Just a few blocks away from some of Southern California’s most idyllic beaches is the unexpected Laguna Beach neighborhood El Mirador. There, homes are built in historical styles following curving, tree-lined streets that conjure images of European villages rather than grid-like suburbs. That charm wasn’t lost on interior designer Michael Fullen, who fell for one of the area’s most well-preserved examples. “The house sits on a large lot with old-growth trees, and the architecture is in the Provincial Revival style,” he explains. “We were drawn to its historical value, creative architecture and timeless quality.” All it needed was Fullen’s professional touch.
“The house had been renovated by a couple who appreciated its historic character, but it was begging for a cosmetic refresh,” continues Fullen. The designer, who has two grown children with his husband, attorney John Isaza, replaced carpeted areas with hardwood floors, updated light fixtures, added steel windows and doors, and repainted (inside and out), all in keeping with the residence’s original spirit. “The rest was accomplished with new furnishings, window treatments and our art collection,” he says.
If he makes it sound easy, it was—mostly. “I was able to buy and mix anything that felt right in the moment,” he explains. “That’s almost impossible for clients to embrace. Most want a plan, and to see exactly what they are getting. Very few trust the process and allow this much to chance.” Here, Fullen was free to let the rooms develop organically, though he does admit to occasional moments of doubt, which he resolved by simply trusting his gut. “It can be paralyzing to make a committed decision in your own home, but this house spoke to me, and decisions came easily,” he says. Adds John: “I let Michael do what he does best. He knows not to overwhelm me with choices and would present his top three schemes for a given room. From that point, it was easier for me to inject my ideas and preferences. I’m all about color, textures and functionality—but I push back on things that are fluffy or whimsical unless it serves a purpose. Though, once in a while, I surrender function for fabulous.”
To make the home truly theirs, Fullen relied on furnishings of his own design, like the living room’s sofa and daybed. “The rest easily filled itself in,” he says. “To my eye, the best-looking homes have a mix of styles and values. Just because something is expensive doesn’t make it remarkable from a design perspective. It takes a keen eye to meld high and low with new and old, including a blend of modern, transitional and traditional,” he says. To that point, the living room also features a saber leg chair found years ago in Los Angeles, a tall case clock given to the couple by friends, and a boldly contemporary steel cocktail table, “the centerpiece to bind it all,” Fullen notes. What is not there is a television, a conscious decision by the couple to keep the room a quiet, more formal space.
Fullen took a more relaxed approach in the den, freely mixing the couple’s existing pieces even though they were “completely different styles—beach cottage and midcentury.” What unites everything is their ebullient art collection. On one wall is a John Randall Nelson painting of a bicycle, and on another is a grouping of vintage portraits and plein-air paintings from California and Cape Cod. “The display of our artwork makes me smile,” John shares. “When we met, we realized we had many things in common, and one of them was an appreciation for art of all kinds. Over the years, we’ve found great pieces while on vacation, in local galleries, through Instagram, at antique stores, consignment shops and at charity auctions. We’re by no means art snobs,” he says.
The couple’s collection continues in the dining room, where a portrait by James Koskinas overlooks the table, and to their bedroom, where Fullen placed 19th-century figurative etchings above the bed and a colorful architectural painting by Siddharth Parasnis nearby. With its painterly pillow fabrics, even the rear patio is imbued with artistry.
“Our home is a reflection of us and holds the things we love,” says Fullen. But the charm that first lured them has made an even greater impression of late, as the designer and his husband’s hectic travel schedules were grounded by the pandemic. “The dining room became my home office, the living room a place for conference calls, and the yard a place to escape it all,” he reflects. “We fell in love with the house in a whole new way. It has become our sanctuary.”