It was a cool and foggy spring day in San Francisco when Mark and Kim Dempster made their escape to a swanky hotel in sunny Palm Springs—where they proceeded to fall hard for the area’s retro vibe and flawless weather. “The desert warmth just gets into your bones and opens you up,” Kim says.
Recharged and captivated by their sojourn, the Dempsters, who have two children, decided to put down some roots in the area, deciding on a 1959 post-and-beam home by noted local architect Hugh Kaptur. Its picturesque location nestled into the mountains at the very end of a residential street cast a spell on them. “It’s enchanting,” says Kim. “The house is fun and playful, and there are views in all directions.”
The project offered Kim, who owns Third Base, a company that develops luxury properties, a very personal opportunity to hone her design skills. Taking on the interiors herself, she turned over the task of expanding and updating the house to architect James Schmidt. “It was pretty much in its original condition but tired,” Schmidt says, so shag carpeting gave way to polished concrete and floor-to-ceiling double-glazed glass replaced the original single-glazed glass. “Now the house feel larger and more open,” he notes.
Schmidt’s plan for the house included the element of surprise. “It unfolds slowly as one walks through and experiences it and discovers the unconventional spaces,” he says. To accomplish this, he created a pair of boxes paneled in cold-rolled steel, a material that echoes the hues of the nearby mountains—and will patina in the desert climate. One holds the kitchen, a master closet and bath, and an outdoor shower; the other contains an additional master bath. “The boxes add another element of richness to the whole composition of the house,” Schmidt says. “The solid volumes are meant to contrast the light post-and-beam architecture.”
For the interiors, the words fun, relaxing and stylish guided Kim’s choices. In the living room, she paired a vintage sectional by Paul McCobb with low-slung Sergio Rodrigues chairs and a custom wood cocktail table. The mod influences continue into the adjacent kitchen, which includes a vintage dining table by Milo Baughman surrounded by a set of Brazilian rosewood chairs. The furnishings live against a backdrop of warm neutrals—the creamy sandstone shade of the concrete countertops, the earthy tones shooting through a Calacatta marble wall in a bathroom. “I took my color palette from the mountains, because I didn’t want to upstage the views,” she says.
Kim, an art lover, came up with an inventive solution to bring it into the house. “Because there is so much glass throughout, there are few walls to hang art in the traditional sense,” she says. “So I was inspired to create art walls behind each of the beds.” In one master suite, leather panels feature a tooled sunburst. The motif pays homage to midcentury design, while the rays’ triangular shape nods to the area’s Native American roots.
One of Kim’s first purchases for the project, a bold burnt orange Moroccan rug, found its way not into the main house but into another of those steel boxes. Dubbed the “Love Shack,” the casita “is a burst of party energy,” she says, imbued with Swinging Sixties flair and bright color. Near the bed, Kim hung a retro hanging rattan chair and added a pair of brushed-brass and mushroom-hued velvet swivel chairs. Another art wall graces the space, the work of San Francisco street artists Alynn-Mags.
Building the structure was not without its challenges, says contractor Mark Hahn. “We had to build a road, cut away the mountain, construct the casita and return it to its natural state,” he says. To reconstruct the hillside, landscape designer Marcello Villano hauled in 20 tons of boulders and planted brittlebush, red barrel cacti, palo verde and other desert plants. “They wanted it to be very natural looking,” Villano says, “like it wasn’t designed.”
Drawn to Palm Springs because of what Kim calls its “retro patio culture,” the house boasts spruced-up spaces for outdoor living. An enlarged patio and a relocated pool feel like a contemporary take on Julius Shulman’s iconic photographs of Palm Springs. During cool evenings, the family enjoys sitting by the fire pit, the twinkling city lights below them. “There’s something about the mountains that’s healing,” Kim muses. “It’s kind of hard not to smile when you’re here.”