Continue reading to hear directly from the designer and to get a personal tour of his home in Marin, California.
Dwell: Describe your household and give us some specs, if possible.
Charles de Lisle: Our house is a 1949 architect's shed up on the hill above Richardson Bay in Marin, California. The humble 1300-square-foot "tree house" was designed and built by a young Donn Emmons as a first personal residence for his new family. The house was truly experimental for its time—a main square floor plan with a small open sleeping loft and open kitchen. The true beginning of "small house" regionalism in the Bay Area, this house was an important example of a new style of a paired-down, rural barn language imagined in a modern aesthetic.
Constructed simply, the structure is made up of concrete slab floors, cedar posts, cedar-clad interior walls, and exterior cedar shingles. The main elevation has 18 feet of operable, orange painted framed glass with facing views of Oakland across the bay. The original landscape was designed by Lawrence Halprin. Unbelievably, almost everything in the house is original—down to the kitchen paper towel holder and the repurposed WWII ship ladder to get to the second level. We found the house available for rent on Craig's List by Mr. Emmons' kids, and have been tenants for over six years.
Dwell: How does your space influence your daily life?
Charles de Lisle: Honestly, everything. Living in a historical architectural space is amazing. The way the house breathes and connects us to our surroundings is great. It's like living in a summer cottage 365 days of the year. The greater landscape and the change of seasons is evident every day in our life. During summer, all the doors open up and stay open for weeks. In winter, we hunker down eating dinner with hats and blankets. It’s amazing to experience first-hand how good planning and thoughtful design make a house work no matter what the size.
Dwell: What is your favorite piece of anonymous design—either in your house or something you use?
Charles de Lisle: I have a vintage 1960s Zassenhaus pepper grinder. It's perfect. It has a carved wooden body that cups in your hand, the grind handle rests on the lip to fill, and the lip is a funnel to get the peppercorns into the hopper. It's too good to be true.
Dwell: What intangibles of your space are most compelling? (ie; the light, smells, etc.)
Charles de Lisle: I love walking up the 45 stairs every night after work. They're made with cheaply formed concrete, are a bit crooked, and are in quite the state of decay—and they're surrounded by crazy Marin weeds, sages, and grasses. It always smells so great. Then, you pass through a simple wooden gate at the top. Once you're inside, you find yourself in the private little garden framed by a big California Oak. It’s almost like a vacation. Everyday.
The windows face east, and we love the open view, so when the sun peeks up in the morning, we have front row seats. Durning summer months, the house is saturated with intense sunlight at 5:00 AM. It's a bit rough, but we love it. At night, the house lacks any lighting found in a contemporary home—no recessed anything. We have lots of lamps around, but the wood interior absorbs most of the light so the mood and soul of the house turns into this glowing, amber lantern up on the hill. It's pretty magical.
Dwell: Thrift store or design store?
Charles de Lisle: Combo Plate. I always like to consider everything.
Dwell: How do you entertain guests when they come over?
Charles de Lisle: Usually, we all end up around the table near the kitchen. It only seats about six at its maximum, but it's cozy. We have an anonymous version of an early American settlement at the table, which makes a bit of an inglenook for conversation. We collect all kinds of Japanese, English, Mexican, and American ceramics, so lots of textures and shapes happen for even the simplest coffee and toast. The tiny kitchen is most often crammed with cooking and a bar. Somehow, we can have three or four of us moving about in there and it all works.
Dwell: What are you listening to or reading these days?
Charles de Listle: This graphic design studio in New York called Mogollon has these playlists I love listening to. I like how podcasts take away the control and just bring you new things to hear.
Dwell: How does your home embody who you are?
Charles de Lisle: I like spontaneous and hodgepodge for sure, but always need to temper instinctive risks with traditional foundations. We have a lot of both directions but it never feels structured—it's kind of a luxury in its in-formalness.