Ken Fulk’s Lightning-Fast Belvedere Remodel


To illustrate Ken Fulk’s living and design philosophy, let’s simply say: When asked to wear a top hat for this story, he had one in his closet. Fulk’s brand of interior design is one part skill, one part fantasy and one part pure showmanship. Following him around this Belvedere home he designed, it’s clear that he’s a member of that rare breed of architects and designers (from Frank Lloyd Wright to Barbara Barry) who do more than just create a beautiful home; they craft a lifestyle. And in Fulk’s case, he can do it, forgive the pun, at the drop of a hat.

The home, dubbed the Peterson House when it was built in 1902, is perched on a steep slope of the Marin County island and features the kind of views that make people fall in love with California. When the current owners—a family with three teenagers—bought it, Fulk was in the midst of building a grand Wine Country retreat for them, a process that took more than two years. “They came to a meeting in the middle of that project and said, ‘Oh, we may have another one for you. We just purchased a home on Belvedere, and we want to move in right away,’” he says. “From start to finish, we completed it in four weeks, with the exception of the children’s playroom downstairs, which required some construction. We were in and out with surgical precision.

Standing on the terrace, Fulk rests his hands on the heavy, rounded balustrade and gazes over the rose garden to the water views. “When I saw this house, it reminded me of the television show The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” he says. “As a child, I watched the reruns incessantly, and I always loved the house where they lived. [The program, based on the 1947 movie of the same name, was taped at the historic Victorian Eclectic Neal House in Montecito]. This home seemed like the kind of place a sea captain would have built and then haunted. Frankly, it’s the kind of place where I would have loved to grow up.”

Looking at the rambling, shingled exterior, the many-gabled roof and then inside at the long, winding staircase and crow’s nest, it’s easy to make the connection. The problem was that before Fulk’s interior work, the home’s public spaces had all the appeal and interest of a mass-market, big-box design store, and the color palette was gray-on-gray-on-taupe.

Fulk and his team went in and remade nearly the entire space in less time than it would take many designers to order a single, custom-designed chair. But make no mistake: This isn’t an off-the-shelf instant interior. “The look is of a home collected over time—not purchased from a single place,” says Fulk’s associate and the lead project manager, Daryl Serrett. “Ken wants to create an interior that looks like it’s been assembled, not ‘done.’ He’s always telling us, ‘Don’t make it too showroom-y.’”

In that spirit, you find rooms outfitted like the living room, with a fluffy, peacock-inspired North African rug; a rich teal velvet sofa topped with crimson pillows; leather midcentury chairs sporting traditional nailhead detailing; burlap-like linen curtains banded with a turquoise velvet trim and traditional wing chairs updated with a graphic-print upholstery and pumpkin-colored cushions. Two stone greyhounds flank the fireplace, an oversize hourglass sits on the coffee table and curvaceous tufted leather chairs surround a game table tucked into the corner. The blend of old and new pieces, as well as bright colors and layered textures set against the backdrop of classic architecture, have the effect of a serious man giving a sidelong wink or a regal woman hiding a smile behind her hand.

“This is a house that doesn’t take itself too seriously,” says Fulk. “It shouldn’t—three kids live here. We took tradition and turned it on its head to make it young and playful. Plus, the clients love color and they are absolutely fearless about using it. That adds a lot of whimsy and life to a home.”

At this point in the interview, it’s the second time Fulk has tossed out the word whimsy (the first reference was used to describe the rich blue color of the upper cabinets in the kitchen. Pre-remodel, they were all white and, as Fulk put it, boring). He has another favorite word: tension. “It’s the word I’m using constantly right now. I love it,” he says. “I think tension in an interior makes it vibrant. That push and pull of opposites makes things exciting—just as it does in a good movie.”

Take, for example, the dining room. Whereas most of the house features bursts of color against neutral walls, this room is painted the deep brown of a chocolate bar with sugar-white wainscoting and trim. It’s a formal room with a fireplace, but instead of the expected dining room suite, Fulk has stationed a table with a rustic wooden top and metal base in the center of the room. Black lacquered Chippendale-style chairs with contemporary black-and-white print upholstery surround the piece. Over it all hangs a tole chandelier with curling leaves and petal-laden blossoms. “The client wanted to use it. I absolutely hated the idea,” says Fulk. “But once we hung it, it was a sweet touch. It adds to the feeling that this is a home where things have been handed down over the years.”

The elements of collecting and inheriting are part of the family story Fulk helps tell with his design. The walls along the staircase contain framed photos of both sides of the family tree and personal memorabilia. A colorful family room equipped with a game table, dartboard, foosball and ping-pong table addresses this clan’s love of games and sports. To get the tale just right, he strives to know his clients like few people do. “I want to know what they like and what they hate,” says Fulk. “I want to know what they stock the fridge with, what they wear … everything. By knowing my client, I can design something just for them, and in the process, they come to trust me.”

The Fulk treatment breeds some uniquely personal designs. During the initial client interview process, Serrett discovered that one of the girls in the family was a huge fan of the Twilight series and was also reading about Marie Antoinette. Those influences can be seen in her gothic-vampire-meets-teenage-princess room, where a rusted iron gate decorates the back of a door and a leafless tree-patterned wallpaper is used to cover a dresser (hello, Edward Cullen) while a series of small chandeliers hang from a rope-and-pulley system and a bed is dressed in a comforter with a Gallic-style print (bonjour, Marie). Another daughter resides in a Moroccan-inspired room that’s a riot of jewel tones, arabesque motifs and tassels. Their mother’s wish was to have an office with a view. The design team created one in an unlikely spot on a deep stairway landing, where her acid-green desk chair is angled towards a window overlooking the bay. The location, midway between the kids’ rooms and family areas, makes a perfect spot for a household command center.

You may wonder: How does a custom-tailored home come together so quickly and so well? The trick is both simple (Fulk is backed by a legion of employees, great connections with suppliers who are accustomed to and can accommodate his need for a quick turnaround, and multiple warehouses of furniture stocked with props for his thriving home-staging business) and abstract (the man seems to possess equal doses of creativity, luck and wit). The simple answer: “I have a very talented army of people working for me; it’s a circus really,” he says. “We are able to throw a ton of manpower at a project.” As for the more complex answer, let’s go back to the top hat used at the beginning of the story.

Reporter: So, you actually own that hat?
Fulk: Oh, yes. It’s a fun story really. You see, we had a “dandy party,” and I needed a top hat.
Reporter: A dandy party?
Fulk: Everyone wore a top hat and tails.
Serrett: We even put top hats on the taxidermy.
Fulk: Anyway, the day of the party, I ran all over the Mission looking for a top hat and couldn’t find one. I had given up. Then, just a couple of hours before the party started, I was at an antiques store. Where was it?
Serrett: Antique & Art Exchange.
Fulk: Right. And I picked up this gorgeous box, a really beautiful piece, and I asked how much it cost. The store owner told me and then said “Open it up, and look inside.” When I did, there was this fabulous beaver-skin hat. I couldn’t believe it. It was like magic.

Magic? Maybe. Or perhaps it’s all Fulk’s show, and we are just bit players in it.

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