My House: A Bay Area Restaurateur’s Woodsy Retreat Prioritizes Community

My House: A Bay Area Restaurateur’s Woodsy Retreat Prioritizes Community

By Ethan Tucker
Just north of San Francisco, the Mill Valley home of former Phish manager and current restaurant owner John Paluska takes its place within its eclectic neighborhood and natural surroundings.

Former manager of Phish and successful restaurant owner John Paluska enlisted his college dorm mate, architect Jonathan Feldman of Feldman Architecture, to build a home in the hills of Mill Valley, California, for himself, his wife Rachel, and their two kids. Clad in Western red cedar and open to the outdoors, the home takes inspiration from the surrounding woodlands and the family’s fun-loving personalities.

The home is a welcoming space for friends and family, some of whom stay for months at a time in a guest cottage out back. On the first floor, an open plan includes a living room, dining room, and a large, well-appointed kitchen—a necessity for a family that owns a trendy Mexican restaurant in nearby Berkeley. Wood tones and handmade Oaxacan tiles create an atmosphere that is at once earthy and open. Furniture built by John's father in Maine and art accumulated over a lifetime of travel add to the cozy, family-centric feeling, and hint at lives well lived.

The great room features a sound-dampening ceiling made of strips of Douglas fir laid over recycled denim insulation.

When you started this project, did you have a clear idea of the kind of home you wanted to live in? 

John Paluska: Well, it’s funny that you say that because on the one hand, I think we had a really clear idea for a lot of the functional aspects of the house. We knew how we wanted to live in the house, but when we first approached Jon [Jonathan Feldman], we had a very different idea of how the house would relate to the lot and to the surrounding area.

In our mind, we were going to be creating this very inward-looking place. And Jon came, and he immediately scrambled up onto the roof of one of the buildings and said, "You have an amazing view." There’s this really cool open space to the north of our house called Horse Hill, and there is a semi-wild herd of horses that people own, but they roam the hill freely. It’s a very poetic and beautiful place; we just needed to design the house to embrace it. 

The resawn Western red cedar cladding will age gracefully, blending in with its natural surroundings.

You live in Mill Valley, outside of San Francisco. Like a lot of places in the Bay Area, it’s changing quickly. Did that factor into how your house relates to the neighborhood?

Rachel Paluska: We wanted to blend in, in terms of the redwoods and the oaks around; we didn’t want to stick out. There’s an eclectic vibe in our neighborhood of modest homes and some newer homes, so we were trying to blend in and reflect back the nature of our surroundings. 

John: To be honest, I think our house is a pretty distinctive place in this neighborhood, so in some ways it does stand out, but we wanted a rustic, lived-in feel. We made a deliberate choice to use resawn Western red cedar. People have said to us, "Such a cool house, did you renovate it?" I think people just assume that because the outside has such a weathered look. It was also important to us to use materials that reflect our area. The inside of the house has a ton of red cedar and Douglas fir, two classic Pacific Northwest or West Coast woods. The other thing that’s great about all the wood is that it has a beautiful smell when you walk into the house.

From their front porch, the Paluskas can talk to friends and neighbors on the street. "It's the relationship we want to have to the neighborhood," says John.

Once you settled on a two-story house, how did you decide on the layout?

John: One of our goals—and I think we have nailed it pretty well—was that we wanted to feel like we use every part of our house on a daily basis. We didn’t want one of these houses that’s so big that there are rooms that get activated five times a year when a bunch of people come over, or rooms that are ideas more than they are actual living spaces.  

The kitchen is a hub in the Paluskas’ home. John’s restaurant Comal in Berkeley, California, celebrates handmade, regional Mexican food.

Can you tell me a little more about the main space in the house, this open combination of kitchen, dining room, and living room? 

John: We knew that was the area where we would spend most of our time, and we wanted a big, open floor plan for that part of our lives. People actually sit in the living room—I mean, how many times have you been to someone’s house and just hung out in the kitchen the whole time?

The kitchen, living room, and dining room are combined in a single, airy, great room.

That space has a really unique ceiling. 

