Photography by Elizabeth Messina

Styling by Anne Sage

Published on August 8, 2021

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As beautiful as photographer Elizabeth Messina’s new live-work studio is, it comes with a tragic backstory. The space, which is adjacent to her Santa Barbara, California, home, was destroyed in a fire two years ago—and while the house itself was thankfully unharmed, the garage–turned–photo studio needed to be completely rebuilt.

“It seemed like there were challenges every day. I labored over dozens of shades of gray before settling on the color for the plaster walls. I tried to think of the challenges as opportunities,” explains Messina of the extensive renovation, which took place over the course of two years. “I truly adore the whole space; it’s literally a dream come true that has risen from the ashes. The fire was heartbreaking, yet [something] more beautiful than I could have ever imagined has emerged. I feel grateful.”

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After dealing with the logistical restrictions that come from renovating a historic home (it was built in the 1920s), Messina turned the 1,000-square-foot space into something reflective of her love for neutrals and natural light. Tall 10-foot ceilings, multiple rooms, and plenty of windows only make the studio feel breezier. 

Messina worked with stylist Anne Sage, and they brought in gorgeous antique details to pay homage to the old-school charm of the original property.

“I had a vision of antique chandeliers, gray plaster walls, and natural light,” says Messina. “I hoped the space would feel like it had always been there, but was also full of clean lines and thoughtful details. Anne was an incredible sounding board and helped me hone in on my choices while keeping me sane.”

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The final product is so much more than a photo studio. Sure, the professional space is there and ready to be used in Messina’s trademark dreamy shoots, but the family also uses the property as a guesthouse and a site for more formal get-togethers like Thanksgiving—they even frequently make trips to the studio to hop in the spa-worthy bathtub.

“My husband and I had raised our three children in our home with only one bathroom for nearly 15 years. The bathroom is framed by the built-in library shelves, and I feel happy every time I walk in,” she says.

Read on for more details on the space, which, in Messina’s words, is “elegant, luminous, and comfortable”—an enviable combination of fancy and familiar.

Was there anything you absolutely wanted to have in the new space? Any wish-list items?

I knew I wanted a beautiful bathroom that would be perfect for editorial shoots, as well as a sanctuary for myself and my family. That meant a 5-by-5-foot wood window above a claw-foot tub with brass fixtures.

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My favorite chandelier is in the bathroom; [it] draws your eye up and accentuates the high ceilings. My dream came true with this room. Not only have I photographed many shoots in the space, it is a constant comfort to my family. After most shoots when the space is empty and quiet, I’ll take a bath to unwind. It’s the perfect live-work bathroom. 

The large windows throughout the space were also a must-have for me as a photographer. I can literally shoot in any room throughout the day with lovely natural light.

What was your style inspiration?

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I was inspired to create a space that was open and warm. I have been blessed that my work has taken me all over the world, and I think much of my style is influenced by my wanderlust. The library shelves are filled with my favorite books and collectibles from my travels. If you look closely, you’ll notice a vintage French crown and a black bowler hat. I also collected antique chandeliers for a year, as I knew I wanted them in every room.

I struggled to include so many different elements in a way that felt authentic and also stylistically consistent. The overall neutral color palette of the space helped balance my more eclectic style choices.

How did you settle on the neutral color palette?

I’m in love with almost all shades of gray. I also wanted the studio to be a place that was neutral and flexible enough to accommodate my ever-changing client list. I find the neutrals to be soothing and inviting.

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What are some of your favorite places to hunt for antiques?

My primary source for antiques is Elsie Green in Northern California. It has a vast and thoughtfully curated selection of unique French pieces. I also love Folly Home, Vintage Weave, and the Found Shop in Southern California, and I frequent garage sales and small shops every chance I get when traveling.

Do you have any tips for buying antiques?

I think it’s important to be open and enjoy the hunt. I love wandering through swap meets and estate sales, and I try not to be too specific [with my list]. For instance if I need a good table and am hunting only for a table, chances are I won’t find what I’m hoping for. Being more open allows you to see what unfolds before your eyes.

Also, if you love something and it’s in your budget, scoop it up. There are many pieces I regret not purchasing over the years.

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So often vintage pieces run the risk of creating a stuffy or antiquated atmosphere. How did you use yours to foster a space that feels warm and inviting?

I think (as with most things in life) it’s about balance. I love one-of-a-kind antique pieces with history. I also love clean lines and beautiful light. As a grounding base, there are concrete floors throughout the space, which echo the vibe of a cool New York loft. I wanted high ceilings like a perfect Paris apartment, to help the space feel larger than the 1,000-square-foot footprint. I then blended new elegant furnishings with handpicked antiques from the Loire Valley in France.

Can you share your tips on designing a multipurpose live-work space?

The most important tip I can offer is [to] trust yourself. No one knows your needs as much as you do. I am not a designer, but I had some very specific ideas for how I wanted my space to function and look. Do not be afraid to mix styles.

My space is a mixture of modern new furniture, one-of-a-kind antique pieces, and collectibles from all over the world. If you are on a budget and love vintage, check out garage and estate sales in your neighborhood. It’s a great way to find treasures for a bargain.

If you want to make a change in your existing space, paint and lighting can have the biggest impact. A simple coat of paint can freshen up any room, and a beautiful light fixture can create a focal point [at a] minimal cost.

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Bring life into your space. My talented friend Kim of Art With Nature helps me both with beautiful floral arrangements and stunning plants. I find a plant brings freshness to a room, especially in an office. A professional space simply needs to be a space you can work in and be yourself. I have to have computers in my editing room, but I didn’t want it to feel like an office per se. So I tucked the computers behind a wall and set them on a vintage table beneath a large map of Paris. I have a functional office that is also a space that makes me visually happy.

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