architect-jim-harlan

It’s an Artful Life

A prolific architect, author, and preservationist brings new life to his own storied Palm Springs residence and debuts a line of handmade glass objets d’art.

Jennie Nunn Home & Design

architect-jim-harlan
Earthy hues carry the warm tones from the brick columns on the exterior into the interior.
PHOTOS BY DAN CHAVKIN

When architect Jim Harlan was a young boy growing up in Glenview, Illinois, he was obsessed with one thing: the house across the street. “Funny enough, they were from Los Angeles, and the house was a modern design and I was attracted to it,” says Harlan, who now has offices in Pasadena and Palm Springs. “It must have rubbed off on me.”

Harlan’s path from the suburbs of Chicago to Southern California architecture surprised even him. “I come from a family of accountants; all my brothers and sisters are accountants,” adds Harlan, who graduated with a degree in architecture from University of Southern California. “I would always build LEGO houses, and draw houses, but I never thought it was an actual profession. When I was a sophomore in high school, my school counselor reinforced the desire. I know I can’t throw a football, but I can design a good house.”

After graduating from USC in 1981, Harlan moved to Venice, California, and worked for architect Franklin Israel before launching his eponymous firm in 1989. “I’ve been very lucky working on houses all of these years,” says Harlan. “I love creating and designing. I love making people happy. And I have great clients. You kind of become part of their family when working with them, asking questions like, ‘Where do you put your toothbrush and underwear?’ ”

Flash forward to Harlan’s move to Palm Springs 15 years ago with his husband, Tom Early. They settled into a midcentury condominium in Park Imperial South.

“I love Palm Springs,” says Harlan. “It’s kind of a small town, but it’s sophisticated. I wanted to be this hip guy who lives downtown, but I’m just not that person. I’m more of a small town guy.” Then, eight years ago, Harlan’s address changed. “We weren’t even looking to buy a house,” he says, of the 1,600-square-foot residence designed by Long Beach architect Dean Davidson. “We were out walking the dog and we just flipped over this house when we saw it. We saw it on a Saturday, and by Tuesday we were in escrow.”

A rosewood dining table and chair set by Warren Platner can lean casual or formal depending on the occasion. Always with natural light and pool views.

Built in 1965, the three-bedroom home features 9-foot ceilings, concrete floors, exposed brick walls, sliding glass doors, and a triangular-shaped outdoor swimming pool. “If you had told me: ‘You’re going to buy a house with a triangular-shaped pool,’ I would have said, ‘No,’ but I’m in the pool all the time,” says Harlan. “The house is unusual, and it’s not what I would call ‘martini modern’ that is prevalent in Palm Springs. It looks very earth mama, verging on hippie. I think it’s because of all of the texture.”

Harlan has done extensive research on Davidson and spoken with him a few times on the phone. “My good friend Sandy Peck grew up in a Dean Davidson house built in 1961. I remodeled it very sensitively, but it’s funny to have this connection to him,” adds Harlan. “It’s a custom house that was built for the Goulds who owned a car dealership. They only lived in it for a year. It was misunderstood, and it had wallpaper, and the floors were covered up, but I think we brought a lot of happinesss into it.”

The test of a true preservationist is his kitchen. Harlan’s cabinets and Formica counters are original to the home, as are the oven hood and stovetop. A collection along the top includes vintage Denby dishes from the U.K. Below: Harlan’s glass “Rays” glisten in the den window.

For the interiors, Harlan layered each room with a laid-back sensibility. Familiar silhouettes from Design Within Reach blend with finds from IKEA and Target. Harlan and Early sourced period furniture from the mid-1960s at local stores including Boulevard and Hedge, and in L.A. at Reform Gallery and Ten10 Gallery. “We’re big art collectors,” explains Harlan, who has amassed a collection of works by artists such as Lita Albuquerque, Robert Motherwell, and Guy Dill. “This is a perfect house for art because there are so many blank walls.”

The open main living hub is outfitted with a mix of abstract and oil paintings and furnishings. A pair of ergonomic Togo sofas from Ligne Roset complement a round side table by Raul Coronel and the rosewood dining table and chairs by Warren Platner in a desert-neutral scheme. Outside, a massive, 8-foot-tall cherry red steel sculpture, Red Bird, serves as focal point in the yard adjacent to the pool. “It’s kind of origami and it’s amazing what it did for the yard,” adds Harlan of the bold statement piece that once resided in an office building in Denver and took eight people to carry. “All you see is a wall of mountain, and then to have this in the foreground … I can just sit in the living room for hours [and look at it].”

Harlan has served as vice chair for the Palm Springs Architectural Committee and currently is on the board of directors at the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation. He designs projects from L.A. to Laguna Beach to Palm Springs (a current project is in the artist colony Araby), and has penned two design tomes: one on William Krisel, a collaborative effort with several authors, and another on The Alexanders: A Desert Legacy, which chronicles the work of The Alexander Construction Company in Palm Springs.

The master bedroom is home to an eclectic mélange of artwork, collectibles, a vintage Brazilian armchair and Polish tapestry from the 1960s, and a new bed from Interior Illusions — in addition to two golden Emmy awards. Harlan’s husband, art director Tom Early, has won two Daytime Emmys for Outstanding Art Direction/Set Decoration/Scenic Design for a Drama Series for his two decades of work on Days of Our Lives.

Four years ago he purchased the vacant lot behind his house for use as a garden and for his motor home-gone-art studio. Inside, he crafts a collection of handmade glass objects. His new series,“Rays,” is composed of colorful, retro-inspired, manta-ray shaped panels strung together on a single strand of leather. The Trina Turk boutique in Palm Springs began stocking them this fall.

“The long story goes, a year-and-a-half ago Tom and I went to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. I took a week-long glassblowing class and it got me hooked,” explains Harlan. “I also took a jewelry class and it was very clear that I was in my own element making necklaces. The necklaces weren’t enough, and I had this epiphany to make these glass things, and I bought a kiln, and a motor home. It’s like the TV show, Breaking Bad.

“It started as just another form of expression. I think we were done decorating the house, and I needed to do something else, I guess,” laughs Harlan. “Right now, this is really a hobby for me. I’m thrilled that Trina, who is a taste-setter, appreciates them. Tom thinks that it’s going to take off more than my architectural career. We’ll see.”

For now, Harlan isn’t taking his full-time work as an architect for granted. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he says. “I feel so blessed to be an architect. I get to do what I want, and people pay me.”

In the living room, beneath more works from their art collection, Harlan and Early kick back on one of two Ligne Roset Togo sofas. The angled pool runs the length of Harlan’s place built by Dean Davidson in 1965.

(ABOVE) Jim Harlan in his backyard studio, a dormant motor home. (RIGHT) A vignette in Harlan’s living room. (BOTTOM) The kiln softens the edges of the fused pieces of colored glass he makes, creating a “watery fluidity like a manta ray.” He then strings the sun-catching “Rays” together with leather cord.