Malcolm McDowell's Ojai

Miguel Flores-Vianna

The actor and his wife, Kelley McDowell, have created a montaintop sanctuary far from the Hollywood scene.

It all started with fishing lures. Malcolm McDowell and his then-girlfriend, Kelley, found they were both fascinated by vintage, hand-carved wooden ice-fishing lures and began collecting them. That was when the relationship between the now 71-year-old British actor—best known for his role in the cult classic A Clockwork Orange—and the lovely 47-year-old designer and builder from Minnesota was very new. Over the years, as their relationship grew, so did their collection. But it wasn’t limited to lures. The McDowells, who have been married for 23 years, are avid collectors of American folk art and have enough of it to fill the main house as well as three guest cabins and a garage on their 100-acre estate in Ojai, California. The property was designed by Kelley, the daughter of a builder, who says that projects like this are “in my DNA” and has undertaken eight renovations for clients in the past 14 years.

McDowell bought the land in the early ’80s at the suggestion of his friend, photographer Guy Webster. When Webster first mentioned Ojai, McDowell didn’t pursue the idea. “I put it in my computer brain that it was Ohio,” he recalls. Shortly thereafter, he made the one-and-a-half-hour drive from Los Angeles to the valley town and bought the parcel of land, a former cattle ranch bordering the Los Padres forest, on the same day. The couple built the main house, styled to look like a California barn, 11 years later, and the cabins followed a few years after that.

The lures that started the McDowells’ relationship are now artfully hung to resemble a school of fish, in a corner of one of those cabins—a 350-square-foot space that Kelley recently redecorated. “It was feeling a little bit bare,” she says of the decision, but one suspects the always-on-the-go mother of three was perhaps in need of another project. No matter. Today the decidedly not-bare cabin sits at one of the highest spots on their land, about a mile uphill from the main house, with unobstructed views of the Ojai Valley. “It’s quite a schlep to get up there,” admits Malcolm, but seclusion is part of its charm. Kelley compares it to being in the middle of Montana.

It’s a stylish version of frontier life, albeit interpreted for modern times, with a woodburning stove and a tub on the front porch (there’s no WiFi, however). Kelley’s specialty is in renovating historic houses. “I try to make them look like film sets,” she says. “Take them back to even better than they were to begin with, keeping the patina and adding layers of things, trying to make them look like they’ve always been there.” Which is exactly how she approached the design of this cabin, a new build that looks anything but.

The structure itself is made out of barn siding stained gray. “It was important that it blend into the mountain,” she says. There is an indoor/outdoor bathroom (toilet indoors, shower outdoors, that bathtub on the front porch, where one can soak while taking in the views) and a kitchen area (with a sink salvaged from a friend’s Minnesota home and a mini-fridge but no oven). Pine boards of various widths, randomly assembled and painted white, line the interior walls and ceiling of the cabin, creating the perfectly imperfect blank canvas to display the couple’s accumulated treasures.

“All my favorite stuff in one room,” says Kelley of the assortment, which includes a totem pole, bought at an auction house, that once presided over an Alaska bar as well as a taxidermy American buffalo head from a neighbor’s estate.

Antique textiles cover the bed, including a large crocheted American flag, as does a slew of vintage pillows made from pictorial Navajo rugs, which Kelley sources then makes in collaboration with her friend, designer Laurel Adams. On the floor are more Navajo rugs, from the 1920s and ’30s. She hit the collector jackpot when she found a rare Monterey table and four Camelback Monterey chairs, embossed with donkeys, at a Santa Barbara consignment store. An almost life-size pony, set next to an antique woodburning stove she bought while shopping with her grandfather, is one of many photo ponies she collects. “The horse comes apart and becomes its own box,” she says. “They would have been taken from county fair to county fair, and little kids would be photographed on them.” ?

Malcolm says his fascination with Americana boils down to one thing: “I was always interested in history, and I see the history of the States in these objects,” he says. But the cabin, for him, is much more than a well-curated museum of sorts. “It’s on the top of the land, so you see the whole of the valley—it’s a beautiful view from up there,” he says. “When I really have to concentrate, it’s the perfect place for me to go.”