The right balance of original details and modern patterns and colors.
An old home inevitably means some modern updates are needed. But the real challenge in renovating older homes is balancing the modern with the historical and interesting features that give it character. This San Francisco Edwardian – over a century old – was no different than in need of a refresh. The two bedroom, one and a half bathroom home retained many of its original architectural details that gave it classic San Francisco charm and character, but there were portions that needed updating. The windows were old and unsafe and in need of replacement. Also, all the rooms were small, especially the oddly shaped kitchen, tiny bathroom with powder room, and tiny pantry.
The owners – a newly engaged couple – turned to interior designer Cathie Hong for help. “They wanted to modernize their home to fit their lifestyle while retaining the historic character of the home, which is primarily reflected in the original wood baseboards, moldings, doors and paneling,” she says. “There were a couple of original wooden built-in closets next to the fireplace that they wanted to preserve, as well as some of the interior doors with obscure glass and crystal doorknobs.” Ultimately, Hong says, the homeowners wanted the home to be comfortable, understated, earthy and natural to the touch, clean but with lots of texture and shape and a thoughtful use of small space.
As you might imagine, retaining the character and some of the original features in an old house while updating it for the present can present some challenges. One of those challenges was replicating this original wood stain. “We refinished and restained all the hardwood floors, but they came out a little lighter than we expected,” she explains. “Then there were many areas where we had to buy new wood doors or replace and add wood paneling and paneling to match the original. Customers joke that they must have bought every single color swatch option from the paint store to try and find “the one”. We ended up layering several stains to get the color we liked.”
In addition to the stain, the preservation of the unique doors with original glass also proved to be an obstacle. “Once they were sanded down, we realized they were made out of eucalyptus wood, which has a mottled and unusual texture that didn’t go with the rest of the house,” says Hong. “The clients miraculously found a faux wood painter who was able to paint a wood grain pattern on these two doors to match the rest of the house. It was really shocking how realistic they looked; I could never have said it if I didn’t know.”
Hong and his team have worked hard to preserve these traits while incorporating colorful accents, patterns and shapes that don’t feel too modern or out of place. It can be difficult at times to strike the right balance with patterns, but Hong manages this area so well — she says it can add a lot of dimension, but she tries to be mindful of scale and color. “There was a lot of white walls and wood trim and wood floors in the shared living spaces, so it seemed appropriate to put a bold and graphic wallpaper on the floor for the dining room and differentiate this space as you can see it from every adjoining room in the house,” she adds. Another example of the balancing act can be found in both bathrooms, where Hong and his team combined a uniquely shaped tile on the floor with a more modern, stacked rectangular tile on the walls to keep it from getting too crowded.
Fireplace in the living room
Looking at each room, you can see how Hong carefully balances the old and the new. In the living room, the design team kept the footprint pretty much the same, retaining the original flooring and fixtures. The fireplace received an update with geometric olive green cement tiles that complemented the rest of the home’s color palette. “We were able to get the very last run of this tile before it was discontinued and it really brought a lot of personality to this space,” she adds.
Since the dining room is the center of the home, connecting the kitchen, front entry and living room to the bedrooms, Hong made it a statement space with striking and moody Abnormals Anonymous wallpaper and a Lawson Fenning chandelier.
The kitchen was possibly the most difficult room to decipher as its odd layout prevented the design team from creating a standard L-shaped room with an island. “The previous layout felt extremely cramped as the cabinets turned into themselves, an odd wall of very shallow cabinets that proved inoperable and very little work space for two people in the kitchen at the same time,” says Hong. “They also had an unusually placed breakfast nook right next to the small kitchen. We eliminated the corner and distributed the kitchen cabinets so that the sink and dishwasher could stand in their own zone, allowing one person to cook while another did the dishes. We also widened the passageway between the kitchen and dining room to create a more open feel and had our contractor mimic the original wood paneling around the walkway to make it look original and intentional.” More traditional style plumbing fixtures were added to complement the architectural to match the style of the home, and the warm and textured Zellige tile backsplash adds depth and dimension.
And that tiny powder room that Hong mentioned earlier? It became a full size master bathroom. The other bathroom (which is now the guest bathroom) had a very cramped shower stall and a separate tub and no showerhead, so Hong and his team removed the shower stall and turned the tub into a tub/shower combo. “Clients liked the traditional-looking pedestal sink that we removed from the original powder bath, so we incorporated a similar sink into the guest bathroom design,” explains Hong. “As we went more neutral in the master bathroom, we went bolder with Fireclay Rosemary tile in this shower and Bedrosians terracotta hex tile on the floor.”
Finally, the back room of the house has a bold color scheme to match the customers’ plant collection.
It’s no surprise that customers really love the finished design. “It’s a small space and they’re so pleased that every square foot is maximized and serves a purpose. They have told me on numerous occasions how happy they are with their house and that they often look around and admire all the details,” says Hong.
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