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Saguaro Land: The Sonoran Desert is having its moment in design right now

The Show is exploring the desert season by season in the series Saguaro Land — through music, art, literature, food, drink, flora and fauna — and now through design.

From the insides of our houses, to the branding of our products and companies, the Sonoran Desert seems to make its way into all aspects of life here — even ones you probably don’t notice. 

"We’re constantly trying to figure out ways to insulate, cover the windows, but also let the light in. Are we using screens? Are we using sheers? Are we using awnings?” said Jill Anderson, an interior designer with Wiseman and Gale who’s constantly thinking about a home’s surroundings when she’s designing it.

“When I’m looking at a house I look at the surrounding environment and look at what we’re looking out onto – are we looking out onto the reds and oranges and kind of deep purples or Camelback? Are there a lot of cactus surrounding it? I like to use those colors in the interior.”

But, the main driver of her design in the desert? The light. 

“The light is so intense here that I think lighter, more washed out colors don’t show up as much. I think really intense colors work better in our environment.” 

It’s the same motivation that Laura Plecas, artist and owner of the boutique Desert Crafted, says is behind much of her work.

"We have such a special light here in the desert and I spend a lot of time outside hiking and just kind of meditating on wonder of nature, how this used to be under water thousands of years ago, the unique plants that we have here," said Plecas. "Saguaro only grows here … it’s a slow, beautiful place. I feel like people come here to really slow down.”

Her shop is full of work by local artists who celebrate the desert — locally-made jewelry that looks like a cholla plant, creosote-scented soaps, oils and bath salts and a trove of other desert-inspired goods.

“The idea is that they’re handmade goods that are crafted in the desert, in other desert cultures as well," said Plecas. "Hats which are made from palm fronds in Mexico and also I carry goods like these dry brushes which are actually made from sisal, which is the inside of the cactus.” 

It’s a celebration of the desert aesthetic, the desert lifestyle, as Plecas calls it. And, from Instagram to magazines, that is having a moment right now. 

“There’s always been this romance with the desert. I’m here for it, you know, I feel like we have to as being a Phoenician, we should celebrate where we’re from and have a clear voice for who we are here.”

For Mark Johnston and his wife, Lauren, the duo behind the graphic design studio Cactus Country, that trendiness only gives them a chance to push the genre further. 

“When I started noticing the trends going that way was when we had our greeting card store, maybe because we’re in Arizona, but I was noticing a lot saguaro on things, cactus on things and we were kind of already doing that," Johnston said, "but I think as far as where we are now, it was kind of a transition into being able to be a part of that trend, as well as add to it.”

The popularity of desert design doesn’t bother him — unless it’s completely out of context. 

“We got to Austin a lot, we have friends there, and sometimes we’ll see an Austin shirt and it’ll have a saguaro cactus and a Sonoran Desert look to it, it’ll say Austin, Texas. And you’re like, this doesn’t look like Austin," he said.

Johnston has a little cred here. He grew up on the farmland that has since turned into Agritopia in Gilbert.

“When we were kids, my cousins and I actually worked on the farm, and we were just like, ‘This is not cool,’" he said. "Whatever we thought kids at school would make fun of us. But now farming is a cool thing, so.”

So today, when he sees saguaro cactus branded on just about everything — from the desert or not — he says, it just makes him want to do it more authentically. 

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.