Two hours east of Los Angeles, the city of Indian Wells sits in the arid Coachella Valley, where the crystal blue of an often unbearably bright sky touches down on the terra-cotta terrain. The dramatic contrast of the skyline sent architects on the trajectory of desert modernism, a midcentury style defined by its minimalist contours and glass walls of sliding doors. Their mission was a lofty one: to dematerialize any barriers between themselves and the beauty of the landscape.
San Francisco–based ELLE DECOR A-List designer Nicole Hollis recently completed a project in Indian Wells, where the house, built from the ground up by Napa Valley’s Kroeger Janev Architects, carries all the hallmarks of desert modernism to an enormous scale. Spread over 14,450 square feet, the house has 14-foot ceilings and expansive glass walls that frame views of Eisenhower Mountain. Rather than high-tech amenities or opulent decor, Hollis says, “the clients’ focus was on the views and sight lines and the connection to the desert around them.”
In order to preserve those sweeping views, the designers’ modus operandi was absolute minimalism. In lieu of pattern, bright colors, and overt textures, Hollis’s approach emphasized the more ineffable qualities of proportion, balance, light, and space. Precision, she adds, was also key: “We worked with so few pieces that everything we did put in had to be very considered.” The airy grandeur of the interiors is enhanced by a monochrome palette of bleached-oak ceilings, limestone floors, and unadorned travertine walls. On 100-degree days in the desert, the stone functions to keep the spaces cool; its rectangular forms cut right angles into the rugged terrain.
The feature wall in the entryway hides the stunning reveal: an open-plan living and dining area where the glass walls fully retract. Although it’s built within a gated community, the home is sited to create the illusion of tranquil isolation. On one side is a generous courtyard, and on the other is the seemingly endless mountain range. Hollis arranged the entertaining area with a deliberate but imperceptible rigor, carving out distinct spaces without the separation of walls. The formal living room is delineated by the wool and silk of a circular area rug, whose curves temper the architecture’s hard edges; plush Vladimir Kagan sofas in velvet and mohair are a counterpoint to the monumental fireplace, a narrow horizontal slit cut into a bold feature wall of travertine slabs. “We didn’t really want to have too many variations and materials throughout the house,” says Hollis, who predetermined a restrained palette of cool blues and grays, with touches of gold and brass. In another corner, wool bouclé club chairs surround a smaller occasional table set at the low, ideal height for cocktails.
In order to avoid visual monotony, singular points of drama appear throughout the house, akin to “little pieces of jewelry,” Hollis says; while the clients’ stated preference is minimalism, they do appreciate the occasional flourish. One dramatic instance is the custom lighting fixture by Jeff Zimmerman—a sinuous brass vine adorned with handblown glass—that reaches down from the entertaining area’s ceiling. A more modest example is the cantilevered shelf mounted at knee height in the entryway, briefly capturing the eye’s attention.
The primary bedroom sits in the east wing of the house, which, despite its similarly transparent glass walls, feels decidedly cozier than the home’s public areas. In order to create a fully restful space, Hollis says, “softening these hard surfaces was important to us.” The lower ceiling is finished with the matte surface of drywall, and the overall palette is a variation of grays inflected with warm aubergine tones. The one bit of “jewelry” in the room is a striking trio of pendant lights, sculpted into organic forms from painted sheets of stainless steel mesh.
Over the course of six years, Hollis worked diligently with the architects and client to complete a home of both extraordinary features and distinct restraints. Its strengths are neither in furniture nor paint, but in luxuries much harder to come by: the beauty of precision, immersion in unsullied land, and the tranquility of solitude. This was
the allure that brought the midcentury modernists into the desert, hopefully to be preserved for many years to come.
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE