The best-laid plans are often some of the best delayed plans, imagined and sketched over decades, growing and forming alongside children doing much of the same. For one Newport Beach, California, gardener and her husband, these grand ambitions lay right in their own backyard—and in the colorful mind of their designer, Peter Dunham.
As green thumbs know, every now and then potted plants need to be repotted, given a dose of fresh soil with room for roots to expand and breathe. Plants in the ground might need to be thinned out or moved to a more suitable location. Change is good. And as the owners of this Newport Beach, California, home realized, what is true for gardens can also hold true for the home.
More than 25 years ago, the couple—the wife an avid gardener—bought this wooded corner lot nestled by a park in this Southern California beach town. “We were drawn to the big yard and neighborhood more so than the house,” she says of the traditional L-shaped abode with limited natural light. “We raised our family here and remodeled a few times,” she says, but now with the kids grown, it was time to do what gardeners do: move things around and make some changes. They’d been dreaming about starting fresh for 20 years.
Indeed, this layering finesse is why the owners tapped Dunham. “I love his deft use of vintage pieces with contemporary art,” says the owner, whose existing collection, including the Jennifer Bartlett painting anchoring the living room, is intermingled with new treasures, like a 19th-century bullseye mirror over the fireplace that Dunham and the owner found on a shopping trip to Avignon, France. “Well, we plundered more than shopped,” admits Dunham, whose “eyes lit up like magpies” upon spotting that mirror.
“I tell my clients early on that I’m likely to call saying I’d found such and such, and they have to buy it,” jokes the designer. In this case, it was a library he spotted in England—50 feet of walnut bookcases exactly the right ceiling height. “The holy grail of architectural salvage,” he says, never mind the complexities of shipping and reconfiguring it. (“We’ll just cut and paste,” Dunham assured the skeptical husband.) After it arrived in “a million pieces,” Dunham’s colleague, architect Timothy Joslin, and a master carpenter spent some six months tailoring it to fit. Meanwhile, Dunham cut the legs off a Georgian sideboard, fashioning a desk big enough for the broad window.
The wife is a serious cook, so she knew how she wanted her kitchen to function. The back kitchen was “planned around a nine-foot-long zinc sink with draining boards from a circa-1920s Park Avenue apartment,” says Dunham. A steel-and-brass custom hood, inspired by 19th-century English houses, haloes the main kitchen’s cooking island. In the family room, Dunham turned French leather wrestling mats into an ottoman. “It’s indestructible,” says the wife.