For a cosmopolitan town, Palm Springs has sure hosted its share of cowboys. From Gene Autry and the Smoke Tree Ranch to cowboy-mayor Frank Bogert, our little village has always felt a special connection with the Old West. True aficionados of frontier lore and fans of Western films and history will know that, on a mountaintop above Rancho Mirage, where the mighty Bighorn still roams free (albeit behind a protective fence), a true legend of the American West makes his home.
John Bianchi is the world’s foremost artisan of Western leatherworking. He has created holsters for the likes of John Wayne, Roy Rogers, George Montgomery, James Arness, and Paul Newman, just to name a few. Back in the day, he appeared in period get-up in his own ads reading, “The Last of the Lawmen Wear Bianchi Leather.” His private collection of Western memorabilia (the world’s largest) went on to become the basis for the Frontier Museum Historical Center, which later formed the foundation for the Gene Autry Heritage Museum in Los Angeles.
Visitors to the Bianchi home (where John lives with his wife, Nikki, and their border collie, Pistol) will be surprised to know that its heart is not the great room — a veritable museum that houses Sioux warrior artifacts, sculptures of John Wayne, and a replica of a Wells Fargo stagecoach done to one-fifth scale. Nor is it John’s private office, with a staggering collection of photographs and thank-you letters from the biggest stars in Western TV and film. “Now that’s to my liking,” pens John Wayne in one note, commenting on a custom rig (that’s cowboy speak for holster) that Bianchi had just crafted for him.
The heart of the Bianchi home is, in fact, a single ceramic tile in the kitchen where John and Nikki prepare their traditional Sunday night pasta meal together each week. The tile, which now rests in a custom backsplash above a chef’s range, was discovered by Nikki in Spello, just south of Assisi in Perugia, where the Bianchis stopped on their 16-day honeymoon tour of Italy. Nikki selected a single tile made by craftsmen from a centuries-old pattern and toted it lovingly home to Rancho Mirage, along with other breakable treasures, such as bottles of grappa and balsamico. It remains a memory-stirring object that she “designed a house around.” The tile is one example among many of the Bianchis’ carefully selected and composed elements, which add nuance to a home filled with striking monuments to the West and its history.
The couple met 20 years ago at The Springs Country Club in Rancho Mirage. Nikki, who was working in interior design, received a call from John asking her to review the plans for his first Mirada home, which also happened to be the first home in Mirada. (At that time, the only access to the homesite was a dirt road.) The Bianchis completed that first house together in October 1990; it was two to three years before they had a single neighbor.
Working Together, John and Nikki soon developed a connection, which started in realizing that their backgrounds shared unusual commonalities. Both came from immigrant Italian families, and both had strong connections with the West.
John’s father was a member of the New York Police Department. He took his son to a rodeo at Madison Square Garden when John was 8 years old, and sparked what would become a lifelong passion. Even as a child growing up in New York, John demonstrated a rare ability to work with his hands. He would find scraps of leather at the nearby glove factory or saddle shop, then use them to fashion leather collars for his pets. As an adult, having moved to California to become a police officer in Los Angeles, John used his spare time to handcraft ornate leather holsters in his garage. Despite his father’s admonishment to “do something serious,” John persevered, and eventually founded Bianchi International, a company which has revolutionized the way firearms are carried by law enforcement officers, members of the military, and sportsmen around the world.
Nikki is the great-granddaughter of Marco J. Fontana, another Italian immigrant, who founded the city of Fontana on his way west to San Francisco. There he founded Fontana and Co. Fruit Canning, which eventually became Del Monte Corp. Nikki was raised on a 6,000-acre ranch — a place John, too, would have liked as a child enchanted with the rodeo. Nikki grew up raising and showing American quarter horses, going on to compete in the most important shows on the West Coast. After moving to the Coachella Valley in 1986, Nikki studied and worked in interior design, and it is her touch that shines through in the Bianchis’ inviting rooms. John jokes that he doesn’t even know how to work the air conditioning.
