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How to Cultivate Southwestern Desert Style in Your Own Home

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The term “Southwestern” may bring to mind Spanish mission homes, but there is a difference between these two looks. Southwestern style focuses on the beauty of the desert. It’s about living off of the land in simple dwellings, surviving in a rugged terrain and brutal climate. In the last decade a new look has emerged that gives us a contemporary take on what Southwestern desert style can be.

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Principles

Traditional Southwestern style was something that evolved in southern California in the early 1920’s. With many inhabitants of the area hailing from the Mediterranean, they brought with them their own ideas of what architecture should be. Think the stucco-clad white and blue homes of Santorini Greece. In order to adapt their architectural knowledge to fit this new, drier climate, builders took notes from local tribes like the Hopi and Pueblo, building adobe homes with flat roofs.

It wasn’t just the adobe style homes that builders borrowed from the local tribes. Colorways inspired by the hues of the desert — rusty reds, sky blues, and sunset yellows — were incorporated along with what has become known as “tribal” patterns — glyphs of the sun, arrows, feathers, and flowers were a common motif in Southwestern style, a trend that has regained its popularity in recent years.

Southwestern style remained largely unchanged for the majority of the 20th century. However, things began to change at the start of the 2000’s. While many of the elements of Southwestern desert style are still inspired by the homes of native peoples, the influence of the pared-down minimalist and Scandinavian trends worked its way into these spaces. The result is crisp white, single-level homes with carefully curated furniture and décor pieces that encourage an intentional way of living which focuses on honoring the land.

Many design styles like to boast a “connection to nature” as one of their core principles. But unlike minimalism or mid-century modern styles which rely on an intuitive connection, Southwestern desert style literally brings nature right on inside. Along with the incorporation of natural materials, Southwestern style relies on things like sheepskin throws for warmth in the winter, natural woven fiber rugs on the floors, and plenty of native plants to add life throughout the home.

Architecture

There are a few key differences between the Southwestern style of the past and the new trends that are happening. The architectural lines of the homes are changing. Gone are the exposed wood pole support rods for the ceilings, replaced by sleek flat rooflines. While some Southwestern homes of the 20th century incorporated the angled, clay-tiled roof of Spanish missions, today, most contemporary homes feature a flat roof. This provides a perfect place for solar panels and a rainwater collection system, creating a stronger connection to nature by focusing on sustainable living. It also helps with temperature regulation inside. A vaulted ceiling traps heat, which is not ideal for keeping cool in the summer. With a flat ceiling and plenty of openings, air can flow through the home, creating a cooling system powered by nature.

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The other big change is the shape of the windows. Because Southwestern style was closely intertwined with Spanish mission style, arched doorways and windows were once a signature look. As people gravitated towards the sleek lines of minimalism over the last two decades, windows on Southwestern desert homes began to take on a more linear appearance. The rectangular shape also offers more strength for supporting large expanses of glass. Framed in black steel, these expanses of glazing pop against the white stucco exteriors.

Speaking of stucco, while it is still a popular choice for homes of the Southwest, more and more architects are looking to new building materials. Stacked concrete has become a popular option for exterior walls as well as privacy walls. The variant colors of the dried concrete create a subtle rainbow of natural hues — a reflection of the ever-changing colors of the desert. There has also been a return to the incorporation of raw stone pieces for things like fireplace surrounds and patio tiling. This rough look is more in line with the rugged mountains that can often be viewed in locations like Arizona and New Mexico. Flooring also incorporates natural materials with everything from polished concrete to stone to reclaimed lumber being used.

Wood is an important material in creating Southwestern style structures as well. Many homes feature exposed wood ceiling beams. The flat roof line combined with the exposed beams creates a contemporary take on the classic adobe homes. For a more streamlined look, the beams do not extend to the exterior like traditional adobe homes. A flat roof doesn’t mean boring, as many contemporary architects are creating stunning designs using cantilevered overhangs that act as a sun shade for interior rooms during the day. These overhangs naturally lend themselves to creating outdoor patio spaces — yet another way Southwestern homes connect people to nature.

