Though it may sound cliché, when it comes to big life decisions, it’s often best to trust your gut. This is what one San Francisco couple did during their hunt for a new family home. Over the course of one day, the husband and wife toured seven classic Victorians,
but—although they were all beautiful—“none of them resonated with us,” the husband says. Then, at the end of the day, they walked into a 1909 Prairie-style mansion designed by architect Charles Frederick Whittlesey. “My wife turned to me and said, ‘I want this house,’” he recalls. “I had the same feeling. I immediately fell in love with the history.”
Staying true to that history was important, as was creating a functional space that catered to their needs as a contemporary family. The couple turned to their trusted designer, Kristi Will, who has worked with them on five other homes. “Kristi was the secret sauce,” says the husband. Will’s depth of understanding of interior architecture laid the groundwork for her design. “For me it always starts with the architecture of the house,” says Will, who brought on her longtime general contractor collaborator, Bryan Falvey, for structural changes. “I tried to imagine, if we were collaborating with Charles Whittlesey today, what would our dialogue be?”
That conversation began with the details. “We wanted to preserve as much of the classic 1909 architecture as we could,” says the husband. “I told Kristi that I didn’t want to do things like rip out the staircase. She said, ‘OK, then let’s paint it black.’ ” Will also played up architectural accents such as the moldings on the main level, bringing in decorative painter Katherine Jacobus to coat the dental work in gold leaf. “We wanted everything to feel like it had been completed at the same time as the home,” the designer explains.
The kitchen, with its walnut island and brass accents, is a prime example. “We didn’t want it to feel too modern,” Will says. “I like timeless, classic interiors. I want to walk back into the home in 20 years and know I would still select the same things.” So, for any contemporary accents she chose, such as a mosaic backsplash by Ellen Blakeley, she kept the look fresh without feeling trendy. “It adds a little bit of modern sparkle to the kitchen, but nods to the history of the house,” the designer notes.
Will took advantage of the existing layout, which, while not an open plan in today’s sense, still had a natural flow between the living spaces thanks to the stunning city vistas that carry through the living, sitting and dining rooms as well as the office. “What struck me was the architecture and the connectivity to the views,” the designer remarks. “Although they’re divided rooms, it feels like an open floor plan.” Building upon that easy transition, Will started with a warm, neutral palette for a cozy elegance throughout the dwelling. “We told her we wanted a light and bright feel to the house,” says the husband. “There’s so much energy in the city. We wanted a calming place to be.” Shades of taupe, tan, ivory and gold permeate the rooms, and she carried through the walnut wood accents found in the kitchen (a favorite of the homeowners) into other spaces, such as the main bathroom. “It’s our go-to wood,” the husband says. “It’s so beautiful and timeless, rich and warm.”
The neutral tones didn’t prevent Will, who knew her clients’ passion for pattern, texture and color, from going bold in some of the spaces. In the dining room she commissioned local craftsman Thomas Fetherston to create a red lacquer cabinet that displays statues the homeowners found on a trip to Thailand. More of the couple’s art collection is found in the cozy library, which showcases a multitude of red and orange shades. Will also brought orange into the cheeky power room, covering the walls in a classic de Gournay monkey pattern in a nod to the husband’s penchant for the animal. “They’re a playful and young family,” the designer says. “They were definitely OK with whimsy.”
This intimate understanding of the clients’ personalities—from their passion for design to their easy family lifestyle—is what Will credits for the success of the project. That and the house itself. As she notes, “It’s really about going back to the fundamentals of historical architecture.”