Designed for Living

A lot of things can happen to a house over the course of 80 years — not all of them good.

A lot of things can happen to a house over the course of 80 years — not all of them good.

The 1927 Spanish Revival house was a classic piece of early 20th century Southern California architecture, but over the years previous owners subjected it to the ravages of time and some ill-advised “renovations.”

“When my clients purchased the house, they had no idea there were so many structural problems,” said Sarah Barnard, ASID, the designer and South Bay native hired to restore the home’s interiors.

The new owners hired Palos Verdes-based architect Don Thursby to handle the structural retrofitting and architectural updates of the property. “He’s well-known locally for his traditional designs and his fine home building,” said Sarah. “He planned the physical re-model and removed some of the ‘improvements’ that the previous owners had made.” Thursby, in turn, recommended Barnard, a Van Nuys-based interior designer with a strong background in preservation and historic projects.

“Originally, the clients just intended to do a little updating here and there,” the designer recalled. “During a re-model of an upstairs bathroom, the living room ceiling collapsed! That launched a total renovation of the entire house.”

Sarah wanted to revive the home and preserve its original charm, while bringing it into the 21st century. “The previous owners had made a lot of changes: they tried to create a ‘Santa Fe’ look that was very popular in the 80s, and they added some adobe style fireplaces and big Doric columns to the kitchen that didn’t belong and served no purpose. My clients saw past all of that when they bought the house.”
What her clients saw was a charming, light-filled Spanish Revival house with arched doorways, coved ceilings and one special amenity that is rare in Palos Verdes: a guest house. “Guest houses are not allowed any more under Palos Verdes’ zoning laws,” Sarah explained. “If you find a house that has one, it was grandfathered in.”

The house is located right alongside the golf course with several homes of the same vintage. “Palos Verdes isn’t known for its older houses, but there are a few pockets of them that are very special,” she said.

The project took almost two years to complete, with six to eight months of planning and a year and one-half of construction. “When you’re dealing with such an old house, you have to confront everything at once,” Sarah advised. “You can’t just patch things up, fixing one thing at a time as systems fail. You have to repair and retrofit everything all at once. If you live in an historic house, certain elements can be replaced and updated without sacrificing the period charm.”

These clients did not want to live in a re-creation of a 1920s house. “Their taste runs more to the contemporary,” the designer explained. “They didn’t want to live in a museum.”

Sarah incorporated a lot of the clients’ own furniture into her new design. “They had a definite vision of the home they wanted,” she recalled. “They are unpretentious, kind people, and their personalities are very apparent in the design. They wanted to feel at home in their house.”

When you enter this house, you see an archway that leads straight to its backdoor. The house is very open, transparent and filled with light. Sarah Bernard replaced the Santa Fe kiva fireplace with one she designed herself. “I found an old photograph of Ingrid Bergman’s house,” she recalled. “There was a fireplace, carved with vines and pomegranates and peonies. I showed it to my client and asked her if I could do something similar for her, and she loved the idea! I designed a motif of roses — her favorite flower — and had it carved in limestone by a local artisan from Italy.”

The clients’ Oriental rug, with its muted shades of light blue, gold, ivory, beige and green, inspired the living room palette. Sarah Bernard left the family’s piano and antique sideboard in place and re-upholstered their chairs in highly textured chenille with tiny threads of pale blue, beige, green and ivory. The ottomans were custom-made, covered in ivory and quilted in pale blue. Sarah custom-designed a new sofa, upholstered in a sexy blend of silk and mohair.

The family dogs co-opted the chairs for their own use. “The clients wanted the house to be pet-friendly,” Sarah explained.
She found a coffee table they all liked but wanted to modify. The version she used is larger than the original and has clubbed feet and a metal border inlaid just above its scalloped edge. The window treatments are 100% silk, subtly striped in blue, green and brown to compliment the rug.

Originally there was a wall separating the family room and kitchen. Sarah Bernard and Don Thursby wanted to remove it completely, but that wasn’t feasible. “We needed a structural element to support the second floor,” she explained. “So we added the walnut bar in the center. You can sit there and eat or have a drink and watch television, without being cut off from the other room.”

Sarah added a huge saltwater fish tank at the clients’ request. “Finding a place for it and designing cabinetry for it that would not be too overwhelming was difficult, but it was important to the client. Her husband is a beach-goer, and he grew up surfing locally, and he feels a very personal connection to the sea, so the fish tank reflects that. There is also a vintage surfboard, a huge, wooden, long board that’s part of his collection, mounted on the wall.”

There is a lovely story behind the clients’ dining room table. “They were walking one evening in a neighborhood that had a lot of antique shops,” the Sarah recounted. “They paused to look in one shop window, and the client saw the table and commented on how much she loved it. Her husband pretended to be uninterested, but at their anniversary, he brought it home in his truck as her gift. They’ve had it since early in their marriage.”

The 19th-century table has a base ornately carved with clawed feet and winged horses. When all of its leaves are in place, it can seat 20 people. To accommodate such large parties, Sarah used the same chair design in the dining room, the breakfast nook, and the family room, all covered in different fabrics, so they can be gathered around the dining table for large parties.

Sarah built a special niche in the dining room to display the client’s quirky collection of egg cups. “It started out as just a few pieces; they used them for eating eggs. It eventually spiraled out of control as friends and family started giving her egg cups as gifts,” she shared. “She put a moratorium on any egg cups that cost more than five dollars, so they are all kind of kitschy and playful and fun. I built wooden shelves and then plastered them over so they would look like an architectural detail of the house.”

The kitchen was a vital part of the project. “It was the most completely overhauled room in the house,” said the designer. “The old kitchen didn’t have a pantry. There were a lot of ill-advised design elements that had to be stripped away. An old bathroom was demolished to create a pantry, and an old coat closet was transformed into a powder room.”

The client wanted a modern, efficient kitchen. “She loves to cook, and she didn’t want a dark, Spanish-style kitchen. She’s petite, so I placed all the cabinets and shelves within her reach.”

Sarah and Basically Cabinets in Gardena designed and built the kitchen cabinets and all the cabinetry throughout the house. She re-finished a table the clients already owned and re-purposed it as a breakfast table. She upholstered the chairs in a rich, rose-embossed leather, hand-painted in shades of cream and white. “It took forever to get the right effect,” Sarah recalled. “We went through several different versions and the clients almost cancelled! But once the samples were satisfactory, they were thrilled. They will have those chairs forever.”

The project was completed in 2009. Sarah Bernard and her clients are more than pleased with the results: they preserved the romantic, historic elements of the house without sacrificing contemporary convenience or comfort. Under their care, it is ready to face the next 80 years.

“Now they are living in a completely contemporary, historic house.”


Sarah Barnard
Interior Designer

Don Thursby