Construction Diary: A Serene Desert Hideaway Is Part Rental, Part Designer Showcase
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We are incredibly thankful to all of our partners for believing in us and supporting our project—even before seeing the final outcome.
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 hardest part now will be not moving to Casa Mami full time and abandoning life as we know it.
Learn more about Casa Mami. The two-bedroom, two-bath home sleeps four guests for $229 a night. Please find booking information below.
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