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A Scottsdale Couple Find Their Inner Zen in a Downsized Desert Mountain Home

Hand-blown glass globes of varying shapes and sizes illuminate the dining area. Just beyond the window, a statue of Buddha sourced from Hawaii rests on black beach pebbles surrounded by Madagascar palms.

One couple’s journey to create a smaller home yields big rewards.

By Marilyn Hawkes | Photography by Mark Lipczynski

Tucked amid Desert Mountain’s rugged landscape, Ed and Susan Mueller’s new home is a master class in contemporary design, from the bold and dynamic architecture to the intricate tile selections. When it came time to downsize, the couple wanted to stay in the same north Scottsdale community that they’d lived in for 20 years, so they built a home with a smaller, more intimate footprint. “We didn’t need the big lot with big sunset views,” Susan says. “We wanted something quieter.”

The decision to scale back came after they bought a second home on the Big Island of Hawaii. “Since we were entertaining our large family there, we thought, why don’t we downsize here?” Susan says.

Ed, a retired CEO, and wife, Susan, who writes children’s books as a hobby, are both golfers who enjoy the Desert Mountain lifestyle. Susan found an available lot and they engaged Scottsdale architect Erik Peterson, a Phoenix Home & Garden Master of the Southwest award winner, to design a four-bedroom dwelling, which Ed calls an “inside-outside” house. “There’s a lot of glass, so you’re going to see mountains or views from every dimension,” he says.

Besides the visual appeal, glass keeps desert wildlife outside, Susan says. “We wanted to get the outside feel without being vulnerable.”

Instead of a pool, the couple wanted a Zen-like space with a Buddha statue that’s visible from the entryway and other vantage points in the house, Peterson says. “The space became this play on light and shadow and indoor-outdoor blurring.”

A lot of planning went into the Zen garden, says the home’s builder, Stephanie Fox. “When you walk in the front door, you see the triple fountains with the Buddha off to the side” she says. “All of it immediately says ‘stop and breathe.’”

Having worked with the Muellers on other projects, Peterson understood their design mindset. One must-have—a great room with an open kitchen that preserved desert views—was accomplished by hanging cabinets in front of the windows. “It’s a stunning design element,” Peterson says.

Interior designer Jan Turner Hering agrees. “The floating upper cabinets allow the light to come in below and above to keep this wonderful transparency of brightness and intimacy.”

1. Minimalist halo lights soften the kitchen’s linear aesthetic. A handmade sculpture by artist Ron Dier spans a recessed nook in the island’s front face. The floating cabinets and clerestory windows allow more natural light into the kitchen, as the backsplash window celebrates the desert view. 2. Covered in quartzite and accented with gold-and-white tiles, the bar serves as a gathering spot for guests. The homeowners nixed stools in favor of a stand-up bar—one more befitting their casual lifestyle—and added a playful light fixture. 3. Susan’s office overlooks the entryway garden and is filled with handmade ceramics fashioned by local artist Paulette Galop and whimsical art by Phil Tiki Wulf, a Hawaiian artist Susan commissioned to illustrate her series of children’s books. 4. The master suite boasts his and hers closets, with Susan’s resembling a high-end boutique that showcases her shoes and purses. Behind the mirrored door is a full workout room.

While the home is contemporary in design and architecture, the overall feeling is one of tranquility and warmth, anchored by the Zen garden. “When you get into a more modern look with all the glass and steel, sometimes it can read cold,” Susan says.

With Hering’s guidance, the Muellers warmed the home’s appearance by swapping stone for wood flooring, toning down the white walls and using a muted color scheme. “Everything is very simple and monochromatic,” Hering says. “Comfort and casual contemporary elegance was our theme.”

Bringing natural materials into contemporary design softens everything and makes it more timeless, Fox says.

The Muellers participated in all phases of the project, from selecting paint colors to tile to light fixtures. Susan researches every detail online and gleans inspiration from model homes and magazines. She especially enjoys shopping for lighting. “To me, light fixtures and lamps are like jewelry,” she says.

