A Carriage House Christmas

The pretty three-story carriage house perched on a San Rafael hillside was exactly the cottage-style of home of interior designer Barbara Lavelle’s dreams—an ideal canvas for her stylistic penchant for saturated colors, vibrant patterns, charming chintz and finishing touches.  

“Personally, I’m drawn to the East Coast cottage– and Southern-style homes,” she says. An interior designer with a long career in Atlanta and now a principal in the San Francisco firm Punch Design and Staging, Lavelle knew she loved the house right away. “This house called to me and I got to do what I love the most: decorate using bold colors accented with bright white moldings.”

She and her husband, Jim, a developer and operator of large-scale wind and solar power plants, purchased the home two years ago after living in Tiburon for many years and then briefly in Sonoma.

Built in 1911, the original structure was once the carriage house of the Hind Estate, and despite renovations and expansions over the years, the bones of the simple 400-square-foot building can still be seen in the foyer, living room and kitchen.

Today, the home is a spacious retreat of 4,000 square feet spread out over three floors. Downstairs, on the middle level, there are three en-suite bedrooms, each with French doors opening onto a private deck (“it could easily be a B&B”, quips Lavelle), and below that, a finished basement divided between her painting studio and his office.

On the top floor are the common rooms—a cozy kitchen, intimate living and dining rooms, and a broad family room with views of the hills and the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge, the Bay Bridge and the East Bay—along with a large deck that extends the home’s entertaining space and has a retractable awning.

The colors and patterns, while used liberally, are actually very carefully composed. The dining room is a wine red and the kitchen and family room a pale ochre, and colorful artwork lines almost every wall. “I’m big into mixing antiques with contemporary pieces in design and I view every open space as an opportunity to display something artistic that reflects our style and personality,” says Lavelle.

It’s a look her husband appreciates. “I get to enjoy the colors, the brightness, and the ambience of our home every day,” he says. “It really is such a good feeling to be able to enjoy all of the living spaces that my wife has created.”

Lavelle relies on solids for large furniture pieces and chooses patterns for pillows and small chairs, as punctuation. “I use a lot of pillows,” she says. “I probably have more pillows than anyone needs, but I change them seasonally. You can change the whole look of a room by changing pillows.”

The Persian rugs, collected over the years, dictate each room’s color scheme, but there’s still plenty of opportunity to play with color by changing out accessories. The living room, for example, had sophisticated turquoise accents this summer but is now dressed in reds for the holidays.

The white molding lets the true essence of the color-saturated walls emerge, Lavelle says, and allows the chocolate-brown paint of the living room to harmoniously coexist with the ebony-stained hardwood floors. “One wouldn’t think you could do chocolate on a wall with ebony floors without a room feeling too dark,” she notes, “but it does work if you separate them with white trim.”

The couple kept the existing golden marble countertops in the kitchen but removed one wall to open up the space to the family room. A plate rack custom-built by their son Troy is positioned near the stove to display handmade Italian pottery designed by Lavelle. “I try to talk clients into plate racks because I’m such a fan,” she says.  “They give you more space than stacking, they’re great for decorative elements, and they’re convenient.” Another convenience is the built-in Miele coffeemaker. “It’s our favorite item in the kitchen,” she says. “It can be programmed to brew one latte, cappuccino or espresso exactly how you like it.”

The kitchen gets busy during the holidays when five-year-old grandson Teo helps decorate sugar cookies and on Christmas Eve when Barbara serves up her traditional open-house meal. “It started at our Lake Tahoe house years ago,” she says. “People were arriving at all hours of the day and night so we started serving chili and our famous skillet corn bread. Everyone would come in and have a bowl and we’d talk while they ate.”

After they sold their Tahoe house, she considered changing the menu, but everyone voted to keep the chili-and-corn-bread tradition going. With the grand piano playing old-fashioned Christmas carols on disc, the group of 20-or-so friends enjoy “all the eggnog they want” and gather by the tree to exchange presents. “It’s all very festive and very casual,” she says. Decorating the tree is an annual collaboration between Barbara and Teo. He steps up on the ladder and asks her where each ornament should be placed. “He’s a big help and he knows there’s a method to this madness,” she says with a laugh.

One other Tahoe tradition endures. “While most people watch Bing Crosby (White Christmas),” says Jim, “we like to watch Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation—it’s a classic! But, and I know this sounds peculiar, one day after skiing my son and I fixed a sandwich and sat down to watch The Godfather, so whenever it’s stormy outside like it is in Tahoe, that’s what we watch.”

On Christmas morning the Lavelles travel to Mill Valley for brunch and gift-exchanging with Troy, his wife, Jan, and Teo. Troy wears a Santa Claus hat to distribute gifts, a tradition (and hat) passed on to him by Jim. Afterwards they meet up again at the Lavelles’ home for Christmas dinner.

It wasn’t always that way. For a while, Troy and Jan used to stay overnight at the Lavelles’ in order to open presents with them on Christmas day. Eventually they just started coming over for brunch but, in keeping with tradition, still in their pj’s. Barbara pauses, then chuckles. “It was a little embarrassing for them when they went back home around noon still in their pajamas.”

Christmas Recipes

Christmas Eve Chili

2 tablespoons chili pepper
1 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
2 large onions
1 large package of mushrooms, chopped or sliced
1/2 clove of minced garlic
2 pounds ground beef or turkey (or 1 pound of each)
4 cans of red kidney beans
4 cans of diced tomatoes
2 cans of tomato sauce
2 cups of water

Brown onions, mushrooms and garlic in a large skillet (drain fat if desired). Add meat and brown. Stir in seasonings and water and bring to a boil.

Stir in the kidney beans, tomato sauce and tomatoes. Bring to a boil, let simmer for 10 minutes, then transfer mixture to an ovenproof pot.
Bake at 350° for 2 hours or more. Serve with shredded cheddar cheese and/or sour cream. Makes 10 cups.

Barbara’s Skillet Corn Bread

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cup milk
2 large eggs
1/3 cup vegetable oil
3 tablespoons melted butter

Preheat oven to 350°.

Combine all dry ingredients in a large bowl.

Combine wet ingredients in a small bowl. Add mixtures together until blended.

Pour olive oil into a black cast-iron skillet, covering the entire bottom. Carefully heat in the oven at 450° until a water drop sizzles.

Pour mixture into the hot skillet and bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Test with a wooden pick.