This wooden plank style home is the definition of comfort

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 an area of ​​rolling hills, oak forests, quaint towns, and sweeping coastal plantations, located about an hour north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. The scene is breathtaking, but when Ruth Martin first tried to talk to his friend Stephen Volpe to buy a 15-acre property there, the interior designer dismissed the idea outright. “I didn’t show much enthusiasm,” admits Volpi, who was unfamiliar with the area at the time.

In fact, it was complicated. Close Friends are business partners of Hedge, the gallery of decorative arts in San Francisco. But while Volpi is single, life gets a little chaotic for Martin, who with his wife Emily has four young children. (The oldest, Harry, now six, is Godson Volpe.)

Stephen Volpe with a Norwich terrier.

Friends were talking about renovating a country house when Roth spotted the real estate listing online in 2006. The property, on the outskirts of Tomales Village, certainly looked stunning, with its shingle-style home, pastures, and a creek running through it. Unfortunately, the house and the miscellaneous structures, including the barn and care hut, were in poor condition. It was not a good sign that the menu had been on the market for more than two years. However, says Roth, “It just got stuck in my head.”

It took a year of persuasion for Volpe to agree to the visit – a fraught period during which Emily gave birth to her daughter Bea, who spent several weeks in intensive care. Finally, the healthy infant was allowed to go home. Soon after, in late 2007, Volpe and Martins traveled to see the house. It was a classic coastal morning, foggy and cool, as they climbed a gently winding lane flanked by shaggy eucalyptus. When they got to the main house, a dog came obligingly to greet them. “Bia!” shouted one of the owners of the house. “It’s not a very common name,” Emily says. “We couldn’t believe it. It looks like it was meant to be.” Soon they made an offer.

The plan was to wipe out the house, but something stopped them. Instead, the trio began driving on weekends from San Francisco to spend time on their land, hiking through the woods and kayaking on the creek. They let a neighboring rancher graze 15 of his beef cattle on their pasture, and adopted a baby cow when they turned out to be lost. “We tracked down the owner, who said we could keep him,” Emily says. “We called him Ferdinand Romeo Angus.”

The previous owners had planted an Italianate-style garden, complete with plum trees and grapevines. As beautiful as it was, Volpe and Martins began gradually reshaping the landscape using more native plants—from ornamental grasses to madder, a native evergreen plant with papery bark and dark waxy leaves—which they sourced from Mostly Natives Nursery in Tomales.

Meanwhile, the house that Volpi had initially announced to be demolished began to grow on it. Learning that it was built in the late 19th century, he began researching the local architectural language. Eventually, he and his Martins family decided to embark on a gentler makeover. They updated the home’s plumbing, refinished the wood floors, and painted the exterior trim black. The kitchen, which had still contained an electric stove from the 1950s, was dismantled and refitted with new stainless-steel appliances, white marble counters, and original wrought-iron cabinets, enameled in glossy gray.

dinner room

The kitchen table and lighting fixtures are original to the home, and the chairs are Norwegian from the 1920s.

For Volpi, known for the original interiors he created for storied clients, the decor had to strike a balance between its highly curated aesthetics and the practical needs of a young family. “If it’s too fragile, it can’t go in,” he says. “It should be child-friendly.” But that hasn’t stopped him from searching for interesting finds, including several pieces by Hedge artists and designers, such as the perforated ceramic Tony Marsh bowl in the dining room, and the gem-like mirror by Sam Orlando Miller in the Martins bedroom. In the wood-paneled sitting room, Axel Vervoordt sofas blend with a 17th-century wooden bucket and 1940s French armchairs upholstered in a checkered coral fabric. “They feel lost, not precious,” Volpi says.


Bulldog Volpe, Vivian, sitting near a chair designed by Arthur Espenette Carpenter; Menorah by Achilles Castiglioni, and photograph by Adam Voss.

In many ways, the house is still in progress. Upstairs there are only two bedrooms – one for Volpi and one for Martins, which has a secluded children’s area. Eventually, Volpi will renovate an adjacent building and convert it into his own headquarters. For now, he and Martins are trying to switch up their visits, or just get together on weekends of work, teamwork, and fun. “It took us a while to realize how special the house was, but the more time I spent in it, the more I loved the way it felt. Thankfully, we prevented ourselves from taking away its soul,” Volpi says.

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