Down an Old Dirt Road in the Sawtooth Mountain Range, This Photographer Created a Desert Oasis
The entire process ended up taking four years.
Published Feb 19, 2023 1:00 AM
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When Magdalena Wosinska first saw the tiny, abandoned adobe on the lowlands of the Sawtooth mountain range, she was not impressed. The photographer and director, known for her tough but sunny portraits of California artists and celebrities, had already completed a renovation of her main residence in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. She was not looking for another project, and the adobe—one of the first homes built in the area in 1935—was crumbling and covered in debris. “I just looked at the realtor and said, ‘No way. I’m not doing this again,’” she says, laughing.
Still, Wosinska felt motivated to purchase something—more and more of her friends were buying in Pioneertown, Joshua Tree, and the surrounding region, and she did not want to miss an opportunity to put down roots in the desert. “I was like, I need to get on this before it gets too crazy and expensive,” she says. After years in L.A., the idea of being able to escape to a small community (pop. 428, to be exact) was very appealing: “The post office is like an old saloon where you can tie up your horse. Everything is on a dirt road.”
So she made an offer, imagining a fairly straightforward six-month renovation. “Next thing you know, I stripped everything down to the bare walls, took off the ceilings, and started from scratch,” she says. The entire process ended up taking four years, but Wosinska does not regret the time spent—it allowed her to stretch her budget and carefully art direct the construction.
“When I first started going to the property, I would take a chair and sit in different corners of the room to see what view I would have from every angle,” she says of her immersive approach. From there she carved out doors and hallways so that the light could travel throughout the building. “We’re surrounded by mountains—I opened the house up so much that you can see the view whichever way you look,” she explains.
Wosinska kept just three of the original adobe walls, which housed a small living room, and added a brand-new kitchen, dining area, two bedrooms, and a guest bath. To help expand the home’s footprint in an authentic way, she hired a friend, designer Sarah Solis, who proposed plastering the new walls by hand to mimic the adobe feel and “really lean into the imperfections” of the existing space. Solis also designed built-in furniture, including three beds and a living room sofa, in the banco tradition, so that every element felt connected. “It’s a minimalist approach,” says the designer.
When it came to sourcing additional furniture, Wosinska turned to her fiancé, Chase Stopnik, a vintage enthusiast. She wanted a farm table for the dining area, “but everything we looked at in L.A. was quite expensive,” she says. “I didn’t want to pay eight grand for a table that you could buy in some hipster shop in Venice, you know?” Luckily Stopnik found a more economical option on eBay: an 1850s farm table from Nebraska that they had shipped out to the desert. He sourced a coordinating bench from a London church built in 1901. “When it arrived, the whole house smelled like frankincense and myrrh,” recalls Wosinska. “It felt as if you were at Mass in a cathedral.”
She also saved by DIYing pieces for her bedroom: She created a low-lying bench with scrap wood and simple stacked bricks, and designed the massive mirror that hangs above it. The frame is modeled on a pricier option spied at Restoration Hardware; Wosinska had it made at a brass shop in L.A. for a fraction of the price.
In the bathrooms, Solis convinced her to spend a bit more. Wosinska envisioned having modern concrete sinks, until the designer showed her two antique options dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries, scored on a trip to France. When Wosinska asked the contractor to install them—each weighing in at hundreds of pounds—he “thought I was crazy,” she says. But together they devised sturdy metal frames and welded them to the walls. For the primary bathroom, Solis completed the look with brass light fixtures with repurposed antique glass insulators, custom-made in a small workshop in England.
One thing Wosinska did not add to the home? Art. “I was very adamant, because I did not want to curate someone’s experience,” she says. “I wanted it to be a very clean, monochromatic place for your mind—everything is the color of sand. The minute I put a massive motorcycle poster on a wall or a photo of Mick Jagger or a desert landscape, I’m telling people in the house, ‘This is what I want you to see.’”
Perhaps Wosinska took so much care with how guests would experience the home because she plans to have a lot of them someday. She recently completed a new project about 30 paces from the adobe: a wellness space complete with a sleek concrete lap pool, indoor sauna, sundeck, and outdoor tub and shower. Her ultimate goal for the 10-acre property is to host weekend retreats for women, where they can participate in yoga and bodywork and, of course, spend time in the water. “I’m Polish, and we have that massive female bathing culture where women come together,” she says. “So I just wanted to bring that back to the desert, like a little oasis.”
She also found a way to bring part of her home in L.A. to her new escape. Throughout the renovation process, Wosinska was propagating cacti in Highland Park. “I always take the arms off different cacti, and then you dry them out for four to five days until they callus, and put them in pots,” she says. “By the time I finished the house here, I had 30 of them ready to go.” You can find them nestled in corners throughout the adobe, shimmering in the desert light.
This story was originally published in our Fall 2020 issue with the headline “Into the Desert.”