High Desert Couple Handmade Their Home’s Stunning Additions

A creative couple takes their vintage ranch home in Yucca Valley back from the future.

Leilani Marie Labong Home & Design

A High Desert couple made a house their own by making things themselves. 

From his native home in neighboring Joshua Tree National Park, a one-eyed desert tortoise wandered into TK and Jill Smith’s 1961 ranch home in Yucca Valley last October, proceeding to ensconce himself under a record cabinet for a long winter’s slumber. The couple, who permanently relocated to the area from Los Angeles in 2004, named their reptilian interloper Buddy, appreciating his decision to eschew a cozy burrow amid the property’s blue agave and juniper trees to hibernate instead among their lovingly hand-built, midcentury-modern-inspired designs. Not to mention their faithful intentions. 

“When we bought the house, we wanted to restore it to the midcentury era in which it was built,” says Jill. “We were striving for authenticity.” While the home — the first designed by late High Desert architect Arthur Edward Gerpheide after graduating from UCLA’s architecture program — had retained its classic long-and-low California ranch appearance over the decades, it had nevertheless suffered from a few 1980s misadventures in remodeling that required some course correction back to the MCM era. As unofficial stewards of the time period — TK is a rockabilly guitarist and luthier who uses only time-honored tools from the post-WWII era, while Jill owns an apparel company that sells vintage-style jerseys sewn on century-old machines — the restoration seemed tailor-made for the two.


Homeowners TK and Jill Smith.


TK built the credenza in the breakfast nook, next to the Burke table and chairs. 

Some of the design debacles the Smiths had inherited were as stupefying as they were suffocating. The back patio, for instance, had been fully enclosed despite its wide eaves and long shadows from the towering pine trees on the neighbor’s property. “This house stays very comfortable in the summer because all of the overhangs are at least 5 feet deep,” Jill says. “The first thing we did was tear down that enclosure.” Inside, everything was oddly gray for such a sunny climate, including the wall-to-wall carpet, which many desert dwellers consider a tactile, and tactical, offense. 

“Why would anyone use carpet when there’s sand everywhere?” asks TK, who replicated the hard-wearing floors in the couple’s former homes in L.A. and Twentynine Palms. “Concrete is just cleaner and cooler.” In a more decorative application, the artisan used concrete to create the chainlike forms that comprise two outdoor privacy screens stationed in front of the house.

Gutting the gloomy kitchen was one of the couple’s first handcrafted projects in the home. They took their design cues from the kitchen in the Kaufmann House, architect Richard Neutra’s beau idéal of desert modernism, where the seamless wooden built-ins are as much a part of the architecture as the walls. “You wouldn’t get that from an Ikea kitchen,” says Jill, revealing no small amount of disdain for cheap materials like MDF and laminate. Still, she admits that her role in the ongoing remodel is primarily a visionary one. “I usually tell TK what I want, and then he figures out the best materials and builds it.”


Eames chairs complement a vintage table in the dining room. 

Her husband selected beautifully grained maple Europly for the kitchen cabinets, carving out the handles for a sleeker, more crafted look, and exposing the edges of the doors and drawers to showcase the 15 layers of veneer and resin that embody the nearly indestructible composite. “After 18 years, the kitchen still looks brand new,” says Jill.

Straightforward industrial materials like plywood, concrete, and steel are synonymous with midcentury design, whose democratic mission was to “get the most of the best to the greatest number of people,” as Charles and Ray Eames once put it. TK, a former Disney Imagineer, used corrugated steel to update the back deck’s shady eaves and rebuild the formerly falling-down carport with lightness and textural flair. Plywood proved advantageous for other handcrafted projects, including his millwork in the guest bedroom, a dead-ringer for an ESU (Eames Storage Unit); the record cabinet currently functioning as Buddy’s hideaway; a couple of entryway credenzas that showcase a collection of vintage Viking and Blenko art glass; and Jill’s built-in desk, constructed from darker walnut Europly instead of the prevailing maple.

In a brief departure from the home’s marquee material, TK fashioned his approximation of a Nelson Thin Edge Bed by Herman Miller for the primary bedroom using a solid walnut plank as the headboard. It turned out to be an inadvertent match to the veneer of the room’s latest addition, an Eames Lounge Chair recently gifted to the couple by an ailing neighbor. TK bent the bed’s hairpin legs in his guitar workshop, conveniently located a few blocks from the famous Pioneertown honky-tonk Pappy & Harriet’s. (Headlining musicians like Jack White, Jimmy Vaughn, and JD McPherson have been known to stop by TK’s studio to wield his handcrafted electric axes.) 

The couple’s modifications have taken the home back to the era of its build date, much closer to the original they would have loved to find in its place.

TK used a solid walnut slab as a headboard for his interpretation of the Nelson Thin Edge Bed.

The couple’s modifications have taken the home back to the era of its build date, much closer to the original they would have loved to find in its place.

“I don’t know why, but when I see midcentury houses in Palm Springs that still have their original interiors, it makes me so happy,” says TK, whose aesthetic orthodoxy may stem from an innate desire to preserve the area’s singular contributions to design history. After all, his family has a long legacy here, beginning with his grandfather, who was a homesteader in Twentynine Palms in the 1920s. Even if the Smiths’ bespoke California ranch proves, like many restorations, to be never-ending, there’s no rush on future improvements. In fact, a would-be post-and-beam workshop slated for the backyard is blissfully stalled in the daydream phase. 

“I’ve been enjoying the house more than I ever have,” Jill says. “After being here for 18 years and touching every part, it really feels like home. Just ask Buddy!”

TK Smith used concrete forms to build two screens for the home’s exterior.