Conversation with Kelli Kai from Rancho Morongo
Rancho Morongo is a 1954-built ranch-style home in Morongo Valley, about 17 miles southwest of Joshua Tree, California. In 2016, when Kelly Kai, who resides in Los Angeles, first spotted it online, the real estate agent wouldn't even show it to her. "No one really takes a young female seriously," she says, and went to see it herself. The house was in shambles and had been abandoned in the Seventies, but she knew potential. Plus, it was listed on her mom's birthday - whose loss drew her to the desert in the first place. She went into escrow and started a project that she says was the greatest challenge of her life thus far.
Not everything or everyone blooms in the desert. It's a harsh environment, but also a place that expands the heart like few other places can. Kai is the protagonist of such a story: she, like the home, was broken down and built back up. Today, the homestead is a jewel on 2.5 acres of open desert, with light that pours in through massive geometric windows.
Kelly Kai tells us about the cutthroat world of renovating a home in the desert, where she got the gumption to take it on, and who comes to visit.
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF.
Kelly Kai: "I grew up in Laguna beach, which at the time was a somewhat obscure town in Orange County. My dad, who was born and raised in Hawaii, threw my sister and I on surfboards as soon as we could walk. I think the early exposure to an entirely male-dominated sport at a young age helped me throughout my life when I needed to take charge.
"Life is really no different than it was when I was six, sitting in the line up with my sister, with my dad yelling “Paddle!” If you just sit there and do nothing, the wave passes and you get tumbled. If you paddle and take what you want, you get what you want.
"Aside from SoCal, I spent my time in Colorado where my parents did design, interiors and construction, then went away to college in Europe and New York City."
DO YOU HAVE A BACKGROUND IN DESIGN OR ARCHITECTURE?
KK: "I grew up following my mom and dad around and clearly it had a huge impact on me. Weekends were spent at tile showrooms, appliances stores, Persian rug vendors, antique furniture sales and open houses.
"My parents always asked my opinion on little things like drapes or carpet, tiles and fixtures. All those little interactions add up to it being something that came naturally to me as an adult. I also excelled at art as a child and took all the art classes I could at my small high school until they ran out. I went on NYU, for urban design and architecture and fell in love with green design and the built environment."
YOU FELL IN LOVE WITH THE DESERT THREE YEARS GO. WHAT INSPIRED THAT?
KK: "The desert was an environment I didn’t grow up around and didn’t really even pay attention to. My whole life I was only ever an hour and a half away from Joshua Tree, yet we never visited it. Then, around 2013, I was taking care of my mom [who was sick], and at one of the lowest places in my life. I first started to deeply crave this environment that I didn’t even know.
"I think the desert is a place that seduces people that need to get away, get lost, or forget... it’s the perfect place to disappear. I couldn’t disappear at that point so that's all I wanted. The energy there is addictive, you don’t want to leave, and it always draws you back. I love the endless horizons, how raw it is, how extreme the environment is, and that it really brings all your senses to life. I’ve never felt more myself than in the desert."
HOW DID YOU FIND RANCHO MORONGO AND WHAT SPOKE TO YOU ABOUT IT?
KK: "I am always obsessively looking at real estate for fun. This house was listed on my mom’s birthday, and a few days off from her two-year death anniversary which to me was a sign from above. The second I pulled up and got out of the car, I felt this overwhelming sense of safety, peace and that I was where I needed to be.
"From my dad’s side, we are a bit superstitious (Hawaiian Chinese background) and the way a space makes you feel is important. There must not be any bad energy, the energy must flow right, and the layout/feng shui is so important. This house had all that."
YOU ROLLED UP YOUR SLEEVES AND DID A LOT OF THE WORK YOURSELF. ANY ADVICE TO THOSE WHO WANT TO FOLLOW IN YOUR FOOTSTEPS?
KK: "Watch YouTube. Things you can do on your own, do on your own. And for the things you can’t do on your own, still watch YouTube, no one knows what they are doing and you should be able to watch whoever you hire and know if they are doing it right. Because in the desert, there is a 99% chance they are not. If you’re a woman, be strong. It’s kinda cutthroat.
WHAT WERE YOUR DESIGN INSPIRATIONS?
KK: "God, everything I have ever seen or been has inspired me in some way. I wish I could have applied it all. Like, I love the open spacious concrete buildings Donald Judd built, but this was a small, rancho-style house. So even though I couldn't do that concept, I could honor the bones of the home and focus on natural materials as much as possible. I kept the original walls with wood exposed, even though the contractor told me to cover them in drywall. The exterior is insulated behind the wood.
That wood was almost totally baked from the sun – almost like shou sugi ban, where the Japanese char the wood to be almost black – and I thought it was literally perfect. And I fixed the cracked concrete floors instead of replacing them. It was really all about repurposing and making it feel raw.
TELL US ABOUT SOURCING THE INTERIORS.
KK: "I sourced all over the place. I follow a million design/furniture accounts on Instagram and made a lot of my purchases through story posts of vendors. I used Etsy, Craigslist, flea markets, big box stores, you name it. Something I truly believe is that you can find one good thing in any store, even if it’s the most cliche store on the planet. Just have to see past all the other items it’s being sold with. My main goal with furniture was to buy items that were comfortable and that you could fall asleep on.
"There's some art that was my dad's sprinkled in there. There's a definite undertone of Hawaii, and a slight vibe of mid-century, which was like a thing at that time in the 1950s middle-of-nowhere desert, but it's subtle in the home and you might not notice it. All the records are Hawaiian music that I grew up hearing. But some people do notice. They'll say,' Oh, I noticed that you have all these Peggy Hoppers here', who is one of a few very iconic Polynesian-Hawaiian women. It was a really fun process for me to imprint my own history."
TELL US ABOUT THAT MIRRORED BALL YOU CARRIED BACK FROM CASA LUIS BARRAGÁN.
KK: "The mirrored glass ball is a staple in [Luiz] Barragán houses. It allows you to see every person in a space no matter where you are sitting and is just very interesting to look at. I love his attention to space, how humans interact with space, objects, materials and light. Before I switched majors in college I was studying communications and we read a book that talked about non-verbal communication as being something that occurs between two living creatures and that communication with inanimate objects isn’t considered communication. I felt so held back by those definitions. I’ve always felt more safe connecting with spaces than people. I've always felt such a bond between materials and I do believe that spaces can communicate with us or interact with us, even non-verbally."
WHO COMES TO RANCHO MORONGO?
KK: "Every and all types of people stay here. I get the lone female working from home, families reconnecting, boys doing a boy trip and hauling out their X-Box setups, bachelorettes, proposals, couples retreats, the solo male needing to get away, people who are lost and want to be with nature, and friends just wanting to hang out. I love when people tell me that it brought them closer to whoever they traveled with, that’s success to me. The space is made to create intimacy and take you out of your norm where you are glued to your phone and force you to sit down and enjoy nature and those around you. I want people to disconnect and reconnect to what’s real. The ones they love."
WHAT IS YOUR NEXT HOPE OR DREAM?
KK: "To do it again!"
To book a stay at Rancho Morongo, click here.