THOUGH SALIMA BOUFELFEL and Roberto Cowan are known in the fashion world as the owners of the influential vintage clothing boutique Desert Vintage, they’re historians at heart. Tucson natives, they met as college students while working at an outpost of the used clothing chain Buffalo Exchange across the street from the University of Arizona. Boufelfel, 36, grew up in a family of artists and academics and developed an affinity for styling while costuming school plays; Cowan, 33, comes from a long line of seamstresses and taught himself to sew around age 13. Both knew early on that they wanted to work with historical fashion so, in 2012, after the owner of a Tucson vintage boutique that Boufelfel frequented put the business up for sale, they took it over, keeping the name and stocking it with pieces not only obscure (Jean Varon and Michael Vollbracht evening gowns; an ’80s jumpsuit from a label called Workers for Freedom) but also rare (Fortuny Delphos dresses, a Victorian-era matador jacket). Eleven years later, their collection of some 5,000 items — spanning Edwardian London to Y2K Tokyo — has drawn a global following of designers and stylists, who turn to Desert Vintage both to inform their work and to fill their personal wardrobes.
Yet even as they’ve traveled the world to source stock from dealers, archives and private collectors — they opened a second storefront on New York’s Lower East Side last year — Boufelfel and Cowan have remained in their hometown. For many years, they were romantically involved but are now best friends, professional partners and housemates, sharing an 1860s Territorial Style adobe-brick bungalow built using millenniums-old techniques. Situated just south of downtown Tucson in Barrio Viejo, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, the two-bedroom structure functions as a source of inspiration for the pair. “It’s like living inside a piece of folk art,” Boufelfel says.
The two have rented the 2,000-square-foot house for the past five years from friends, the interior designers Gary Patch and Darren Clark, who bought and restored the place in the 1990s. It sits just a few blocks away from a similar home that had been owned, until 2011, by Cowan’s grandfather’s family since the late 1800s. Developed in the latter half of the 19th century, Barrio Viejo has been home to successive waves of new Americans — working-class Mexicans, Chinese railway workers and European farmers and craftspeople. But in the years since Boufelfel and Cowan moved in, the neighborhood has seen an influx of gentrifiers. Even though Cowan didn’t grow up in Barrio Viejo himself, he felt it was important to remain there in the face of rising prices and a proliferation of Airbnbs. “I’m holding it down for my family,” he says.
When it came to furnishing the single-story house, Boufelfel and Cowan took a restrained approach. The 14-foot-tall ceilings are traversed by rough pine structural beams called vigas, which were likely harvested from nearby Madera Canyon and then overlaid with tightly packed rows of unfinished latillas, dried saguaro cactus ribs with variegated textures. (The adobe-specific technique dates back to an era before railroads, which enabled the import of cheaper materials.) Instead of decorations, there are richly patinated plaster-coated walls, original molded fireplaces and inset display niches that they often fill with simple beeswax candles.
THE HOUSE’S FLOOR plan unfolds in a spiral pattern, with a series of spaces arranged around a central pathway paved with herringbone brick. Boufelfel likens the layout to a meditation labyrinth. “To be able to just walk through the house in a circular way is really important, energy-wise,” she says. The smaller of the two bedrooms is walled off from the main living space by a series of raw pine shelves filled with books. On the other side of that room, an interior window opens onto the dining area, a vestige of the original footprint; large bundles of olive and eucalyptus branches gathered from the property serve as a natural curtain.
The living and dining areas and the mottled yellow plaster-walled primary bedroom are outfitted sparingly with mostly 20th-century and contemporary furniture, including a ’70s Milo Baughman shearling sofa and a simple, wood-framed daybed made by a friend. Many of the artworks and textiles were gifts or trades, such as tapestries by Boufelfel’s sibling Kam’s label, Community Handweaving, and a patchwork bunny made by their friend Emily Adams Bode Aujla, the designer of the upcycled fashion brand Bode. Throughout the house are antique objects that double as found sculptures: A 13-foot-tall, tufted spire leaning in a living room corner is actually an old Mexican cobweb duster, while the rough-hewn iron cones arranged in a vignette on the dining-area mantel are antique Laotian rice-farming tools.
The house’s lone bathroom was carved out of the original kitchen by the owners, with small, eye-shaped windows and a shower floor covered with Mexican beach pebbles. (“They massage your feet,” Cowan says.) The claw-foot tub was relegated to the large cactus garden out back, where it sits beneath a chinaberry tree. During the milder months, Boufelfel and Cowan often work and host alfresco dinner parties there, accompanied by their cat, Cléo, and, until two years ago, a pet tortoise, Flora, who came with the place. (She moved in with another tortoise across town.) When the heat gets too intense, Boufelfel and Cowan retreat to the narrow study, where art and design books are stacked on a 1920s burl wood table, and inspirational garments, such as a smocked silk dress and a caftan embroidered with Venetian glass beads, hang overhead like mobiles. It was there that they dreamed up their recently launched clothing collection, Ténéré, a series of seasonless, everyday pieces inspired by beloved early 20th-century favorites in their own wardrobes, including an Edwardian sailor blouse and a slouchy 1920s silk suit.
For all its visual appeal, though, the most notable feature of the house is the way it feels: The two-foot-thick mud walls keep the air cool, while providing a rare, almost churchlike silence. “People stay here and say, ‘I had the best night of sleep of my life,’” Boufelfel says. Hushed and still, the house, she adds, “is like an extension of us and how we live our lives, in a quieter way.”