A Small Desert Cabin Is a Lesson in Cozy Modern Minimalism

A Small Desert Cabin Is a Lesson in Cozy Modern Minimalism

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Name: Marni Epstein-Mervis and Laine Mervis (and Fitz the corgi)
Location: Landers, California
Size: 800 square feet, sitting on 2.5 acres
Years lived in: 6 months, owned

We first got a peek at the small Los Angeles rental apartment of Marni Epstein-Mervis (who runs the creative agency STRUKTR) and Laine Mervis (a lawyer) during their house tour. Since then, Marni has become a contributor to Apartment Therapy, and when she asked if I wanted to look inside their newest home design collaboration, I said yes. This formerly decrepit desert home was saved from being a marijuana growing house (really) and given a new modern life by the couple. Marni writes about their renovation below:

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This house is the culmination of a decade-long dream of a vacation house in the desert east of Los Angeles. It’s been brewing for a while, and we had a serious conversation before our wedding five years ago—desert house or honeymoon? We wanted a place where we could easily escape from LA whenever we wanted, have family and friends out to the house, some place quiet and relaxing to share with others.

We looked for about a year, narrowing in on exactly what we wanted, which specific area we wanted to be in—first looking in Palm Springs and then focusing on the high desert cities around Joshua Tree—and getting a lot of guidance and insight from friends who had made purchases out there.

We love that the home is out of the way, on a dirt road but still close to the paved road. There’s no light pollution so the night skies are unbelievable; you can see the Milky Way! There is a telescope at the house to look at the moon, Jupiter, and Saturn. We also have a pair of binoculars that Laine has had since he was 13. The house is tucked away off the beaten path, but it’s close to the Joshua Tree National Park and very close to Giant Rock Cafe, which serves coffee and small plates, and La Copine, which is the high desert’s best restaurant.

Apartment Therapy Survey:

My Style: A spin on desert modern that juxtaposes California’s high desert landscape with that of South Africa’s.

Inspiration: As an interior photographer, I’ve been invited into so many beautiful homes. Learning their stories, the decisions behind the design, and trusted to share their beauty with others. It’s been fun to shift to, for the first time, looking at my own home through that same lens. There’s a bit of South Africa in all our spaces—it’s where Laine was born and we visited last year (my first time). But at the same time we wanted to take this little country homestead cabin and make it feel really modern and reflect our love of design, something that would feel inviting to friends and family.

The color palette was inspired by South Africa. We started with a base of black and white and then looked to South Africa’s natural landscapes: the vivid, fiery orange sunsets in Madikwe, the deep turquoise blues of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, the sandy warm butterscotches of the Great Karoo desert. We added some of my original photography from both the high desert and South Africa reflective of the color palette. In the kitchen, we went with a minimal design and organic tones that recall influences from Cape Dutch architecture.

Ultimately it’s a stark contrast from where the house was before: prior to being renovated, squatters were living in the house, and the last owner planned to use it as a marijuana grow house.

Favorite Element: It’s hard to pick one. We love the Joshua Trees (there are about 30 on the property). The peace and quiet are amazing. We can go days at a time without a single car driving by. There is no TV or distractions. It’s an amazing place to bring other friends, or family members, and, well, basically do nothing except connect, eat, open a bottle of wine in the evening, go to sleep early, and wake up with the sun. When we’re not using it we rent it as a retreat to guests on Airbnb. We have great WiFi service and on occasion we escape from LA in the middle of the work week to go out to the house and we can actually get a lot of work done there–if that’s what we’re in the mood for.

Biggest Challenge: Probably the fact that, although it’s actually pretty easy to get to the home, it’s considered a “remote” location and between that and the unpaved roads in the area nobody will deliver to where we are—furniture, appliances, you name it! It’s funny because our house is actually just a few hundred yards off the closest paved road and it actually isn’t a problem, but delivery trucks have the area marked off as “will not deliver.” That meant a lot of sorting out logistics, moving a lot more things ourselves, and way more trips to Home Depot than we (or anyone) could possibly imagine. One day I was inside Home Depot shopping—when I got a call on my cell from the same Home Depot telling me to come by and pick up our oven that had arrived. I was like, “Great, I’m already here and in aisle 12… But I’ll have to be back in an hour since my car outside is already full from this shopping trip and I have to empty it out at the house.” Our sofa had to get delivered to the local post office rather than our house, but I actually intercepted the delivery truck and sweet talked them into taking it directly to our house.

Proudest DIY: Our proudest DIY was doing some electrical work by putting up new light fixtures outside the front door and in the bathroom. I had a lot of reservations about it and some warnings not to tackle electrical work on our own. But I had two things going for me: it was a very modest-sized project of just a couple of light fixtures (the existing ones were dated and I wanted badly to change them out), and I watched a LOT of Youtube videos. I checked to make sure the power was off about six times before starting work. In the end it was an extremely manageable job and the finished product was more than worth it.

Also, transforming the kitchen by taking down the old upper cabinets and replacing them with open shelving. The kitchen/living room/dining room is all one space, so once we did that, the entire living space became more open, spacious, and modern. It was heavy lifting and there were a couple of broken shelves in the process.

Biggest Indulgence: Our refrigerator. It’s a fun retro fridge and stand-out for sure. We went back and forth on it, but it’s literally the first thing everyone remarks on when they walk in.

Best Advice: Our best advice will actually double as proudest “non DIY.” While we painted indoors ourselves, we hired house painters to paint outside and take the cabin from its previous sand brown (the house essentially disappeared into the brown background—you almost couldn’t see it when we bought it), and paint it an extremely stark absolute white. When the four-person painting crew was done (they did the entire job in a day and were fantastic), they stepped back, looked at the house, and all of them said to us “Oh yeah, you’re going for a super modern look. I get it now.” New paint gives so much bang for the buck and makes the house stand out. The same goes for inside. The inside is a bright, crisp white (but very slightly softer than the exterior paint), and overall gives the house a look that is clean and dramatic. Everyone remarks on how bright the house is inside and out.



  • Dunn-Edwards — Whisper DEW340 (Interior walls)
  • Dunn-Edwards — Raging Tide DE5809 (Yoga Room)
  • Dunn-Edwards —  White DEW380 (Exterior)
  • Dunn-Edwards — Black DEA187 (Exterior Doors)



  • Mikko Settee Sofa — Urban Outfitters
  • Geometric 2-Door Cabinet —Target
  • Leather Butterfly Chair — Overstock
  • Abstract Art Prints — Society6
  • Mexican Serape Blankets — Amols
  • Jute rug — NuLoom


  • Wishbone dining chairs — ​Poly & Bark
  • Round Framed Mirror — Target
  • Picnic Dining Table and Bench — Hayneedle
  • RENS sheepskin — IKEA



  • Tarva Bed — ​IKEA
  • Rattan Chair and Ottoman — Target
  • Arte Round Rug — eSale Rugs
  • Turquoise Stripe Natural Rugs — World Market
  • Framed Photo Art — Marni Epstein-Mervis
  • Bamboo Lyocell Duvet Cover — Ettitude
  • Bamboo Lyocell Sheets — Ettitude
  • Bedside Tables — Amazon
  • Providence Door Knob — Emtek



  • Kuba cloth tapesty — Market in Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Teak Ladder — Goodies LA
  • Mexican Serape Blankets — Amols


  • Bathmat — Society6
  • Framed Photo Art — Marni Epstein-Mervis
  • Young House Love Bubble Vanity Light — Shades of Light
  • Karci Bathroom Faucet —  Pfister

Thanks Marni and Laine!