[Kayla Benning Design]
Story by Tracy Nicholson
Portrait photography by M. Schleif Photography
Project photos provided by Kayla Benning Design
Wild Terra photography by Brynn Joki
There are approximately 1,740 miles between Kayla Benning's hometown of Antler, North Dakota (Population 27), and her current home in Palm Springs, California. As a 2005 NDSU Interior Design grad, Benning spent eight years working as a designer in the Fargo-Moorhead area, before jetting off to La Jolla, California. Here she could pursue her dream of waking up at the beach and working remotely on projects in both North Dakota and San Diego. After two years of beachside bliss, Benning relocated to Palm Springs where she embraced the Mid-century modern vibe and traveled the world, gathering global inspiration. Near-perfect climates and picturesque facades aside, her small town roots run deep. After six years away, Benning is now splitting her time between the two states, with plans to bridge the design gap and expand her expertise. With an enlightened appreciation for the prairie, Benning has found a way to elevate her design, merging her Scandinavian and Norwegian heritage, rural and urban lifestyles, and Mid-century modern style.
Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
From a farm life near the Canadian border, to Fargo, then eventually California in 2012, Benning's interior design work shifted from mainly kitchen and bath, to both residential and commercial projects. Building an impressive portfolio, her role in the designs for boutique hotels and bars gained her valuable experience in commercial design and public spaces.
Palm Springs is celebrated for its Mid-century modern architecture, so for an interior designer, Benning lives amid daily inspiration. In fact, her morning runs take her on a path past the iconic Kauffman House, Elvis Presley's Honeymoon Hideaway and the Swiss Miss Houses. Although it was easy for her to embrace the new climate, she kept her ties strong by working remotely on floorplans and drawings for projects back in her home state. "It was nice, because I could work from home and kind of settle into California, but have a little piece of North Dakota with me," said Benning.
"For me, I had to move away to really see the beauty of North Dakota. I found out that no matter where I live or travel, North Dakota will always be my home and where my heart is. After all, this is where my love of design began; my mom was a painter, and as a child, I spent a lot of my time in my grandpa's woodworking shop."
Life & Style
Many of the projects Benning has been involved with have been recognized globally and featured in Architectural Digest, Wall Street Journal, LA Times, Travel Channel, New York Post, CA Home + Design, Sunset Magazine, Vogue Living AU, Elle UK, Popular TV, Palm Springs Style and Palm Springs Life - to name a few.
Benning has worked on world-renowned, commercial, hipster hangouts and many of Palm Springs' restaurants and bars, including Draftsman and Arrive Hotel, which has received national and worldwide recognition. Fun Fact: An Arrive hotel owner was one of the first employees of Facebook.
Benning did design work for this sushi restaurant, Sandfish in Palm Springs; the chef here was voted in the top 30 sushi chefs in the world.
Benning's residential projects range from homes owned by CEOs of Fortune 100 companies, to small second home condos in the desert. "Designing a personal space is a reflection of the owner. People don't typically change much, but trends do; so for me, I really like to get to know my clients and design based off of who they are and how they function, rather than the 'latest and greatest trends'," said Benning. "When homeowners bring me trends, as a designer, I want to pull back the reins on that a little. I really focus on more timeless design and designing interesting architectural features that will always be a part of the home."
"I don't want to design something that a homeowner will get tired of seeing two-years down the road; that wouldn't be right of me as a designer," said Benning. "Timeless is much harder to achieve and understand. Homeowners are being bombarded with trends on Pinterest, TV, Instagram and Facebook - everyone is telling them what's hot and trending. It can be inspiring, but also confusing."
Fusion in Fargo
Since Benning moved to California, she has based her business from home or managed projects remotely, and the flexibility seems to suit her. She currently spends about 50 percent of her time in Fargo, which allows her to easily manage projects in both states. "If a project required me to be here for three months at a time, or even move back, I would have no problem with that. I'm really looking for the type of client who wants a few unique elements throughout their home or commercial space. I'm not fixated solely on bringing California here; I'm open to a variety of design styles and projects. The key is to bring something fresh that is timeless, intriguing, and evokes interest on each and every project."
