How a few changes gave a Sebastopol home a completely new look

How do you give an older house a fresher look without completely changing its character?

That was the challenge designer Tama Bell took on when asked to update an older Sebastopol ranch house that was last remodeled 20 years ago.

The owners loved the house just as it was. They really didn’t want a new house or even a dramatic makeover. They just wanted to polish it up with a few cosmetic enhancements, while maintaining the warmth and familiarity of the original house, which had been in the family for years.

The changes Bell came up with are subtle and ?required no real construction work. No doors, windows or walls were removed or added. Instead, Bell worked within the existing footprint and architecture.

It’s amazing what new paint, floor surfaces, tile, fixtures and a bit of furniture moving can do.

“The bones were there. They just needed to be shined up a bit,” said Bell of Tama Bell Design in Sebastopol.

Anyone who has lived in their home more than a decade faces this same challenge. You may not want to make wholesale changes. Or maybe your budget doesn’t permit a major makeover.

The owner, who asked that her name not be used, said she and her husband talked to several San Francisco designers but didn’t find anyone who understood or supported their goal of maintaining much of the house as is.

“They wanted to strip it down and move walls and tear it apart,” she said. “They didn’t embrace or get the idea of preserving the old and beloved and just making it a more contemporary, lighter and brighter space. There was so much that we really wanted to preserve, whether it was pieces of furniture or just a certain feel.”

The house, which sits on 40 wooded acres between Sebastopol and the coast, had belonged to her husband’s aunt and is more than half a century old. His aunt had no children of her own so he would come over, starting in his early teens, and help her tend her cattle, llamas, chickens, horses and 350 apple trees. In the process, he developed a deep fondness for the place. And now that he is the steward, he wants to preserve it, his wife said.

The couple was dining at Handline on Highway 116 when they happened upon Bell’s office. They peeked in the window and the design caught their eyes. They liked that it had a clean and fresh look without appearing cold.

“I’m fine with modern touches but so many modern surfaces are really cold and hard. And this is not a family where the designer is going to be meeting and working with the home office personnel,” the owner said. “I am the home office personnel. I get to tell you all the horror stories. We have the grandkids and the dogs running in and out of here and nobody is taking off their shoes.”

So Bell approached the project with a light touch and respect for the legacy of house.

She started with the entrance to make it more inviting. The front of the house featured twin French doors with a brick fireplace between them. But a heavy hedge and other overgrown foliage blocked the flow to the door on the left.

Bell opened it up by removing all the plantings and a portion of deck railing. That exposed a substantial grade difference between the two sides. So she designed a set of flagstone steps in the lower slope, making a more formal and welcoming entrance.

Then she painted the dark exterior with Benjamin Moore’s Dragon’s Breath and Black Tar on doors and windows to add sophistication to the overall look and to bring out the architecture.

The owners were fond of their old brick fireplace. Bell saw that with a bit of finishing detail, she could bring out its beauty. She covered the plain Sheetrock above the fireplace with whitewashed vertical planking, added a larger, unfinished wood mantle in a lighter shade, brought in more illumination with shaded sconces and repainted the room in classic white.

To ease traffic flow in the room she moved furniture. The dining room table had been on one side and the sofa and chairs on the opposite side of the room. She decided to flip them, creating a comfy sitting area closer to French doors overlooking a covered deck.

It’s easy to create a new look in an existing room with little investment simply by moving furniture. Bell kept the leather chairs but brought in a new, more contemporary sofa. Twin ottoman cubes in a light shade of fabric replaced a mission style oak coffee table. The space was set off with a natural fiber woven rug edged in leather, picking up the leather in the chairs. The TV and stand were sent off to a family room in a separate bunk house. She kept the lovely long, natural wood dining table but made it more contemporary with a pair of upholstered chairs on the ends.

The great room has vaulted wood ceilings, which are beautiful, said Bell, but prohibit the use of can lighting. She worked around that by adding simple track lighting and camouflaging it behind beams to bring more light into the space in the evening.

Small changes made a big impact in the kitchen. The wood cabinets were painted a crisp white and the handles were replaced with more modern metal fixtures. Bell removed the heavy, commercial grade brown tile floor with charcoal gray porcelain in both the kitchen and bathrooms.

No structural changes were made to the bathrooms. But new custom designed white oak vanities with soapstone counters, and new shaded sconces gave the rooms a more updated look. While the homeowners wanted to keep the existing white tile in the bathrooms, Bell changed out the shower pan with clipped mosaic Carrara marble.

The makeover was minimalist, but managed to give an old house a new look with laser precision and a light touch.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or

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