Sea Ranch home makeover pulls Japanese design back to the beach

After preserving the former owner’s Japanese interior, a Sea Ranch homeowner determines to finally make it her own.|

Elena Whorton’s Sea Ranch home came with an unusual string attached.

When the Rohnert Park woman bought the now 43-year-old coastal hideaway on the forested side of Highway 1 four years ago, she promised the elderly woman who owned it at the time, that she would keep all of her things exactly as she left them.

The wife of a former high official in San Francisco’s Japanese consulate, the woman wanted to find a buyer who would cherish her Asian aesthetic and treasures and much as she did.

The house was so intact it still contained clothes in the closet and expired water in the refrigerator. It clearly hadn’t been touched in several years and nothing had been removed,

“She wrote to me a five-page handwritten love letter to everything she had there. She talked about where they got each piece,”Whorton said. “I took it to heart. I kept it for four years. I loved it. I felt a responsibility to it and I really wanted to honor her.”

“But I didn’t believe it meant forever.”

At some point Whorton came to grips with the fact that she felt like she was living in someone else’s home and acting only as curator. It was finally time, and OK, to make it her own.

“I never felt comfortable with it. I’m not delicate,” Whorton said of the formal Japanese decor.

“One of the few pieces I brought up there that I really love was a footprint of a dinosaur. I love dinosaurs and rocks. My house looks like a cross between the Addams Family and National Geographic. I have stuff from all over the world.”

A successful businesswomen who worked her way up from EMT to co-founder of ProTransport-1, the largest private medical transport company in the state, Whortom knows what she likes but she had no idea how to incorporate that into her Japanese home in the woods. So she enlisted the help of interior designer Steve Marraffino of Marracar Design (the name is a mash-up of his and his partner Matt Carswell’s names). Marraffino, who had re-done her home in Rohnert Park, was charged with bringing the home back from “the Orient to the Timber Coast” as he put it.

The 2,600-square-foot house, built by a contractor in classic early Sea Ranch style to resemble a barn with unpainted redwood siding, was filled inside with Japanese touches - tansu cabinets, nesting tables, paper lantern shades, shoji screens, a sake set and collection of small Hina doll, to name just a few.

The dining room contained a Japanese tea table with uncomfortable upright wooden chairs that sat unused. In the shower were pictures of Sumo wrestlers. It was tasteful, just not Whorton’s taste.

Marraffino said in tackling the remodel, his design team wanted to respect the architecture, with its chunky redwood beams, redwood tongue and groove ceilings and stacking stone fireplace wall. The weathered exterior and original footprint was not changed. Any exterior changes at the Sea Ranch have to go through intense and often lengthy design review.

“It’s a rustic area in the redwoods and we wanted to keep that feeling, but I also wanted it to feel contemporary and clean, to brighten it up and create a welcoming space,” the designer said. He accomplished that by incorporating lighter-colored flooring and fabrics, softer upholstery, along with accents of sea glass colors woven into the artwork, wall paint and accessories. The effect is a “sophisticated coastal feel” without being overly beachy like an East Coast seaside cabin.

Marraffino looked for relatively small changes - without undergoing major construction - that would make big statements. One was to change the railing and balusters in front of an open, second floor office nook.

The previous railing was a natural wood with a Japanese craftsman look. He replaced that with more of a white picket fence-style railing with square balusters, also painted white. White baseboards throughout the house further freshened the dark spaces.

Whorton showed Marraffino a cigar box of seaglass that she had collected, and those soft green, blue and turquoise pieces became the inspiration for the color scheme throughout the house. Along with the white trim, it gave the house “a fresh, breezy coastal feel without being so literal, or saying, ‘Hey, I’m a beach house.’ This house could be anywhere,” he said.

Benjamin Moore has a Beach Glass series and Marraffino chose that for the family room. Marraffino made other visual changes through new furniture, accessories, light fixtures and artwork.

A sunroom was lifted from drab conventionality with a redwood tree trunk dining table with a large 72-inch glass top and peacock slipcovered chairs in a perennials fabric that is UV resistant to fading. Every room needs a focal feature; Marracar designed one - a lighting fixtures featuring antique-style hand-blown glass buoys, LED lights and a custom white wood mount to show off its colors.

“A little bit of whimsy in design is good to stimulate conversation and not take oneself too seriously,” he said.

The family room before was awkward, Marraffino said.

For the living room he brought in a custom-made broken glass and resin art piece to catch the eye on entry and to announce the color scheme. He rearranged and replaced the awkward furniture setting - twin love seats staring at each other, a cabinet wedged into a corner blocking the pass space and metal task lights - with a custom bench seat sofa and love seat, a set of faux white ostrich skin ottomans with silver nail head trim to add to the seating and ceramic crackle glazed table lamps in celadon green. A swivel chair in Capri blue adds a dab of soft seaside color.

The former furnishings were not the right scale for the room. Sometimes simply moving furniture around can dramatically change the feel and functionality of a room.

That was the case as well for the family room, Whorton said.

“The TV room was a rectangle. We had two recliners at the short end and a TV on the other end. It was always uncomfortable,” she recalled. Watching TV with any more than one other person became a problem.

She said she was amazed by the difference Marraffino made with the proper furnishings and orientation. He made it more functional with a Vanguard section in Crypton stain-resistant fabric, and an oversized ottoman on casters with double nailhead trim that can also be used as a coffee table.

Marraffino incorporated some dramatic night sky photographs by well-known Sea Ranch photographer Paul Kozal along a gallery wall in the family room for an added sense of place.

“The night skies and the colors are rich and blue. Then we have these mirrors on the wall next to a side chair that have a Sputnik feel. It feels a little like a galaxy room, which is great for movies,” Marraffino said.

Even in making her Sea Ranch getaway her own, she paid respects to the woman who loved it before her. She gifted most of the items in the house to people she believed would appreciate them; among the recipients was Ken Tominaga, the owner of Rohnert Park’s Hana restaurant.

She also gave him a stunning old kimono that had hung on one wall.

Whorton gave the Marracar team free rein to complete their transformation as they saw fit, based on what they came to know about her interests, taste and lifestyle. When she first walked in she knew she finally felt at home.

“He knew what I wanted. I just let him do it and I couldn’t be more pleased,” she said. “When I go up to The Sea Ranch now, it just makes me feel happy. It now brings the outdoors in and it seems to fit.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 707-521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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