"I really love North Dakota and I feel very creative here. When my plane lands, I get kind of an 'ahh' moment; it's a place where my mind can expand," said Benning. "California's a bit busier and a little nuts, even in Palm Springs; so, North Dakota is a place where I can relax, and focus; where my creativity really flows naturally."
Recognizing Fargo's downtown revitalization, Benning saw similarities in the work that was being done here and the work she's been doing in California. "In particular, I love Wild Terra cider bar. The building is an old stable; I think that's a really beautiful way to use that historic space," said Benning. "The light fixtures are Mid-century modern mixed in with this building that's well over 100-years old. I love the mismatched, vintage furniture and how cozy it feels; it's a great hangout. I don't know how many of those old building are still left untouched, but I think they all deserve a place in modern-day Fargo."
With admiration for Fargo's more progressive improvements, Benning saw an opportunity to refocus her energy and bring her design experience home. For Benning, design is all-encompassing; psychological, emotional, functional, creative and analytical. Infusing interest in her work means honing in on experiences, heritage, art and travels.
"Societal, cultural, climatic and current trend knowledge is pertinent in design and is very diverse from different regions of the country and world," said Benning. "I often 'cross-pollinate' in my designs, for example, incorporating repurposed materials that one would find on a farm in North Dakota, mixed with ultra-modern materials, more commonly used in California. These combinations create a nice mixture of texture and balance; the best of both worlds."
Benning, herself, has no lack of wanderlust; she has traveled most of the US and visited over 30 countries. Her travels have taken her to the pyramids of Tikal and a long list of architecturally-progressive places throughout Asia, Europe, Central America, South America and Scandinavia. Benning often recreates the unique materials, nature, organic shapes, designs and textures found along the way.
Focusing on Fargo
Benning's design focus is less about choosing decor and textiles, and more about finishes, drawing and planning the finite details of commercially-driven public spaces and residential spaces like kitchens and baths. "For a commercial project in Fargo-Moorhead, I would love to take on a bar, restaurant or a little cafe - something that people will be able to enjoy every day," said Benning. "Commercial design is so different than residential as you're designing something for the masses, but you want it to feel really inviting. I always want to bring something new to the city, but also stay true to the city's character; so you really have to connect a lot of pieces together, to accomplish that."
Residentially, Benning plans to focus on new homes, lofts and remodels, in line with a more Scandinavian and timeless approach. "I have the benefit of access to materials that you might only find in other parts of the world or in Palm Springs showrooms. I can bring that outsider's perspective to Fargo, yet be cognizant of local design."
At Home in Palm Springs
In Palm Springs, Benning's personal home doubles as a stunning Airbnb. Located in a region famed for its Mid-century modern architecture, Benning bought her home with immediate plans to do an extensive renovation; top to bottom. "My house is a smaller, three-bedroom, two bath with one level. Most homes in Palm Springs have some architectural significance within the Mid-century modern influence, but that's not the type of house I bought. So, I knew I had to make the house really unique to compete with those more architecturally-significant homes," said Benning.
The Black Desert House
"It was painted tan and it was a simple desert home, but I knew that was not going to work personally or for advertising my home on Airbnb,” said Benning. “Since I travel a lot, I had already planned to Airbnb it; it's a huge industry in Palm Springs. I had the house painted black and people thought I was crazy; it's 120 degrees in the summer there." The idea of a black home was inspired by a trip to Norway's countryside where this hue is a common sight on homes and barns. "The black is even more striking against the desert landscape and mountains behind my house. I wanted to incorporate that feature, not only for my Scandinavian roots, but also to help it stand out in a design mecca of amazing and famous, architectural homes."
"When people travel they are looking to create memories and have a unique experience," said Benning. "As potential Airbnb guests where searching for their next vacation experience, I knew I needed to design a rare and visually captivating home in order for it to stand out. Millennials, in particular, love to photograph and share their lives and unique experiences on social media platforms, so it was also very important that I created a space that would photograph well and a place that people would want to show off and share."
Although Benning's personal style suits the Mid-century modern style of Palm Springs, she's infused unusual elements from all over the world and conventional elements from the Midwest. "The floor is concrete, in a warmer tone with a wood trim. A lot of homes in Palm Springs don't have trim or warm tones," said Benning. "My home is a mixture of some of my favorite travels, favorite places and the two places I call home. I have vintage furniture pieces that are Mid-century modern and Scandinavian that I found at stores in Palm Springs, then I have a few really interesting pieces like the 5' x 8' black and white, framed skull image; it might seem kind of weird, but people love it; it's very eclectic."
