Design Idea: When some people take on Western motifs, they go over the top. Why not use authentic detail, craftsmanship and tradition to rediscover the spirit of style in the West?

“We were channeling Will Rogers, but this was never meant to be a cowboy house,” says designer Madeline Stuart of the retreat she imagined for Hollywood writer-producer-director Gary Ross; his wife, Allison Thomas; and their children in California’s Santa Barbara County. The interiors of the 3,200-square-foot house, nestled on an avocado and Satsuma mandarin orange ranch, were inspired by the 1920s Pacific Palisades ranch house of legendary cowboy, actor and humorist Will Rogers. The restored Rogers residence, now part of the Will Rogers State Historic Park, is a repository for Navajo rugs, Charles M. Russell and Edward Borein artworks, 1930s Monterey sofas and chairs as well as a porch swing and a stuffed roping calf, both in the living room.“Gary and I were very much taken with the imagery,” says Stuart. “He was working on the film Seabiscuit at the time and had one of his art directors go up to the house and take documentary photographs.” The designer borrowed classic western ideas found in the pictures and rooted them in today’s design, avoiding components that have become clichèd over the years. She simplified traditional patterns, proportioned furniture for the space and, overall, made the house “a bit more Californian,” she notes. “I was breathing and speaking this updated Will Rogers design language.”

Brian Tichenor, of Tichenor & Thorp Architects, worked with Ross to develop the house’s architecture. Cabinlike yet refined in its appearance, the building strikes a nostalgic note, bringing to mind the carefully sited, understated wood structures of thirties-era national parks. “Gary and I share an enthusiasm for WPA-era national park architecture and the Craftsman explorations of Bernard Maybeck,” explains Tichenor. “When they started constructing parks in the 1930s, they chose exactly the right spots for the buildings,” he says. “They were unobtrusive and had a kind of honesty and quality to them. The way the inside communicates with the outside, the garden and its sounds and smells is a vital part of the design.”

Stuart and Tichenor had previously joined forces to design Ross and Thomas’s main residence in Los Angeles, but an indoor-outdoor connection was especially important this time around. Thomas raises vegetables at the ranch, which she turned into an organic venture after the couple purchased it, and Ross spends days at a time writing at the house. “They’re very casual,” explains Stuart. “They hike, bike, scuba dive and kayak.” For the designer, that meant steering clear of fussy elements. “I used gutsy fabrics, like flannel, suede, leather, rawhide and wool,” she says. “They have kids and a dog. They live in it and cook in it and don’t think twice about putting their feet up. It’s worn really well. The living room suede sofa just looks better as it gets more beat up.”

Stuart stuck to reds, browns and tans—what she calls “authentic cowboy colors”—for the palette. She found an out-of-print book on Navajo rugs and sketched different ideas, reinterpreting historical motifs. “The rug I did for the living room is based on various Navajo patterns and was made in the same weave, with the same kind of coarse wool,” she says. “But the scale and the final design were mine.” To offset the new designs, she used original Navajo rug remnants to customize pillows that are strewn throughout the house.

Tichenor created public space that is fluid. The kitchen flows into the dining area, which flows into the living room, or what is more appropriately referred to as the great room. The area is voluminous, with a large board-formed concrete fireplace, reclaimed-wood ceiling trusses and Maybeck-inspired crisscross wood-and-copper chandeliers. Stuart filled the room with stuffed swivel armchairs, a sizable chocolate-colored sofa and an oak low table that as many as twelve guests can sit around. “Its size makes it modern, but it has a sort of classic Stickley detailing,” she says. “It’s leather-topped with nailhead trim.” When it came to selecting fabric for some of the chairs, she couldn’t stop herself from choosing plaid. “It’s humble,” she says. “I had to throw it in.” The designer peppered the room with vintage light fixtures and accessories, most of which reference the Arts and Crafts period. Ross and Thomas had already purchased the right kind of art. “They’ve collected for a long time,” Tichenor says. “Their California plein air paintings were a consideration in designing these rooms.”

“The kitchen faces the ocean and has this airy, vivacious personality,” says Stuart. Tichenor created an island topped on one side with butcher block and on the other with Carrara marble. The Marmoleum countertops are edged in stainless steel that complements the Wolf cook-top and the Viking ovens, range and hood. Vintage school-house pendants provide lighting in an otherwise sun-filled room. The dining area, a transition between the kitchen and the living room, relates to the darker hues and richer textures of the living room. Stuart paired circa 1910 English oak-and-leather chairs with a custom Arts and Crafts-style oak table. There’s a copper chandelier and an iron-horseshoe umbrella stand used to hold wood pizza peels.

“The bedrooms are very simple and appropriate to the ranch,” says Stuart, who designed an Ultrasuede headboard for the master bedroom that was inspired by a daybed in the study of the Will Rogers house. Thomas found an ironworker in Santa Barbara and had camp-style beds made for the bunk room.

Like Will Rogers, Stuart thought a porch swing essential to a ranch house. She discovered an Arts and Crafts Stickley swing and decided that a pair were required for the L-shaped terrace, so she had the original copied. “The ironwork was hand-forged,” she says. “Every link is like a piece of jewelry.” Handcrafted details like these are what make the Ross and Thomas residence authentically western in spirit despite its updated qualities. “The house is homespun,” says Stuart. “It resonates with that Will Rogers aesthetic.”