piece into place, but if the vinyl sheet is too large, it will cause wrinkles and flaps, leaving no choice but to send it back and eat the cost of a new order.”

In addition, liner quality and color are critical factors toward achieving natural- looking designs.

“Currently, the most popular color choices are deeper, darker blues and greens,” observes Shane Bosemer, president of Gym & Swim, based in Louisville, Ky. “Solids can be quite nice, though they often show fading more quickly under the waterline than above. Black was popular for a while, but is hardly requested any longer; and grays and browns often look nicer than you might think.”

Patterned liners also can work well in a natural setting, if chosen with caution and care. Bosemer is a fan of dark pebble prints with lighter speckles, which effectively reflect sunlight and mask the look of vinyl. “Pebble patterns and granite look amazing and can expertly conceal seaming,” he notes. However, he warns against taking a pattern too far, or choosing a larger print. “Vinyl with large printed patterns tends to show stretching and seaming. Plus, a swirl or tile motif is simply not natural.”

Get in shape.

When it comes to creating advanced free-form shapes, today’s vinyl-liner manufacturers can form virtually anything a designer can imagine. Even so, there are some definite do’s and don’ts when it comes to designing a natural-looking shape.

“I think a lot of builders take some unfortunate shortcuts when it comes to design … to keep costs down for customers, and often because they are simply lazy,” says Michael Inzerillo, vice president of Swimming Pools by Jack Anthony in Southampton, N.Y. “You’ve got to wonder what these builders are thinking when you see that they’ve slapped a kidney bean, egg or oval in a backyard and called it a ‘natural’ design.”

Symmetrical radius shapes, for example, often are used by those seeking to create a natural look, yet they are rarely found in nature. Straight lines, hard corners and perfect repeating patterns also are definite no-no’s.

Industry experts agree that the key to achieving the most natural designs requires taking a cue from shapes that occur in nature, which are nearly always less “kidney bean” and more “English muffin.” (Think nooks, crannies and imperfect edges.)

“It’s often the designs with some understated simplicity that end up looking the best,” Truehart says. “You want the shape of the pool to bend and curve like a pond, while avoiding a busy zigzag feel.”

Design with the yard in mind.

With a firm belief that it’s easier to go with the flow than to move the river, Inzerillo tries to let the site itself guide his designs. “It’s best not to force anything,” he says.

“To me, design is about achieving a gentle balance with the yard’s existing topography,” Truehart adds. “I try not to cut down too many trees. I use almost solely indigenous rocks and plant life. And I generally try to work with as many of the elements that occur naturally in the environment as possible.”

Nature’s designs blend and flow, with smooth transitions and intermingled elements. Colors should conform to nature’s palette, too. “You’ve got to look around and build the pool where the yard tells you to,” Truehart says.

“A naturally occurring pond will never be found in the exact center of a square flatland,” he adds, “and pink stones may look lovely in Las Vegas, but in a forest environment, they are obviously out of place.”

Banish the evidence of man-made components.

Nothing is more jarring in a naturalistic poolscape design than stark white plastic or fiberglass. Seriously, few materials look more synthetic. Yet modern builders still use them on steps, skimmer lids and other ancillary items more often than one would hope.

“With all the sophisticated and stylish components available to today’s builders, there is really no excuse for using anything white or plastic in a natural design,” says Markus Brunner, president/owner of Forest City Pool & Patio Inc. in London, Ontario, Canada. “Whatever the design element, if it stands out and becomes a disconcerting focal point, it’s probably not natural.”

Diving boards consistently top the list of features that can most swiftly spoil a natural design, builders say. Slides seem to come in second place, followed closely by plastic ladders and railings.

Many builders have replaced the diving board with its distant cousin, the “jump rock.” This alternative offers clients the diving surface they are looking for, without the look of a bouncy plastic board.

“Slides can be accommodated as well,” Truehart counters — if, and only if, they are done in what he refers to as “the right way.” To him, incorporating a slide properly involves at least partially obscuring it by rockwork, and camouflaging it in tones that complement the stone, such as tans or grays.

Also, rather than popping in prefab fiberglass steps, which Truehart jokes can be a “real white elephant in a so-called ‘natural’ design,” he prefers to lay steps into the concrete, concealing them with the same vinyl as the rest of the pool — a technique many builders agree is a design “must” that’s worth every penny of the cost to upgrade.