"In Palm Springs, we see a lot of grey tones and white marble or quartz countertops," said Benning. "It may seem like everyone's using those materials, but those are also timeless materials. When I have similar materials to work with, I'll draw an architectural detail that is added to differentiate and offer something special and unique; maybe with a really interesting backsplash, a unique shape or a tile installed at an angle."
"Although I don't follow trends too much, I do think the trend of using farmhouse materials is more timeless; I can appreciate it because it's a part of my history, just like Mid-century modern is part of my life," said Benning. "Those trends make sense, but they have to be done in the right manner and each of them has to be a little more unique, instead of that copy and paste look."
When Benning first bought her Airbnb home, the sand yard was a disastrous area that she knew needed a substantial upgrade. As a personal home and vacation home for people from all over the world, adding a pool was a necessity. For inspiration, Benning recreated the poolside design that she loved while staying at a villa in Bali. The deck comes right up to the bedroom with a sliding door and the pool features a black bottom. "The landscape is a mixture of California and Palm Springs; with the family-style dining table, I also feel like there's a little bit of North Dakota in it," said Benning.
"I have a very photographic memory about things I've seen in my travels. I can walk into a space and a client can give me an idea of what they want and it evokes a memory of a particular tile that I saw in a restaurant in Croatia," explained Benning. "I might remember a light fixture that I saw on another trip; even though we won't be able to find it around here, I know I can recreate it and have it made."
The Art of Ancestry
Like most in the Midwest, Benning's farm family is of Norwegian and Scandinavian descent. To better connect with her ancestry, she traveled to Norway, Denmark and Sweden. "I love Scandinavian design, but to do any design well, I feel like you really have to insert yourself in the culture and experience it for yourself," said Benning. While ancestral trips have inspired some of her minimalistic designs, in particular, her travels to Argentina, Croatia, and Bali have helped her to understand the idea of creating environments that are stunning, yet simple - dramatic, yet inviting. "Designing in the coldest place in the country versus the warmest place in the country is just a matter of changing your design to suit the climate - this extends to where the plumbing can go, how you design your outdoor living space and how you socialize or interact with your home," said Benning.
Airbnb: Embracing the Lifestyle
While many would not even consider renting out their personal home to strangers, Benning is happy to share her home and passion for design with vacationers from around the world. "I love to see their reaction to it," said Benning. They write me reviews and they describe it as "best weekend" or "most unique place they have ever stayed." A lot of them will say that they spent all of their time in the backyard and that they loved the design. It makes me feel good as a designer and homeowner. It really is a great way to travel and adds a more personal experience for the guest to feel more like a local."
"This is a vacation for people and it's flattering that they will fly in from places like Australia or Norway and they chose to stay at my house; especially in such a design-oriented community," said Benning. "I love sharing my home and town to create memories and experiences for guests, and I expect the same from Airbnb hosts when I travel."
As an experienced traveler, Benning knows that when en route with a group of friends, an Airbnb can easily be the most efficient way to stay. "In the high-season in Palm Springs, hotels will charge around $600 a night for just two people, so it's definitely more affordable when you can get three bedrooms at an Airbnb for the same rate or less," said Benning.
"On the property, I've had everything from photoshoots for major clothing design companies, and on the other end of the spectrum, I recently hosted a Canadian that grew up on a wheat farm an hour-and-a-half from my family's farm," said Benning. "I've had guests from many different countries, and walks of life; CEO's of major companies, and just last week a famous musician who tours all over the world. I also have a more traditional condo that I rent on Airbnb. Typically, Midwesterners stay there, which is nice because it makes me feel more connected to home."
"Traveling is a source of inspiration and education that one cannot see on the internet and cannot be captured by a photo," said Benning. "I have traveled all over the world and my mind's 'design library' is an archive full of inspirational design aspects and materials from those travels. I have a vivid and photographic memory of these inspirations and each one is eagerly waiting to have its debut in my work. I want to bring these ideas back to Fargo and connect with the right people who want to embrace a different approach to design."
For more information on Benning's Designs or Airbnb, contact:
Kayla Benning Design
Black Desert House
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