In winter, the light takes on a whole new quality in the vast expanses surrounding Palm Desert, California, where surreal blue skies meet golden, sun-baked mountains that draw snowbirds from across the country. A Chicago couple seeking warmer climes during the frigid season also felt the pull and imagined a new home that embraced its surroundings, opening wide to every possible vista.
To create this luminous oasis, they turned to architect and interior designer Steve Kadlec, having worked closely with him on two Chicago houses. As unapologetic minimalists, they wanted to translate the streamlined sensibility he composed for their Windy City high-rise to their sunny new locale. “We know how to design in gray, cloudy weather,” says Kadlec. The California desert, he notes, “was a different environment. There are so many subtleties that we just don’t have reference points for in Chicago.”
A desert modernist advocate and proud fourth-generation Coachella Valley native, Palm Springs based-architect Lance O’Donnell became the perfect partner for executing this vision. “It was kismet finding Lance,” notes Kadlec. “He knows how to capture the light.” From the beginning, recalls O’Donnell, “both being architects, we had similar sensibilities,” pointing to a shared affinity for clean, modernist design. “Steve quickly supported my decision to select a site with an enormous southern exposure—one where the indoor/outdoor living to the comforting winter sun was achieved,” says O’Donnell.
He envisioned a plan consisting of four wings dubbed casitas to give every space in the ambitious program two opposite views. For example, the great room has views to the pool and lanai as well as the interior courtyard. “That was the magic of the plan,” observes O’Donnell. Landscape designer Julie deLeon framed these wings with an elongated berm that “brings some privacy, while also visually burying the house into the landscape even more,” she notes. “It looks like it was a landform that was already there.”
Further immersing the home into the landscape, the team, which included general contractor Jeff A. Stoker, borrowed the sun-weathered hues and textures of the rugged environment when selecting materials. “We took cues from the rock and the brush, and all the colors on hand at the site,” notes Kadlec. For the exterior, they cut the structure’s modular glass-and-steel framework with flanks of hewn stone. More stonework continues inside with brushed limestone on the floor, carefully selected from samples laid out in the sun to find just the right shade that would rest in harmony with the surroundings. “We were constantly going back and forth from Chicago to make sure that we understood the finishes in the actual desert environment,” explains Kadlec. Above, they also paneled the ceilings with warmly stained hemlock wood, where it would be protected from direct rays.
Nature also sets the tone for the furnishings, which in shape favored the pristine, sleek lines that defined the couple’s Chicago style. The desert, however, invited the team to rethink “this simple aesthetic with finishes that were more relaxed and textural,” says Kadlec, who composed a mixture of buttery leathers, creamy woven natural textiles, and matte wood grain finishes. Standout light fixtures worked best as airy mobiles, like the David Weeks Studio pieces floating over the main dining area. “We made sure the lighting could both define spaces and speak to the volume of the architecture,” says Kadlec.
This vast scale also finally gave enough room for the homeowners’ large artworks. Though not intentional, the wings’ permeable flow creates compelling vantage points to view the collection—providing a close-up gallery experience from three feet away, but also from 50 or 60 feet. This made the artworks by the likes of Michael Wolf and Gottfried Helnwein subtly transform throughout the day, from the diffused morning light filtering from clerestory windows to a nighttime electric glow when “the home becomes a lantern, and all the art inside is on stage,” says O’Donnell.
Honoring the ebb and flow of unadulterated rays became the core of this fruitful partnership, providing an expanded canvas for O’Donnell to showcase his beloved landscape, and a whole new playground of palettes and moods for Kadlec to explore. “It was remarkable how much the views changed day in and day out,” recalls Kadlec of those first experiences in the desert. “It was one of these epiphanies, understanding what environment truly means, and how to design for that.”