A Dark and Dated Home in California Got a Breezy Coastal Makeover
Heavy is not a word you want to come to mind when describing a home. But before this Manhattan Beach, California, house got a much-needed makeover, it was full of elements that dragged it down and made it feel dark and lumbering. Think: cherry wood, velvet drapes, and columns á la an outdated Mediterranean style.
Ten years ago when the owners first moved from the East Coast to Southern California, this look may have been in vogue, but it was in desperate need of an upgrade—or in the words interior designer Kate Lester, to be completely gutted. "[The owner] told me that one day she walked in the house and thought, 'It's gross in here—it's dark and dingy and we need to redo it," says Lester. "Basically their only request was, 'Please make our dark house bright, light, and happy.'"
Despite its sad state, Lester saw unlimited potential in the Cape Cod-style home. "The bones are great," she says. "But when you walked in the front door it didn't seem like a representation of who they seemed like a family." They are a young, active couple, with two pre-teen children and a dog, who love the outdoors. Lester decided to go back to their Nantucket roots with a classic coastal vibe. She also set out to revive the many unused spaces in the house, like the living room, office, and entryway. After she worked her magic, the home is now full of light and each space serves a purpose.
Here, she walks us through the major transformation.
Have a Color Story
Lester likes to have a cohesive plan that will tie the home together from day one—so none of the spaces are designed in a vacuum. "We design everything with concept boards in the beginning," she says. "When people commit to working with us, that is one of my rules." She starts with a color palette so everything flows and there is a connection between every room. Lester wanted to embrace the couples Nantucket roots, so they chose a classic coastal "color story" with greens, blues, and bright whites that felt fresh.
Forget the Trends
One of the main requests the clients had was to create a look they wouldn't want to change again in five years. To that end, Lester chose to avoid incorporating too many trends and kept it classic—without deviating too much from coastal influence—instead. "The coastal look may shift and evolve, but denim never goes out of style," says Lester. Wainscoting and a traditional paneling are staples, but contemporary art and vintage finds add pops of personality that the family could update as they grow.
Try a Face Lift
The kitchen still has the same design and appliances it's had for the last ten years; Lester's team just "re-faced" it with a fresh paint job and some new details. It had dark cherry cabinets, so they primed and painted them, and added a new backsplash. "It's amazing that just giving it a little life with paint, new hardware, and light fixtures, completely transformed the space."
Evoke a Response
The lamps above the island in the kitchen are meant to make you stop and look—not like the small pendant lights you often see in similar spaces. Lester wanted something substantial that would be dramatic and stand out. She chose these nautical-inspired vintage ship lamps that are meant to anchor the space, no pun intended. "We wanted something that would be a little bit of a conversation piece that people hadn't seen before," she says. "Good design evokes a response. My goal is not everyone has to love it, but if they are talking about it, then you've won."
Have One Weird Thing
"We like to have one weird thing where we push the boundaries in each room," says Lester. In the dining room, it's the green chairs; in the kitchen, it's the chandelier made of driftwood painted white. Lester wanted a contemporary chandelier to juxtapose the traditional kitchen table—which was a mahogany piece from one of the couple's grandmothers that she refinished. But when she first showed it to the family, the father was immediately against it. "He looked at me and said, 'I have a visceral response to this. I hate this chandelier," she laughs. But she somehow convinced him to let her hang it, promising to replace it if he was still opposed to it when it was up. As she suspected, he had a change of heart once he saw it in the space. "You hope your clients trust your process," she says. "But you want them to feel excited, so it's not that often we will really push someone—but this was one of those times I knew he would love it."
Breath New Life
All the artwork above the bench in the hallway was about to be thrown in the trash until Lester put a stop to it. "A lot of times people think designers want to scrap everything and have everything be new," she says. "I am of a completely different school of thought—I want the home to feel meaningful, curated, and have personality." Something as simple as repainting or reframing can bring new life to an old piece. In fact, this artwork didn't need anything other to be hung in a more modern setting. "Paired with a more contemporary bench and new bright fresh colors, they feel hip and add a personality," says Lester. "Where if we bought a piece of generic art, I don't think it would get that impact in the entry."