John: That was actually driven first by pragmatic concerns around acoustics, which really worked. It is a room that has a concrete floor and massive slabs of glass, but there is no echo. We can get a group of 30 people in here conversing merrily, and it doesn’t get painfully echo-y. 

On the way, we got a cool aesthetic out of it, but that wasn’t the first concern. The first concern was, "Let’s make sure this room isn’t incredibly loud." 

Rachel: It’s stuffed full of recycled blue jeans above the slats of Douglas fir.

Tell me about these big sliding doors that connect the living room to the backyard.

John: I just want to sing Jon’s praises here. This is, by many people’s standards, a luxurious house, but we were definitely on a budget, and we had to be really resourceful. Jon said, "If you’re on a budget, you still want to pick a few splurge items. You want to pick some places where you’re going to really make a statement and do something special." 

Not only do those big, triple doors let a huge amount of the outside in, but they allow us to really do that indoor/outdoor thing when the weather is nice. He really advocated for that even though they were expensive, and we are so glad we went for it, because I can’t even imagine how different this house would feel without them.

The triple sliding doors enable an indoor/outdoor lifestyle during good weather. Though they weren't cheap, it's a splurge the family doesn't regret. The dining room table was built by John's father, a furniture maker in Maine.

You decided to build a small guest house in the backyard.

Rachel: Yes, it’s our little casita. It’s been a fun way to have our friends and family come and have their own space to hang out. It’s tiny, but you’ve got everything you need back there. And we have made some new friends. We’ve had people stay when the fires hit. We’re helping our son’s new soccer coach out. It’s like a revolving door back there, in a fun way. 

The guest cottage, nestled in the backyard, is a "revolving door, in a fun way," according to Rachel.

A guest cottage flanks the family's garden. The "casita" has hosted friends, family, and even wildfire evacuees.

It really seems like your house is a social space.

John: We’re definitely the "don’t even need to call, just knock on the door and come visit us" type of people. And we have a lot of good friends in the neighborhood who drop in.

Rachel: We have neighbors who come over, often just to give us some lemons or a smoked fish. It’s a very fluid neighborhood, and we like it that way. From our front porch we can talk to people on the street, and people are like, "Are you sure you want to do that?" That’s not the way people tend to build around here.

What are some of the things that you have chosen to fill your home with? Are they inspired by your travels and different life experiences?

John: We bought almost nothing new for this house. We bought a beautiful, felted rug for the living room and some stools for our counter, but by and large it’s like that Henry David Thoreau quote, "Beware of all occasions that require a new suit of clothes." 

Also, my father is a furniture maker and an artist, and he has a longstanding modern art gallery in Maine. We have a bunch of his furniture here. The big beautiful dining room table–he made that. He made the dining room chairs. And then the art is stuff that we have collected that has spoken to us at various times in our lives. We want this place to feel personal and authentic to who we are.

Wooden ceilings throughout the house make it a cozy, comfortable place. The couple bought virtually no new furniture for their new home, opting instead to use art they had collected on their travels and furniture, like this sideboard, made by John’s father.

I also notice a lot of Mexican-inspired flourishes.

Rachel: We spent a lot of time in Mexico, and it’s important to us, because my family is there, and we have deep connections to the country. There are a lot of moments of Oaxaca. Most of our traveling time in Mexico has been in Oaxaca, and it’s in the rugs and the art on the walls and the painting. That’s a big part of our house.

Handmade Oaxacan tile in the first floor bathroom add a touch of color to the house.

John: Even the tile in our first floor bathroom, that’s handmade Oaxacan pottery. Initially I was hesitant and thought it was overkill, but now it is one of my all-time favorite little moments in the house.  

More My House:

Apparel Designer Mikey Armenta’s Northern California Surf Retreat

Gallery Owner Francis Mill’s San Francisco Loft Is a Poetic "Place For Looking"

Travel Influencer Olivia Lopez’s Moody L.A. Loft

Project Credits:

Design Architect: Feldman Architecture / @feldmanarchitecture

Architect of Record: Tristan Warren

Landscape Design: Robert Trachtenburg, Garden Architecture 


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