21 January 2020 From Courier Issue 33 (Feb/Mar 2020)

Olive oil and the good life in the Californian desert

Courier visits the Joshua Tree home of Alison and Jay Carroll, founders of artisan olive oil brand Wonder Valley, to find out how they're working better and living smarter.

 

Alison and Jay Carroll run their Wonder Valley (olive) Oil Shop out of a former 1940s gas station in the small town of Wonder Valley on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park. The couple relocated to the California desert after a chance meeting through their blogs back in 2012. Alison, originally from New Jersey, was working as the marketing director for the California Olive Oil Council; Jay is a photographer and creative director who hails from Maine, but who had been coming to this corner of the desert for years.

‘I was enamoured with Jay’s storytelling and photography,’ says Alison, recounting the early days. ‘A real connection evolved from our messages and when I had the opportunity to come west to meet him, I never left.’ The couple say it was a mutual affinity with the desert that drew them to Joshua Tree, where they now live with their dog Lefty and have set up shop proffering bottles of extra-virgin olive oil along with their unisex skincare range – where olive oil is the hero ingredient – and lifestyle merch. ‘Wonder Valley represented this ideal of the “west” – a beautiful, warm place with space to create and dream big. We were married in the National Park five years ago and shortly after that we bought our home, and decided to leave the city to live here full time.’

Their contemporary olive oil brand Wonder Valley is the result of Alison’s background in the California olive oil industry and Jay’s branding experience in fashion and editorial coming together in the open expanse of the desert. ‘I love that it’s a relatively new industry here in America with a strong emphasis on transparency and best farming practices, but that we are also part of this old-world tradition that goes back thousands of years,’ says Alison, who oversees the olive oil production while Jay is the major force behind Wonder Valley’s branding.

The label is a nod to both the old-world origins of olive oil and their west coast roots, with the Wonder Valley siren holding an olive branch under a bright orange Cali sun. The sleek black glass bottles of hand-harvested olive oil grown in Lake County in Northern California are an intentional departure from traditional products to bring it to a new, younger and savvy audience. ‘We created packaging that has carved out shelf space in good home stores, museum shops and clothing brands. We joke that people buy Wonder Valley for the bottle but keep coming back because the oil is so damn good,’ says Alison.

The desert elements that are at the heart of the brand’s aesthetic extend to Alison and Jay’s home, which they bought as a crumbling pink desert cabin four years ago. Outside, there’s still the striking 360-degree views of the boulders and mountains, plus incredible hiking from their backyard, but inside, the tight 1950s footprint has been updated. They gutted the entire house and raised the roofline to allow for more light and passive heating during the colder months, but kept the original cast-iron stove. ‘As with all of our projects and designs, we wanted to keep the materials as natural as possible with a palette of honey-toned woods such as sugar pine and Douglas fir, warm white clay and lime plasters on the walls, seagrass carpets, and a red rock sourced from Sedona for the flagstone floor that the two of us laid by hand,’ says Alison. Alison explains the open kitchen is at the heart of the home since they cook and eat most of their meals at the live-edge table. ‘It’s where we eat and meet and have tea in the mornings or keep each other company while we’re cooking in the evening.’

The garage has been transformed into a studio and office space, while the trailer that the couple lived in for the year they renovated the house is now a guest house for friends, family and the occasional Airbnb guest. Perhaps the best hangover from the previous owner were the storage sheds dotted across the property. The sheds have long been torn down, but Alison and Jay repurposed a few of the concrete foundations to create outdoor spaces to keep their connection with the landscape. One concrete lilypad contains an outdoor bathhouse with an open shower and clawfoot tub, while another has a wood-burning kitchen that’s open to the stars. ‘We’ve hosted Wonder Valley dinners here, but mostly it’s our own private oasis,’ says Alison.

When they’re not in the studio, you’ll find Alison and Jay behind the counter at the Oil Shop, which sits on the side of the highway with a giant 21-foot tall cowboy overlooking the carpark. Whether they are at home or at the shop, both Alison and Jay agree the high desert is an incredible place to call home, because they are surrounded by a growing community of creative couples and young families making the tree change from bigger cities. Alison says the new energy in the region is palpable with the influx of seekers prioritising health and creative growth, and refining the perfect work-life balance. ‘We have the benefits of being in a small town and the sweetness of knowing our neighbours, while also living a short drive from Los Angeles, which is great for us to stay tethered to a larger creative community.’

The couple’s new projects hint at the abundance of creative inspiration that comes with working smarter. Alison’s new workwear label Al’s Big Deal comprises unisex jumpsuits made in California, which you’ll find her wearing most days. ‘The design was based on a vintage men’s jumpsuit I’ve altered over the years – I feel strong, capable, beautiful and comfortable when I put one on.’ Meanwhile, El Rey Court is their hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico – a historic 1930s motel redesigned by Jay with all the nods to the American southwest, from the white-washed adobe walls to the mezcal bar.

Alison insists that across all these projects, differences have been central to their success. ‘We have similar tastes and goals, but our processes are different. Instead of trying to reconcile that difference, we give each other space to create and think differently. The ride is much more fun this way.’