Mill Valley, California, might not be a hotbed of modernism, but it was here, ten years ago, that Dwell came into the world alongside founder Lara Hedberg Deam’s first home—now renovated by her husband, Chris Deam. Here’s the story behind the place that started it all.
The seeds of Dwell were planted in the late 1990s, when founder Lara Hedberg Deam renovated her cabin in downtown Mill Valley, California. She loved the location and had some ideas about what she wanted in a home, but she didn’t quite know how to get on the same page as her architect. So she pressed pause and went back to school to study design, then restarted the house, which got built alongside a business plan for a new kind of magazine about architecture—one that would speak to all comers by connecting the rarefied world of modern design with the everyday world we live in.
Everyday life for Lara soon included a husband, architect Chris Deam, and twin children, Macy and Cal. With those additions, however, the house began to feel out of touch with the growing family’s needs. Luckily, Lara didn’t have to look far for a designer to whip things into shape: Chris was familiar with the scope of the job and happy to tackle a renovation. With newly minted interiors and a backyard patio that epitomizes sunny California living, the Deams moved into their redesigned dream home a year ago. Chris finished installing the last towel bar about an hour before I stopped by for a visit to discuss their renovation. Here’s the inside scoop.Lara: I bought this little house in 1994 and started a major remodel with a talented architect named Bob Hatfield in 1996. I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted, but I was interested in the idea of timelessness in modern design, being sensitive to the context, and being appropriate in scale. The front elevation—which stayed largely intact through the new renovation—is where those ideas are most clearly expressed. The interiors, however, were less well defined. Realtors advised that if you’re going to spend X you need to have X amount of bathrooms and X bedrooms. So the program was vague. It was beautiful, but the spaces felt like they lacked purpose.
Chris: We met right when the house was finished, and after I moved in we affectionately called it the “man trap” for a while. It was interesting living in another architect’s vision for a period of time. He became the perfect scapegoat for any problem we had—from burning the toast to not picking up our underwear—I mean, aren’t architects supposed to solve all of our problems? But after a certain point, we realized we needed to express our own ideas of how we wanted to live, which were radically different than those of Lara as a single woman.
We wanted to carve out space for the individuals—for Lara’s home office, for me to have a place to work, for each of the kids, for a smaller room where we could watch TV and have family time, and for more space to entertain. Lara was the one who came up with the bold idea of completely rearranging the plan of the house.
Lara: I thought we should have a smaller-scale room than the living room to spend our evenings in, and the old kitchen happened to be the perfect size for a den. I also wanted a larger kitchen to entertain in and the underutilized space in the back of the old house was conveniently located right off the yard.
Chris: I freaked out when Lara suggested it, but the more I thought about it the more it made perfect sense. We had learned that we really lived in the backyard and moving the kitchen next to the patio would foster a greater indoor-outdoor connection. We could start to think of the yard more like an annex to the interior spaces.
Lara: The backyard changed a lot—it used to be a jungle with a small concrete slab that hugged the house tightly, so we cleared it out and moved a lot of dirt to get a large level patio. The landscaping gave us two new rooms. And of course there’s the new door.
Chris: Even though the kitchen moved and we reconfigured the interior, we’re still in the exact same footprint because of the zoning requirements. So the biggest change was making that big steel-and-glass window wall to transition you outside. I knew I wanted this big window and that it should open and close, and the only person I knew who could build it was Larissa Sand at Sand Studios. She engineered it with her husband, Jeff, and put it through a computer model to make sure it wouldn’t tear apart the whole building when it opened.The door weighs about 2,000 pounds, and it has its own foundation under the pivot point. In the first concept sketches it was really thin and elegant, but it just kept growing and growing and eventually the diagonal brace showed up—in the end, why not let the engineering show?
I didn’t want it to feel like some serious architectural piece; I wanted something more like product design, so I softened it with one big curved window to smooth out an awkward 45-degree-angled wall, and then I radiused all the window corners. Since everything else is so strict, it needed to feel loose—the paint helps that too.
Deciding on the color was nerve-racking, though. It’s a one-shot deal because it’s painted in place, so you’ve got to be committed to your choice. We looked at a lot of colors, and we finally narrowed it down to two greens—one was a soft sea foam and the other was this acid green. In the end we said, “Let’s go for it.” It’s going to be such a big part of the design, it needs to scream a little bit.
So the redesign was essentially a job of tailoring. It was like taking an ill-fitting suit and then retailoring it with an eye toward detailing, new materials, and fit. I wanted to use predominantly what was already there but reconsider the finishes and the proportion of the spaces. Eventually we got a solution that I feel is flattering to us. What I love about the house now is that every space supports a part of our life. Before we would say “How in the world are we going to cook for friends out in the backyard?” Now there’s a place for that and it’s effortless. I love having people in our house. It’s really best when it’s full of friends.
Lara: It feels like this design unlocked what the house wanted to be. We had the advantage of being here since ’94, studying how the sun moves throughout the year, seeing how we all lived in it, and finally figuring out how we wanted to live in it. I think it allows for that now. To use the kids’ words, we made it “more awesomer!”