In designing their current home (their second in Mirada, completed in 2000), the Bianchis worked with architect Kristi Hanson. Hanson initially met with the couple to identify where in their home they would be doing most of their living. They came up with a “bubble design,” as Nikki describes it, in which there are no long halls leading to different wings. Numerous changes were made on site while construction was well underway to ensure the home was as well-crafted as one of John’s best holsters. The result is a residence with an organic, almost uninterrupted flow from room to room that follows the pattern of the homeowners’ daily lives.
For the Bianchis, life in their home often focuses around the joys of food and the kitchen. Nikki, with a century and a half of Italian culinary tradition in her blood, considers this room her office. She played a major role in the design of the gourmet space, from the big picture (including planning the layout according to how she tasks food preparation and to the “golden triangle” of refrigerator, stove, and sink) to the finer details (distressed alder woodwork and a custom backsplash and hood). As she cooks her famous spaghetti and meatballs, Nikki admires the centerpiece tile brought back from Italy many years ago.
Just off the kitchen, a Dana Kreith chandelier highlights the circular formal dining room. The table and chairs were made by hand in Mexico and the ceiling features a spiral pinwheel of oak. The flagstone flooring extends to cover 4,600 of the home’s 6,300 square feet. “The men who laid the stone were here working for eight to nine months,” John reports. Nikki hand-selected each stone before hiring artists to lay them down.
Though the rest of the home is filled with museum-quality artifacts, the Bianchis have worked hard to create a warm and welcoming feeling for visitors, avoiding the coldness of a don’t-touch gallery. The liberal use of stone works wonders, with elements in nearly every room in the house, including entire stone walls in the great room and a grand stone fireplace that divides the room into two separate entertaining areas. “A raised-hearth fireplace is the only way to go,” John says. “You don’t need to bend over to feel the warmth, and it can’t be hidden behind other furniture.” On the fireplace as well as on the walls, a mixture of 70 percent ledge stone and 30 percent rubble was used to create that “Old World feel.” Wooden beams accent the vaulted ceilings, held in place by decorative brackets that John designed himself.
Everywhere you turn in the Bianchi home, Western artifacts and art are displayed, collected over the course of John’s storybook career. In addition to a Sioux war breastplate circa 1870, a Plains Indian war shirt from the same period, and the hat and vest worn by John Wayne in The Shootist, the great room boasts bronze sculptures of John Wayne wrought by George Montgomery and David Manuel, along with his-and-hers saddles from the Sawtooth Saddle Co. in Utah. These displays are so harmoniously in keeping with the home that a visitor feels instantly welcome, engaged by the space but not overwhelmed.
Guests staying with the Bianchis have two equally appealing possibilities for retreat at day’s end. The in-house guest room has lovely western views that are echoed in the entry vestibule. Down a step and through an archway, this room has a stone wall and a painted sky on the ceiling to reflect the view to come. An original Maurice Chevalier chapeau hangs on the wall, as do John’s early report cards, saved from childhood and filled with not very encouraging comments. (“John has difficulty concentrating,” reads one, “and will not amount to much.”) The second option is the “Cowboy Room,” a separate casita reached by an outdoor staircase off the elegant, tree-lined central courtyard. The room is filled with photos from movies John worked on, as well as historically accurate advertising campaign photos researched to the most meticulous detail.
John really comes alive in his office, however, where a fan of Western history and film could spend hours looking at the decades worth of colorful photographs and framed letters. One especially fascinating letter came from John Wayne. On it, the Duke drew diagrams of how he wanted his holster to sit and look — a charming insight into the greatest Western icon of all time. Also displayed is John’s two-star general’s flag from his term of service as a major general in the California National Guard. He worked his way up the ranks from private in a nearly 50-year military career, which included coming out of retirement after 9/11 for another tour of duty.
In the cool, desert evenings, sliding glass doors off the living room can be opened to connect with the outdoors. Beyond the patio and down a few steps, the lagoon-like pool and spa rest on a cliff overlooking the valley to the north and west. The former (and soon-to-be) Ritz-Carlton, now being busily renovated, lies directly below, and the distant lights of Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage create a dreamscape. Here the Bianchis especially savor the orientation of their Mirada home, with the sun setting behind Mount San Jacinto to the west. Soon they will adjourn inside for their Sunday night pasta ritual. Even today, it seems, Western stories still have a happy ending.