How an L.A. Family Made the Most of Their Home’s Inconvenient, Sunken Dining Room

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red dining room chairs
Custom Fireplace; Custom Table, Earthbound Industries; Dome Pendant Lamp, Allied Maker; Lemieux et Cie Goubi Rug, Lulu and Georgia; Gropius Chair by Noom, 1stDibs.

Growing up in an Italian family, Sara Matarazzo’s understanding of a timeless home was one where all the furniture was covered in plastic. “Stuff had to last,” she says. But when the Los Angeles–based music supervisor and her son, Lincoln (now 9), stopped by interior designer Jessica Hansen’s Santa Monica home years ago for a birthday party, she learned that wasn’t the only way. “Her home had this lasting feeling, but it wasn’t covered in plastic,” continues Matarazzo. “I didn’t really understand what was happening; I just knew it was beautiful.” She recruited Hansen, the founder of Tandem Design, to help her outfit her office spaces in California and New York City, before eventually asking the now Portland, Oregon–based designer to renovate her family’s Laurel Canyon house. 

The cira-1950s home’s sunken dining room was something Hansen had seen in many California homes before. The awkward space, delineated from the adjacent kitchen, entry, and living room by a step, had clearly been a covered patio before being fully enclosed. Matarazzo was set on keeping the feature (it reminded her of a room in one of her childhood homes) while introducing a sense of flow to the zone, which leads out to the pool in the backyard. “We wanted to be able to see our children at all times,” she notes. 

island counter stools on step down
Calís Pendant Lamps, Takto; Custom Kitchen Island, Libmart MFG Group; Electric Thermal Convection Oven by Viking, Snyder Diamond; Vintage Stools; Sayat Fabric, Zak + Fox; Pull-Down Kitchen Faucet, Newport Brass.
terrazzo counter
Pacifica Alabaster Stone, Concrete Collaborative; MQuan Circle Sconce, Allied Maker.

After streamlining the hardwood flooring throughout, Hansen and her design coordinator, Kate Totten, focused on connecting the kitchen to the sunken space with a semicircular island that straddled the ledge. “I laughed so hard, because I used to be a DJ in the ’90s and I ended up with a sink that looks like you could play a set at it,” shares Matarazzo. The counter-height stools arranged on the lower side of the structure act as visual markers to guests that they’re going to have to be cautious of their footfall, helping to keep the tripping to a minimum. 

sage green kitchen cabinets
Custom Cabinetry, Libmart MFG Group; Umi Naya Tile, DDS Tile & Stone.

To ensure the new cabinets wouldn’t look overly busy, Hansen relegated oversized oak handles to the lower sage green fronts and went with seamless finger pulls on the highest cupboards. Behind closed doors, though, she employed a series of complex compartments. She hid unsightly electrical outlets within upper cabinets “because I hate poking holes in the backsplash,” she says, and stuck a second cubby within the trash pull-out so the family can snag a new garbage bag as soon as the old one has been taken out. It’s one of the reasons Matarazzo best describes her house as practical. “You hear that word and you think stuffy or khaki pants,” she says with a laugh. “But Jessica looks at it as everything has meaning. Everything has a purpose.” 

family playing in living room
Vintage Sofa, Pop Up Home; Tri-Column Coffee Table, MSJ Furniture; Monte Pom-Pom Cushion, Pampa; Polar Floor Lamp, CB2; N.07 Rug, Cappelen Dimyr; Bone Small and Small Plus Tile, Stone Source.
shower with lush green exterior
Custom Vanity, Mudd Studios; Pill Shape Vanity Mirror by Glass Warehouse, Home Depot; Vessel Lavatory Faucet, California Faucets; Miro Terra Artesano Tile, DDS Tile & Stone; Anni Sconces, Cedar & Moss
robes hanging in shower

The double-sided fireplace acts as a privacy and noise barrier to the adjacent TV room without taking away from the airy feel of the entertaining space. Hansen and Totten had the dining room side built out of metal and wood to create its unique, rounded shape before plastering over it with the same Limestrong finish used in the primary bathroom. “It has this sort of ancient feel to it that brings age to a house that you’ve just gutted,” says Totten. 

curved white sofa
Modular Channel Sofa, Claude Home; Custom Shelves, Modern Shelving; Tangent 7 Flush Ceiling Light, Allied Maker; Tom Natural Coffee Table by Leanne Ford, Crate & Barrel; Textile Collection Pillows, Proba Home; Brace Rug, Studio Truly Truly
art over console table
Custom Console, Kindred Furniture; Toivo Pedestal, Lulu and Georgia; Hieroglyph Pendant, Workstead; Framed Art by Sasha Pierce, Richard Heller Gallery.
lavender purple shelving unit
Custom Shelf Table, Chris Toavs; Mia Office Chair, Rove; Framed Art by Amy Bennett, Richard Heller Gallery.

