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Wide Open Spaces
Maile Pingel | Photo: Toby Ponnay | Portrait by Lisa Corson | April 11, 2014
In the desert oasis of La Quinta, the family behind the St. John Knits clothing brand settles in and lets the conversation flow.
“I don’t know if there are three straight walls or two,” says Lori Gray with a laugh. And she means it. The La Quinta home she recently built with her husband, Mike Gray, is a soaring, sweeping and curving ode to all that is possible in contemporary design. It’s also an ode to the California lifestyle. “We love to sit around the fire pit and share stories with family and friends,” says Mike.
The couple, who met 15 years ago and bonded over a passion for architecture and travel, have homes in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and Laguna Beach, but make the Southern California desert their base during the winter season. It’s an area Mike knew well, as it was the location his family business, St. John Knits, chose for its first boutique in the 1980s. “We built it in Palm Desert, and that’s really how I got into architecture,” he explains. “I just really enjoyed it and got more and more involved and interested in the building process.”
It’s experience he’s applied to building numerous houses since. But this new residence, located in the prestigious Madison Club private community, exceeds anything the husband-and-wife team has created to date. Aside from having a Tom Fazio-designed golf course and a vertical membership that allows the couple’s four grown sons to enjoy the amenities, “the developer [Michael Meldman] is easy to work with,” says Mike. “He allowed us to get creative with the site and do things that are totally unique.” He is referring not only to the verdant private driving range, the meandering stream and the 130,000-gallon pool behind the house, but the fact that the site incorporates some 8 million pounds of rock from a single quarry in Montana and 140 mature trees, materials that were sourced and hand-picked by Mike, who worked closely with landscape architect Mike Horton of HSA Design Group in Palm Desert. “If you want something to look organic and natural, it all has to match, to blend,” he explains. “A large-scale house needs large-scale trees.” Who could argue with that?
That far-reaching creativity isn’t just applied to the exteriors; it runs throughout the home, although some of it is virtually undetectable. “We like to think in terms of selective opulence,” he continues. “We’ll spend a lot of money on glass that weighs thousands of pounds or in steel posts that enable the cantilevers, but do a metal roof.” The couple worked with local architect Kristi Hanson, whose dramatic designs in nearby communities like Bighorn had made an impression on them. It’s worth noting that the house boasts some 800,000 pounds of steel (a typical home might require about 30,000).
What that steel structure imparts is a seemingly effortless feeling of volume and space. The six-bedroom, 22,000-square-foot home features 18-foot ceilings and an open flow of rooms. Yet despite its grand size, the home feels intimate. “We wanted to create a comfortable place where people could kick off their shoes,” says Lori.
And that’s precisely what they got. Lori, who oversaw the home’s interior design, used a neutral palette that lets guests provide the color. She also focused on natural, organic materials that lend themselves to conversation, and created lots of cozy, comfy seating areas (both indoors and out) that inspire guests to relax and take in the restful views. Nowhere is the easygoing spirit more pronounced than at the table. The couple eschewed a formal dining room in favor of an eat-in kitchen. Mind you, this is no mere breakfast nook; it’s impeccably composed. “Lori’s ability to work with space is incredible,” notes Mike. The table, a free-form structure of her own design, is surrounded by fittingly swoopy chairs, and is “as comfortable for two as for 14,” he adds. Having built several homes together, the couple is adept at sourcing material and has worked with many of the same craftsmen for years. There’s no place they won’t visit to find just the right result. For the billiards table, Lori flew to Michigan to meet with the manufacturers and pick out the woods, which, in a twist of irony, come from California. And when she asked a rug-maker to upholster a curved wall with hides, the response was one of disbelief. “He looked at me like I was crazy!” she says, laughing at the recollection. This is a couple that doesn’t like to hear “no,” and the results speak for themselves.
The Grays enjoy pushing the boundaries and “digging deep to get creative,” says Lori. From the stair railing that took 19 months to complete to the 3,000-gallon saltwater aquarium, the house offers no shortage of showstopping and buoyant moments. “Who would put balloons on the wall and shells on the ceiling?” Mike chimes in. “Lori!”
“This was such a fun project,” she reflects. “It was a bit sad when it ended.” But with completion comes more time for conversation and simply enjoying the outdoors, be it relaxing on a lounge chair or golfing, her new pastime. “It doesn’t matter who is here,” she continues. “At the end of the day, it’s really just about hangin’.” Spoken like a woman who feels at home in her house.
Kristi Hanson/Kristi Hanson Architects, Inc.
Mike Horton/HSA Design Group
Newell Design Studio
Custom interior furniture designed by Lori Gray
Design Within Reach
Rug in living room
Robert Allen | Beacon Hill Showrooms
Fabric drapes and accompanying furniture
Yrezebal & Co.