A desert mirage
For Chicago clients, Doug Nickless envisions a second residence in the warm embrace of Rancho Mirage, California
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 10/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
What makes so many Chicago-area residents buy houses in and around Palm Springs, California? Anyone who can't answer that question should fly to the Windy City in February and just try playing 18 holes of golf. Or, as Chicago designer Doug Nickless puts it: "Clear and freezing versus clear and warm. Where would you rather work?"
Nickless's namesake firm has developed a stable of Illinois clients with California property, among them a Winnetka couple looking for a break not only from the winter weather but also from the traditional style of their primary residence. Embarking upon a real-estate treasure hunt, they enlisted Nickless to help them find a vacation house, then redesign it.
Criteria seemed simple enough: modernist architecture, no gated communities, and enough room for visiting family. (The couple have two grown children and six grandchildren.) Although properties were scarce, Nickless did happen upon a 1969 house, set on an acre in Rancho Mirage. Despite the mansard roof, Rat Pack conversation pit, and poor room flow, the designer saw potential in the site's location and footprint.
"Clutter-free" was the clients' mantra for the project. "Clean, understated, and organized" were Nickless's goals. His substantial architectural alterations involved increasing square footage from 7,000 to 8,000 by adding two wings, one encompassing a master suite and the other housing two guest bedrooms with baths. He demolished all traces of the original interior. Now, expansive rooms are interconnected yet defined. As a centerpiece, he designed a 2,000-square-foot living and dining space with a partial wall dividing the two function areas.
Luxurious low-key materials bring depth and definition to the envelope. French limestone covers the floor. Subtle gradations of celadon color the walls. Grids of Honduran mahogany paneling frame the living area's limestone fireplace surround and the dining area's custom built-in buffet of mahogany and granite.
Showrooms in Chicago, antiques shops in New York, and Nickless's own drawing board supplied furnishings. The entry's Indian brass-framed mirrors, the living area's Chinese deco side table, and the master bedroom's Chinese deco desk inject the controlled setting with an exotic element. A group of 1930's and 1940's French mirrors by Line Vautrin add a vintage touch. Jean-Michel Frank's spirit pervades upholstered seating in cream and plaid silk; a pair of clean-lined white-oak custom dining tables also owe a debt to the French master. But the living area's cocktail table, a 6,000-pound tripartite construction of solid oak trunks, is pure Nickless. There's not a piece by Charles and Ray Eames, Arne Jacobsen, or Eero Saarinen in sight.
The artwork—while less blue-chip than the clients' Winnetka collection of Jean Dubuffet, Ruffino Tamayo, Milton Avery, and Fernando Botero—nevertheless reflects an individualist's eye for bold yet educated statements. Dominating the living area, a haunting Manolo Valdes oil on torn-away sections of burlap is almost three-dimensional. The dining area's black-and-white botanicals by Tom Baril evince a growing interest in photography.
Interest in the outdoors is a given in Rancho Mirage. To open up the living-dining area, Nickless built a 46-foot-long wall of windows framed in bronzed aluminum. The windows overlook a new 25-foot-long infinity pool—an addition that Nickless supervised from start to finish, including selecting bluestone for the surround. "I loved doing it all," says Nickless, proud to label himself a control freak.