In Palm Springs, a couple embraces midcentury style—and green design

From: Curbed

One duo finds a desert house that fuses new and old

For David Kearney and Chip Graves, the allure of Palm Springs was in the weather and the landscape, not the midcentury architecture that helped make the region famous. “In fact,” Kearney says, “we imagined living in something more Mediterranean.”

But when they saw this contemporary home that was built in the style of midcentury dwellings, they fell under its spell. “It wasn’t what we sought out, but midcentury architecture and design are really quite playful,” Graves says. “Something about this style is conducive to inviting neighbors over for a drink and good music—you think of Sinatra and a martini.”

A modern home is surrounded by cacti, yucca plants, and other drought tolerant plantings.
When David Kearney and Chip Graves purchased this home, it had a good deal of lawn surrounding it. Today, all of that has been replaced with drought-tolerant plantings and hardscape.

The home is part of a small development by Contempo Homes made up of new houses built with the attributes of midcentury architecture, along with a full complement of green features. “It’s actually like a midcentury home that’s on steroids,” says Kearney. “It’s very similar to a classic midcentury house with a butterfly roof. But where many of those homes would be 1,700 square feet, ours is 3,000.”

Earth-friendly features include solar energy, water-saving systems and appliances, and low-VOC paint—things nearly unheard of in the middle of the 20th century. “We absolutely love and appreciate the style,” says Kearney. “But the green aspects and the easy upkeep of the new home was also attractive to us.”

A knotty pine, unpainted ceiling is throughout the house.
The house is new, but in the style of midcentury modern architecture. Like many homes of that era, it has a natural wood ceiling.
A wood shelf holds several small pieces, all of them in earthy tones. There are vases, small pictures, and statues of heads and hands.
A wall-hung shelf from Design Within Reach holds things that the couple collects: studio pottery, small paintings, and diminutive statues.

The developer used Southern California–based designers to choose finishes and fixtures in the homes, and local legend Mark Nichols worked on this home. “Mark chose the terrazzo floors, designed the living room fireplace, and picked the tile and fixtures in the bathroom,” says Kearney. “Later, he came back and helped us with wallpaper choices.”

They named their house Tabitha, after the precocious child witch on Bewitched. Part of the reason is that the home has the same groovy vibe of her parents’ (Samantha and Darrin Stephens) suburban pad, and part of it has to do with the otherworldly sounds the roof makes. “They are mysterious noises,” says Kearney. “We thought they were kind of witchy.”

The house may be new, but most of the furniture is vintage. That’s because the couple wanted to avoid an “all-new” look. The classic lines of the house along with the vintage furniture make for an interior whose age is hard to guess.

Near the front door, a concrete pool begins outside and runs under a large sheet of glass to the interior. Blue glass fishing floats float in the water inside.
In the entry, a shallow pool starts outside and flows inside. The couple placed Japanese fishing floats in the water, and Kearney says they make a pleasant sounds when they gently collide.
A large cactus and several short agave grow close to the concrete brick house.
Sculptural plants make a great foil for the modern lines of the house.

Most of the pieces are sourced locally by Kearney, who unwittingly found himself in a vintage market mecca. “I love junking, and Palm Springs is filled with consignment, thrift, and resale shops,” he says.

In fact, shopping in these stores provided a midcentury modern tutorial for both men. “I tried to educate myself about the style,” says Kearney. “The best information I received was from the store owners themselves. They told us what we were looking at and offered opinions on whether it would work for our home. If we were looking for something and they didn’t have it, many would suggest other places to look.”

In the guest bedroom, colorful paintings hang in a row above the bed.
Kearney looks for colorful abstract paintings and prints in secondhand stores and has them reframed to bring out the beauty of the art.
The kitchen has light-colored maple cabinets and a light-gray countertop and backsplash. It’s generously sized, especially when compared to true midcentury kitchens.
The couple appreciates the modern-day proportions of the kitchen.

The rooms came together organically over time. The dining room, for example, is inspired by the iconic photo “Poolside Gossip” by Slim Aarons. The photo was taken 48 years ago this month, and shows local women lounging around the pool at Richard Neutra’s famed Kaufmann House. The home’s sleek lines contrast with the rugged San Jacinto Mountains, and the women are at ease around a sparkling pool. Perhaps no other photo has captured the spirit of Palm Springs as accurately—and it was taken less than a mile from this home.

The artwork dominates the room, and Kearney pulled colors from it to complete the space. “That’s why the Knoll fabric on the dining chairs is blue,” Kearney says. (His pro tip: Look for pieces with good, existing upholstery. “Reupholstering furniture is expensive and time consuming,” he says.)

The couple collects sculpture, and Kearney had a local frame shop (Peter Carter Artworks) construct the white pedestals that display their art here and throughout the house.

A midcentury photo showing women by a pool dominates the dining room. The white table is ringed by light blue chairs.
A Slim Aarons print hangs in the dining room. The Tulip table by Eero Saarinen is surrounded by Brno chairs by Mies van der Rohe.
In the living room, vintage midcentury modern pieces are placed around a contemporary glass and chrome coffee table.
In the living room, a blue Etcetera chair by Jan Ekseluis, a pair of Milo Baughman chairs, and a Knoll sofa surround a contemporary glass coffee table.

The water shades flow through to the living room, where a blue Etcetera chair and ottoman by Jan Ekseluis are key players. “It’s my favorite spot in the house,” says Kearney.

A sunshade on metal supports has angles that match the butterfly roof on the house.
Outside, the couple had a sunshade installed to make the patio usable during the hot times of the year.

It’s joined by a pair of black leather-and-chrome Milo Baughman chairs and a Knoll sofa that gather around a glass coffee table with a vintage base and a new glass top. “There are several contemporary pieces mixed in,” says Kearney. “We aren’t purists.”

The water feeling becomes literal in the entryway, where a small pool starts outside the door and flows inside under a wall of glass. “I’m not sure this is its intended purpose, but I feel like it adds humidity to the atmosphere inside. This is a big plus in the desert,” says Kearney.

At this home, the outdoors are ever-present. “In San Francisco, we live in an Edwardian flat with small rooms and an inward focus,” Kearney says. “Here, it’s exactly the opposite. The house feels wide open, and the windows and glass doors are large. The contrast is refreshing.”

Look outside those windows and there’s one thing you won’t see: grass. “Not one blade,” says Kearney. “There was a lot of lawn when we moved in. We took it out and replaced it with drought-tolerant plants and hardscape.”

A pool with a large whirlpool spa at one end.
The couple redesigned the pool, giving themselves a spa at one end.

The couple hired Sean Lockyer of Studio AR&D Architects to design a shade structure adjacent to the house, which (along with a fire pit they installed) allows them to use their patio as an outdoor living room. “My favorite things about the home include sitting by the fire pit at night and looking back at the angles of the house,” says Graves.

Kearney adds: “I think I speak for both of us when I say that the house and the landscape have a power over us. We love to wake up and see the extraordinary desert light and the gorgeous mountains. It’s a wonderful quality of life, and the house captures that.”

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