THE BLACK DESERT HOUSE
By Katy Carrier
Photography by Marc Angeles
Perched between rock formations in the high desert city of Yucca Valley, California, sits a black house, the origins of which started with the observation of shadows. Specifically, the idea that the sunlight in the desert is often so bright that the eye’s only resting place is the shadows. This was how Marc Atlan described his inspiration for a second home in the desert near Joshua Tree National Park, and he set out to create a unique hideaway unlike anything else in the area. Atlan, a creative director for brands like Comme des Garçons, Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs, devoted the same type of creative energy exerted for his clients into creating the property ultimately dubbed “the Black Desert House.”
The project started in 2008 with a search for the right parcel of land. Atlan met a real estate agent in the area who knew of a “magical spot,” and once Atlan laid eyes on the 2.5-acre plot, he knew he had to make it his. During the 1960s the lot had been roughly graded, with a small flat pad created by flattening rock formations and filling in the saddle between rock outcroppings. The pad was located at the top of a long uphill driveway, with almost 360-degree views at the top. Stunning as it was, the lot presented myriad challenges: no water service or sewer system was in place, the electrical grid needed to be extended to the site, and the remote and rocky landscape made it difficult for trucks and equipment to reach the site. Undaunted, Atlan says a “lucky twist of fate” led to his meeting a local general contractor named Avian Rogers, who specialized in contemporary construction and poured concrete. Rogers introduced Atlan to Monica Oller and Tom Pejic of the young architectural firm, Oller & Pejic, and their addition to the team kicked the project into high gear.
Refusing to take the expected route of sand-colored construction in a pueblo or Mediterranean style, Atlan envisioned a dark-colored house informed by the modernist design aesthetic, made of glass and concrete and taking the form of a wedge situated in the rock formations like a “stealth bomber ready for takeoff.” He wanted each room to take advantage of the natural beauty just outside, which changes in shade, color and light as the sun shifts during the day.
Oller & Pejic looked to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pauson House for inspiration, which sat on a rock outcrop in Arizona (unfortunately the house was largely consumed by a fire in 1942, just one year after completion of the construction), as well as the Land Art movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which focused on the integration of elements of the natural landscape into a finished work. The dark exterior color of the Black Desert House was decided upon early on, allowing the house to visually recede into the landscape. Interestingly, the color does not present an issue with the extreme heat of the desert because a large portion of the exterior wall incorporates high performance glazing and the roof of the house is white. Advanced framing, which creates deeper and wider insulation cavities than conventional framing, combined with sprayed foam insulation, also helps to prevent heat from permeating the home’s walls.
The layout of the three bedroom, two bath home’s interior space is U-shaped, with the rooms at varying levels and wrapping around a wedge-shaped inner courtyard, with a covered patio off of the kitchen and a pool situated parallel to the linear arrangement of bedrooms. Atlan describes the sunken living room as a “chic sleeping bag,” with the back wall of the space recessed into the hillside and curtain windows providing unobstructed views of the desert vista during the day, and a blanket of stars at night. The furnishings are eclectic, ranging from 18th century heirlooms, to 1970s vintage, to contemporary pieces like the faceted Konstantin Grcic bar stools in the kitchen and the Ingo Maurer chandelier in the dining room.
Photography © Marc Angeles; may not be used without permission