Bring in Baskets
"If you have an entryway or console, baskets are a great way to keep things neat and organized," says Lester. "These could be full of leashes, shoes, who knows? Baskets are a great way to wrangle everything that is unsightly and that you don't want out in the open." But there is no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to shopping for baskets, Lester says places like World Market and Pottery Barn are your best bets.
Find the Perfect Shade
In that same vein, the client wanted to get rid of beadboard in the office, but Lester convinced her that if they painted it, it would change the whole dynamic. "She wanted to rip it out, but I wanted to use that money somewhere else. I told her if she let me keep the paneling, I promise I would make it look good by painting it in fabulous color." That color is Benjamin Moore Smokestack Grey—a blueish green/gray that Lester always finds herself drawn to. "The girls laugh in my office laugh because I am constantly searching for the perfect shade of that color," she says. "We have about 20 paint chips that regular people would think are the same, but are different variations. It's so sophisticated and timeless—and resonates with the classic coastal vibe."
Comfort Is Key
The dining room was another space in the house that wasn't used regularly before the redesign, but the family wanted to have dinner parties in there and even regular meals as a family. Lester says the key to turning it into a place people actually want to hang out in was making it comfortable. "They want to be able to entertain and sit in there for an hour or two from appetizers to dessert," says Lester. "If it feels formal or stuffy it is not going to happen, if it is comfy they will." Enter: these green velvet chairs. Plus, Lester loves to have comfy dining chairs so you can pull them into other places for extra seating.
Embrace the Old (and Random)
When it comes to accessorizing a home, Lester says found objects and vintage pieces are a great addition—even things like old cigar boxes, that you might otherwise think are trash. "My goal for this house was that it already felt lived in by adding little conversation starters and things that are meaningful," she says. "I encourage people to think outside of the box when it comes to decorating—a paddle or a spool of thread or a fruit basket can be an accessory and a lot more interesting than a random piece of art."
Pro tip: If you have mis-matched books or a bunch of paperbacks, turn them around so the spine faces forward for a more uniform look.
Try a Turkish Rug
At first glance, a vintage Turkish rug may seem fancy or formal. But Lester, who sells them at her retail shop, says they are actually very family-friendly. Many of these rugs are 100 years old and have stood up to wear and tear over the years and can be cleaned easily. Plus, the patterns are forgiving if anything gets spilled. But most importantly, they stick with the classic vibe of the home, while simultaneously adding character and dimension. "When paired with blue tones found objects like driftwood, they become more casual and allow people to really live in the space," she says.
Keep the Light
The master was another place where adding a coat of fresh and light paint worked its magic. The couple originally wanted to take the window out of the bathroom so they could have a large mirror that went across both sinks. But Lester convinced them that you should never get rid of a natural light source—and they were both quite happy with the unique double circle mirror look.
Go with Porcelain
Cement tiles are all the rage, but when you have a house full of kids and a dog, they may not be your best option. Lester was able to find porcelain tiles for the son's bathroom that has the geometric pattern you find in encaustic tile, but that does not need to be sealed and are much more forgiving over time. "These will stand up to bleach, dogs, and teenage boys!" says Lester.
Wood stained vanities can get super expensive, so Lester recommends finding something ready-made that you can turn into one. The one in their daughter's bathroom is from Restoration Hardware, they just replaced the hardware with Mother of Pearl knobs to make it feel more unique. "It's a great option if you are on a budget or you want something more interesting that feels like a furniture piece," says Lester.
Make It Pretty
"Doing laundry sucks," say Lester. "So if you can make your laundry room pretty, why not?" With this in mind, she chose a minty green paint and a "fun and funky" sink that does double-duty being functional and nice to look at.