For designer Joelle C. Nesen, coming from Portland, Oregon, to work on a house in Rancho Santa Fe for a couple looking to spend more time in a warmer clime came with a particular appeal. “It was exciting to think of doing something different from the norm to such a classic California structure,” Nesen says of the residence, which blends Early California and Mexican Colonial styles. “But we still wanted to stay true to the house.”
The project also came with a particular challenge. The wife, who searched the area on the recommendation of a friend, had fallen in love with the house. Her husband, on the other hand, still needed convincing. “My style is clean and classic, but my husband has much more modern tastes,” says the wife. Unfazed, Nesen proposed combining the two sensibilities. “Since the wife already loved the house,” Nesen explains, “we wanted to create a much cleaner, lighter design for the husband.”
In 1999, builder Jeff Holcombe—part of the Holcombe family associated with building area homes in this popular vernacular since the 1970s—designed and constructed the house with and for his parents, Bob and Donna Holcombe. “We built several homes like this one in Rancho Santa Fe, and it’s the only style we focused on,” says Holcombe. Appropriately, he was enlisted to work with Nesen on the interior changes to the house. “It’s flattering to be contacted by new owners to do remodels or additions,” he says. “We’re very fortunate to stay in the loop.”
In addition to keeping within the parameters of the Rancho Santa Fe Protective Covenant, which sets standards for everything from window placement to trim styles, Nesen, working with lead designer Allie McGory, was also sensitive to the home’s classic architecture when it came to making changes. “It was crucial to maintain the integrity of what Jeff had designed,” she says.
Although key materials, such as hickory and terra-cotta tile flooring, and architectural features, such as arched doorways and structural Douglas fir beams, remained untouched, an emphasis was placed on opening up specific spaces. In the kitchen, Nesen repainted existing cabinetry with a whipped cream white (the same color she used throughout the house) and enlarged an opening connecting it with the adjacent dining room. “We wanted to make it fresh, clean and unified,” says Nesen, who also had stucco half-walls replaced with iron railings on the veranda.
Against the freshly painted backdrop, which allowed the dark wood detailing to pop, the designer merged classic furnishings with contemporary pieces for a more modern aesthetic. “Every room is a blend of old California and clean-lined luxury,” says Nesen, who paired custom sofas with zigzag-patterned pillows in the living room and used “heavy textures like the rug to balance the scale of the house.” In the dining room, she contrasted a sculptural Emanuel Morez resin-and-bronze chandelier with an imposing wood table that the previous owner had custom-made for the room.
An exception to the overall light-hued theme is the master bedroom, where chocolate-colored walls are softened with cream-toned furnishings and heavily embroidered draperies. “That element really connected the classic to the contemporary,” says Nesen. “It’s traditional embroidery but with a young, Bohemian pattern.”
Taking advantage of the region’s mild climate, the house’s large veranda functions as a year-round outdoor living-dining room. The alfresco space overlooks a meticulously landscaped yard, where layers of lavender, creeping fig, magnolia, succulents and other greenery surround an inviting swimming pool. “There’s an eclectic mix of plants that work in beautiful harmony together,” notes landscape designer Josh Soto. “There’s always something blooming.”
With its new contemporary slant, the classic house turned out to be a perfect fit for the owners. “We started with an amazing property,” says the wife, “but everyone involved contributed to improving the vision. It turned out so much better than we ever imagined.”