Let Mother Nature guide the lighting.

No truly refined pool is complete without a carefully thought-out lighting plan. “Light and shadow can play beautifully off the water, adding visual interest at night,” Inzerillo says. “With both landscape and underwater lighting, the key is to put the right light in the right places to showcase the right things.”

Rather than shining a high-powered spotlight on focal areas, the idea is to indirectly illuminate an area, without making those enjoying the pool acutely aware of where the light is coming from.

Also, while flashy fiberoptic lighting can be tempting, it’s far too showy for a natural-looking pool. “While a blue or green colored light may find its place in a grotto or behind a waterfall, rainbow-colored or color-changing lights are rarely found in nature,” Bosemer jokes.

Handle decking with care.

Decks and patios are design elements of critical importance that can either rev up or detract from a natural design. Stark concrete, square patterns, brick and paving stone can spoil a natural appearance, while random stones or multitoned concrete stamped with texture fit right in with nature.

Builders differ on the amount of decking appropriate for a natural pool. Bosemer believes decking should extend no more than 40 percent of the way around the pool. “Several distinctive decked areas create separate outdoor rooms that allow for enhanced functionality,” he says. “One trick for adding dimension is to create multilevel decking using rockwork. Any time you change the grade, the result is that much more natural.”

Conversely, Inzerillo prefers just a small spot of decking at the pool’s entrance and landscaping around the majority of the pool.

Experts agree on one thing, though: Proportion is key. “It looks really unnatural to have this huge patio completely engulfing a teeny-tiny little pool,” Brunner says. “Similarly, it can be quite jarring to see a massive pool that’s too large for the size of the yard, with a miniscule strip of decking between the pool and the house.”

Watch where the water falls.

Waterfeature placement is best when it appears to have occurred organically. The most advanced designers let the yard dictate the water effects’ scale and placement.

“Some hillier sites really encourage waterfalls, and those are the yards that usually turn out looking the best,” Bosemer says. “What kills me is when builders try to add all these retaining walls to build up a waterfall where there is no existing grade change. They can try and try, but it almost always just turns out looking like a pile of rocks rising out of a slab of concrete. It’s not attractive, and it’s definitely not natural.”

A common trick of the trade involves strengthening the design flow by carrying the same rock used in the waterfall through to other parts of the aquascape, such as for the coping or strategically placed around the pool’s perimeter.

Inzerillo likes to create as much as a 2-inch coping overhang of the same rock with which he builds his waterfeatures. “It’s all about closing that visual gap between the water and the coping,” he says. “I think it should look as though the water comes right up to the coping, and the coping should blend seamlessly with realistic-looking waterfeatures.”

Another way to soften the look of a waterfeature is to add planting pockets, and utilize multiple layers of landscaping. “It’s when builders just build a ‘rock pyramid’ that rises up out of a perfectly flat surface that things start looking the most unnatural,” Inzerillo says. “Rich landscaping that intermingles with the rockwork looks amazingly effortless.”

Finish it up with landscaping.

Sumptuous landscaping often is the “show stopper” that makes the pool, Brunner says. “It can make the difference between an attractive design, and one that soars above and beyond the norm,” he adds.

Generally, a diverse assortment of plants, flowers, grasses and trees woven into the look of properly placed rocks and hardscape elements adds balance and beauty to a bountiful natural design. Truehart tries to leave at least half of his designs natural and unpaved, with wild grasses and different species of plants creating a lush, green effect.

“Getting the flower beds and planters up really close to the pool is another trick to enhancing the believability of a natural design,” Inzerillo says. “I also love to incorporate ferns or other plantings that hang over or into the pool. The entire environment looks more realistic when plants and flowers are found where nature would have placed them.”

Another area where builders shouldn’t skimp on the greenery is around fencing. While often necessary for safety and to meet municipal regulations, fencing can detract from a natural poolscape design. You want a fence to “disappear” into the backdrop of the design.

“It’s best to place the fence as far away from the pool as you can, and then integrate plantings to soften the lines of the fence,” Truehart says. “It’s also really important to pay attention to the material used for the fence. Cedar looks amazing, and black aluminum estate fences covered with rich plantings can look nice as well. My big pet peeve is that white PVC fencing. It’s popular for its low maintenance, but it’s a lot like a big white diving board in a pond-like environment — it simply doesn’t work.”