Construction Diary: A Serene Desert Hideaway Is Part Rental, Part Designer Showcase

Construction Diary: A Serene Desert Hideaway Is Part Rental, Part Designer Showcase

By Carlos Naude
Billed as a design retreat, Casa Mami in Pioneertown, California, hosts visitors at the edge of Joshua Tree National Park—then invites them to buy what they love.

Carlos Naude and Whitney Brown, the creative duo behind Los Angeles–based creative studio Working Holiday, have always dreamed of having a weekend retreat where they can host guests and showcase the products they love. Now, that dream is a reality with Casa Mami in Pioneertown, California, outside of Joshua Tree National Park. Naude and Brown transformed the pueblo-style home into a design-forward, eco-friendly, overnight experience on five acres of sprawling desert where everything—from linens and kitchenware, to furniture and art—is available for purchase.

In the Casa Mami living room, the soft contours of the Cloud Sofa by Marcel Wanders complements the graphic lines of the Confetti terrazzo coffee table by Fish and Pink. A Vifa speaker keeps the tunes coming.

Below, Naude gives us his firsthand account of the renovation journey.

1. Dreaming of a Weekend Escape

We’re both people who appreciate design, architecture, and travel. We lived in New York for five years in an apartment on the Lower East Side and always fantasized about having a second home somewhere close to nature. Back in those days, we were considering the Catskills—we looked at a few houses, but never really made it happen.

Over five months, Naude and Brown renovated their desert bungalow into a design retreat and second home for themselves, baby Rico, and their dog, Mona.

Separately, we’ve always been frustrated when we find an amazing piece of furniture, decor, or dinnerware at a hotel or store, but aren’t able to know the origin, maker, or where we can buy it for our own house. So, an idea has been brewing in the back of our heads for quite some time.

In 2017, we found out we were going to have our first baby, so we decided to move to L.A. for better quality of life for our little boy—more space, proximity to nature, etc. During a weekend trip to Joshua Tree, we absolutely fell in love with the surroundings, and it was then that we realized where we were finally going be bringing our little dream to life. 

Brown surveys the site at sunset.

2. Finding the Perfect Abode 

Once we made our minds up about finally buying a house, the real challenge began: finding the perfect one. 

We had a pretty limited budget, so our search options were also limited—we saw about 30 different houses in two back-to-back weekend trips. We were on a mission.

Casa Mami as it appeared on the first day Naude and Brown laid eyes on it.   

Of course, Casa Mami was one of the very last ones we saw, but the moment we arrived we knew it was "it." Even though it was brown, had incredibly dated furniture, a horrible kitchen, and really no soul, there was something alluring about it. I should admit that the setting did most of the heavy lifting, as the house is surrounded by boulders, prickly plants, buttresses, and miles of protected rugged mountains.

Pioneertown, California, was founded in 1946 by Hollywood investors—including Roy Rogers and Gene Autry—who wanted to create an Old West movie set that visitors could interact with.

The house is located 4.7 miles (a nine-minute drive) from Pioneertown, a surreal outpost about two hours outside L.A. that was built in the 1940s as a Western film set—only one you can live in. It’s one of those things that is hard to describe; you really have to be there to experience it and let yourself be transported.

3. Transforming a Rock Into a Diamond

Six weeks and a lot of papers later, we own a house. Yay. Our very own, off-the-grid, solar-powered house sitting on five acres of desert. (Something that, by the way, would not have been as easy without our agent Courtney and our lovely friends at ACME Real Estate.) 

While the house had great bones and was in fantastic condition, it was far from being what we envisioned. Luckily for us, except for having to install a new septic tank and larger solar panels, most of the updates we wanted to make were cosmetic.

Before: the dining room and living room

Before: the master bedroom

The biggest challenge we faced at that stage was finding a general contractor in the middle of the desert who was not only reliable, but also creatively aligned enough to understand our vision and flawlessly bring it to life. Somehow, after an exhausting process, the stars aligned, and we met David from Card Construction. It has been bliss to work with him.

Brown and Naude worked with David Card of Card Construction to execute their vision.

Some of the major updates we wanted to carry out were transforming the kitchen to a modern single-wall (inspired by our New York days) and moving it to the dining room area. We wanted to optimize the space, comfortably host more guests, and build a guest bedroom where the kitchen used to be. 

Before: the old kitchen would become the guest bedroom

The team drew an initial kitchen sketch.

Framing for the new bedroom takes the place of the old kitchen.

Another big thing for us was trying to bring some of the beauty of the surroundings into the house, so we replaced the sliding patio doors for beautiful, bronze LaCantina outswing French doors that made a significant improvement—guests can now sit comfortably in the living room by the fireplace, taking in the beautiful views of the desert.

