Artist Interviews 2021
Sara & Rich Combs, “The Joshua Tree House”
By Laura Siebold
Sara and Rich Combs are a design couple who have transformed formerly barren and abandoned existing spaces into places of mindfulness and serenity, practicing desert life and a connection to the natural world. Their first project “The Joshua Tree House”, started and completed in 2015, was first intended to be a personal refuge from city life and later offered as a rental on Airbnb. It quickly became a popular choice for those seeking temporary refuge from busy city life. Next to “The Joshua Tree House”, a Casita and a Hacienda in Joshua Tree are also bookable on Airbnb (select dates apply for the Hacienda, currently being the couple’s full-time home). For their second big transformation project “JTH Tucson”, a 5-suite southwestern inn bordering the west side of Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona, the couple continued their concept of merging both the interior and exterior, using natural materials and designs to create a stylish, yet functional space. JTH Tucson was opened to the public in October 2019. In our interview, we asked Sara and Rich about their inspiration for their design projects, challenges in the transformation process, and desert living.
Sara & Rich Combs. Views of Saguaro Nationalpark, Arizona.
The transformation of your properties in Joshua Tree, CA and Tucson, AZ into spaces of serenity and mindfulness is full of artistic ideas. The reflection of the natural space within the interior of your homes is very apparent.
Tell us a little about these projects. How and when did you come up with the idea for these projects and what were the biggest challenges in the process?
The first house that we designed and renovated (The Joshua Tree House) simply started because we were living in a city at the time and personally craved a creative space to reset out in nature. But when we opened it up for others to stay we found that we were definitely not the only ones who were craving a place like this. It booked up so much that there was no longer time for us to go ourselves... and it got us thinking. We realized that often as we’ve traveled we found that we had to sacrifice either design or nature in our accommodations, so we set out to create spaces that celebrate both.
Through the process we’ve hit many challenges, most of them financial. We dealt with a lot of projects that ended up costing a lot more than we had been initially quoted for, one of the biggest ones being roof repairs. It was all so worth it in the end, but we experienced some extreme discomfort in the process of figuring out how to get everything paid for while still moving quickly enough to open.
When renovating our inn in Tucson we had a one year hard money loan to fund our construction costs, and were able to complete the space and remortgage everything to pay the loan back with one week to spare. It was an incredibly intense period of our lives, and we had to give this project every ounce of energy we had. For the majority of the year we worked seven days a week from the time we woke up until we went to sleep.
Tent Room at The Joshua Tree House, Joshua Tree.
Living room at JTH Tucson, Posada.
According to the
Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) - “The desert landscape is an intricate work of art.” Do you consider The Joshua Tree House a domestic replica of the desert landscape? An interpretation of the desert?
We view each space as a way to connect our guests with the surrounding landscape, but ultimately the true focus will always be nature. It’s not our goal to compete with being outside or create a replica, but to naturally blur indoor and outdoor space. It's our hope that our interior spaces can intentionally slow our guests down so that when they go back outside they can stay curious and take in the details of the natural world.
Is life in the desert an art form? Elaborate.
Since moving to the desert, our appreciation and respect for the native plants and animals here has grown significantly. Most desert creatures are very small yet incredibly tough, and most desert plants are covered in spines yet bloom delicate flowers in the spring. The intense contrasts here are a form of art that inspires a particular kind of strength.
Desert Views in Tucson, Posada.
Cactus in bloom in Joshua Tree.
You published your first book
At Home in Joshua Tree: A Field Guide to Desert Living in 2018.
How do you reconnect with the idea of “the ordinary” in the desert? How does the idea of “home” translate into your version of desert living?
Ordinary is our everyday, our routine. Before living in the desert we overlooked the ordinary as the moments that happen while we look forward to the extraordinary.
Though life here has taught us that the ordinary moments are the most special ones; It’s the enjoyment of small moments throughout each day that add up to form our lives.
Home is a place to curate those ordinary experiences to make them as enjoyable as possible: a morning cup of a tea, a shower, sleeping, daydreaming etc can all be thoughtfully designed for.
Simplistic moments at the Joshua Tree House, Joshua Tree.
Do you agree that the desert is both a place and an idea? How did you realize the unique character of the desert in your first space transformation project “The Joshua Tree House”?
I do agree that it’s both a place and an idea. Before we moved here, we had a very particular idea of what life here would feel like, and I know a big part of the experience for our guests is the anticipation of the opportunity to reset when they arrive in the desert.
Living-Room at the Casita, Joshua Tree.
The “Leave no trace” policy of the Mojave Desert Land Trust seeks to leave the natural landscape and fragile ecosystems of the Mojave Desert unharmed. How did you incorporate the guidelines of the MDLT into your home restoration project? Did they inhibit your design vision for the house in any way?
All of our projects have been renovation projects of existing structures, so we’ve been able to leave the land untouched aside from what was already there. We also made sure to use as much existing material as possible (for example we’ve used my father in law’s help to make tables from wood previously used for walls). We’ve also utilized local vintage and thrift shops both to buy and sell products for each space to create as little waste as possible.
What is planned for the future? Can we expect another transformation project?
We hope to continue on to a new location and create a road-trip of JTH spaces throughout the US.
Clock-wise direction: A Bedroom, Kitchen, Jacuzzi, and Hammock Room at the Joshua Tree House, Joshua Tree.
Hacienda in Joshua Tree.
Sara & Rich Combs are based in Joshua Tree, California. For more information on Sara & Rich and their work, check out the following resources:
Official Artist Website
Additional resources consulted for this interview:
Mojave Desert Land Trust
Copyright for photographs: Sara & Rich Combs.
Copyright for portrait picture of Sara & Rich Combs: Tim Melideo