Nestled in a craggy hillside in South Palm Springs sits a new jewel box of a house, its treasures waiting to be revealed. The first Palm Springs project by Culver City-based architects Ehrlich Yanai Rhee Chaney (EYRC, formerly Ehrlich Architects), Ridge Mountain House was completed in early 2019. Steven Ehrlich, the project’s architect, describes the project as a “five-year obsession — even the gravel that surrounds it is very special.”
That sand-colored gravel offers the first cue that he carefully selected the project’s materials to reinforce and meld with the austere beauty of the rugged desert environment. Capturing the essence of place is of the utmost importance to Ehrlich, who decades ago, spent two years with the Peace Corps in Marrakech, Morocco, then traveled through the Sahara desert for the next four years. He eventually made his way to northern Nigeria, where he taught architecture and absorbed local lessons in creating shelter in harsh, often unforgiving, environments. A thoughtful, studied response to the locations where buildings will live and age is integral to Ehrlich and his firm’s practice. William Kopelk of design firm Inside Outside in Palm Springs crafted the landscape around the house to blend with the surrounding desert.
Ridge Mountain House, a weekend home for clients from Santa Monica with grown children, is located in a sparsely built development above South Palm Canyon Drive. With sweeping views of the Coachella Valley to the east and protected native Agua Caliente land against Mount San Jacinto to the west, the 4,500-square-foot house is invisible from the main thoroughfare. Approached via a walkway of flagstone pavers, the structure presents an austere, somewhat stern modernist façade of steel and concrete to the east, the side that receives the most direct sun. Its primary two-story volume, clad in panels of deep, rich, rusted carbon steel that act as a rain screen and prevent the intense desert heat from entering the house, slides elegantly behind two single-story board-formed concrete boxes — one a square, the other a rectangle — that flank the home’s deeply inset entrance, running through the entire width of the house. The windows on the main façade — rectangular above and square on the ground level — are also inset like pictures in a frame, offering privacy as well as protection from the relentless desert sun.
Equally as important to Ehrlich as the power of place is a strong collaboration with colleagues, clients, and contractors. He designed a house for these same clients 25 years ago in Santa Monica and, over the years, a close friendship developed between them and Ehrlich and his wife, Nancy. The client remembers a weekend trip the two couples took to the Amangiri resort in Utah as the catalyst for this project. “We love the desert for its warm, balmy nights,” the client says, “and Steven was the natural first choice to design our desert home, where our goal is to spend at least two weeks a month.” They originally looked at High Desert sites around Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley, as well as in Arizona near Tucson, but found them too remote and distant from their primary home. “Then, we got lucky and found the site in Palm Springs, which is about 3 acres. It was not for the faint of heart to build this house,” she recalls. “Even though it took one-and-a-half years to develop the site and another three-and-a-half years to build it, I enjoyed every minute of the collaboration with Steven and project architect Megan Lawler. It was so much fun that I was a little sad when it was over.”
The “big view” of the seemingly endless landscape around and beyond the house was very important to the client. She wanted a place that would accommodate their adult kids and their friends but would also feel cozy and tranquil when she and her husband are there sans kids. Inside, visitors are rewarded with the surprise of a lofty, luminous interior that showcases Ehrlich’s minimalist aesthetic and attention to detail. The flagstone pavers continue through the entry atrium, bringing the outdoors in like a continuation of the rocky outcroppings outside. To the left of the entry is an open-plan great room for lounging and dining. Natural gray concrete floors complement the gently burnished white plaster walls and ceiling. Indoors and out, the material palette of the home echoes the subtle tones of the desert and requires minimal maintenance.
“The ‘big view’ of the seemingly endless landscape was very important.”
Astonishingly, no paint was used in the house. The hand-troweled plaster surfaces, which bear the marks of their maker, welcome and reflect the light that enters through the floor-to-ceiling glass wall at the north end. This glass surface is, in fact, a wall of sliding doors that open up completely to a floating deck and infinity pool, once again dissolving the barriers between inside and out. Tucked behind the house and deck is a guest room casita with a cantilevered oval roof. The glass sliders of the casita also disappear completely, transforming it into an open yet shaded pool pavilion.
Ehrlich used elliptical forms, including sculptural oval tubs, throughout the project to soften the rectilinear volumes of the main house. A curvaceous oculus above the double-height entry atrium brings light inside and casts shadows on the textured concrete walls. Suspended in the atrium is an open, slatted staircase that climbs to the home’s upper level, where two large master suites unfold onto terraces at either end.
The client, who has an impeccable eye for art and design and calls herself “a lover of stuff,” selected all the furnishings and artworks for the interior. “My mother was a very talented interior designer, and it was wonderful to go shopping with her. I had it all planned out before the house was finished and knew exactly what would go where,” she recalls. She took special pleasure in selecting rugs to add color and texture to the interior and even designed one of them herself. She chose furnishings by such modern masters as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, and Eileen Gray. Furniture designed by artist Donald Judd appears in the casita and in one of the two upstairs suites. It’s no coincidence that the home’s two concrete volumes have a strong Judd vibe, recalling the artist’s series of concrete sculptures permanently installed at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas.
One seating area features Eero Saarinen Womb Chairs and Ottoman.
Elliptical forms, including oval-shaped tubs, soften the home’s rectilinear lines.
While art from the clients’ collection is sprinkled throughout the house, the showstoppers are two specially commissioned works. The clients fell in love with locally based artist Phillip K. Smith III’s 2017 Desert X installation, The Circle of Land and Sky, and invited him to design a site-specific sculpture for Ridge Mountain House. Smith responded with a folded mirror-polished stainless steel and aluminum sculpture that they mounted high in the entry atrium. Its pleats capture and reflect the ever-changing sky and light from the oculus overhead. Los Angeles-based designer David Wiseman, known for his fascination with nature, created one of his signature illuminated branch sculptures for the dining area. Appearing to grow directly from the ceiling, the work’s sinuous bronze limbs feature delicate porcelain magnolia blossoms with tiny lights hidden within, illuminating the large circular Saarinen dining table. Both Smith and Wiseman bring the beauty of nature inside, reinforcing that connection is a hallmark of the house.
Simple yet sophisticated, airy and open yet very private, Ridge Mountain House celebrates and embraces its environment. Designed to weather over time, in step with the forces of nature, it is truly at home in the desert.
Steven Ehrlich and Takashi Yanai of EYRC Architects speak Feb. 16 at the Annenberg Theater.