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Homes are like books—the best ones tell great stories. And the first page of illustrator Tina Ochenante’s Marin, California, family home reveals a magical flying orca. The minute you cross the threshold into the three-bedroom house, a suspended whale—a $30 antique mall find—greets all who enter. “Our son is obsessed with it, and we put a Santa Claus hat on it [for the holidays] and a witch’s hat for Halloween,” says Tina. “The house doesn’t scream California, but it reminds us we are 15 minutes from the ocean.”

Red Earth Paint, Farrow & Ball.

Even though the storybook cottage and guesthouse are nestled among the redwoods, the space eschews Northern California tropes—mid-century architecture and bleached wood—and instead leans delightfully British, and purposefully so. Already an accomplished artist, Tina and her husband, Justin, who works in tech, moved to the U.K. pre-pandemic so she could take classes at Cambridge. But when COVID hit and they learned they were expecting, they moved back to the States, taking an Anglo design sensibility with them. “Tina has had Pinterest boards of different English cottages for forever, so we ran with that,” Justin says. 

Elise Range, Aga.
Jasper Fabrics Red Oak Stripe Fabric, Michael S. Smith, Inc.
Seabreeze Small Check Fabric, Chelsea Textiles.

The first step? Hiring Maria Wu of Studio Wu to help them through 18 months of renovations (as in, gutting the kitchen) and design decisions. Wu brought the basic interiors to life with colors and patterns that would feel British and playful—but not childish. It’s a delicate dance.

“When I’m preparing color palettes with materials and fabric, I start putting stuff together, and when I’m 90 percent there, I pull back and ask, ‘What’s the thing that I need to add to make it feel a little off?’” Wu says. For example, she found a floral pattern, like the powder room’s Adelphi yellow flower print, but chose it in an unexpected light blue colorway—then put it all next to mustard tile. 

The guesthouse bathroom. Griffin House Sprig Wallpaper, Adelphi Paper Hangings; Classic Field Tile, Heath.
The guesthouse kitchen.
The guesthouse laundry room.

The living room, which Wu washed in a moody grayish green, got a dose of personalized storybook charm around the fireplace, where she commissioned her artist-in-residence, aka Tina, to hand-paint squares in the style of traditional delft tiles. “I was excited about the idea, but we had a backup plan in case it looked terrible,” Tina says with a laugh. “This is our first time with a designer, and I was afraid that the space wouldn’t feel like us, but I knew this would make it ours.” Now it’s one of her favorite details in the home, and each tile signifies an important part of their lives. There’s a clock, for instance, because it was their son’s first word, and a picture of the beloved family dog, Alfonso. A hat represents Tina’s grandfather; an elephant for Justin’s grandmother. Some are inside jokes from the 20-plus years the couple has known each other. 

Art by Rose Blake.

In the primary bedroom, the charm continues with a spindle bed and two upholstered chairs facing each other next to the window, Tina’s preferred spot for morning free-writing sessions and reading. Plus: “It’s the best view in the house,” Wu says. And in the guesthouse, that whimsical (but never twee) trend goes on.

Suzanna Wallpaper, Lulie Wallace; Mist Tile, Fireclay.

It may not be England, and their life is decidedly nonfiction, but the home—with its funky color combos, custom tile, and that orca—is their happily ever after. 

The Goods