In order to create some of the most celebrated places to stay in one of the most popular destinations in America, you first must undergo hardship. For example: “Plumbing,” says Brian Smirke gravely.
Brian and his wife Kathrin are the DIY masterminds behind three homestead cabins out in the modern-bohemian hideaway of Joshua Tree, California.
There’s the “Shack Attack,” the “Cabin Cabin Cabin,” and the “Dome House,” each a unique desert oasis that has drawn visitors from around the world and garnered cult followings of tens of thousands of Instagram fans. In a crowded field of creative designers, adventurers, and artists who have flocked to this slice of the California desert in recent years, the Smirkes are standouts for their attention to detail.
The chic stained glass pieces hanging in the windows? Kathrin made them. The rustic coffee table made out of 4X4 fence posts? Brian built it. The indoor cactus garden? They jackhammered out part of the concrete floor so that their roots could grow.
But before creating all of those lovely features: Plumbing.
“I just kept thinking, ‘This could go totally wrong, and I’m going to have water spraying all over the place, and then all the time I put into this I’m going to have to just tear it all out, or redo it, or worse: pay a plumber $50 an hour to do it and really stretch my budget,’” says Brian.
In the early stages of crafting a boho home—not from scratch, but from ruin—fearing disaster was “a weekly thing” that went well beyond the terrors of plumbing.
To varying degrees, each of their properties involved some element of demolition.
The Shack Attack, which they purchased for $7,000 at a county tax auction, had to be torn down to the studs. The Cabin was in “total disrepair” when they got their hands on it.
Brian tells everyone interested in projects like this that “the most challenging part of it, the worst moment in the whole experience, is right before you’re about to be done. You’ve been in the project the longest and the costs are the highest. You feel the most stress because you’re still facing the very real prospect that it’s not done.”
But eventually, after foundations are ripped out and re-slabbed, after walls are torn down and built back up, and after windows and doors and wiring and plumbing are installed, it’s time for the fun stuff—when you get to turn your inspiration and creativity and vision into a reality.
While Brian is “obsessed” with small details that make an aesthetic work—“Where are the light fixtures? How are they being fed? Is it rustic? Are there cracked tiles?”—Kathrin draws inspiration from nature and color patterns. (Her stained glass company is called Bands of Color.) And what makes their properties so memorable is that they attempt to make everything themselves.
“We want to create a space that’s difficult to recreate. Not because we don’t want people to steal the ideas or anything like that, but more like we want to create a space that’s unique, that you’re just not going to find anywhere else because everything is made by us. You can’t simply walk in somewhere and buy these things.”
Their aesthetic is so popular that they’ve been lauded in publications like Dwell and Conde Nast Traveller, Sunset Magazine and Bon Apetit, which listed the dome house as one of eight vacation homes they “could live in forever.”
For the Smirkes, building their empire of Airbnb rentals started six years ago, almost by accident, when they visited Joshua Tree to celebrate Kathrin’s birthday.
They’d been living in Los Angeles and were tiring of the noise and pace of urban living. “We really liked getting out of the city and being in the desert. It was kinda weird and cool and cheap, extremely affordable at the time,” says Brian. On the way home they played with the idea of buying a small homestead cabin. Kathrin put an ad on Craigslist, and someone emailed her back—he didn’t have a cabin, but he did have a tiny geodesic dome house.
“We drove down there that week, negotiated a price and went into escrow right away,” says Kathrin. It was meant to be a weekend escape that they’d rent out occasionally to keep it from sitting vacant while they were away. But the dome house that Sunset Magazine now calls “insanely instagrammable” got so busy that they were never able to use it themselves.
Thus, the next project was born—the Cabin—which took 10 months to rehab, and then The Shack Attack, which took a year.
When they designed the Shack, they borrowed a tactic from an unlikely source: Quentin Tarantino.
“I remember listening to an interview with him a long time ago,” says Brian. “He talked about how the music he puts in his films inspires the actual film itself. He’ll put on an old funk song, and that song inspires the way he writes,” says Brian. “So we put a list of albums together that we thought created the feel that we wanted to create. When you’re listening to this album, what do you want the lighting to look like, and the textiles and artwork to look like? If I’m in this cabin on a sunny day, a rainy day, what would I be listening to?”
Six years after they started, the properties are now—finally—working for them. “It becomes much more of a passive income stream. You’re earning income and it’s not directly tied to your work,” says Brian.
If they wanted to, they could slow down, but the Smirkes don’t appear to be wired that way.
They recently bought a home in Mendocino that they’re rehabbing—this time for themselves. And they also own more lots in Joshua Tree. For their next homestead, they’ve decided to build it from the ground up. “That’ll be a project,” says Brian. But it’s work they’ve grown to love. “For the first time I feel connected with what I’m doing,” he says. “I get a sense of fulfillment and pride in workmanship. Overall, I would probably prefer to do this more than anything else.”
Bryan Schatz is a journalist based in Oakland, California, where he enjoys living just steps from water. He has written for Mother Jones, Men’s Journal, and Outside magazine. Follow him on Twitter @bryanschatz or on Instagram @bryan.schatz.