The team installed LaCantina French doors to frame the desert views.

The new doors take shape.

Lastly, we were very determined pay close attention to detail, down to the door hinges, door hardware, light switches, and power outlets. We believe that these often get overlooked, but make more of an impact than we even realize. We ended up going for a matte black look across all these details; some of our favorites were the beautiful door handles from Emtek and the vintage-style, push button light switches.

The electronic door handle for the main entrance is by Emtek.

4. The Concept and the Inspiration

As I mentioned earlier, we find it very frustrating to stay in a hotel, fall in love with the couch in the lobby or the bed—or even the sheets—and not be able to buy it. We wanted to change that and give our guests the opportunity to not only learn more about the products in the house, but also test and be able to purchase them.

Naude and Brown took notes from legendary designers Luis Barragán, Jacques Grange, and Terence Conran for Casa Mami. Lounge chairs and the Confetti table from LAUN adorn the entry.

Our approach to design was to go for something simple, clean, and modern with vintage inspiration. The look is premium but playful, and a slight Mediterranean vibe counterbalances the dry, harsh, desert landscape. Most of the houses you see around us blend in, but we wanted to stand out.

A chartreuse-colored corridor leads to the main living space. A Mutto pendant hangs above a series of Menu Oval Mirrors.

We borrowed Luis Barragán’s use of color, Jacques Grange’s ability to mix styles, and Terence Conran’s incorporation of playful shapes and silhouettes.

Rico lounges in Marcel Wanders’ Cloud Sofa from Moooi.

The living room frames the desert landscape through LaCantina doors. A WAKA WAKA Cylinder Back Arm Chair made from birch plywood adds warmth and character to the space. 

Texture, color, pattern, and detail enliven Casa Mami in Pioneertown, California.

We named our house Casa Mami: I’m originally from Mexico, so we liked the idea of giving it a Spanish name. Mami is a bit of a double entendre; in some Latin cultures, it means sexy, but it can also simply mean mother. Either way, it works for us—we really liked how it sounded together.

Even the water tank, driveway, and parking area got an update.

5. Onboarding our Partners 

Alright, so now we own a house. We have a vision, a concept, and a contractor to execute it. Next? We needed to fill it in! 

We wanted to carefully curate our house with some of our favorite designers, brands, and products and have it serve as a showroom where our guests could experience these products firsthand. These days, we mainly shop online, and while we agree that it’s very convenient, there’s nothing like touching and physically experiencing a product.

The reading space in the living room features a Louise Gray print and a Menu Afternoon Lounge Chair. Snowe Outdoor Throws are provided in the basket for chilly nights. Here, we get a glimpse of the lounge chair by Stone and Sterling in the background. 

Our goal was for our partners to see the value of a true partnership. They would provide us with product to outfit the house, and in return, we would not only promote their products, but also create high-quality content for them.

The master bedroom is a peaceful retreat against a backdrop of a Louise Gray wall tapestry, wall sconces from Rich Brilliant Willing, and Menu Fungi Shelves. Snowe linens outfit the bed, which boasts an Avocado mattress, and the Nest Rug is from Armadillo & Co.

We are incredibly thankful to all of our partners for believing in us and supporting our project—even before seeing the final outcome.

In the kitchen and dining area, the Akoya pendant by Rich Brilliant Willing hangs over a Bend Goods Bistro Table; the Hoist Sconce over the Signature Hardware kitchen sink and faucet is also by RBW.  A Material Kitchen cookware set and Kinto coffee set outfits the kitchen, along with Neenineen ceramics and Snowe glassware. A SMEG fridge adds a retro touch.

The living room provides a cozy gathering place anchored by a vintage fireplace from Urban Americana and Cle Tile backsplash. A circular Weave Rug pulls the space together.

6. The Big Launch

Whoa. Can’t believe it. What at some point had seemed like a farfetched dream is now a reality—our own desert retreat. I must admit that there were many times during this process where we questioned what we’d gotten ourselves into, but for one reason or another, we always looked at each other, shook it off, and continued plowing through it. 

The couple welcome visitors to Casa Mami, a thoughtfully curated, secluded desert getaway.

The hardest part now will be not moving to Casa Mami full time and abandoning life as we know it.

Editor’s Note (5/21/20): Casa Mami is currently on the market for $475,000.

Have your own Construction Diary to share? Find out how to submit to Dwell.


Get the Renovations Newsletter

From warehouse conversions to rehabbed midcentury gems, to expert advice and budget breakdowns, the renovation newsletter serves up the inspiration you need to tackle your next project.