Designer Lauren Nelson knows a good thing when she sees it. In this case, it was her clients’ new weekend home overlooking Napa Valley, which had been renovated by celebrated local architect Howard Backen. He opened it up with walls of windows and filled the interiors with a custom formula of “Backen white,” according to a 2013 article on the house in the Wall Street Journal. “It had this energy to it, but also a peaceful feel,” Nelson says. “My favorite architectural elements are the old wooden monastery doors set in the otherwise pared-down, trimless architecture.
I think the juxtaposition is really interesting.” The 10-acre setting was ideal for her clients, a San Francisco couple who’d been searching for “the perfect place” to spend weekends in the Wine Country—a spot where their two young children could grow up in a wild, natural environment, yet not too far away from the region’s celebrated restaurants and attractions. “They were craving this more casual, more country, indoor-outdoor space,” says Nelson, who decorated their chic, Parisian-influenced house in the city’s Marina district. Luckily, landscape designer Claudia Schmidt had previously surrounded the home with olive and fruit trees, a rose garden, and a terrace underneath an ancient Chinese pistache tree, providing the alfresco respite the owners craved.
For Nelson, that meant there was no immediate need for any structural intervention, inside or out. As she devised a new furnishing plan, though, nothing could be too pretentious. “We did our best to pick things that are kid-friendly,” Nelson says, noting that the living room sofa is upholstered in indoor-outdoor fabric, and the dining room rug is outdoor grade by Perennials. In contrast to their more formal city home, the designer notes, “the family wanted it to feel like a house where everyone can come in and be comfortable. We kept that at the forefront of the design.”
Nelson built on the richness of the home’s three massive antique doors with a spectrum of additional wood tones through furnishings such as a walnut custom console in the living room; pale Japanese tansu chests in the main bedroom; and a hearty, honey-hued farm table in the dining room. She also added some much-needed texture through various Moroccan rugs and diaphanous window treatments that gently frame the broad views.
Nelson added personality through layers of art and artifacts: Chunky black-and-white beads hang by the front door beside a modern print in the same palette; vintage baskets line a wall in the living room; and whimsically shaped ceramics make appearances everywhere. In the main bathroom, a bouquet of dried flowers hangs next to the bathtub. “I just love those finishing touches—that’s what makes a space feel unique,” says Nelson, who started her career doing styling work. The wife is a graphic designer, she adds. “So she’s really tactile. She gets excited by moments—vignettes.”
The wife also loves strategic doses of color. The most prominent example is in the living room: A large custom work by Spanish fine-art photographer Andrea Torres Balaguer features a woman dressed in deep jewel tones against a dark teal background, her face obscured by a bold pink slash of paint. “That piece has such emotion to it and depth of color,” says the wife. Likewise, the main suite comes alive with a deep blue grass-cloth wallcovering that anchors a white channel-tufted bed. “It made the whole room pop. I love blue!” the wife says, but Nelson made sure it wouldn’t interfere with the views. “The focus is on looking outside,” Nelson says, noting that white draperies recede from the windows that frame the mountainous horizon against an infinity pool just outside a door to the rear deck.
As she did inside, Nelson added “modern but tactile furnishings” on the deck that spans the back of the home and on the small terrace that sits under the graceful limbs of the pistache tree. In the future, the owners plan to upgrade the kitchen, reconfigure the home’s lower level, and add a new guest wing; San Francisco architect Stephen Sutro, who helmed the couple’s city-house renovation, will come back for the Napa home’s next phase. In the meantime, it’s served as a beautiful refuge for the family, just an hour outside the city. “We lived here for six months during the pandemic,” the husband says. “It was such a magical place to be.”