The Elements of Gracious Living

Fine food, fashion, and design round out an elegant evening at a Tuscan-inspired country club home



Cathy and Dennis Graham and Donna Dunn enjoy tiramisu on the patio.

Charles White

Cathy and Dennis Graham wrap up a day of work in their home office with his-and-her workstations and retreat to their master suite to dress for hosting dinner with two friends at their house overlooking the golf course at Ironwood Country Club in Palm Desert.

In the kitchen, Jennifer Johnson, owner and head chef of Rancho Mirage-based Jennifer’s Kitchen, puts the finishing touches on appetizers. She fills wonton cups with fragrant curried shrimp salad atop the mahogany-stained prep block, carved with a nod to an Italian countryside estate. Then she dots miniature Indian lentil cakes with dollops of mint raita.

The Grahams challenged Johnson to create a menu that is health conscious and centered around flavors that are as warm and comforting as their surroundings. She selected Asian fusion fare, redolent with flavor and deep nuances of spice.

Born and raised in Seattle, the Grahams raised their family and spent their careers in the Northwest region known for its skiing and copious amounts of rain. When their children grew up and moved out, the Grahams downsized to a chic, downtown condo and staked claim to a second home in the desert — a custom house located up a winding, mountainous slope affording panoramic, east-looking views of the valley landscape.

“Location, location, location,” Cathy beams. “We loved the view and wanted to take every opportunity to enjoy that every day and night.”

Using the poolside patio as the centerpiece, they worked with designer Donna Dunn to realize their Tuscan-inspired dream residence. “We use our outdoor patio often,” Cathy says. “It is where we drink our morning lattes and, some years, where we enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends.”

“The architecture incorporates an openness where one space flows right into another,” Dunn says. “To achieve a cohesive look, the elements in all those areas need to relate to each other. In addition, the lifestyle here tends to be more casual. People want to feel like they can put their feet up, so to speak.”

The large central living room welcomes guests on arrival, and the adjoining kitchen opens to the living room, so the Grahams never stray too far from their guests. Dunn selected a neutral camel color for the background of the interiors that mesh with pillowed limestone floors and walls finished with Venetian plaster. Richly hued printed linen enhances a casual yet sophisticated elegance. A variety of complementary textures interspersed with rich jewel tones of amethyst, ruby, and garnet accent the palette.

Window treatments minimize sun exposure while allowing the Grahams to experience the views. An Italian bed commandeers the master bedroom, presenting a direct view of the remarkable outdoors.

“Almost everything was designed for our personal interests,” Cathy says of the house, which also features state-of-the-art electronic controls, including the D-Box motion effects system in the home theater.

They welcome guests to stay in an attached casita, which has its own fireplace and kitchenette. “Friends and family want to come visit us,” Cathy says. “Whether they want to take a lap in the pool or a play a tune on our baby grand piano, everyone feels welcome here.”

The dining room, a circular alcove off the living room, is bathed in light and offers an intimate setting conducive to conversation. Regal chairs striped with maroon and deep brown surround a dark wood table. Lilac, tomato red, and mustard yellow plates topped with golden linen napery sit atop red placemats around a vase of sunflowers.

Johnson serves the first course, her ingenuity taking center stage as she tops each plate with organic greens with slivered mango, cucumber, and avocado confetti and sesame seeds and agave vinaigrette. Upon this, she serves a plump steak of seared wild salmon, each fillet adorned by gingered raw slaw and a creamy Thai red curry sauce and served with nutritious sides of basmati rice pilaf and sautéed baby bok choy.

For dessert, Johnson serves decadent slices of tiramisu cake bedecked with chocolate apricot bark, providing sweet cause for reflection amid stone pillars that frame a sea of sienna-colored hills and the valley floor.

In their quest for quintessential desert living, the Grahams have learned to relish a distinctive sliver of life in view of the setting sun.

Photography by Charles White
Wardrobe Styling by Susan Stein

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