A New Minimalism

A Couple Returns To The Desert And Focuses Their Love Of Architecture On Their Latest Acquisition: A Sleek, Modernist Beauty

Thom Senzee Modernism 0 Comments

While architect Jim Jennings acknowledges the importance of bringing the outdoors in (a tenet of of midcentury modern design) when he talks about the desert getaway he designed for himself and his partner, Therese Bissell, he says turning that concept inside out was his mandate for the Palm Springs home he named Desert One.

“It was important to bring the outdoors in but more important to bring the indoors out and define what constituted the outdoors,” Jennings explains, describing his seminal creation constructed in 2005. He sold the property in late 2013.

Returning to the Palm Springs area after several years in New York, Desert One’s new owners, Todd Goddard, a 52-year-old real estate broker, and his partner of 26 years, Andrew Mandolene, 53, a fashion advertising creative director, are by no means new to architecturally significant homes.

The couple restored E. Stewart Williams’ 1957 Desert Modern Kenaston House on Desert Sun Drive in Rancho Mirage several years ago and ultimately secured historic status for the residence. “We were the first ones to landmark a house in Rancho Mirage,” recalls Goddard.

After selling Kenaston, the couple bought an award-winning 1957 example of International Style architecture in Westchester County, N.Y. “I think it’s safe to say we saved it from a wrecking ball,” Goddard says. “Fortunately, we were able to hire the original architect for the restoration.” The couple’s meticulous effort garnered national media attention for its fidelity to the original design and won the home placement on the National Register of Historic Places. But unlike their two prior homes, Desert One was perfect from the day they moved in.

Desert One does not rely on great expanses of glass to define its relationship to the outdoors. “It was not about extending the inside into the surrounding landscape but creating outside space that was part of the inside,” Jennings explains.

That might sound like a nuanced distinction only an architect could make, but experiencing Desert One in person eradicates all nuance from that distinction. Entry into the structure happens by way of a hefty, precision-engineered pivoting door that moves effortlessly from a two-vehicle carport to the first of two courtyards within the minimalist villa’s boundary wall. It intentionally feels like entering a fortress. Yet rather than feeling like a fortress that has been erected against an enemy, the house offers the experience of being inside a vault that somehow encases thousands of miles of sky and the top three-fifths of one of North America’s tallest mountains.

Stark yet subtle grid patterns reiterate in white and gray throughout the compound. The walls frame vignettes that are classically Palm Springs but otherworldly at the same time. “The challenge was to forge a spatial relationship with the mountain,” Jennings says. “The inspiration was the site: a section of flat, undisturbed desert within 9 miles of Mount San Jacinto’s 10,834-foot peak.” Standing in the 3,000-square-foot home’s single bedroom, it is obvious that the architect met his own challenge and created a profound visual connection between structure and mountain.

Once inside the 8-foot exterior wall that encapsulates the home, a roofless courtyard of cool concrete, striking shadows, white surfaces, blue sky, and towering mountain vistas greets visitors.

Inside, the home — which includes a living room whose east and west walls are sliding glass doors — is rich with textural wonder. Sleek metals define the in-line kitchen. A slight contrast in tones and surfaces occurs as one passes from kitchen to bedroom, where built-in cabinets conceal the couple’s small television. “I made sure the TV was the right size to recess into the fireplace space in the living room, if for some reason we ever want to have it there for a day,” Goddard says.

The shower is a spacious affair and the highlight of the home’s single bathroom. “I would have thought I would want to remove the stainless steel grate that goes over the sink in the bathroom, which makes it flush with the metal counter space,” Goddard says. “But it does exactly what Jim designed it to do: It prevents splashing, and I haven’t wanted to remove it once yet.”

Part of the structural genius of Desert One is the drainage system beneath courtyard floor’s grid pattern. “Although it’s not the same concept exactly as the sink, the system he designed to prevent pooling of water in the courtyard is equally emblematic of Jim’s attention to detail and function,” Goddard says.

Jennings incorporated Desert One’s minimalist design into the landscape by leaving the parcel of land it’s built on completely natural — save for the portion covered by the building’s footprint. However, the desert itself — with its punishing heat and sandblasting winds — challenged the conceptual foundations of Jennings’ plans for the home. “The main challenge of designing for the Coachella Valley is designing for extremes: 118-degree days; 50-mile-per-hour winds; 4-inch-per-hour rainfalls,” he says.

Architects frequently confront the extremes of sun, wind, and rain. But few design roofless dining rooms with permanently fixed, gleaming-white tables that must continue to glisten in perpetuity. “Jim made the dining table part of the architecture,” Goddard says. “Along with the benches, it’s gel-coated fiberglass that will withstand any weather.”

