Free Spirit

Smart use of steel, brick, hardwoods, and stone places a Rancho Mirage home in an architectural class of its own. By Jan Silver Maguire. Photography by David Glomb.



Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you,” Frank Lloyd Wright once said. Project architect G. Andrew Barker and designer Wayne Williamson followed Wright’s advice closely: Nature provided the inspiration for a stunning collaboration on a 4,600-square-foot estate in Rancho Mirage. While exteriors take advantage of the home’s unique desert siting and panoramic mountain views, Barker also celebrated the owners’ Chicago origins with elements of Wright’s Prairie-style architecture, including a low-pitched roof and overhanging eaves. In interior spaces, custom-cut Italian limestone flooring draws from a striking color palette of blues, greens, apricot, brown, beige, and other earth tones that emulate layered hues on sycamore trees native to Southern California’s canyons.

I took the color scheme off the bark of the sycamore tree as it sheds yearly,” Williamson
says, pointing out the sycamores that were planted before the residence was finished. “It’s a local tree and it’s one of my favorites. It was an instant choice.”

The design team transformed structural elements into works of art. For example, in lieu of traditional or Corinthian columns to support lower roof elements poolside and on the back patio, Williamson used recycled galvanized sheet metal streetlight shafts. Another interesting exterior feature is the use of rain chains (instead of traditional gutters) that descend from the columns and offer a Zen-inspired water feature during the rainy season. Moreover, the main hip roof over the living area, entry pagoda, and interior baseboards are constructed of raw zinc, which Barker notes as an unusual material for the desert and Williamson says is important to the design, color, style, and function of the home. Zinc is an excellent surface for roofing because it reflects heat well and never changes color.

Likewise, interior design elements are consistent with the home’s structural style and integrity. For instance, heating and air conditioning ducts are recessed and hidden from view, adding to the sense of open space and light. “There’s a feeling of stability in the spaces that is beautifully proportioned without feeling closed in,” says Reuel Young, principal architect of Interactive Design Corp.

Throughout the home, custom steel French doors in dark teal provide access to several patios and the pool terrace. Flanked by steel-framed clerestory windows on two walls, the great room boasts 18-foot ceilings and serves as a diverse entertaining venue. Accessorized with Fortuny fabric pillows, a traditional English “back-to-back” sofa creates two separate conversation areas. (As good taste and fate would have it, Williamson had already chosen the sofa when the homeowner showed him the same one in a magazine.)

On the opposite side of the great room, contemporary Dakota Jackson chairs in sage surround a burled elm dining table with seating for 10. Adjacent, a card-playing table is used for games of Canasta. The area provides a panoramic view of eclectic art and accessories, including an oil on canvas from Italian artist Alessandro Papetti from his Interior series, a modern Aubusson tapestry, and a mixed-media piece comprising antique pages from a Confucius prayer book that Williamson secured from an artist of Korean descent. Inspired by French designer Jean-Michel Frank, Williamson conceived the great room fireplace. Local artisan Steve Webster constructed it, using brick with a Macassar ebony facade. Webster also custom crafted the cabinetry in the powder room, which features shagreen inlaid over English sycamore.

A separate wing off the great room houses two guest suites. One room displays a palette of earth tones and sage, including a bathroom counter of green-tinted marble and a dark-wood, antique Chinese armoire; the other features French blue walls and an antique armoire of Venetian provenance. The two private guest room baths showcase marble finishes and custom-designed maple cabinetry.

At the south end of the home, a master wing includes separate his-and-her master baths and ample custom closets. His master bath is a rhapsody in blue with an abundance of brilliant blue sodalite stone slabs offset by Baccarat crystal fixtures and lemonwood cabinetry with brown leather drawer pulls. In contrast, the feminine bath is defined by a more earthly ambiance. Tigerwood cabinetry, alabaster countertops, and a domed hand-leafed silver ceiling with soffit lighting provide a tranquil setting for the centerpiece freestanding bathtub.

Two large decorative hand-painted chinoiserie art panels define the elegance of the spacious master suite. Special design features include a velvet sound wall, custom-made wall-to-ceiling television cabinets in distressed French blue, and automated draperies.

Next to the master wing, an Italian-themed kitchen with sage Jurassic granite countertops, matching granite sink, and Gaggenau appliances provides ample space for cooking and entertaining. The homeowners spend much of their leisure time in the adjacent den, which departs from the contemporary to a more classical theme: blue lacquered wall coverings, animal-print swivel chairs, and a French velvet sofa with built-in bookcase inspired by 1930s interior design.

In exterior living spaces, distinctive form and function reflect the owners’ personalities, interests, and entertaining styles. In the rear, patterned grass pavers double as a driveway and an expansive patio for outdoor brunches and parties. Antique African forest gongs fashioned into outdoor wall sconces provide artful illumination. A two-car garage with clear glass doors on either side offers convenient drive-through access, as well as a built-in showcase for the owners’ cars and extra space for catering services if needed. In the front poolside patio, sheer white draperies, Moroccan-inspired accessories, and a conversation area dressed with plush furniture lend a sense of casual yet timeless elegance.

The project architect and interior designer encountered more than the usual challenges during the home’s construction. While working on this residence, Barker was diagnosed with ALS, and Williamson was undergoing treatment for cancer. Despite illness, the entire experience — from process to outcome — was so gratifying that Barker and Williamson often agreed that, in Barker’s words: “If we were to retire today, this would be the favorite project of both of our careers.”

Architectural Firm: Interactive Design Corporation
Principal Architect: Reuel Young
Project Architect: G. Andrew Barker
Interior/Exterior Design: Wayne Williamson, Insight West
Builder: Thomas Wallace, Wallace Associates
Landscape Installation: Leroy Cullen

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