The shelving unit in the formal living area is a time-tested favorite of Hansen’s (she first used it in her own home and subsequently in clients’ spaces). The piece isn’t actually attached to the walls or ceiling—it’s made up of retention poles. “Which means you can take it with you when you move,” she says. For Matarazzo’s office, however, the designer went with a more permanent, custom solution: lavender-stained wood shelving with an integrated desk. The planks are a porous ash wood, which means they absorb the pigment in a way that still reveals the texture of the grain (plus it won’t chip over time like paint might). 

terrazzo topped bench
Custom Storage Bench; Speckled Tunnel Hooks, Don Lo Mercantile; Terra Surface Ceiling Light, Cedar & Moss.
dog sitting in front of bed
Lunar Pendant Light, Sin; Soft Closing Drawers Nightstands, Oak Studio Designs, Etsy; N.05 Rug, Cappelen Dimyr; Group Bed by Philippe Malouin for SCP, The Future Perfect; Wicker Wardrobe by Ropa, Happy Place; Art by Sara Berman, Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery.

Given the home only spans roughly 2,600 square feet, Hansen and Totten had to work to find room for clothes storage, too. Totten stumbled across an Etsy shop based in Turkey that was selling kids’ wardrobe systems and asked if it could make adult-size ones with a few custom touches for the couple’s primary bedroom. The units shipped flat-pack with all the right parts…except an instruction manual in English. “I had to work with a TaskRabbit over FaceTime, due to COVID, to put them together,” she recalls. 

blue shower wall tile
Portico Planter, Misewell; Allene Soaking Tub by Signature Hardware,; Tub Hardware, California Faucets; Custom Vanity by Chris Toavs, Generations Handcrafted
white tub with wall filler
Portico Planter, Misewell; Allene Soaking Tub by Signature Hardware,; Tub Hardware, California Faucets.

The painting over the couple’s bed ultimately drove the home’s brown, cream, pink, and copper palette. “It transcends throughout the house,” says Matarazzo, who began collecting art back when she and her husband, Dan, lived in Portland, prekids. Leaving many of the walls blank was an intentional move by Hansen to showcase their pieces, as though the house was a gallery of sorts. That same thinking trickled into the bathrooms, where the designer introduced matte white plumbing fixtures to ensure the bold tile remained the focal point. 

white bathroom sink
Custom Mirror, Model Line Design; Custom Sink, Mudd Studios; Context Field Tile, Ann Sacks; Lodge Cord Pendant Lamp, Workstead; Sin Tunnel Hand Hook, West Elm; Single Handle Vessel Lavatory Faucet, California Faucets

Finding matching white doorknobs was the easy part. But when it came to the hinges, Totten once again searched abroad and ultimately landed on hardware from Australia. The catch was, doors in the U.S. adhere to completely different specifications. “It meant that every door had to be either modified and bought without being bored, or bored on-site,” she says. It was a tough ask for their millworker, Christ Toavs, but he pulled through, including in the new third bathroom, which used to be a water heater closet. 

girls room with pink chair
Joy Clay Table Lamp by Leanne Ford, Dolly Bookcase by Leanne Ford, and Roselle Dresser, Crate & Barrel; Divon Twin Bed, Kalon; Through Desert and Mesa Rug, Cold Picnic; Large Painting by Alex Proba, Studio Proba.
boys room with green rug
Custom Bed; Tabitha Media Console, Urban Outfitters; Gemstone Saucer Pot, Greenwood Shop; Purple Noon Rug, Cold Picnic; Art by Neil Farber and David Jien, Richard Heller Gallery.

While Matarazzo’s 3 1/2-year-old daughter, Arabella, didn’t have much of an opinion on her bedroom’s design, Lincoln’s top request was that a reptile be in his. He got his wish on his eighth birthday—his gecko’s name is Balloons. “I think that’s where a lot of the green and fun prints came from,” Hansen says of translating his interests to the decor. These kids luckily don’t have to sit on sticky, plastic-covered sofas or carry coasters with them from room to room. Instead they get to enjoy plush velvets, fuzzy sheepskin, and cozy wool, without fear that things won’t last.

velvet swivel chair
Straw Floor Lamp, Julie Lansom; Group Armchair by Philippe Malouin for SCP, The Future Perfect; Bozzi Mongolian Sheepskin Ottoman, CB2

The Goods

Through Desert and Mesa Rug, Cold Picnic

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Wicker Wardrobe by Ropa, Happy Place

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Lunar Pendant, Sin

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Toivo Pedestal, Lulu and Georgia

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Lydia Geisel Avatar

Lydia Geisel

Home Editor

Lydia Geisel has been on the editorial team at Domino since 2017. Today, she writes and edits home and renovation stories, including house tours, before and afters, and DIYs, and leads our design news coverage. She lives in New York City.