See How A Mediterranean-Style Hillsborough Home Invites All To Relax


Classic Mediterranean-style home in Hillsborough...

The Hillsborough home has a classic Mediterranean style.

Dining room with wood beams,...

Original details, like the wood beams, became the backdrop for the sleek lines of new furniture.

entry with a small, circular...

The circa-1928 Hillsborough home was designed to follow the slope of the hillside, necessitating a flight of stairs that leads to the foyer. Designer Emily Kates worked with the San Francisco Stair Company to create a new oak stairway that was built onsite. The woven-leather ottomans are from Burke Decor.

kitchen dining area contains built-in...

The kitchen’s dining area is anchored by an RH table and West Elm chairs. The new built-in cabinet with doors by EuroLite Steel Windows & Doors keeps dishes—including pieces by Year & Day and Leanne Ford—within easy reach.

Bedroom with wood-paneled ceiling, bed...

The primary bedroom features a custom bed dressed in Inup Home linens and pillows by Jenni Kayne and Linen + Cloth. Illuminating the room is a brass RH lamp and Hudson Valley Lighting sconce. The rug is from Ruby Livingdesign.

Mudroom with hooks and shelves,...

The mudroom was painted with Benjamin Moore’s Half Moon Crest, a sage-gray hue. The floor tiles are Arto, the cabinet hardware is by Top Knobs and the stained-ash hooks were designed by Kates

Living room with large windows,...

Kates designed the living room’s sofa and lounge chairs, upholstering them in a Perennials linen. The metal-frame chairs are RH. Flanking the doors near the Steinway & Sons piano are Allied Maker sconces. The cast-limestone fireplace is a custom Kates design and made by Stone Mountain Castings & Design.

Living room alcove contains a...

The designer turned a living room alcove into a mirror-backed bar built by Deegan Woodworks and painted Benjamin Moore’s Black Jack. It features a Zip HydroTap, Top Knobs hardware and art uncovered at the Alameda Point Antiques Faire.

Looking at this beautiful Mediterranean-style home perched high on a knoll that provides sweeping bay views, you’d never know its good looks had ever been interrupted. “It’s beautiful again, but it took a Herculean effort,” designer Emily Kates explains. “The dwelling was built in the late 1920s, but previous renovations had stripped its original essence and left a choppy floor plan that wasn’t conducive to contemporary living.” The period woodwork that survived, including beamed ceilings and parquetry floors, felt heavy in contrast to an interior that was “covered in 1990s latte-colored paint,” she adds. “To achieve balance, it needed to be brighter and more open.”

Equilibrium was realized with a clever reconfiguring of the spaces. When this abode was constructed, homes were often compartmentalized for structural and lifestyle reasons. Kates devised a new and modern circulation plan to remedy that condition and, along with architect Eric Nyhus and general contractor Joey Toboni, made the interior nearly 25 percent larger—not through adding square footage, but by eliminating hallways separating the entry, dining room, kitchen and family room as well as reworking the layout of the primary bedroom suite upstairs. “This project was really a creative space-planning exercise,” Nyhus notes. “It was all about finding ways to tell the story of the home, while giving the homeowners more room to spend quality time together.”

Once coffee-hued walls were a thing of the past, and the new cream-colored, open-plan rooms began to glow thanks to larger windows allowing sunlight to pour in, Kates began outfitting the spaces in a way that honored her clients’ wishes. “They wanted a home that felt comfortable and accessible, clean and quiet—and not overly designed,” she says. “They sought serenity through simplicity and didn’t want to clutter the home, so we focused on a subtle palette and juxtaposed the classic Spanish aesthetic with more modern furnishings.” 

For Kates, the design focused not just on elements she included, but also what she left out. The interiors, especially the living and dining areas, reflect her goal to “celebrate negative space.” Rather than installing large artworks in the rooms, “we’ve allowed natural light to dance across bare walls throughout the day and into the evening.” The changing patterns create a calming, almost monastic feel. The clients embraced the concept to such a degree, the designer allows that she had to encourage them to add decorative elements. “We had to work to keep things from being too simple,” she says.

In the eat-in kitchen, a primary focus of the renovation, the curation of sophisticated materials (soapstone, granite, marble, textured limestones, antique brass and handcrafted concrete) adds a quiet complexity and depth. Here, the designer says stone slabs were chosen to create artistic focal points. “The stone selections are unusual,” Kates notes. “I wanted the rich finishes and the painterly quality of the surfaces to ground the space.”

In the couple’s bedroom, which was also completely reimagined to include a new closet and luxurious bathroom, Kates further explored ways of creating the soothing atmosphere her clients wanted. “The original ceilings were stained a rich brown color to envelop the space, and a new window on the bed wall allows for a greater stream of warm light. The furnishings were kept soft, too. It’s a restful retreat.” 

Balancing the interior refresh was an exterior update. “We were tasked with maintaining many of the original finishes,” Toboni says. “The massive front door was removed, restored and reinstalled within the confines of a poured-plaster surround. It was quite an undertaking!” The painstaking work continued on the roof, where each original terra-cotta roof tile was cleaned.

But what truly brings this house into its second century is a guesthouse that doubles as a pool house. “It was designed to relate to the main house—even its roof tiles were sourced to match—and evoke a sophisticated cocktail lounge feel,” Kates says. “It brings a new dimension to the property and makes it feel more like an estate,” Toboni adds.

At the end of the project, the team takes pride in features both altered and retained. “A lot of care went into this house when it was first built, and now it’s a great example of a transformation that didn’t change the character while still providing a layout for the way we live today. It was a delicate balance, but we did it,” the architect notes. “It’s really important to listen to the voice of a home and to respect the clues you’re given,” Kates adds. “The result here is peaceful and appropriate.”