Apiece Apart Woman: Alison Carroll

Apiece Apart Woman: Alison Carroll

Sometimes there is no roadmap. Three years ago Alison Carroll and her husband Jay packed up their house in Los Angeles and moved to the desert of Joshua Tree, CA. With the idea of starting an olive oil company, they founded a business called Wonder Valley, pulling from Alison's background in education and quality control for the California olive oil industry. Their shared vision was about more than bottles of good quality oil; rather, it was rooted in creating a business, building a home, and defining the type of environment that supported the lives they wanted to lead. Today, Wonder Valley has grown to embody a bigger ethos about finding (and defining your own) grandeur amid simplicity. In the last year the Carroll's lives have taken a new turn, becoming creative partners in the renovation of the El Rey, a historic adobe motorcourt motel in Santa Fe, NM. The differing landscapes — and the frequent 12-hour solo drives that have become Alison's new commute — have offered a refined perspective on what it means to both resourcefully build a life from the ground-up...and to honor and thoughtfully serve your community. We caught Alison during a week in Santa Fe for a conversation on all of the above. 
Photos by Jay Caroll, interview by Leigh Patterson

Apiece Apart Woman: Alison Carroll

Can you share more about your upbringing and background; how has it influenced the woman you are today? 
I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey with loving parents and a wonderful sister. I attended a small school with the same 30 kids in my class from age 4-14 in the same building. I was shy, introverted, and had a tremendous fear of change or new experiences. I was academic and did not think of myself as artistic or creative. I think I’ve spent the majority of my adult life rebelling against the limitations I put on my younger self.

 
Olive oil is one the oldest and most elemental cornerstones of nourishment and wellness. Similarly you seem to take a stripped-back approach to how you have structured your life: Can you speak more to these themes, how you see them, and how they manifest in your life? 
Olive oil is a universal product; regardless of your dietary restrictions or cultural background – olive oil is a common denominator. I love that about it. Our approach to creating Wonder Valley olive oil was to use my background (quality control, advocacy, and education for the California olive oil industry) and to create a beautiful, herbaceous extra virgin olive oil and to package it in such a way that it’s a welcome addition on any shelf or kitchen counter. It's the idea that using it makes an everyday task like making a salad extraordinary. We have continued to build around that principle ... finding the universal routines we all have and asking how we can elevate those experiences through the objects we create.
 
The guiding mantra for Wonder Valley (and our personal lives) is "Grandeur in Simplified Living." I believe this is a very personal concept, and I’m not trying to prescribe what is necessary or irrelevant in your life. Rather, it's about encouraging others to take a personal inventory of possessions, habits, needs, and aspirations and building an environment to support that. When we bought our home in Joshua Tree three years ago, we gutted it and lived in an old Vagabond trailer for the year while we built the house up by hand. During that process, we parted with most of our possessions and really thought about the life we wanted to live; how I wanted to cook, the spaces we needed to work, the amount of light we wanted to wake up to, the routines we wanted to have… it’s been an amazing process of now living in the house for a year and feeling those dreams and visions we had for our futures selves during construction. 

Apiece Apart Woman: Alison Carroll

What roles do adaptation and resourcefulness play in your life?
Resourcefulness is a strong suit for me — being nimble and scrappy in the kitchen and turning out elaborate meals with humble ingredients over an open fire. I really love working and adapting to the limitations of a rural environment like Joshua Tree, as well as adapting to new environments and life on the road, or living in a hotel room for past of this year. 

I can be such a planner, master of lists and expectations… but I’m trying to un-learn that a bit and embrace an unscripted future, adapting to more of a loose game plan but always revising and rolling with the punches.  
 

How do different landscapes influence and inspire your work or perspective? 
I have been back and forth, by car, between our home in Joshua Tree and Santa Fe for the past year as we renovate El Rey Court, a beloved and iconic 86-room historic adobe motorcourt on the south side of town. I have a love/hate relationship with those long 12-hour solo drives, but it’s a beautiful route along the IH-40 and there’s always something magical that happens on long car rides. It’s that feeling of forward momentum while being disconnected – usually resulting in terrific clarity and lightning bolts of ideas. Both Joshua Tree and Santa Fe are tourism-driven, high desert communities but are vastly different. The landscape of Santa Fe is more lush and diverse since it experiences a proper four seasons. And Santa Fe is old. There is history and culture here that I haven’t experienced in many places I’ve lived.
In my experience living in major cities or in Joshua Tree even, they are transient places. No one is truly from there, and while that can be a beautiful thing to be untethered to expectations and to embrace reinvention, there’s a grounding quality of knowing who your people are, the traditions in your region, the culture of food. I feel that here.
 
