Russian Hill Revamp
No "painted lady," a San Francisco house from the 1950s was crying out for Orlando Diaz-Azcuy's assistance
Suzanne Slesin -- Interior Design, 3/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Orlando Diaz-Azcuy has continued to define and refine that perennial interiors conundrum known as "sophisticated understatement." What did that mean for a late 1950s house in the Russian Hill neighborhood of oh-so-picturesque San Francisco? "The house had been bastardized in its previous remodelings," says the Cuban-born San Francisco–based designer, citing numerous Victorian and Asian additions he describes as "absolutely foreign to the architecture."
The young telecommunications attorney who owned the four-story 5,000-square-foot house didn't lack for cash or taste. "He's neither a trendy person nor an English-furniture type," says Orlando Diaz-Azcuy Designs principal Greg Stewart. In other words, the client perfectly appreciated the firm's simple elegance and easy-to-live-with classicism.
One of Diaz-Azcuy and Stewart's major interventions involved the existing stair, which rose from street level to top floor on one side of the house. First, they clad the adjacent wall in a limestone similar to that used in many Frank Lloyd Wright houses. The stone was set in a random pattern to "lend an appropriate visual strength and solidity to the stairs," Diaz-Azcuy explains. In addition, the firm installed a balustrade with 1/2-inch rails of brushed stainless steel, not only to complement the wall but also to provide an industrial look typical of the late 1950s and early '60s.
Diaz-Azcuy and Stewart also reconfigured the rooms' distorted proportions. Among other changes, the designers combined the third-floor living and dining rooms, opening them up completely to each other. Installing mirrored panels in the corners of the new dining area visually expanded the space, bringing in a northern view, and added luminosity—an element particularly suitable for daytime and nighttime entertaining.
Between the living spaces and the kitchen, tall folding doors close like a screen. They were stained black, then cerused for a less formal look. "This was done a lot in the 1930s and 1940s," Stewart says. He and Diaz-Azcuy polyurethaned the new white-oak floor in a honey-caramel typical of the period around 1960. The tall, north-facing windows in the master bedroom were draped in sheer cotton to recall that same era.
When the time came for furnishings, the firm's inimitable style took over. Instead of mid-century icons and the vibrant palette that often accompanies them, the designers chose more classics: a low daybed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—so as not to block the view—Regency chairs that once belonged to famed San Francisco designer Michael Taylor, a custom neoclassical dining table, and pieces from Diaz-Azcuy's own Portico Teak collection for McGuire Furniture, now classics in their own right. Furnishings' colors are soothing, elegant, even limpid, without being bland in the least: vanilla, gray, beige, with a calligraphic pattern on a custom rug by Edward Fields.
The firm imbued the third floor's pale-toned master bedroom with comfortable yet masculine luxury. Covering a dramatic ceiling-height headboard in white leather was a "way to give robust scale to a fairly large room," explains Diaz-Azcuy. He and Stewart also built a combined cabinet-desk that accommodates a computer and storage; they chose bleached sycamore for cabinetry and practical, refined Carrara marble for the generous work surface. To provide a cozy place for reading, they placed a wool-covered lounge chair and a Spencer Fung floor lamp in front of the bedroom's limestone mantelpiece.
The top-floor media room, a 400-square-foot space with two terraces, was designed for entertaining as well as relaxing and sunbathing. Diaz-Azcuy and Stewart surrounded a custom white-oak cocktail table with four high-style Arne Jacobsen Egg chairs upholstered in leather. The designers also specified that the 18-foot-long banquette, used for television and movie watching, should be 3 1/2 feet deep—enough to double as an extra guest bed, as a full bath is adjacent.
One thing that didn't require tinkering was fenestration. Nearly every room of the house faces north, enjoying a panorama that sweeps from the Golden Gate Bridge to the East Bay hills. The view even takes in the historic—if slightly less luxurious—accommodations on the island of Alcatraz.