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A Twisted Victorian in San Francisco

At their first meeting, the owners of this 1,500-square-foot flat in San Francisco made it a point to tell architect Karen Curtiss that what they wanted to do to their home didn't make financial sense. "They knew they could buy a house with the money they planned to spend on the condo," Curtiss says. "However, they didn't want to move. They love their neighbors, the coffee shop on the corner and urban life. They wanted to stay put." Their desire was to recreate the space as a home that was both sophisticated and (sometimes darkly) witty. For the project, Curtiss assembled a team of creative craftspeople and designers and called upon her own inner naturalist. The result is a project she dubbed Victorian Second Nature. It's a home that might not add up in terms of expenditures, but for the irreverent couple who lives here, the pay off is huge.

Mary Jo Bowling
  • Photo credit: Ed Ritger
    Crawling Walls

    In the media room, the wallpaper pattern is made up of curving snakes. Curtiss says the animal motifs are an homage to the Victorian era. "The Victorians were kind of strange," she says. "We have this image of them as prim and proper, but actually they were kind of twisted. For instance, they loved taxidermy and were known for cobbling pieces of animals together."

  • Photo credit: Ed Ritger
    Evil Bathroom

    Curtiss, principal at Red Dot Studio, says that the client meetings were unlike any she had experienced. "We spent a lot of time looking at books for inspiration," she says. "And once, to illustrate patterns he liked, the client showed me his T-shirt collection." However, when he shared a book of drawings by the naturalist Ernst Haeckel, it gave her a big idea. She sent some of Haeckel's drawings, which are not copyrighted, to a company called Murals Your Way to create the wallpaper for this bathroom. "They had never really done something like this before," she says. "All along the way, as we asked vendors to try something new, we kept getting an 'are you sure?' response." The beautiful, if slightly menacing, images and the noose holders for shampoo and conditioner gave this room the title of Evil Bathroom.

  • Photo credit: Ed Ritger
    Something Fishy in the Office

    For the office, Curtiss used more of Haeckel's illustrations on wallpaper behind the desk. "Having the jellyfish there gives the space the  illusion of floating," says Curtiss. Thomas Wold did the cabinetry in the house. In this room, he wanted to paint each cabinet a different color, but Curtiss disagreed. "I could tell he was disappointed," she says. "So I allowed him to paint the inside of the office cabinets and the back of the doors any color he wanted. I knew the client would love it."

  • Photo credit: Ed Ritger
    Eye to the Outside

    Because the couple lives on the top of the building, Curtiss wanted to give them a better connection to the outdoors. She worked with Aaron Gordon, principle of Aaron Gordon Construction and long-time friend of the client, on this project. Together, they converted an old laundry porch—considered an existing nonconforming element of the building by city code—into a deck.


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