Architect Jim Jennings on the Desert House & California Ease

Classic clothing is the foundation of style, as is the importance of simplicity.”

Elegant yet simple, the Desert House in Palm Springs was the inspiration behind our April feature STYLE BLUEPRINT. Designed by famed California architect Jim Jennings, the modern property set the stage for our streamlined styles with blue prints and azure colors this season—and proved the perfect antidote to California cool. We caught up with Jennings to talk inspiration, principals of design and the common threads between style and architecture.

BR: You’re a California native. How have the elements and vibes of California informed your work?

Jim: As a native-born Californian, I am very connected to the many aspects of the land and climate. The smell of the ocean, the geometry of agriculture and the silence of the desert are all things I grew up with. All are embedded in my consciousness and are reflected in my sensibility. The California landscape is open, the California approach to design is forward-thinking, the California vibe emphasizes the new.

When do you feel most in your element?

One instance is walking a job site and watching it take a physical form that had existed only in the mind. Another is drawing how things will go together to express an architectural idea or the relationship between elements of a building.

How do you stay curious? What inspires you?

I’m drawn to art and invention. Galleries, museums, exhibits and events in the world of art keep me connected. Science bulletins (MIT, DARPA, NSF) are a way to become and remain aware of things in the pipeline of the future.

Your designs center around functionality. Can you tell us more?

Architecture is born of need. Functionality is at the core of the issue and the reason we are asked to design anything.  But architecture is more than solving a problem by filling a need. Architecture is an exploration of all things that exist beyond functionality, including theoretical concepts and physical experiences that generate emotional responses.

The Desert House was not only a project, but your home too. Can you walk us through the design process and tell us about designing alongside your partner, Therese?

The Desert House contains examples of what I refer to when I say architecture is an exploration of all things beyond functionality. The house is very small. The courtyard facing west is an empty space surrounded by a wall, with a direct relationship to a +10,800 ft. mountain. Being within the walls of such a small and empty void while being so close to such a massive volume of earth creates a powerful experience. In addition to experiences, architecture can express ideas. For example, the Desert House articulates foundational elements of architecture: the roof, the wall and the ground—each is physically separated from the others. The building also expresses the inverse of a primary principle of Mid-Century Modernism: the inside extends out into the surrounding landscape. While the space inside the wall includes both outside (courtyard) and inside (air-conditioned) areas, the building is a walled enclosure. It is a fortress on its site.

Building the Desert House with Therese was an interesting process. We had traveled to the desert and stayed in the Lautner Hotel when it was in a state of semi-restoration. When we found the property, it was Therese who was immediately taken with the powerful presence of the mountain. I was the architect, but it was a collaborative adventure in all of the many refinements that made it a special place.

When a design is simple, it has great clarity.”

What does the Desert House symbolize to you?

For me, the Desert House symbolizes a refined personal retreat. It is small, yet substantial. It is rigorous, yet very relaxed. It is severe, yet very serene. It is straightforward, yet sophisticated in its details and its assembly.

A lot of California living is about blurring the lines between indoor and outdoor living. How do you approach that in your design of the Desert House?

There is almost no separation between inside and outside within the boundary wall of the Desert House. However, this project is about how a building marks its presence on a site, so the boundary wall is solid and uninterrupted to make the building into a form on the land.  There are several materials used–concrete block walls, steel roof beams, steel deck roof–but the white color blurs the distinction between them to make the composition into a homogeneous whole.

To us, California symbolizes elevated ease–a relaxed yet put-together vibe that just exudes cool. How do you incorporate elevated ease into your work?

I agree that California represents an air of elevated ease: elevated in its sophistication, ease in its embodiment of a relaxed lifestyle. These qualities show up in my work through a fascination with simplicity. When a design is simple, it has great clarity. Logic in a building’s structural system also provides clarity. By successfully following a path toward simplicity, the best architecture expresses a relaxed sophistication. To me, this is synonymous with your expression elevated ease.

Like architecture, we believe classic clothing is the foundation of style. What are your thoughts?

I concur that classic clothing is the foundation of style, as is the importance of simplicity.

Explore more California-influenced elevated ease in this month’s feature, STYLE BLUEPRINT. Photos by Joe Fletcher.