A Designer Reinvents His Family’s Landmark Property


contemporary living room den brown

A designer reinvigorates his family's landmark property in Nob Hill.

contemporary living room brown with...

In the living room, a combination of antiques and contemporary decor complements the unique architectural details of this historic Beaux Arts-style unit in Nob Hill designed and owned by Arthur McLaughlin. A colorful John Wood painting pops on the wall above a custom-designed sofa by John Kroll at Interior Restoration Services and beside the Paramount sconce in polished nickel by Sonneman.

contemporary brown living room fireplace

An antique French oxblood-marble fireplace that McLaughlin purchased in Santa Barbara sits next to a Donghia chaise lounge upholstered in turquoise fabric from Holly Hunt’s Great Plains collection. The antiqued mirror above the mantel helps reflect natural light around the room, and a trio of horns adds a touch of modernity to the more traditional surroundings.

contemporary brown dining room brown...

A signed painting by artist Charles Schuller pairs beautifully with the couple's round Biedermeier dining table, purchased at the San Francisco Fall Art & Antiques Show. The antique dining chairs are designed by Hungarian architect Lajos Kozma and feature a tawny jacquard upholstery by Rubelli. Behind the table is a vintage goatskin-covered console. An 18th-century Italian chandelier hangs above it all.

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A Persian tribal rug and decorative bone boxes found on a trip to India bring Eastern influences to the guest room and office. An antique Biedermeier chair is upholstered with black horsehair, and sits in front of a 20th-century mahogany writing desk that holds a vintage Royal Copenhagen vessel that's been converted into a lamp. The draperies are done in Frolic fabric by Donghia.

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Paul Morin's striking I Don't Wanna artwork makes a bold statement and draws guests into the home's raised seating nook off the entry corridor. The original owner had musicians sit here while performing during parties.

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Dark-hued walls in a blue-black shade by Benjamin Moore called Gentleman's Gray give a sense of calm in the media room, while gold accents create visual warmth.

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An antique chair is upholstered with a fluffy, navy-blue sheepskin. The vintage leather suitcases and alligator-skin attaché belonged to Steven Stiller's grandparents. The small glass-and-brass sculpture is by Arteriors.

contemporary blue media room

McLaughlin created plenty of seating options, including a custom sectional in the media room by John Kroll at Interior Restoration Services upholstered in pinstriped Holland & Sherry fabric. A zebra-print ottoman can serve as a table or chair and has wheels, so it can be easily moved when entertaining. The glittering custom side table is finished with smoked glass and the vibrant artwork is by Jesse Allen.

contemporary bedroom neutral palette brown-striped...

In the master bedroom, a custom brown-striped mohair bedframe is made up in textured Matouk linens and framed by Phoenix Day wall sconces and side tables by Made Goods. Behind it, the wall is painted in Pashmina, a soft gray-brown hue from Benjamin Moore.

contemporary bathroom marble countertop

McLaughlin extends the Beaux Arts feel in the master bathroom with a Fox Marble countertop and custom vanity by Luis Norori Antique Restoration. Waterworks faucets and Phoenix Day sconces lend a modern touch.

Designer Arthur McLaughlin looked at nearly 200 properties in San Francisco before finding “the one,” a Beaux Arts-style condominium perched atop Nob Hill with views of Huntington Park and Grace Cathedral. “My husband, Steven Stiller, is European and I knew he would love the architecture, so I put in our offer the day I saw it,” McLaughlin says. It’s a romantic tale, and the unit has a backstory to match. Business magnate Adolph Spreckels had the apartment built around the turn of the century by renowned architect Arthur Laib for his then-mistress, artist and model Alma de Bretteville. She lived there until the two officially married in 1908. Soon after, the couple built a grand mansion across from nearby Lafayette Park, which is now owned by novelist Danielle Steel.

Having purchased such a history-rich unit, McLaughlin and Stiller felt it was their duty to preserve many of the unique architectural details, but as anyone living in the Bay Area knows, old San Francisco homes are often very dark and closed off. McLaughlin’s vision for the 2,000-square-foot home was to open up the space and create focal points of light and color to soften the interior and provide a foundation for their curated collection of contemporary art and furniture. So, when the couple moved in for the first time more than 20 years ago, they restored the apartment’s extensive woodwork, historic molding and coffered ceilings–darkened from smoke and age–to their original luster.

When the couple renovated the apartment again in 2017 after moving out for a time, they added white-oak floors in a herringbone pattern throughout the home to create a sense of continuity from room to room and to help further brighten up the space. “When you have wood walls and ceilings, you have to take any light you get naturally and spread it around,” he says. Floor-to-ceiling windows, along with elements such as neutral rugs, achieve the desired effect. The designer had the original fireplace restored and relined to match a vintage mantel he found in Santa Barbara. “No one would ever guess that we brought that into the space,” says McLaughlin. The addition of an antiqued mirror above the mantel also helps reflect natural light around the room.

McLaughlin strongly believes in designing according to needs, so he installed features throughout that speak to the couple’s preference for an easy-going lifestyle. For instance, the couple loves to entertain, so he added casual sitting areas throughout to make the unit feel less formal. He also chose a living room sofa that’s long and deep enough for friends to put their feet up and used easy-to-clean fabrics like mohair and horsehair on this piece and others. “I personally spill a lot, so I always have to think about durability,” admits McLaughlin.

Other livable features include fabric walls that help mute noise, such as when their niece gives piano recitals on the baby grand piano in the dining room. The media room ottoman doubles as a table or chair and has wheels so it can be easily moved around when entertaining. And the vintage Milo Baughman coffee table and Biedermeier dining table are round so that pointed edges pose no danger to their young godson. “You need to know how you live and then create a beautiful interior around that,” the designer notes.

Punches of color bring an energy to the classic lines of the interior. Vibrant artworks by John Wood and Charles Schuller pop in the living and dining rooms and create an interesting dynamic with the traditional architecture. In the media room, saturated blue walls create a sense of calm, while the slate gray and orange kitchen makes a daring statement. The kitchen needed a complete overhaul, so the couple gutted the whole thing, removing Spanish floor tiles and Laura Ashley wallpaper and installing new cabinets, granite countertops and an island in a bright shade of burnt orange–one of the designer’s favorite hues. The bold color palette feels decidedly modern, while crown molding ties the room back to the rest of the apartment.

Clearly a labor of love, this historic dwelling has a special place in both McLaughlin and Stiller’s hearts. Even after moving to Russian Hill for several years, they never got over their beloved Nob Hill condo (which they couldn’t bring themselves to sell). “They say you can’t go back again, but we did,” the designer says. “We have so many great memories here.” It turns out they had their forever home all along.