Furniture, Colors, Patterns

The key to selecting furniture for a Southwestern style home is to look to nature. Incorporate pieces that are made from wood, concrete, or woven fibers like cotton, wool, or rattan. Animal hides are also a popular choice for desert-inspired homes. Leather chairs or sheepskin rugs are stylish and practical with many companies offering high-quality vegan options that provide the same level of comfort and style.

There’s a delicate balance to be found when looking at the size and shape of furniture for a Southwestern style home. It should be comfortable and practical above all else, but the scale of the pieces can vary. It’s OK to blend a chunky leg coffee table with a brightly colored woven chair. Or even layer area rugs for a lush look that can be balanced by a heavy leather sofa. Streamlined pieces inspired by ultra minimalism will look too stiff for a cozy Southwestern space, so look for pieces with interesting “movement” — curves and arches that feel light and fun.

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Woven items such as area rugs, throws, or even unique lighting are a chance to bring in pops of color and patterns, adding visual intrigue to the space. Looking again to the stunning desert sunsets, accent pieces can come in a rainbow of colors from deep purples to fiery oranges. It offers a chance to really express yourself and add colors you love to your home.

Keeping cool is key when you live in the desert and white is the go-to tone for Southwestern style homes. On the outside, white helps reflect the desert sun while on the inside it helps bounce light around, keeping spaces bright and welcoming. Unlike minimalism which centers around a white-on-white color palette with black accents, Southwestern desert style allows for fun pops of color throughout the space.

However one-note the color of the desert sand may seem, anyone who has spent time in places like Joshua Tree National Park can tell you that it’s those killer sunsets which make the sparse landscape really come to life. You are treated to colors you didn’t even know were possible, and it is those sunset tones that can help define the color palette for furniture and accent pieces.

While bright white is a popular color choice for the walls in Southwestern homes, there is also room to experiment. In the bedroom, try for deep dark tones that will create a more soothing environment when it’s time to go to sleep.

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As far as the type of patterns, geometric designs are a great complement to Southwestern style homes. They add a sharp visual contrast to the soft lines of the furnishings. Fun nature prints inspired by the unique flora and fauna of the desert can add a touch of whimsy to your space as well.

Notables

This new vision of what Southwestern desert style can be has been boosted by talented architects like the team at Kendle Design Collaborative. The Arizona-based firm has perfectly captured the beauty of the desert in its design of contemporary homes. Using traditional building methods like stacked mud walls combined with natural materials like wood and cement, the firm’s creations are the bridge between nature and the built environment that this style is defined by. To help further encourage the connection to nature, many of its homes feature walls of glass, open-air spaces, and carefully planned patios that capture stunning desert vistas.

Where to Shop

With Southwestern desert style being so trendy right now, there are myriad places to find great pieces to outfit your space. Think of Southwestern as the more masculine version of Boho Chic – many of the same patterns and colors can be found in both styles, meaning searching for “boho” pieces brings up interesting finds.

Etsy

Etsy

Etsy is truly the best place to source accent items like throws, pillows, artwork, and even plants. Check out this set of desert photos with wood frames — a perfect addition to a Southwestern-inspired space. Concrete planters filled with cacti and succulents are a fun and easy-to-care-for way to add some life to your space, and surprisingly you can also find these on Etsy. Concrete & Cacti offers handmade planters already potted with hearty plants. The geometric skull set is a true must-have for any home – Southwestern style or not.

Amazon

For bigger accent pieces, Amazon offers some high-end brands of its own that specialize in area rugs, bedding, and lighting. Check out brands like Rivet or Stone & Beam. The former has an endless selection of rugs with simple geometric patterns that blend in nicely with a Southwestern inspired home, while the latter offers a striking mesh metal pendant light that brings a masculine touch to normally delicate woven designs.

Amara

For furnishings, look to quality pieces that will last. These are known as investment pieces — items you’ll keep for years to come and can grow with you as your style evolves. Amara has a wide range of great smaller furniture items like side tables. Mix and match natural materials by pairing their Cork Trisse with the Rivan Rattan Table.

Joss & Main

Shouldn’t every home have at least one (faux) leather seat? Southwestern style is no exception to this and Joss & Main’s timeless Altenburg Square Arm Sofa is the perfect fit.

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