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In This Designer’s Hands, Black Is the Warmest Color

Carissa Duncan, the mastermind of Esalen’s recent revamp, brings her brand of lush minimalism to her own Carmel Valley home.


Carissa Duncan.

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“My signature fragrance for the past few years has been Le Labo Neroli 36. It is simply the best.”

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Plants add so much life to interiors, and I love to nurture them. I especially adore this gift from my Salt + Bones team.”

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“I love black in all aspects, even toilet paper rolls (which come from Renova in Portugal)...

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...and cotton buds (from Muji).”

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“I bought MQuan’s Chain 7 ceramic sculpture last year, and subconsciously I think I fell in love with it because I have a team of seven at Salt + Bones.”

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Faye Toogood’s Roly Poly plaster low table is one of the first purchases I made when moving into my Carmel Valley house. I love its soft edges but strong and weighty presence—I feel completely aligned with this table.”

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“I cleanse my house with palo santo on a weekly or sometimes daily basis, depending on the mojo.”

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“I am completely in love with this Half Moon Mirror by Ben & Aja Blanc, especially being a moon child myself and a big fangirl of the designers.”

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“I met with Mexican artist Marcela Díaz at her home and studio in Mérida and brought back a rope sculpture. Marcela encourages people to adjust them and add knots however they like. Each knot in my rope represents a promise that I have made to myself.”

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“This was an estate sale art find. I fell in love with the shapes, and then even more so once I found out the name: Penetración, by Juan-Manuel Alonso. Enough said.”

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Spencer Peterman’s bowls are made out of a single piece of wood from fallen trees. Spencer searches for decomposing material—wood covered in moss or dirt. As the wood begins to break down, it is imbued with unique and intricate characteristics.”

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“This Acne Studios leather moto jacket was a gift to myself after winning the HD Award last year for our Fritz House project at Esalen.”

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“I adore my ‘cock’ basket—a vintage cock-fighting basket from Anderle Gallery in Carmel. Although it is still shocking to me that such a beautiful item could come from such an ugly activity.”

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“My Hirotaka pearl ear cuff that I bought on my recent trip to Japan is so delicate and beautiful in its simplicity. I have worn it every day since I have come home.”

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Hasami porcelain mugs exemplify my philosophy that there is beauty in the simplicity of the everyday.”

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“Wabi-sabi has always been a big part of my aesthetic, and I find the work of L.A. ceramicist Caroline Blackburn (Vase #358) so beautiful in its imperfection.”

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Carissa Duncan designs like a city girl but lives like a country girl. To reach her secluded Carmel Valley ranch home, she has to ascend more than a mile of winding, single-lane road. The 34-year-old has lived in San Francisco but hails from a family of ranchers and grew up in the bucolic environs of the Monterey Peninsula. “When you’re a kid growing up in that area, you don’t fully appreciate it,” says Duncan, whose parents ran an ice cream shop on Cannery Row. “I took for granted that Big Sur was a half-hour drive away.” The pull of peace and quiet has become even stronger as her interior design firm, Salt + Bones, has gone gangbusters, doubling in size every year since its founding in 2014. (She currently has seven employees and 13 active projects.) “It’s been exciting, but it’s also been overwhelming,” Duncan says. “I really needed a sanctuary.”

Duncan knows a thing or two about designing for relaxation: The project that put her on the map was her conscientious revamp of Esalen Institute, the iconic wellness retreat. She has half a dozen other hospitality projects on the boards right now, including a multiphase overhaul of Casa Madrona in Sausalito, a repair and refresh of Kenwood Inn & Spa, additions to Glen Ellen’s Gaige House & Ryokan, and a complete rebrand and redesign of a hotel in downtown San Francisco.

At home, she keeps things simple, employing a palette of black and white—emphasis on black. Even her toilet paper (imported from Portugal) and cotton swabs are solid black, because “I love black and why not?” She eschews photographs of friends and family in favor of tokens and talismans that represent them in some way. But thanks to her keen curatorial eye and penchant for rich, rough-hewn textures, her all-black aesthetic is far from dreary. “If you look around my house, it still feels really warm,” Duncan says. “I call it a lush minimalism.”

Originally published in the April issue of
San Francisco

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