4 Design Mantras the Owners of This Popular Joshua Tree Retreat Swear By

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By Kelly Dawson
Sara and Rich Combs, owners of The Joshua Tree House and authors of a new guide to desert living, share their design philosophies—and how to incorporate them in your home, room by room.

"The first home that we ever worked on was just after we started dating as sophomores in high school," Rich Combs says about his relationship with his wife, Sara Combs. "My parents bought a house built in 1900, and my family did a complete renovation on it. One of Sara’s early memories of us together was when we were carrying sheetrock through the yard."

Hindsight has a way of making decisions seem inevitable, as if Sara and Rich knew then that their high school relationship would eventually led to marriage and a successful business. The couple is the design team behind The Joshua Tree House, a popular pair of properties for rent in Southern California's Mojave Desert, and the authors of At Home in Joshua Tree: A Field Guide to Desert Living, a book about their daily lives and design philosophies that was published last October. 

At Home in Joshua Tree: A Field Guide to Desert Living
At Home in Joshua Tree: A Field Guide to Desert Living
Reflect. Reset. Create.  Step into the laidback world of Joshua Tree as you elevate ordinary moments with this desert-inspired lifestyle guide.

Rich jokes that they had no idea what was to come after that initial family renovation project. Looking back, of course that makes sense. They grew up in Connecticut, and after years of working for companies in the industry, they started a freelance design business in 2013. That sudden flexibility gave them the chance to drive across the country and travel throughout Southeast Asia, and when it became time to return home, there was only one place they could think of to go. "Joshua Tree had stood out from all of the rest of the destinations as a place where we felt creatively inspired and wanted to be a part of," Sara says. "We immediately went back in search of a place to call our own and eventually found our dream home on Craigslist!"

Design Mantras

Once they moved to Joshua Tree, that's when those early memories of careful building and the more recent years of meticulous design all seemed to come together. "Our four mantras when designing are: blur indoor and outdoor spaces, curate a home that enhances with use, design for ordinary experiences, and always add real plants. These are all based around creating laid-back environments inspired by and connected to nature," Sara says. "We call these 'mantras' because they're meant to be repeated a subtle reminders throughout the design process. As with meditation, if our mind wanders—and it will—it's incredibly helpful to have a key thought to refer back to that keeps us on our path. These mantras guide many small decisions into one cohesive design."

"The daily routines that can be easily overlooked as mundane are what ultimately compose our lives. Those are our favorite moments to design." —Sara Combs

Below, Sara and Rich describe how to carry out their distinctive desert aesthetic in a living room, kitchen, dining area, bedroom, and outdoor space. Their advice aims to create a comfortable and warm atmosphere for even the simplest tasks, because as they know from personal experience, you never know which decisions will end up becoming lasting memories of a larger story.

Living Room

When designing a space, Sara says that the two things to avoid are buying everything new and using fake plants. She and Rich source items from local flea markets and swap meets to make sure every space in their homes can tell a story. Their book includes a full index of where they buy their furnishings, including at Soukie Modern, Fireclay Tile, and Found Company. 

When designing a space, Sara says that the two things to avoid are buying everything new and using fake plants. She and Rich source items from local flea markets and swap meets to make sure every space in their homes can tell a story. Their book includes a full index of where they buy their furnishings, including at Soukie Modern, Fireclay Tile, and Found Company. 

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"Living rooms are spaces for conversation and gathering," Rich says.
"We always make sure to have a few seating options in living rooms close enough together for conversation, a stack of blankets (enough for everyone), and a record player with a curated collection of music that reminds us of the location."

Kitchen

"We believe that the space should feel like it belongs in the environment and community that it’s a part of," Rich says. For this kitchen, that means sticking to natural materials—including the stone accent on the island and the cactus near the entryway. 

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"To us, a kitchen must be light and sunny, and created with natural materials," Rich continues. "Many of our daily routines and rituals take place in the kitchen, which makes it a particularly fun space to design. We get a lot of joy out of collecting ceramic mugs for our morning coffee or tea."

Dining Area 

"The spaces we choose to renovate have plenty of history and character even before we begin," Sara says. "Our goal with our renovations is to bring the spaces in some ways back to what we believe they once were." Both homes available to rent were originally built in the mid-20th century. 

"The spaces we choose to renovate have plenty of history and character even before we begin," Sara says. "Our goal with our renovations is to bring the spaces in some ways back to what we believe they once were." Both homes available to rent were originally built in the mid-20th century. 

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"A dining area is an extension of the kitchen, and we love it to be sun-filled as well," Sara says. "Dining tables take a lot of wear and tear each day, so our goal is always to find a dining table that will get better with use. The one we have in our personal dining room was made by my father-in-law with reclaimed wood we pulled from our walls during renovations."

Bedroom

"The book was a great opportunity for us to reflect on what we’ve been working on the last few years and put our design mantras down on paper," Rich says. 

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"Bedrooms are sanctuaries," Sara notes. "Before even getting to aesthetics, our first priority in a bedroom is a comfortable mattress, pillows, and soft sheets. Sleep is important! Once we've covered those basics, it's on to a design that's clutter-free with soft color palettes."

Outdoor Space

Finding a balance between texture and color is key to this desert look, which can even mean bringing indoor blankets and pillows outdoors for an occasion. 

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"We love blurring the line between indoor and outdoor spaces," Rich says. "We're often bringing some of our favorite indoor items outside with us for a few hours to create outdoor living rooms, and we're always bringing rocks and native plants indoors as well. Creating a cozy outdoor living room doesn't take much: a side table, variety of pillows, a favorite wooden bowl or serving board, blankets, and a rug will do the trick."

Book your stay at The Joshua Tree House / @thejoshuatreehouse

Related Reading: A Couple Buy a Collapsing Cabin For $7K in Joshua Tree and Revamp it Into a Desert Oasis