To select furnishings and accessories for their new home, the couple met Hering at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood. “They both have a great eye, so that makes browsing a lot of fun,” Hering says.

When drafting plans for homeowners, Peterson enjoys pushing the envelope to create something new and different. In this case, the couple wanted to integrate wood into the outdoor design. Peterson proposed synthetic wood siding, a material that didn’t jive with the homeowner’s association’s regulations. “It’s a look that’s California-based, and obviously there they can use real wood and it stays in great shape. But we know what happens to wood in the desert,” Peterson says. After seeing the quality and look of the material, the HOA gave it the green light.

The lot was one of the last available properties in the subdivision, making it easier for Peterson to maximize the view corridors by carefully positioning walls to hide neighboring houses. “We also wanted the least number of interior walls and the most glass that allows for privacy without blaring sun,” Ed says.

1. The master bedroom’s wallpaper complements the room’s muted tones while lending texture. 2. The illustration above Susan’s built-in jewelry case was created by Colorado artist Dianne Howell. The charming piece is festooned with gold charms and stones, giving it a three-dimensional look. 3. Intricate tile work gives the powder room “that little bit of red” that Susan likes, providing a contrast to the home’s subdued color scheme. Inlaid mirror decorates the vanity’s high-gloss surface.

The Buddha garden sets the tone for the understated landscaping, which complements the architecture without overwhelming it, says landscape designer David Creech, who used an indigenous plant palette and focused on creating visual focal points with boulders and cacti. Exterior garden areas can be seen from the gallery-style glass walls throughout the house, adding another dimension to the interior.

Their last home was quite a bit larger, and they lived in one little corner of the house, Susan recalls. Peterson’s floor plan and abundance of glass now give them a chance to appreciate all areas in the house, as well as the outdoor landscaping. “There’s not a spot in this house we don’t see every day,” Ed says.

1. The custom dining table and chairs are nestled in an alcove off the great room, providing views of the tranquil Buddha garden. The table’s middle leaf can be removed to make two smaller tables for more intimate dining. 2. Dual refrigerators and freezers are faced with the same high-gloss acrylic material as the cabinets. 3. Open shelving in the kitchen island provides easy access to dishware. 4. A large sectional anchoring the great room sits on a custom-designed-and -colored rug that pulls together the room’s neutral tones. 5. Architect Erik Peterson used synthetic wood, scored “pinstriped” stucco and powder-coated metal to create the home’s contemporary look. Understated desert landscaping  “complements the architecture without overwhelming it,” says landscape designer David Creech. 6. In lieu of a pool, the low- maintenance backyard includes natural-looking artificial turf and low-water desert plantings.

The Muellers’ Desert Mountain dwelling reflects the couple’s exquisite taste in decor, design and style. “We built this house for the way we live, not based on what other people find desirable. Ed and I loved the process,” Susan says. “We built this house for us.”

1. The dramatic entry path is lined with twin flower agave in powder-coated steel pots surrounded by barrel cacti, euphorbia and Mexican fencepost. 2. Just off the entryway, Ed’s office is open and accessible. “He didn’t want to be shut in a room,” Peterson says. “He loves that view and the light that comes in.” 3. The primary bathroom’s floor-to-ceiling tile wall gives the illusion of a waterfall within the open shower, which can be entered from both sides, behind a freestanding tub. 4. Susan’s “big and beautiful” laundry room has the same high-gloss cabinets found in the kitchen, but equipped with hardware. The black edging around the windows creates a picture-frame effect capturing striking desert vistas.

For more information, see Sources.

Architect: Erik Peterson. PHX Architecture. Builder: Stephanie Fox, Platinum Companies. Interior designer: Jan Turner Hering, Jan Turner Hering Interior Design. Landscape designer: Dave Creech, CFdesign.

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