As things stood before designer Marshall Watson came along, the house could scarcely have been more out of context. Hung with tapestries and furnished with formal antiques, “it looked like an Old World European chateau, heavy and dark,” Watson recalls. But the house isn’t deep in the Alps; it’s at the water’s edge in sunny Southern California.
The homeowners—a couple with a blended family and many children between them—had grown tired of the seriousness. So they called upon New York-based Marshall Watson Interiors to mastermind a full-on redecoration that would make the house congruent with its sparkling coastal setting. “The clients wanted a sense that they were on the ocean,” says Watson. “We needed to bring the heaviness level down so that people could breathe.”
Many aspects of the existing house, finished a dozen years ago by Thomas J. Taylor Construction of La Mesa, were well worth retaining. “The house took three years to build,” Taylor says. “Our own shop steamed and bent the arched doorways; the walls were treated with a three-step plaster process; and the ceiling beams are hand-hewn of vintage materials, with a beautiful patina. Everything was done very meticulously and with an eye on detail.”
“The interior architecture is gutsy and muscular, and we loved certain things about it,” Watson says. At the same time, much needed changing. “Our task was to freshen the interior furnishings and make them light and clean and sophisticated,” says Jeffrey Kilmer, the firm’s senior designer. As they set about to establish a more casual counterpoint to the massive ceiling beams, stone floors and iron scrollwork, the designers knew that the materials and furnishings they introduced needed to hold their own against the powerful architecture or risk being overwhelmed. So they brought in pieces with strong, compelling shapes, including new sofas and chairs of the firm’s own design, with clear, simple lines and in creamy neutral colors. Upholstered pieces were done in pale-toned linens but always with hearty textures. “All of the fabrics, though primarily linens and linen weaves, are rich and thick,” Watson says. “Everything reads casual but is quite substantial.”
Heavy window treatments of silk and damask were banished. “No more swags, jabots, cornices or draperies puddling two feet into the room,” Kilmer says. In their stead came natural light, regulated by tailored curtains and Roman shades. Out with patterned Oriental carpets; in with nubby abaca rugs. New lamps and accessories of crystal, mercury glass and silver catch glints of sunlight winking through the morning mist. Of course, Watson and Kilmer found places for the homeowners’ important antiques, including a circa-1760 French walnut armoire and a spectacular 18th-century Venetian walnut commode, supplementing them with more relaxed pieces such as iron coffee tables and an Italian trestle table with a bleached wood top—“things that are simpler and a bit more country,” as Watson puts it.
In selecting an overall palette, the designers took direction from the living room’s hand-painted mural that evokes a European seaside scene in pale lavender, grays and blues. “That led us toward a neutral palette of cream, off-white and wheat-colored fabrics, without a lot of pattern,” Kilmer explains. The neutrals create a tranquil backdrop for the mural as well as for the stunning view through the window bay in the dining area at the far end of the living room. “Now, when you walk into the main living space, your eye isn’t pulled in a hundred directions—it goes directly out the windows to the blue of the Pacific.”
Since Watson simplified the interiors, the owners find the home to be a much more pleasant place to live. “We made it more casual, transparent and fluid,” Watson says, “so that light from the ocean can shimmer in.” At last, the house is at one with its setting—and looks as if it is right where it belongs.