NEAR THE FRONT DOOR OF INTERIOR designer Charles de Lisle’s weekend home in Sebastopol sits a sunshine-yellow cooler. “It’s like my favorite thing ever. I searched for the right vintage cooler from the ’70s, like the one I grew up with,” he says. “We use it every time we’re here, to carry beers up to the pool.” He even had shelving built specifically to hold the portable ice chest. For de Lisle, the cooler represents deliverance from meetings and other on-duty obligations, while also calling to mind his childhood in rural Massachusetts.
The same could be said for the entire place, really — an off-grid retreat on 6.5 acres that were once part of an apple orchard and ranch dating back to the late 1800s. When de Lisle came across the property six years ago, he had grand plans. Which is not surprising, given that he and his partner, Ralph Dennis, also an interior designer, are both in the business of transforming residences. Plus, it had the potential to fulfill a long-held ambition: “I’ve always wanted to build a house, since I was a kid,” says de Lisle, whose father built the house he was raised in. “Part of me had this romantic idea of building a house, of building something from scratch. I thought I was going to do that with this land.”
After looking for nearly 20 years, he found an idyllic swath of land with a meadow, laurel grove and creek. “It’s kind of magical, the way you enter the property,” he observes. The couple was less enamored of the solar-powered dwelling they acquired with the property: a 1,200-square-foot two-bed- room, one-bath cedar log cabin, constructed from a kit. Initially they planned to replace it with a structure powered by a traditional electrical system. But given the time and expense that would entail, they changed course.
Also, as their swimming pool project became a massive engineering feat — building a pool into the hillside with no electricity required bringing in diesel generators and installing an eight-foot-deep retaining wall under the pool down to the bedrock — they had gradually been fixing up the house itself. “We realized that it actually wasn’t so bad,” recalls de Lisle. “It’s a pretty volume — it’s a two-story volume with a sleeping loft. We put in skylights, so when you look up in the morning, you can see the treetops.”
They culled design inspiration from Norwegian summer houses. The exterior, previously “a horrible campground brown,” as de Lisle puts it, is now a blue-black hue. Seven semitruck-loads of poison oak and wild blackberry were hauled away, and native grass was planted. Inside, the couple swapped out the ground-level faux bamboo flooring for walnut planks, which were freshened up with white paint, as was the existing flooring upstairs. The tile around the woodstove, the home’s primary source of heat, is also de Lisle’s idea.
They scrapped the kitchen’s melamine cabinets in favor of simple plywood cabinets and replaced its rusty appliances with a propane refrigerator and stove more typical of RVs. While the bathroom came with the claw-foot tub, the sink and toilet are new. Uninvited guests — raccoons and rats — necessitated new insulation, wiring and walls. “It’s been an adventure being out in the country,” de Lisle says.
The decor includes furnishings accumulated over the years, from items he didn’t incorporate into a project to discoveries made during frequent travels to Mexico City, where he’s currently working on a restaurant. “It’s a mash-up of casual and fancy,” he notes. Among the pieces of notable provenance are the vintage cane dining chairs by Josef Hoffmann, the living room’s circa-1948 Bas Van Pelt rope armchair, and the Mathieu Matégot pendant lamp. De Lisle’s own Ronchamp floor lamp, part of his collection for Phoenix Day, is also here.
They introduced pattern through textiles, like the gingham on the Charlotte Perriand–inspired daybeds and the 1960s Moroccan rug from a trip to Marrakech. The beloved yellow cooler isn’t the only punch of color: a red Aggregato lamp by Enzo Mari for Artemide tops the dining table, a yellow Arnold Circus stool by Martino Gamper serves as seating or side table, and a blue Luminator floor lamp by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni for Flos sits behind a Pernilla chaise lounge by Bruno Mathsson.
There’s no cell service, Wi-Fi or internet, and de Lisle is adamant that it’s a work-free zone. Well, sort of: between the three-year pool project and repaving the driveway, it’s been a labor of love of a different sort than his 9-to-5.
“This is all outside of my normal wheelhouse — it’s not what I do day to day — so it’s fun,” he says. “I wanted to learn about that kind of stuff. My hobby is wanting to build things.” (He describes Dennis as “a passenger who gets to enjoy it.”) Still on the to-do list: an overhaul of the barn and adding a pergola by the pool, for shade. “For me, anything that’s great requires some stress and some sweat equity,” he says. “That’s what makes it good.”
And no doubt makes that cold beer by the pool all the more satisfying.
Table lamp, Aggregato table lamp by Anzo Mari for Artemide, from Artemide; chairs, vintage plastic weave cane dining chairs by Josef Hoffmann.
Love seat, vintage love seat by Hans Wegner in Maharam wool fabric; chair, Rope Chair vintage circa 1948 by Bas Van Pelt; coffee table, custom Roswell coffee table by/from Doug McCollough; floor lamp, Ronchamp with custom shade by Charles de Lisle from Phoenix Day Lighting; studio lamp designed by Bob Kinzie; daybeds, custom pine Charlotte Perriand–inspired daybeds by Charles de Lisle, ; stool, Arnold Circus Stool by/ from Martino Gamper; lamp, pendant lamp by Mathieu Matégot; area rugs, Moroccan rugs from Marrakech.
Rare blue Luminator lamp by Achille Castiglioni for Flos, from Flos; chaise lounge, Pernilla chaise lounge by Bruno Mathsson.
Photos by David Duncan Livingston.
This article originally appeared in SPACES print edition with the headline: “Back To Basics”.