Designer Frances Merrill’s ability to mix a luscious cerulean mohair sofa with woven-leather-backed chairs, a tin-topped coffee table, rust-colored drapes and Capiz-shell light fixtures is likely to have you wondering not why, but how? “I would never think to do a house without my design boards,” says Merrill, who studied textile design and spent time at Commune—where she lent her talents to the Ace Hotel & Swim Club in Palm Springs—before launching her own firm in 2009. “When I want to introduce something new to a room, I hold it up to the board. If it doesn’t look right, it’s out.”
When a young couple with two small children hired Merrill to help overhaul their ailing Spanish-style hacienda in Malibu, she was equally decisive. “I wanted to keep the Spanish style but make it bright and fitting for a fun young family,” she says. However, before she could begin, there were other concerns needing attention. “The floor plan was rather rambling, with all sorts of steps and jogs and twists and turns,” says architect Lester Tobias, who aimed to “smooth over the jarring elements.” Inside, he put in arched doorways and new windows, and outside he tended to the dated exterior by cleaning up incongruous balconies and overhangs in the two-story sections of the rear elevation.
Meanwhile, builder Steve Bunce oversaw the construction changes as well as skim-coating all of the walls, hand-scraping and restaining the oak floors and retiling the bathrooms, all in a nail-biting four months. “The time frame was the biggest challenge because we had to work on everything at the same time,” explains Bunce. “It was like conducting an orchestra.”
Within the house’s trailing layout, a previously designated living room was repurposed into a media room. The architect added a wall with pocket doors to allow the space and noise to be closed off, and then Merrill wrapped the room in the iconic banana leaf wallpaper known for adorning The Beverly Hills Hotel. “The plantings outside reminded me of the pattern,” says Merrill, who kept the furnishings understated and finished the room with a graphic vintage rug.
In the generously proportioned living room, the designer continued her lively approach. “I like to use unexpected mixes of furnishings and materials in all of my projects,” says Merrill, who broke up the room by establishing back-to-back seating areas using a Moorish sofa as a focal point. “It has such a unique shape that I liked seeing it when you first walk in,” says the designer. Everything else, including a game table and additional seating for viewing sporting events on multiple flat-screen TVs, seems to fall into place around it. From there she took the Moorish thread and ran with it.
“In Los Angeles there’s so much Spanish-style architecture, and I wanted to introduce the Moroccan idea because the owners are young and it’s more playful,” says Merrill, who used antique carved chairs to continue the concept in the dining room. Under the custom table a patchwork denim rug keeps things from “getting too fussy” and contributes to the room’s palette (inspired by the owner’s fondness of blue), along with indigo burlap shades on the sconces and a wide cobalt hem on the drapes.
Expanding on that idea, Merrill filled one corner of the master bedroom with a large round floor cushion piled high with blue patterned throw pillows and painted a powder room’s walls with a shade of deep midnight blue. The palette flows outside, where blue tiles boasting a Moorish pattern mark the terrace. “The original architecture is Spanish, but the Moroccan overtones add warmth and romance to the outdoors as well,” says landscape designer Julie Friedrichsen, who selected the hardscape and plant palette, including frangipani, African tree aloe and Caribbean copper plant, to complement the home’s exotic nature.
Though the design may have pulled on exotic inspirations, the resulting house is a perfect fit for its Southern California owners. “It’s comfortable for a young family,” says Merrill. “But it still feels finished, beautiful and fun.”