Artist Lee Tunila grew up in a house that was over 100 years old in Savannah, Georgia, steeped in history. Whether big or small, many of the houses in her hometown were well preserved. So for Lee, caring for your home was simply a way of life.
Shortly after they got married in 2001, Lee and husband Randy bought an original 1,800-square-foot mid-century Manhattan Beach home built in 1963. Driving up to the property for the first time, they could not even see the house from the street because it was completely covered in shrubbery.
The young couple saw the bones of the place were good and figured they could live in it for a while and slowly start making changes. But neither of them saw this old house as their forever home.
After getting the keys on Christmas Eve and first walking into the house as owners, they both thought they had made a huge mistake. It had a funky living plan with parquet floors, blue shag carpet and animal print wallpaper. The home was last remodeled in the ’80s, and although Lee appreciated its eclecticism, big changes were needed.
They took out the carpet, painted and did minor things to make it more livable for them. Over time, they slowly renovated different areas. “Things came together when we decided to give a nod to what it was destined to be—a mid-century house,” shares Lee. “Now I love my home, but it took me a few years to get to that.”
Lee and Randy maintained the original skeleton of the house but opened up the congested, partitioned living area into a wide-open space consisting of the kitchen, dining room and living room. Originally Lee wanted to get rid of the fireplace but learned to love it. It’s now the main feature that centers the space. The long eaves of the house are also classic mid-century, and they chose to keep it that way.
The Tunilas looked for some design help from someone whose love and expertise is mid-century modern and found that in designer Arianna Sabra of Arianna Sabra Interiors. Arianna helped Lee make the home feel authentic. All their furniture is retro, with some vintage pieces like the sideboard lamp and magazine stand in the living room. The French decorative light fixture hanging over the dining table is also vintage, as well as the gorgeous double-crossed chairs perfectly situated around the table.
On that table is a beautiful wooden bowl that carries its own origin story. A massive Myoporum tree used to umbrella the entrance to the house, and it was Lee’s favorite view. Two years ago it uprooted and fell onto the house. She was devastated that the tree had to be extracted, but being sentimental she had the foresight to save a limb. She didn’t know what she was going to do with it until she found a woodworker named Jonathan Weaver. She gave him the freedom to make whatever he wanted from what was left of her beloved tree. Out came this exquisite bowl.
Lee’s house is filled with personal decor pieces from her family that remind her of where she comes from. “Everything I have in the home is meaningful; it’s not just for pure aesthetics,” she says. “It’s a home, and I want it to feel that way.” Being an artist herself, Lee is extremely selective about the artwork that dons her walls. In one way or another, they all have great meaning.
“Things came together when we decided to give a nod to what it was destined to be—a mid-century house.”
The large abstract painting that hangs above the fireplace is a main focal point of the home. It represents a memoir done by one of her mentors, artist Joe Blaustein. The other painting in the living room she found and fell in love with at a vintage store in Savannah. After doing some research, she discovered that the artist of this painting was the first African American professor at one of the colleges in Savannah.
Another painting hanging above her bed was the first given to her by Randy. Their bedroom is the couple’s haven. The inviting king-size bed is centered between two amazing mid-century hanging pendant lights. On the wall facing the bed hang two of her own personal favorite paintings that help unify the space. Lee’s guitar sits in the corner begging to be played.
They converted the fourth bedroom into a functional space for all. It operates as an office, laundry area and a place for the kids to hang out and watch TV or read a book in the nook.
The floors showcase large-format tiles hand-designed by an artist who used Sharpies to draw the patterns. Light spills into the room from all directions and boasts a gorgeous view of their charming backyard. This room opens to their spectacular outdoor living space.
The Tunilas chose to limit the house footprint so they could have an adequate open-air space specifically designed for entertaining. This area includes a charming courtyard with seating centered around a rustic outdoor fireplace. High hedges border the perimeters of the space, and creeping fig climb the brick walls—giving the area an old-world feel.
The other side contains a built-in fire pit and seating area that can comfortably hold 16 people—perfect for entertaining both adults and children. Weather permitting, the Tunilas often dine outside at the table situated at the foot of the outdoor space and make s’mores around the communal pit.
It took almost two decades, but the Tunila house has now become their forever home. Lee jokes, “We’re like toe-taggers. We are going to be buried in our front yard right next to the stump of that old tree.”
More than a pipe dream.