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How To Figure Out Your Design Style — & Stick With It

The couple behind The Joshua Tree House spills on developing a distinct style.

Courtesy of Sara And Rich Combs.

Developing a design aesthetic is a personal art. Places, experiences, and time all influence decor preference, resulting in a mix of character and sentiment. Throughout this process, it seems near impossible to stick to just one style without getting distracted by a veering pattern or texture. Yet, for Rich and Sara Combs, the minds behind design studio The Joshua Tree House, staying loyal to one authentic design perspective is a skill that comes naturally. 

The husband and wife design team have managed to create spaces that are both genuine and coherent, including San Francisco's co-working space The Assembly, The Joshua Tree House, and The Joshua Tree Casita. In an effort to understand how exactly a specific style evolves, what it represents, and why it's functional, we asked the Combs' to share their stories and tips with us. 

How did you develop your design aesthetic? 

SC: I think our design style is always evolving and changing. We tend to take inspiration from our exterior environment and bring it inside. We're currently living in the desert, and we’re definitely heavily influenced by plant life, the horizon, and the color palette of the landscape. It always felt natural to find inspiration from the places we live, so as we've moved, we’ve definitely seen an evolution. 

How long have you lived in the desert? 

RC: We've been here for about two years full time. Before that, we were in San Francisco and Brooklyn. 

There are so many similarities between The Joshua Tree House and The Assembly. Was that intentional? 

SC: For The Assembly, our goal was to make it feel like a giant shared dream home. So, we did bring in a lot of elements of what makes us feel at home in the desert. 

RC: In our design style, every place we’ve lived is somehow reflected. We lived in San Francisco for eight years, so we're naturally drawn to succulents, eucalyptus, and natural woods into our spaces. 

How else do you incorporate a city or surrounding influence into a space? 

SC: We also take a look at the culture and do our best to bring that in. We really enjoy doing this through incorporating the works of local artists. For The Assembly, we really wanted to incorporate our favorite Bay Area artists. We wanted our design and finished product to feel like it was built by the community, for the community. The woodwork on the side of the bar upstairs is Aleksandra Zee's work. Heather Day came in one day and created paintings for The Assembly, incorporating a lot of the colors and textures. Katie Gong did the live-edge counter top in dining area, a huge book case, and all of the round tables. 

Your creations and aesthetic are so recognizable. Is there intention behind creating a space that is so coherent? 

How A Design Aesthetic Is Really Made
Courtesy of Margaret Austin.

SC: While we do keep our personal desires for a space in mind throughout the design process, we're always excited to see how other people will experience the same room. We make decisions based on what makes us feel most at home and comfortable in our space. In that sense, designing is this strange blend of art and design. 

Both The Joshua Tree House and The Assembly are designed with a warm color palette. Would you say the warm color palette is part of your aesthetic? 

SC: I think we do naturally gravitate toward warmer colors. In The Assembly, we incorporated some accents of blue and slightly cooler colors, but The Joshua Tree House is a little more neutral. That specific color palette definitely reflects our evolving style, which is so heavily influenced by our surroundings. 

What are the most important things you pay attention to when approaching a design project? 

RC: We always think about function before form, because ultimately, that's the most important factor. Natural light is the first thing we consider in a space. For example, in The Assembly, the stained-glass windows were this very dark blue color and not letting much light in. One of the first things we did to the space was transform it with better light. 

SC: We also considered materials and how they change over time. We really appreciate ones that get better with age versus worn down, which means we use a lot of natural materials. For us, it's really important to have plants in a space, so we spend time choosing and researching what kinds of plants would live best in different kinds of light and heat. We ended up bringing in Pothos plants because it's one of the easiest to take care of. Finally, we like to bring in scents that remind us of the space's surroundings. For San Francisco, we definitely have strong memories of eucalyptus, so much so that we named one of the bathrooms at The Assembly the "eucalyptus bathroom."

How A Design Aesthetic Is Really Made
Courtesy of Margaret Austin.

What makes these factors, such as light, plants, and scent, so important? 

RC: I think those things allow us to interact with a space. If there's no interaction, there's just a building or a house. But the interactions of everyday, ordinary experiences are what make it a home. These actions, such as getting coffee or doing work, can be special. Taking the time to design little touches and sensory experiences for each one makes them that much more enjoyable.

SC: These design touches make us feel at home, too. Thats part of why we love designing so much. The desert certainly makes us feel at peace, so here, being able to bring those elements indoors is a special thing.

What are some actionable tips that can help others develop their design style?

SC: Be aware and conscious of what you’re drawn to. Is it warm tones? Natural materials? Simple or intricate? Take note of what excites you over time, and why. You’ll likely start to notice patterns develop — those patterns are hints towards a developed design style.

Where is the best starting point when developing a design aesthetic?

SC: Start by visiting spaces that make you feel good. In the space, consider why certain design decisions were made, and notice the details that you’re particularly drawn to. There’s so much to learn by simply sitting in an inspiring space and taking it all in.

What, at the end of the day, is the purpose of developing a design style?

SC: A design style stems from a need to create. When listening closely to that internal urge, a personal aesthetic is naturally developed.