For a pair of avid collectors, the concept for their new home began as a vision for an Asian-inspired residence in the desert, a place that would allow them to enjoy the artworks they had gathered over the years. Through a gallery-owner friend, the homeowners met residential designer Sarah Swartz Wessel and general contractor Ethan Wessel, who have channeled their own love for Japan into clean-lined dwellings with a singular sense of place. After touring several of the pair’s projects, the couple knew they’d found their match.
The Wessels are collectors themselves, so they understood their clients’ desire to enjoy their artworks in a more personal way. “Rather than big expanses of gallery-like walls, we imagined a variety of ‘situations’ in which the art would become part of the experience of each space,” Sarah Swartz Wessel says.
The couple spend half the year in Paradise Valley, Arizona, and wanted to stay in the area, so first on the agenda was finding a lot to build on. One property caught their eye. Situated between Mummy Mountain and Camelback Mountain, it was populated with mature trees, agave and cacti. But it came with a hitch: A natural wash for seasonal runoff had been rerouted by previous owners and would have to be restored. When aerial photos from the 1940s revealed that the wash originally ran directly through the middle of the property, the Wessels were undeterred. Rather than set the house to one side or the other of what is–most of the year–essentially a dry arroyo, they designed a structure that would straddle it. That decision set into play a host of possibilities for the Wessels, who typically oversee every aspect of their projects, from design and construction to the interior and landscape design.
Set on one level, the house is laid out in almost an H-shaped plan, with the open living-dining area and kitchen at the center. Though the public rooms are positioned above the wash, from inside there’s no abrupt drop-off, only the feeling that the house sits lightly in the desert landscape. The sense of airiness is heightened by the peaked roof over the main volume, which features a gravity-defying skylight of faceted plate steel and glass weighing nearly 10,000 pounds. One wing holds the entrance, a guest suite and the garage. On the other side of the house is the master suite, a family room and a bedroom for the couple’s grandchildren.
When it came to materials, the Wessels chose salvaged Arizona mesquite to accent a longtime favorite: cast-in-place concrete, which they used for walls, cantilevered roof overhangs and patios, and even the roof for the freestanding pavilion. “It’s a limitless material,” says Ethan Wessel. Floors of white oak contribute to the neutral palette. “We wanted the color to come from the art,” says the wife.
The pavilion roof gave the designers the chance to explore the limits of the concrete in a new way. They’d originally conceived it as a solid rectangular slab, but wanting more light, they punched through it with conical holes of varying sizes. “We canted the sides of each opening,” Ethan Wessel says. “As the sun moves, the little circles move.” A glazed ceramic from Japanese artist Jun Kaneko’s Dango series sits beneath the largest opening, occupying its own natural spotlight during the day.
Balancing the concrete are windows that underscore the home’s transparency. From the floor-to-ceiling windows in the main rooms to the high horizontal opening in the husband’s office to the vertical sliver in the guest bathroom, glass is deployed throughout to frame interior sight lines as well as views to the landscaping–a mix of native plantings and bamboo designed by Sarah Swartz Wessel–and Camelback Mountain beyond.
The interior relies less on hallways than on what the design team refers to as “transitions,” with partition walls where the clients display pieces that include a large work by Alison Dunn, a photograph by Erica Deeman and a canvas by Spanish Abstract Expressionist painter Esteban Vicente. “It’s about shifting your brain as you walk through the house,” Sarah Swartz Wessel explains. “Those transition spaces are a pause before the next thing.” Minimal custom furnishings by the Wessels join contemporary pieces chosen in collaboration with the wife, who has a degree in interior architecture.
The couple now has a true indoor-outdoor experience in the desert: a private, serene and intimate retreat where they can delight in their collection and welcome family and friends. “There are a lot of layers to the house,” says Sarah Swartz Wessel. “The husband told us he spends time in each room just about every single day. He’ll go into his office, then he’ll sit in the living room to read, then the family room and then the bedroom. He says he just loves moving around the house because every part of it is so different.”