Abhorring the idea of embellishing their new home with unnecessary appointments, Goddard and Mandolene are taking great care in deciding what objects they will — and, perhaps more importantly, won’t — add to the stoic walls and clean surfaces at Desert One.

They had what they describe as a “major conversation” with each other about whether or not to bring two ’60s mod chaise longues, three chairs, and a table — all of which were cast by Fibrella in seafoam-colored fiberglass. “We decided to go ahead with the longues and chairs,” says Mandolene. “The umbrella would have made it kitsch, so it was left out.”

As Desert One’s new owners experience Jennings’ brand of minimalism within the walls of their new digs, they say they are discovering unexpected depth and drama in the details of the home’s design. “It’s the way things align, the way shadows change the negative space throughout the day,” Mandolene says.

“For us, this is worth losing some of the material objects that went to consignment stores — which in itself was hard,” says Mandolene. “But for the art of this house, it was worth it to us.” This is a couple that has been living a design-driven life for decades. But now, at Desert One, they feel that they will actually be living inside of a pure design for the first time.

“We have an original orange Knoll sofa, which would have looked great in here,” Goddard says. “But it would have distracted, and that’s the last thing we want to do.” In the end, the couple’s seating solution included the purchase of a 17-foot sofa and two chairs, all in white leather, from Poltrona Frau. 

A tabletop sculpture in copper, which they found in a Palm Springs vintage shop several years ago, made its way back to the Coachella Valley from New York to be among only a handful of other objets d’art and furnishings they brought to their new home.

Other items Goddard and Mandolene culled from a larger collection gathered during their more than a quarter of a century together include a Flokati wool rug, a vintage Milo Baughman coffee table, a Florence Knoll credenza, and a 1960 de Cachard oil painting depicting a worm’s-eye view of Manhattan that they say came from Frank Sinatra’s Rancho Mirage compound.

The couple will have to wait awhile before the residence is more than their frequently visited vacation home, because their respective careers oblige them to live in Los Angeles for now.

“We have already had the experience of living in the desert full-time, and although that is our ultimate goal — to live full-time at Desert One — for now, it’s better for us to live in the city and spend as much time here in the desert as possible,” Mandolene says.

Jim Jennings designed Desert One as a step forward into a new realm of minimalism. He is forgiving to those who see the residence as midcentury modern redux.

“Because the building has a flat roof, steel fascia, and concrete block walls, it is logical to assume it was intended to be an update of the midcentury modern architecture so prevalent in Palm Springs,” Jennings says. “Conceptually, it is the opposite. Rather than using glass to extend interior space into the landscape beyond, Desert One uses the wall to create interior space out of the outside by enclosing it. It’s a fortress.”

It is in that unapologetic containment of the outdoors — of the sky and of the mountain — where Desert One’s magic lies. “The only visual extension into the landscape is the visual link to the San Jacinto Mountains,” Jennings says. “The void space within the surrounding walls deepens and intensifies the experience of the granite mass beyond.”

Mount San Jacinto’s abrupt rise from the desert floor is stunning from just about any vista in the valley. Yet the ponderous precipice appears to hover within the property’s walls. “Desert One is another step toward simplicity,” says Jennings. “It makes a building out of the basic elements of architecture: the roof, the wall, the ground.”

Jennings thought about doing the unthinkable in the Coachella Valley residence at one point during Desert One’s gestation: “I resisted air-conditioning,” he recalls. “But in the end it was a better alternative than going below ground or making a tall building that used a lot of water just to stay cool.”  However, he is steadfast in his resistance to giving his design a grade. “I don’t like grades, but on the basis of pass-fail, I will give myself a pass.”

Likewise, he is circumspect about the state of architecture today. “Like postmodernism before it, I’m waiting for ‘Twisting Blob’ to discover its sublimated structure and rational sense of purpose,” he says. “In my opinion, the poetics of Steven Holl and minimal simplicity found in the work of Stanley Saitowitz are more interesting pathways for architecture to follow.”

About saying goodbye to Desert One, the home’s creator is almost solemn. “I loved being there,” Jennings says. “The stripped-down whiteness of the place gave me a feeling of serenity.” The San Francisco–based architect spent his time there with his partner, writer Therese Bissell, who Jennings called his muse for the design of Desert One.

As for Goddard and Mandolene, they are eager to share their new home with two special guests who also have an appreciation for architecture — the daughters of the late Arthur Witthoefft, the architect whose Westchester County, N.Y., home the couple restored. 

“They can’t wait to see this house,” Mandolene says.

“We can’t wait to have them see it,” Goddard adds, smiling.

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