The desert is a place of wild mood swings and intense contrasts—temperatures ranging from scalding at high noon to woolen-sweater weather by twilight; bright blue skies giving way to vivid sunsets at dusk; bone-dry landscapes suddenly made lush from downpours in minutes. Like its setting, this Scottsdale home in the private community of Desert Mountain revels in the tension arising from the juxtaposition of opposites.
That starts with the homeowners, says interior designer John G. Martin, who decorated the house with his partner, David P. Turner. Martin met the couple, who spend half the year in Chicago, in 2008 when they asked him to tweak the interiors of a previous home they owned in the same community. “The house was very commercial and very blank,” he recalls. “These clients are totally the opposite. They are very personable.”
That project kicked off a professional and personal relationship that has transformed the retired couple’s aesthetic over the ensuing nine years. “Our tastes have evolved,” the husband says. “Nowadays we like a cleaner modern look, but we also like things to be warm.” Their current home is prime evidence of that evolution. Originally designed by architect Linc Taylor of Linc Taylor Design, the residence is a resolutely modernist structure of stacked flagstone and expansive walls of glass framed in blackened steel. After seeing it, “we bought it the very next day,” the husband says.
Still, alterations were necessary. “My least favorite space was the part that was most important to me: the kitchen,” recalls the husband, who loves to cook. “I was lukewarm about it.” In response, the designers reworked the prominent pantry, which was initially enclosed by a nondescript sheetrock wall. Martin covered the wall with laminate that resembles Shou Sugi Ban, a cedar Japanese artisans have traditionally preserved by charring it black. “It created this very dramatic wood-like presence,” he says. Now, the space complements the house’s other materials. “The black in this environment was drawn from the blackened-steel window frames,” Martin explains. The laminate serves another purpose: In one simple gesture, “the kitchen, with no appliance changes, became unified with the great room,” he says. The designers continued the laminate into the adjacent dry bar, the entrance to the master bedroom and the opposite end of the hallway, where they added a mirror to create the illusion the hallway continues on.
This dusky, inky shade complements the art the designers helped the couple collect, which leans heavily toward abstract black-and-white pieces that are graphic and gestural. Amid the mix of paintings and photographs, ethnic artifacts speak both to the monochromatic palette and the rough-hewn character of the flagstone. A hollowed-out palm tree stump near the entry, chunky Dogon ladders in the open living-dining area and Balinese doors hung on a guest room wall mimic minimalist sculptures. Set against streamlined modern furniture, these rustic pieces with organic shapes and finishes create another high contrast in the house.
Other decor items help produce a sense of intimacy, something the clients’ former residence lacked—and with the open plan of the main rooms, this home was in danger of suffering a similar fate. Many of the new light fixtures echo the black steel framing, but they are positioned in a way that humanizes the spaces. For instance, over the live-edge dining room table, the designers hung two pendants “that drop lower over the table, which creates a more intimate space,” Martin says. “They offer a mood for entertaining and great conversation.”
However, one aspect of the previous residence the designers did want to recreate was a definitive arrival area. Nestled into the surrounding desert, the new home lacked a clear entrance. Martin’s remedy? “I designed a fence of panels that architecturally complements the house, especially the upper windows of the interior,” he says. Guests now enter through a gate and step down to the front door. To shape the nearby scenery, Martin worked with landscape designer Ervin Bollinger to replace scrubby plantings with more linearly arranged ones, giving it a modern character. Larger boulders and more generously scaled plants complete the look.
The landscape modifications ground the house even more with its surroundings—a substantial contrast to what the owners were used to at their other residences. Now, they engage with the shifting moods of the desert through the comfort of their own home. “Rarely have we had a home where we spend a lot of time in the living room,” the husband says. “But to sit here in the afternoon with a book and look out over the desert and the saguaros is wonderful.”
—Jorge S. Arango