This story originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of ELLE DECOR. For more stories from our archive, subscribe to ELLE DECOR All Access.
Northwest Marin County is a region of rolling hills, oak forests, quaint towns, and sprawling coastal farms about an hour north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. The scenery is stunning, but when Roth Martin first tried to persuade his friend Steven Volpe to buy a 15-acre property together, the interior designer dismissed the idea out of hand. “I didn’t show much enthusiasm,” admits Volpe, who was unfamiliar with the area at the time.
In truth it was complicated. The close friends are business partners at Hedge, a decorative arts gallery in San Francisco. But while Volpe is single, life inevitably gets a little chaotic for Martin, who has four young children with his wife Emily. (The eldest, Harry, now six, is Volpe’s godson.)
The friends were talking about renovating a country house when Roth came across the property on the internet in 2006. The property on the outskirts of the village of Tomales certainly sounded spectacular with its clapboard style house, pastures and garden with a stream running through it. Unfortunately, the house and various buildings, including a barn and caretaker’s hut, were in poor condition. It didn’t bode well that the listing had been on the market for more than two years. Still, says Roth, “it stuck in my head.”
It took a year for Volpe to be convinced to agree to a visit – a tense time that saw Emily prematurely give birth to daughter Pia, who spent several weeks in intensive care. The healthy baby was finally allowed to go home. Shortly thereafter, in late 2007, Volpe and the Martins drove up to look at the house. It was a classic coastal morning, misty and cool, as they climbed a gently winding path lined with scrubby eucalyptus. When they arrived at the main house, a dog came out to greet them. “Pia!” shouted one of the homeowners. “It’s not a very common name,” says Emily. “We just couldn’t believe it. It seemed so.” They soon made an offer.
The plan was to gut the house, but something held her back. Instead, the trio began driving up from San Francisco on weekends to spend time on their land, hiking through the woods and kayaking on the creek. They allowed the rancher next door to graze 15 of his cattle in their pasture and adopted a young steer when he turned up lost. “We tracked down the owner, who said we could keep it,” says Emily. “We christened him Ferdinand Romeo Angus.”
The previous owners had laid out an Italian style garden complete with plum trees and a vine arbor. Pretty as it was, Volpe and the Martins gradually began reimagining the landscape with more native plants — from ornamental grasses to madrone, a local periwinkle with papery bark and dark, waxy leaves — which they learned from the Mostly Natives Nursery based in Tomales.
Meanwhile, the house that Volpe originally declared for demolition began to grow on him. He learned it was built in the late 19th century and began researching the local architectural language. In the end, he and the Martins decided on a softer renovation. They upgraded the home’s plumbing, refinished the hardwood floors, and painted the exterior siding black. The kitchen, which still had a 1950’s electric hob, was dismantled and then fitted with new stainless steel appliances, white marble countertops and the original iron knob cabinets repainted in a lustrous gray enamel.
For Volpe, known for the impeccable interiors he creates for blue-chip clients, the decor had to strike a balance between his own highly curated aesthetic and the more practical needs of a young family. “If it’s too fragile, it can’t go in,” he says. “It has to be kid-friendly” But that didn’t stop him from searching for interesting finds, including several pieces by Hedges artists and designers, like a perforated ceramic jar by Tony Marsh in the dining room and a gem-like mirror by Sam Orlando Miller in the Martins’ bedroom. In the wood-panelled living room, sofas by Axel Vervoordt mix with a 17th-century wooden tub and 1940s French chairs upholstered in a coral check fabric. “You feel knocked out, not valuable,” says Volpe.
In many ways, the house is still a work in progress. There are only two bedrooms upstairs – one for the Volpe and one for the Martins, which has a screened-in area for the kids. Eventually, Volpe will renovate an adjacent building and turn it into his personal quarters. At the moment, he and the Martins are trying to alternate visits or just get together for weekends of work, togetherness, and fun. “It took us a while to realize how special the house is,” says Volpe, “but the more time I spend in it, the more I like how we feel in it. Luckily we stopped ourselves from taking his soul.”
Ingrid Abramovitch, Executive Editor at ELLE Decor, writes about design, architecture, renovation and lifestyle and is the author of several books on design including Restoring a House in the City.