The Kellogg Doolittle House is famously designed by Kendrick Bangs Kellogg beginning in the late 1980s.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRANDON HARMAN
President Jimmy Carter raised the minimum wage to $3.35 an hour, Fleetwood Mac released the Rumors album, Apple sold its first computers, and Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Silver Jubilee marking a mere 25 years on the throne. The year was 1977, the same year John Vugrin began designing interiors and fabricating furniture. Much has transpired since then.
Yet Vugrin finds himself almost right back where it all began — and he “couldn’t be happier” for the full-circle outcome he never saw coming.
If his name sounds familiar, it should. His prehistoric-modern work is embedded into the most extraordinary example of organic architecture in the High Desert — the Kellogg Doolittle House, famously designed by Kendrick Bangs Kellogg beginning in the late 1980s. The original owners, artist Beverly Doolittle and her husband/agent, Jay, bought the lot and handed it off to Kellogg, who in turn found Vugrin. Between the architect’s regard for Frank Lloyd Wright and the artistic leanings of the couple, the chemistry for adventurous aesthetics fell just short of combustion.
The structure juts up from the landscape to support a roofline resembling a ribcage. Light streams through long, lean lengths of glass set between the roof-bones, warming and softening the interior cavity below.
From the day in 1994 when Vugrin arrived to work full-time on crafting custom furnishings for the home, he began breathing life into the skeleton Kellogg had erected. The architect worked mainly off-site by that time, leaving Vugrin to collaborate with Jay on handcrafted fantasies to fill the eccentric shell.
He walked into the house as a man who teetered on the brink between experienced designer and youthful visionary. Having studied painting and furniture design, he soon sharpened his command of steel, glass, bronze, copper, stone, and marble to a point as fine as the spiky leaves on a Joshua Tree.
“Imagine you were working on Gilligan’s Island, filming the show for 20 years. Then all of a sudden, they canceled it.”
His mix of integrated built-ins and freestanding pieces awakened the 4,643-square-foot estate. They spilled out around its exterior that sinks deep into bulbous boulders. Over the course of 20 years — some living and working in Europe once the Doolittles moved into the home — Vugrin devoted himself to producing a utilitarian museum of site-specific furniture and architectural elements. He fashioned doors, gates, fencing, shelving, lighting, and “whatever needed to be done” — all with reckless creativity, no matter how basic the function of the piece.
After living in France, Vugrin moved to Carrara, Italy, to source marble that he shaped into sinks, vanities, and other components. “We’d box the stuff up, put it on a plane at the Pisa airport, and ship it over,” he recalls. Once a year, he would return to install the fresh arrivals, take more measurements, and draft physical templates for new pieces.
And then, when his role within the house had morphed into a full-fledged career, the Doolittles opted to downsize, and new owners acquired the property. “We didn’t see eye to eye,” the designer says. In 2015, Vugrin was set adrift.
“Imagine you were working on Gilligan’s Island, filming the show for 20 years. Then all of a sudden, they canceled it,” he continues. “After that, I did anything I could.” Of note, the restoration of the Cree House by Albert Frey in Cathedral City, completed in 2019. Most other projects were just a paycheck.
Until fate came knocking. A shocking phone call in early 2021 reset the course of Vugrin’s creative and professional life. Did he want to return to his muse and pick up where he left off?
“It was pretty weird,” to walk back onto that metaphorical set, he says. Weird and wonderful. “I’d been there for so many years, and then to leave on bad terms, and then to get to come back? It’s been great.”
“I’d been there for so many years, and then to leave and get to come back? It’s been great.”
New owner Scott Leonard recognizes that the preserved structure and the ongoing custom work that make it a home are inseparable. They feed off one another in a visual symbiosis. Now, Vugrin works on-site again, back on the remote desert island he furnished for two decades. His style remains consistent, better told in photos than words, though many have tried. “Sci-fi,” “imaginative,” “brutalist,” and “poetic” are among the published attempts.
Recently, Vugrin built the world’s largest round bed for luxe Swedish company Hästens, spanning 14 feet in diameter. Architectural Digest flaunted the circular mattress on his African Mahogany frame, which Vugrin crafted in pieces over four months before assembling it in place. He has also converted an aged outdoor planter into a bar that seats 15. Its support mechanism alone comprises 300 metal cut-out pieces, each a different size. On the horizon are a full set of bar stools, outdoor dining chairs, a pool, decking, pool chairs, and a guesthouse, all part of a home finally designed to be seen and appreciated by more than its stewards.
Whereas the Doolittles were introverts, keeping their wholly handcrafted home close to the vest, Leonard envisions dinner parties and pool time. He stays very involved yet gives Vugrin immense creative freedom. Having opened the house to Modernism Week tours and hosted groups of graduate architecture students, he values the energy visitors can bring to a space.
For his new works, Vugrin dabbles with CAD as necessary but prefers to do things just as he always has, working from full-scale drawings. When he designs a 14-foot table, he rolls out 14 feet of tracing paper and reaches for his pencil.
“I think it was actually kind of good, in a way, to have a break from the house,” he says. “Because it’s like looking at your own face in the mirror every day.” As it was in the beginning, his efforts are full-time, up to six days a week, with ordering and billing pushed into some evenings. If he had the time, Vugrin would work on his own home, and if the resources, it would reflect the Doolittle aesthetic. For now, the Kellogg Doolittle House is his second home. And sometimes, a second home feels as much like home as the first.
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