Published on September 2, 2021

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Photography by Yoshihiro Makino

When we first stepped foot in our mid-century glass treehouse home, I knew we would be undertaking an all-consuming restoration. This was the one. Although the house had not been updated since the ’70s, the layout was a dream. The low-slung modern facade opens up onto an untamed back hillside (soon to become a fruit orchard), set over a bubbling stream already populated with edible taro and wild irises. Unlike most mid-century homes, whose kitchens are squirreled away out of sight, this kitchen flows seamlessly into the dining and living rooms, which is critical for a cook like me, who likes to socialize while putting the finishing touches on dinner. Flawless design aside, this was a soup-to-nuts fixer-upper. Our task would be to restore the space to its original splendor more than to put our stamp on its master plan.

There were endless rules in place, since we had undertaken the landmarking process and were contractually bound to the original intent of the architect, Boyd Georgi. We would have to add our personal touch to the home with small details. While we imagined we would make the late Georgi proud of our restoration efforts, we also imagined we might make him giggle at the elements of surprise throughout; thoughtful details that could make the house belong to only us. 

The interior design offered us a chance to work with friends, to repurpose old artworks, and to take creative liberties with what was otherwise a relatively academic exercise. Here are a few of the special touch points that made the house feel like home. 

Wallpaper

pale pink and blue wallpaper, baby chair and stuffed girafePin It
Courtesy of Julia Sherman
pale pink and blue wallpaper with dogsPin It
Courtesy of Julia Sherman

For the most part, the modern, clean lines of the house didn’t call for wallpaper. But a child’s room is always an exception, a world unto itself. We shopped around and decided we didn’t want just any off-the-shelf paper. Instead I turned to California-based wallpaper company Astek to create a custom adhesive-backed vinyl paper that would be both durable and semipermanent (and something we could install ourselves in a matter of hours). 

My daughter loves dogs. She watches them prance past her window morning, noon, and night. I called on Barcelona-based print designers Batabasta to customize one of its existing prints to incorporate not only our terrier, Lucy, but also my own late Labrador and the corgi of mythical proportions from my husband’s childhood. Batabasta even added an illustration of my daughter riding the largest of the pack through a pink-and-blue–streaked sky. She fell on her face (literally) in excitement when we did the big reveal. 

Astek will print custom designs, so reach out to your favorite illustrator and see if they would be willing to adapt any of their existing work into wallpaper—or design something yourself. Just consider what works well as a 54-inch-wide repeat. And if you are installing the paper yourself, it’s best to avoid patterns that require precise edge-to edge matching between the strips of paper (the soft background of the sky was the perfect forgiving motif). 

Lighting

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Courtesy of Julia Sherman

Although the house was built in 1959, many of the original light dimmers and fixtures remained, and they were in terrible shape. We wanted to replace the old, yellowed plastic knob on our new living room wall but couldn’t find something that worked off the shelf. The knob was quite an eyesore and located in a prominent place. 

Using alginate, the purple, nontoxic casting goop you may remember from the orthodontist’s office, I made a mold of my daughter’s foot by mixing the powder with water and letting it set around her tiny toes in a small Tupperware container. Afterward I poured melted beeswax into the mold and made a casting of her foot. 

I contacted Pruskin Hardware, a custom bronze cabinet hardware maker that I had been stalking on Instagram, and asked the owner, Ben Pruskin, if he would collaborate on this very specific project. We sent the wax foot to a local foundry to be cast in bronze, and then fixed it to the wall. Now we just have to tickle the tiny appendage to adjust the living room lighting.

Custom Fabric for Upholstery

black and white custom cushionPin It
Courtesy of Julia Sherman

The living room came with a bench that spanned one side of the room, but it was simply an austere plank of wood—definitely not inviting. We decided to make a custom cushion to warm it up, but what fabric would we use? I had the idea to translate a work of art into a woven tapestry. There are so many digital printing options out there these days, and some even offer the chance to have an image digitally woven into yardage itself. Check out Spoonflower and Prinfab

We took high-resolution images of my friend artist Ruby Stiler’s incredibly detailed paintings and had them woven into tapestry fabric by simply resizing them and emailing them to the weaver. Once the fabric was in hand, we had the local upholsterer make simple cushions for the bench and one large one for the floor. It might sound extravagant, but a 55-inch-long floor cushion cost me $225.

Coffee Table

blue corner sofa, jute rug and yellow chairPin It
Courtesy of Julia Sherman
custom coffee tablePin It
Courtesy of Julia Sherman

When we had our daughter, we didn’t want to go overboard with the babyproofing, but some things were nonnegotiable. We had a 4-foot-tall plate of glass that leaned against our wall, an artwork with a photo adhered to its surface that I had made years ago. What was once a delicate piece had suddenly become a menacing threat. Instead of hiding it away to collect dust indefinitely in the basement, we repurposed it as the glass top to a coffee table. 

We worked with our friend, Los Angeles–based Wesley Thatcher of WP Design, to weld a supersimple open frame with hidden struts to reinforce the glass. It was powder-coated black. This was a relatively fast project, but making a coffee table can be even easier than that. Just choose something sturdy for the base—you could source a tree stump and have it sanded to a flat plane or scavenge vintage breeze block or glass brick. A local glass supplier can cut a piece of tempered glass to spec and help you determine its ideal thickness for your specific project.

Custom projects might not always be the most efficient, direct path to crossing items off your to-do list, but the results will certainly be more rewarding than any off-the-shelf purchase you make. I rely on experts in their craft to fabricate my designs, collaborating and leaning on their experience to ensure the quality and ultimate outcome of these details (as much as I would love to, I don’t have time to TIG weld my own table or weave my own tapestry fabric at this moment in my life). Reach out to local artisans and see who is down to collaborate—oftentimes makers find projects like these super-inspiring and a great way to push themselves to do something just a little bit different.

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