Picturesque dream beaches and scenic routes along more than 1,300 kilometres of coastline. And not to mention Hollywood, centre of the international film industry, or San Francisco further north, epicentre of the tech and start-up world. The Golden State has so much more to offer than all that, of course. Our journey takes us inland, away from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles towards Palm Springs. The peaks of the San Bernadino
Mountains are white-capped at the beginning of March – an unusual sight after heavy snowstorms in sunny California. After a while, the landscape changes, becomes wider, wilder, more soothing on the eye.
The region around Joshua Tree National Park is a popular destination for those wanting to escape the metropolis at the weekend – or even to up sticks and move here altogether, out of the rat race of the big city. Many celebrities and the super-rich have their second or third homes around Palm Springs. The renowned Coachella Music Festival attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors here every year, as does the Indian Wells Masters, one of the biggest tennis events in the world.
We have the pleasure of travelling through this exclusive location for a few days with the electrically powered EQS SUV 450+. Gary Whitaker, General Manager of Mercedes-Benz of Palm Springs, knows the region and its inhabitants well. He gives us a few insider tips as we pick up the vehicle and remarks that the demand for electric cars is rising significantly in his region.
The charging point infrastructure here has already been adapted to the increasing demand in larger cities. And more remote places have also recognised how the times are changing and are following suit. So we have no worries about how to get to the next charging stop. But with the all-electric range indicating 660 kilometres, it would take a longer journey than we have in mind for us to need to recharge. Even before we get in, we are in awe of its noble interior: light nappa leather is elegantly contoured by perfectly shaped interior lines. The generously sized hyperscreen is embedded in high-quality magnolia wood with an embossed star pattern.
We steer north-east in the EQS SUV, into the desert landscape around the town of Joshua Tree. The natural earth-tone colour scheme outside seems to mirror the vehicle’s light interior. Birds glide across the blue sky. And for a moment, we think that their glide must feel very much like our ride – light and effortless. Yucca Valley disappears into the distance behind us as we turn off the main road. The EQS SUV has an extra fifth driving programme as standard for more uneven surfaces: the off-road mode. This raises the vehicle level by 25 millimetres – air suspension for maximum comfort.
Our destination is one of the most extraordinary structures in the region, if not in all of California: the Kellogg Doolittle Residence, designed in the late 1980s by architecture luminary Kendrick Bangs Kellogg for artist Bev Doolittle and her husband, Jay. We meet interior designer John Vugrin, who has dedicated much of his career to this place, in the house itself. He has been improving and refining the house for almost three decades. Hidden behind a bend right at the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park, it nestles in a massive rock formation. From the first glance, it is abundantly clear: this is far from any traditional home. Two ornate wrought gates imposingly frame the driveway and garage below the house.
Vugrin and owner Scott Leonard welcome us at the entrance.
They lead us up a curved path – just wide enough to drive a golf cart along. As we go up, they point out where the boundary of the property is and how you can hike directly into the national park from here. Higher up, it is no longer fences that protect the property, but gigantic boulders forming a naturally created wall. The wide stone staircase in front of the heavy glass entrance door would not look out of place in an ancient amphitheatre and leads directly into the open-plan main living and kitchen area. The sights that open up to us here are simply breathtaking. Fascinating details are all around us to see. Scott Leonard tells us that he felt just the same on his first viewing. “I took friends with me, and when they asked me for my opinion later on, I struggled to even find the words. I was literally speechless in the face of such unique architecture.”
John Vugrin began his career as a classic furniture maker. Over time, he progressed to become the personal master craftsman of the Kellogg Doolittle Residence. Vugrin has a long-standing friendship with the architect Kendrick Bangs Kellogg, out of which many joint projects have come. He has been working on the entire interior design of the house since 1994 and exclusively produces unique pieces.
His approach is intuitive, and he uses only natural materials that form a harmony with the surrounding landscape. His credo is not to take anything away from nature, but to pick up on it in his designs. He lives and works in Joshua Tree.
And no wonder, because there is nothing ordinary about this house. This is all down to the architect and his protege John Vugrin, 20 years his junior. Vugrin studied painting and furniture design, but as a newly-qualified professional, was barely able to make ends meet with his designs. Kellogg ended up buying some of his furniture at an art exhibition and they became friends. The rest is history. They have worked together on many projects since then, the Hoshino Chapel in Japan being one of their most important collaborations. Instead of columns, it features a series of massive arches lined up like dominoes and connected by glass. Perhaps somehow a prototype for their subsequent project, which surpassed everything that went before it – starting with its structure: the frame of the Kellogg Doolittle House is made up of 26 free-standing concrete columns that fan out widely at the top, partly overlapping each other and thus forming a rib-like roof.
