Inside a Calgary Designer’s Fab Retreat in the Arizona Desert
Calgary designer James McIntyre turns his Arizona vacation home into the ultimate design experiment with a one-of-a-kind Morocco-meets-Tom-Ford vibe.
Faced with a circa-1979 sunshine ceiling and swaths of plush peach carpeting, few mortals would have the confidence and clarity to envision a contemporary, deeply personal haven with a Moroccan/Indian/Tom Ford vibe—particularly in a Spanish colonial home in a desert city. If all that sounds like an unworkable pastiche of eras and styles, then you haven’t met James McIntyre.
McIntyre is the principal designer at Calgary firm McIntyre Bills. He’s known locally for his elegant lines and ability to inject warmth and wow into masculine, understated interiors. He’s also in demand among snowbirds south of the border—Arizona and Palm Springs, in particular—for his deftness in combining bright whites and pops of colour with desert earth tones. A few years back, he leapt at an opportunity to live out his childhood affection for Phoenix and, breaking a couple of his own rules of design, dramatically reimagined his own home away from home.
McIntyre grew up visiting his grandparents in Mesa, just outside Phoenix, and taking family holidays to the Grand Canyon. The landscape got into his bones early on. “I always loved the ruggedness, the cacti, the succulents,” he says. “When I started designing for Calgarians with homes in Arizona, it felt like my destiny to spend part of my time there.” Still, McIntyre never envisioned himself in the stuccoed, arch-and-wrought iron-heavy Spanish revival home he eventually purchased in Phoenix’s Biltmore Estates neighbourhood. “I was looking at modern houses but reluctantly agreed to let my realtor show me this place,” he says. Fresh vacuum lines on thick carpet, and rows of dated oak cabinets and ivy wallpaper in the kitchen were no match for McIntyre’s exquisite imagination.
Starting with the home’s exterior, the designer took nearly two years to methodically renovate and redesign to his heart’s content. “Since this is my place and mine alone,” he explains, “I made choices I wouldn’t necessarily suggest to a client.” Driven by a long-held dream of a vine-covered courtyard, McIntyre put a portico and wrought-iron gates at the front entrance (the vines grew at speeds never seen in Cowtown: dream fulfilled). He also followed his passion for West Hollywood glamour with black basalt floors in the bathrooms and showers, and solid brass knobs on all the doors.
In the kitchen, McIntyre chose striking high-gloss black-lacquered cabinets—not a direction he would steer a busy family (“even I get fingerprints on them”)—with brass buckle pulls (another nod to West Hollywood). Eschewing desert earth tones, he channelled his passion for a “Moroccan vibe” with rich, moody hues. McIntyre ebonized the home’s ash floor and light wood beams and gave the kitchen an exotic-lounge feel with Moroccan-style star lanterns, antique brass hardware, a grey quatrefoil-print rug and a Moorish fixture over the nearby dining table.
A delightfully incongruous pair of Chinese Foo dogs above the kitchen sink is, says McIntyre, further proof that personal passion, above all, dictates the home’s aesthetic: “My house is an unselfconscious mix of things I love—I think that gives it a warm, relaxed feel, which makes friends feel very welcome here.”
Likewise, McIntyre’s living room is divided into two parts that suit his personality. A formal side, featuring black velvet sofas and a fragmented mirror, sits naturally alongside a casual, speakeasy-style salon, presided over by a life-sized portrait of Lady Gaga. The room is enveloped in dark grey velvet drapes, reminiscent of a Tom Ford interior McIntyre was struck by on a visit to New York. A solid white marble Ganesha—Hindu god of removing obstacles—serves to remind him of a memorable trip to India and, perhaps, that nothing need stand in the way of pleasing and meaningful design.