Frances Merrill likes a challenge. So when her clients, a couple with four children, purchased a three-bedroom, 1929 Tudor-style home in the Silicon Valley enclave of Woodside, California, that sorely needed an overhaul, she couldn’t resist. For Merrill—the Los Angeles–based founder of Reath Design who is known for her predilection for vibrant colors and for mixing -patterns—it helped that her clients’ purchase had charming, redwood-beamed ceilings and an enchanting cedar shake roof, among other details, and wasn’t one of the soulless, newly built McMansions endemic to the area.
“I love the idea that they bought something impractical that had an innate history because they found it more interesting,” says Merrill. The family wanted a house with authentic character and quirks that reflected the joyful chaos of their family life. Merrill compares her work to cooking, and for a project that required lots of reconfigurations, she went about gathering the ingredients for a family-friendly recipe with an elegant, muted palette inspired by the lovingly tended garden left behind by the previous owners. Merrill set out to bring that magic inside: “The blues, watery greens, and pale purples of the garden felt fresh, especially with all the browns of the wood in the house.”
First up was tackling the biggest project—the addition of three bedrooms for the children—by transforming the unfinished, sprawling attic into a suite of spaces that also includes places to hang out, desks, and generous window seats tucked into the dormer windows. Merrill inset the attic’s paneled walls with wallpaper by Pierre Frey in a pattern with intricate, graphic florals that pleasantly tease the eye and, with the addition of white oak, contribute to a more modern effect.
That philosophy of bringing the past into the present with imaginative reinvention is what drew the clients to Reath Design. “Frances is impeccable at interpreting authenticity. It’s some kind of sorcery!” says one of them. She has a “fearlessness combining your grandmother’s weird old oil painting with a sculptural Italian sofa and making it all feel like it’s been that way forever—yet somehow current.”
Downstairs, the structural work entailed opening the floor plan while respecting the integrity of the house. Instead of blowing out the space, Merrill created new archways that gracefully lead the eye from one room to the next. While Merrill admits that the living room—a long, rectangular space—was difficult to furnish, she embraced its original wood floors, beamed ceilings, and the simple brick-framed fireplace, now flanked by sculptural Servomuto linen sconces. A chaise with a pleated skirt covered in a Pierre Frey chintz anchors the room in the Old World, positioned adjacent to a pair of Frank Gehry Wiggle stools.
“Frances is impeccable at interpreting authenticity. It’s some kind of sorcery!”
She also reimagined the kitchen, which was small and closed off, into an open space with a custom-built walnut butcher block table. In the adjoining breakfast room, the Henning Kjærnulf “razorblade” chairs around a Jean Prouvé table are upholstered in a Michael Smith for Jasper fabric and subtly echo the green-marble countertops. To balance the colors and the natural light, and to showcase the striking Heather Evans Smith photograph of a child, Merrill used 10 different enveloping shades of cream.
While not large, the primary bedroom downstairs is a sanctuary for the couple. With details like the custom carved-wood headboard, inset with a Maharam mohair accent inspired by an old photograph of a French château, it offers even more visions of what a Tudor house might look like if it were built today by someone who isn’t afraid of whimsy—and breaking a few rules. “It was nice to create a family-friendly piece of work that’s elegant but not too precious,” says Merrill. “I never want it to feel as if everything was purchased at once. I’d rather it look more like an evolution,” she adds.
One of the clients recounts a “hilarious compliment” about the house from a good friend. “She said, ‘It’s like really, really good plastic surgery. It’s beautiful. You know something has changed, but you can’t tell what.’ ” If Merrill is known as the best plastic surgeon of interior design, she says, “I’ll take it.”
This story originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE
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