The writer Helen Thompson had been a lifelong visitor to Santa Fe, but when she arrived at Georgia O’Keeffe’s home at Ghost Ranch 30 years ago, “I was shocked,” Thompson says. “Everything there was modern: Her furniture was modern; her light fixtures were modern; her art, of course, was modern. And in this rustic setting, the landscape is so powerful, it was all so elemental. That shock stayed with me.”

It was an experience, Thompson says, that led her to the conclusion that Santa Fe, long understood as a city filled with vernacular, decorative architecture, was ripe for a rethinking. “I kept wondering, why does something like that look so right here?” she says. “The landscape is so distinctive, and so not-modern, and yet these very precise pieces of furniture looked so right.”

Now, with her new book Santa Fe Modern: Contemporary Design in the High Desert (Monacelli, $50), Thompson has cracked the code. “Modern ideas are site-specific, and tied into what’s right for the landscape and the environment,” she says. Naturally, she continues, this conceptual framework works well in a place like New Mexico, where the dramatic horizon meets an even more dramatic sky.

In publishing Santa Fe Modern, Thompson hopes to “reset the popular notion we’ve had about Santa Fe for the last 30 or 40 years, thanks to Ralph Lauren and other marketing geniuses, that it’s ‘cute’ and ‘cozy.’” 

Most, if not all, of the houses featured in Thompson’s book are showcases for world-class art collections. This is no accident. “I wanted to do that to connect the area’s legacy of modernist artists, who helped establish a legacy of art collecting,” she says. “I don’t say it specifically in the book, but it’s true.”

The area has also attracted a significant number of people who work, or have worked, in the art field. The dealer Max Protetch and his wife Irene Hoffman, the former director of Santa Fe art space SITE, purchased a 1970s-era home with four bedrooms and “ripped everything out and turned it into a one-bedroom” in order to showcase their art.

The rock wall was mostly covered in sheetrock, Thompson says, so after uncovering it “Protetch jack-hammered it into some kind of shape,” she says. “He was 65 when he did it; he took three days of jackhammer lessons first.”

The setting of every home is invariably picturesque, with sweeping views of the surrounding desert.

Thompson says that despite the views, many of the homes featured “aren’t on big pieces of property, they just utilize their spaces well.” A house owned by artist Linda Lynch, for instance, is actually three pavilions connected at 45-degree angles.

“It’s a very emotional house,” says Thompson. “It’s built right next to a sacred site, and the person who built it was very aware of that. They oriented the house so that at the equinox, light would shine through the living room and hit the top of the fireplace.”

This is not to say that the houses in Thompson’s book eschew references to “traditional” architecture.

One home, designed by Ted Flato of Lake Flato Architects and owned by the Dallas-based couple Sally and Tom Dunning, “was a way to make Pueblo architecture feel modern,” Thompson says. “It’s built around a courtyard, which is a traditional way to build in climates like this, where you have a central, protected space, and beyond the house it’s wilder and untamed.”

Of all the houses, she continues, “I think this has a very sublime feeling of light.”

The sheltered outdoor spaces come in many forms.

Legorreta, who studied with Barragán in Mexico and then applied that knowledge to modernist homes in Santa Fe, was one of this home’s major inspirations.

“It’s a lively way to see that connection in action,” Thompson says.

Even though every home in Santa Fe Modern is fairly grand, many of the materials used “are pretty humble,” Thompson says.

In a home designed by Lake Flato Architects, the facade is covered in rusted, corrugated steel. And because the house’s owner has a large collection of photographs, prints, paintings, and other artworks, all of which need protection from sunlight, only about 25% of the house’s wall area is windows.

The cantilever isn’t just for show, Thompson says. “It forms an arch, which cars go under when they enter the courtyard,” she explains.

Many of the houses in the book are of recent construction. Others, Thompson says, are much older and have been restored, expanded, or renovated to suit contemporary needs.

When the current owners of an adobe house built in the 1940s purchased it in 2018, they discovered “a very eccentric house,” says Thompson. “Some walls were built over other walls.” The couple—a photographer and a stylist—decided to keep many of these eccentricities.

Each house that Thompson features has some connection to the land around it, which, she says, is the entire point of the book: “Santa Fe is, to me, the prime example of the rightness of context,” she says.

Take the landscape’s striations, which are “layers of geologic time, and there are different colors of pink and brown,” she says. In one home, the architect Larry Speck decided to mimic those striations with rammed earth walls that extend from the back porch, through the house, and onto the front porch.

“They finished it, so it’s smooth and cool,” Thompson says. “It’s unbelievably sensual.”

There are a few houses, though, that have more universal appeal.

Take Charles Churchward’s house, designed by the architect Ralph Ridgeway. Writing of the house in Architectural Digest in 2014, Churchward, the former art director of Vanity Fair and later, Vogue, said that “the layout made me think of a large city apartment transported to a perfect outdoor setting.”

In the living room, the floor is tiled in Indian sandstone, and the Barcelona chairs give the space an urban feel.

Another unifying thread between every house she featured, Thompson says, is an economic use of interior proportions. “There’s no lavish use of space,” she says. “And you can say that about most of these houses.”

Even a grand home with board-formed concrete walls is surprisingly compact, she says. Designed by the Austin architect Scott Specht, the house was zoned such that it could be no more than 14 feet above grade.

Specht dug the house into the earth, ensuring that light would pour through the house via a skylight that runs the 125 foot-length of one wall.

“You get the blast of a view,” Thompson says. “You go down into the ground and then, when you come outside onto the back patio, you’re just confronted with it.”

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