Materialvielfalt: Beton, Glas und Metall sind die vorherrschenden Werkstoffe, die John Vugrin verarbeitet. An ausgewählten Stellen kommen Textilien wie Leder und Teppich zum Einsatz.
Furnishing as art: The washbasins are barely recognisable as a bathroom, facing each other and framed in an abstract metal sculpture.
The individual pillars are connected by nothing more than glass panels, which create unique lighting situations in the various interior areas and open up a vista of the starry sky in the evening. From a bird’s-eye view, the building’s outline resembles a sleeping animal’s skeleton.
Without exception, all the furniture and features in the house, from the windows and doors to the beds, are custom-made one-offs, painstakingly handcrafted by Vugrin. He is particularly proud of the two tables in the entrance area, whose glass tops are supported by a curved metal construction and resemble a scorpion’s body. This is no coincidence, as the Doolittles have a penchant for fossil forms. Artist Bev worked here on her camouflage paintings, which were sought-after all over America and often hide animals or indigenous motifs.
Many have tried to do justice to the house in words: some see it as the abandoned backdrop of a science-fiction film, while others ascribe it to the architectural genre of organic brutalism, even speculating whether it has been transplanted to this place from another galaxy. John Vugrin sees the house as epitomising “the opposite of modernism”. “Actually, I find the design anti-modern, almost baroque,” he says. This is a deliberate counter-design to modern mid-century architecture, a genre whose clear structural aesthetics and colourful accents was revived from the middle of the 20th century, especially in Palm Springs, and is still copied worldwide today.
The Doolittles wanted something different. They wanted to make visible something original with this building, to take up the rawness of the surrounding landscape and translate it into architecture. In Ken Kellogg and John Vugrin, they found a team that understood their vision – and could translate it into a masterpiece.
The two saw the rocky, impassable building land not as a challenge to be tamed for domesticity, but as an essential element of the construction.
There are no conventional walls, just as there are no rooms that are lockable in the classical sense. All the rooms are interconnected, yet allow islands for peace and privacy thanks to the division into five levels. And even though concrete and stone dominate with very few textiles, the house radiates a surprising warmth. This is probably due as much to the mix of natural materials as to Vugrin’s unparalleled craftsmanship. The emphasis here is on art, the 67-year-old being at least as much an artist as he is a furniture craftsman. He rarely works with CAD files on a computer, preferring to roll out some paper and sketch out his ideas at full scale. Vugrin is a master in handling a wide variety of raw materials. Glass, steel, wood, metals, alabaster – the designer likes to use “what makes sense”.
He even lived in Italy for a few years so he could select the best marble for washbasins and kitchen surfaces and import it to California. When asked which material he prefers to work with, he says: “I like the warmer metals, which happily are making a big comeback now. I love the fact that once you install it, it stays where you want it forever.”
All in all, he worked on the Kellogg Doolittle House with precision and without time pressure for about 20 years before the couple sold it in 2014. At the time, Vugrin did not believe he would ever return to the place of his muse and was all the more surprised when, two years ago, the ownership changed again – and he received a phone call. “I was thrilled to get the call. It was like coming home,” Vugrin recalls. Scott Leonard quickly realised that this place was inextricably intertwined with its master craftsman and could not be completed without him.
“No one knows the house as well and has helped shape its soul as much as John,” he says. More furniture is to be created over the next two years for the master bedroom, the bar and a pool. Leonard’s ambition is to make this special place more accessible – be it for guided tours for architecture students or exclusive events like a recent dinner that superstar Alicia Keys accompanied musically against the backdrop of the national park.
Vugrin wants to take a closer look at the interior of the EQS SUV before we head back to Los Angeles. He praises the feeling of space and the open architecture of the vehicle interior. Special elements, such as the panoramic roof which lets in an abundance of light, contribute to this. Or the cut-out in the lower part of the centre console, which emphasises the overall elegant look of the vehicle and provides additional storage space. You could call it understated luxury – or craftsmanship, which is also the hallmark of the Kellogg Doolittle House: it’s all about attention to detail and a distinctive design language.
At one with nature: Generous windows and the wide panoramic roof of the EQS SUV open up special views of the landscape.
On the way back, we enjoy the landscape once more, which is becoming gradually enveloped in twilight. The ambient lighting gives the EQS SUV the evocative feel of a luxurious spaceship. The solemn atmosphere in the vehicle also echoes the magic of this place. Yes, the stunning architecture of the Kellogg Doolittle House, but also the barren, stony landscape out of which the typical Joshua trees tower up into the pink evening sky. As extraordinary as this place feels, it has the uncanny ability to ground and inspire you at the same time. The people we met here are also inspired by it and the sense of freedom it exudes. This place has enabled them to create extraordinary things. It encouraged them to overcome physical and mental limits – to think outside the box. Miles outside the box.