Our role as creative directors and partners on this historic property in a region entrenched (and protective) of traditions is to usher in something new and unexpected while honoring and celebrating the history. To do that, you really have to settle in and embed yourself as a member of the community, to become a local. My role in this project was creating La Reina, our new mezcal bar on site. The goal was to create a local bar that just happened to be on the hotel, but we had no idea what a gap we were filling, particularly for the younger community here. The bar is run by an all-female bartending staff of strong and talented New Mexican women, and I couldn’t be more proud of what we’re building here together. 

Apiece Apart Woman: Alison Carroll

Do you have any sort of spiritual practice or grounding routine? 
I’m working on practices of presence and gratitude in my life. I’m trying to bookend my days without screens, tucking my phone and computer in for the night in another room and picking up a book. It’s baffling how addictive and normal it is to be staring at a screen all day. I also keep a notebook on my bedside and record three things I’m grateful for from the day. I'm working to re-wire the constant forward focus and remember to be present today. 


Tell us about some foundations you’ve been building – physical, emotional, or spiritual.
I’m working on boundaries; boundaries for my individuality within my relationship, boundaries for my marriage from our creative partnership. I want to not just protect my sense of self but to nurture it, and to support and nourish my husband’s individualism. It’s an active pursuit not to just go with that natural feeling of melding into the same person or singular identity as a couple. Likewise, it’s a conscious effort to keep our married life separate from our work partnership, to look at each other through the lens of husband and wife and not co-workers.  

Apiece Apart Woman: Alison Carroll

Do you have a mantra or favorite quotation that you come back to?
“The value of doing something does not lie in the ease or difficulty, the probability or improbability of its achievement. But in the vision, the plan, the determination and the perseverance, the effort and the struggle which go into the project. Life is enriched by aspiration and effort rather than acquisition and accumulation”  — Helen Nearing of “The Good Life”

 
What books are on your nightstand right now? What books do you consistently return to for perspective or have given to others as gifts?
A stack of “World of Interior” magazines along with Nancy Singleton Hachisu’s “Japan: The Cookbook.” 
 
There are two books I return to over and again (and gift often) – “The Good Life” by Helen & Scott Nearing and “A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander. The Nearings were pioneers of a back-to-the-land movement during the Great Depression; with virtually no skillsets or background, they constructed stone buildings, grew food, and had a completely self-sufficient life in Vermont and then coastal Maine. A lot of the book is instructional (tutorials on building a greenhouse or a composting toilet), yet the Nearings had strong philosophies on dividing the day into equal parts “bread labor” (i.e. the tasks that keep the roof over your head, the work) and personal growth and creative pursuits – art, design, philanthropic work, reading, music. I’ve been self-employed for four years now and there is no "clocking out," so to speak. It’s a daily reminder to take time away from work, to cook elaborate meals, hike, read in the yard, go to a museum, or a show. The Nearings inspire a lot of our ideals as a couple to ‘choose rural’ and to seek out a handmade home and intentional life. 
    
The second book is “A Pattern Language,” an accumulation of 253 chapters or patterns for forming a cohesive language around architecture, town planning, and holistic design. For me, it puts intuitive designing to paper and gives it structure and context. For example, there’s a pattern on how to go about designing outdoor garden spaces; they provide cross-cultural references, wonderful hand-drawn sketches of layouts, and even discuss why you we gravitate toward less open seating arrangements (human instinct is to want to have your back against something, to feel protected and not vulnerable... it's why you’d seek out a bench or lean against a tree in a park, or prefer a seat against the wall in a restaurant). It gives context to our innate needs and desires and applies that towards architecture. It’s brilliant and timeless! 

Apiece Apart Woman: Alison Carroll