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Beach Babylon

A breezy, light-hearted renovation on the Marin coast adds warmth and comfort for guests as well as others.



“THERE’S THIS QUIETNESS AND MELDING OF TWO WORLDS,” Lauren Nelson says, describing the particular magic that is Stinson Beach. The interior designer, based in San Anselmo, is looking for the words to describe this particular stretch of California coast that’s beloved by locals and visitors alike. She wants to describe the particular specialness: the way in which the bay and the mountain are in conversation, the thin curved slip of beachfront that identifies this area, even from a zoomed-out Google map, as Stinson, the magic of Bolinas — almost its own country — to the north. “It has a roundedness to it,” she says.

When a couple of San Francisco residential clients called to say they’d found a property on the beach, Nelson was “filled with envy and joy.” The joy came from knowing how amazing Stinson is; the envy because Nelson, who’s lived and worked in the area for years, also knows how hard it is to find a property here: “There’s such a limited amount of land.” The couple lived in the house for two years before asking Nelson to work on the interior design, a time span that allowed them and their children to get a feel for what they needed from the space.

“We wanted to keep it ready for the next 50 years,” the owner says. “We also wanted to retain its style.” They worked with architect Steve Wisenbaker on renovations. On the interior design side, preparing the house to withstand changes in weather, owners, lifestyle patterns and the passage of time while also keeping connection to its original beachy ease sent Nelson in the direction of white-painted plywood that became integrated with new tile and cabinetry; functional windows; doors that keep the relationship between indoor and outdoor fluid; and a massive dining room table that can, on some social weekends, accommodate three families.

“We wanted a really warm family home that was pretty forgiving for sandy feet, and dogs, and lots of guests,” the owner says. “We wanted people to feel very comfortable and real and not worry about the messes of people running in from the beach.”

“ We wanted a really warm family home that was pretty forgiving for sandy feet, and dogs, and lots of guests.”

Nelson’s primary goal was to maximize the view of the ocean; in its original state, the house didn’t emphasize openness toward the water. Now, a wall of windows is a visually permeable membrane between cozy coastal interior and less cozy actual coast. The rest of the design interventions were “rooted in the sense of place, it being on the beach,” she says. The finishes are simple but sophisticated: bleached wood, cement tile, painted plywood. “Keeping the raw plywood walls was really important,” Nelson says. “It added texture, and it was one thing that I thought was indicative of the design mantra of the house — to keep it minimalist, the sense of materials not being too precious, but also having this warmth and texture and organic feeling.”

The envelope of the house is so spare and restrained that the furnishings, though subtle, become almost vibrantly alive in contrast. A kitchen backsplash looks like a muted gray from far away but resolves into a densely patterned series of tiles on a closer look. A light blue chair in the corner of the living room draws the eye out through the new window wall to the crisp Pacific Ocean, while darker wood side tables punctuate the airy living space. A Windy Chien knot sculpture above the fireplace is a rendering of the braiding together of lives, histories, pets and families that happens here, and the massive dining room table “captures everyone’s attention because it’s got that nice, imperfect salvaged wood vibe to it,” the owner says. “You have this really clean-looking house, all one color, and that table has so much personality.”

The house is filled with petrified sand dollars, stones, shells and other objects the children have found on the beach. The windowsills are likewise covered in “treasure finds from our beach walks,” the owner says, which in other settings might look busy and overwhelming, but “in a house like this, it doesn’t look like clutter.” Instead, it just looks right — like a melding of worlds.

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