High Desert House in Joshua Tree Is an Otherworldly Architectural Icon

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By Michele Koh Morollo
A couple’s handwritten note to renowned architect Kendrick Bangs Kellogg results in an iconic Leviathan of a home in the Californian desert.

Though John Lautner is often considered one of the most famous Californian, organic modern masters of the 1960s and ’70s, it was arguably San Diego architect Kendrick Bangs Kellogg who took the style to new heights. A spectacular example of his work is the 5,000-square-foot engineering marvel known as High Desert House, on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park’s alien landscape.

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High Desert House is composed of 26 freestanding, concrete columns that look like rib bones. 

High Desert House is composed of 26 freestanding, concrete columns that look like rib bones. 

As the story goes, in 1986 Kellogg received a handwritten note from artists Jay and Bev Doolittle that read: "Dear Mr. Kellogg, My wife and I recently purchased a very interesting, though unconventional, building site in the California desert." 

Kellogg was intrigued, and upon visiting the couple and seeing their unusual, majestic 10-acre plot nestled within a cluster of massive boulders in the middle of the desert, he took on the project, and with carte blanche, designed what is probably one of the most striking organic modern residences to date. 

Each column is embedded seven feet into the bedrock of the site to ensure stability. 

Each column is embedded seven feet into the bedrock of the site to ensure stability. 

The lower solid, concrete portion brings to mind elements of Native American adobe pueblos, while the sculptural form of the upper section conjures images of dinosaur fossils or spaceships.

The lower solid, concrete portion brings to mind elements of Native American adobe pueblos, while the sculptural form of the upper section conjures images of dinosaur fossils or spaceships.

The columns fan out at the top, with one overlapping the next to created a layered, canopy-like roof.

The columns fan out at the top, with one overlapping the next to created a layered, canopy-like roof.

 Kellogg spent five years working on the house, and the structure was completed in 1993.  

 Kellogg spent five years working on the house, and the structure was completed in 1993.  

The columns are connected with wide, sandblasted glass panels that create a ceiling, which spreads light throughout the interiors during the day, and frames views of the stars at night.

The columns are connected with wide, sandblasted glass panels that create a ceiling, which spreads light throughout the interiors during the day, and frames views of the stars at night.

The idea was that the house would be settled in the landscape. Like it was crouching on the rocks, maybe like an animal asleep. 

—Kendrick Bangs Kellogg

The entire structure was crafted from natural materials.

The entire structure was crafted from natural materials.

Within, the curving interiors are spread loosely across five levels. 

Within, the curving interiors are spread loosely across five levels. 

Discrete rooms are parsed by large, arched concrete pillars, and spaces flow seamlessly into each other.  

Discrete rooms are parsed by large, arched concrete pillars, and spaces flow seamlessly into each other.  

After Kellogg completed the building, famed artisanal designer John Vugrin came on board, and spent the next 14 years meticulously crafting all the furniture and decor elements for the interiors.

To harmonize the interiors with the otherworldly character of the house, Vugrin built tables and shelves that swept across rooms from the ceiling to the floor. 

To harmonize the interiors with the otherworldly character of the house, Vugrin built tables and shelves that swept across rooms from the ceiling to the floor. 

Sputnik-like lamps, made by Vugrin, hang above the spiraling dining table.

Sputnik-like lamps, made by Vugrin, hang above the spiraling dining table.

Patinated metal was used to create the arc of the kitchen cabinet.

Patinated metal was used to create the arc of the kitchen cabinet.

When the interiors were completed in 2014, the New York Times described Kellogg’s High Desert House as the "most unsung great residence in America by one of architecture’s least-known major talents."

Glass-topped tables with carved marble or wood bases, some cantilevered from concrete columns, look like the spines or rib cages of prehistoric creatures. 

Glass-topped tables with carved marble or wood bases, some cantilevered from concrete columns, look like the spines or rib cages of prehistoric creatures. 

Except for a few dining chairs, most of the interior elements were built into the walls. 

Except for a few dining chairs, most of the interior elements were built into the walls. 

The circular master bedroom is supported by an illuminated, mushroom-shaped structure.

The circular master bedroom is supported by an illuminated, mushroom-shaped structure.

Every interior surface was crafted, inlaid, or textured with natural materials such as steel, mahogany, or glass tiles. 

Every interior surface was crafted, inlaid, or textured with natural materials such as steel, mahogany, or glass tiles. 

Light fixtures were incorporated into the exterior ribbing as architectural lighting.  

Light fixtures were incorporated into the exterior ribbing as architectural lighting.  

Joshua Tree has no shortage of intriguing projects, like these off-grid, weathered-steel cabins.


Project Credits: 

Architecture: Kendrick Bangs Kellogg

Interior design: John Vugrin

Photography: Lance Gerber / @lance.gerber

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