Miss Julie's Master's Class

House Tour

Name: Julie R. Exley
Location: San Anselmo — California
Size: 2,400 square feet
Years lived in: 2 — rented

A ferry ride and 14 front steps, and you're at the front door of a brown-shingled cottage. Inside, two waggy-tailed dogs (Bobo and Lucky), the lady of the house and three grown children, citrusy colors, sunny disposition, some crafty thinking, and a liberated, temporary mindset await. This is the colorful cast, layers of life and tools of the trade making up the most welcoming Marin County home, life and career of interior designer Julie R. Exley.

The home is perched on a lot tumbling back toward a creek, and is base camp for Julie, wrapping up her Master's Thesis at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, School of Interior Architecture and Design and running Trellis Interiors, just steps away on a story book main street.

It's appropriate that this San Anselmo neighborhood used to be a summer camp of sorts to the residents of San Francisco, looking to take advantage of a microclimate just across the Bay that welcomed summer breezes and shook off shrouds of fog, since right now, Julie, herself, is a bit of a camper, and a happy one at that. "I've owned homes for the last 25 years, and this is my first rental... and I have to tell you, it's really liberating! I love it and I'm not sure I'd ever go back to owning," she exclaims.

Why would a professional interior designer be happy in a rental, living in someone else's home where walls, wall-to-wall and other installed elements are there for the lease duration? Julie's found a renter's life has its ups and downs. The downs are what you'd expect. "Obviously, I can't do what I want," Julie says. That's meant living with beige carpet and the slowly dating elements of a 1980's renovation she had no hand in. But aside from the practical aspect of being free of the maintenance responsibilities, the ups seem a little more philosophical and life-changing. "It's allowed me to just grow personally... in just giving up, a little bit, the things I can't change." But that, itself, has created its own kind of change. "It's made me a little more creative with what I have, to come up the same kind of effect or feel without modifying something to a certain degree. Also, I just don't spend a lot of time thinking about projects, I just do them and it's done. I care, but I don't care long term. And it also forces me to be a little bit more creative."

That creativity has to be the kind that gets packed up (Julie is moving next to Sausalito, with a killer view she's promised to share with Apartment Therapy once she settles in) or sold right out of the house in what's become a signature event for Julie when facing a relocation: what she calls the "in situ garage sale."

Julie's solutions come from the basic tools of design... spatial planning, balance and scale. The living room alone is a master class of sorts in how to make a room work without adding or subtracting structure. And that room is a challenge. "In that one room, there are six ingress and egress points... so besides the stairways (one up, one down), there are six doors..." It starts and ends with windows, a front door that spills right into it, and a commanding fireplace that tips the room nearly on its side were it not for the heroic scale of the armoire (we'll get to the grinning guy on top in a minute). "The armoire and the fireplace are counterpoints to one another, so that juxtaposition works. I'm not afraid of scale... but it's all about balance."

Still in that toolbox from her leaner years, a DIY spirit and artful craftiness. "A glue gun and a staple gun can take you places!" she laughs, and the kitchen, of all places, exhibits just where you can go and where Julie will lead. That chic Greek key border is glue-gunned ribbon, covering what Julie calls a "sad" row of black 2 x 2 tiles. "When it's time for me to leave, I'll just rip it off, rub the glue off and I'll be done."

For the outside's simple charm, there's a touch of Nob Hill dressiness to the interiors. Antiques, traditional silhouettes, a contemporary Lucite table, and a golden palette give off a buttoned-up air. But down-filled cushions, a casual mix of woods, and pieces that celebrate their lives with some wear all take the edge off. Dressy, sure. Stuffy, absolutely not. Part of that also owes to Julie's sense of humor, and knack for never taking herself, or an interior, too seriously. (Her laugh is as sunny as the living room).

Her tongue-in-cheek take on things also means she sees the humor and joy where others might not. That includes what she discovered to be a frequently-found art form throughout her European travels and hauntings of Clignancourt: vintage taxidermy. Even on that, what others find macabre and sinister, she has her own happy spin. "My dogs are very much alive, I want you to know that, and I want to keep it that way!" she laughs, and there's no doubt about that, as they hug her heel around every corner. But she loved the Victoriana sense and quirky take the Europeans had, and when she saw a mounted piglet wearing a pearl necklace in a dusty alley shop, she was sold on the charms of the art form. "I got a kick out of it. It just struck a funny bone in me," says Julie. She speaks of the caiman atop the armoire, and the snowy owl diorama on the side table with the same fondness she has for her home's other, well, living residents. "I guess they're sort of reincarnated. They're still living, in a funny way, but just in my living room... keeping an eye on things. A glass eye on things!" she laughs.

Owl and caiman both came from where pretty much everything else does for Julie. "One of the things I LOVE doing more than anything else is going to flea markets and auctions-- I worked at Sotheby's for a while and became a habitué of all the auction houses, especially the arcade sales and bargain basements." But it's not all high brow. Those go-anywhere bamboo tables came from a source a lot closer to home. "$150 on Craigslist, thank you! That was a great score!" and she is as proud of those as anything from Les Puces. "Hopefully I'm picking things with some classic lines, and when you put them all together, it works." Smart auction shopping also yielded the Roche Bobois Charles sectional in her daughter's room, at 10% of going rate. "You really can find great things if you get out there and look," says Julie, and where she looks includes Brimfield, Roundtop, and The Alameda Flea right in her backyard, when she's not combing the stores and alleys of Europe.

That toothy caiman is not the home's only southern caller. There's plenty of Southern Comfort, and not just in the original built-in bar. "My homes typically reflect all the different places that I've lived, and the last place we lived was Charlotte, North Carolina, where it tends to be a little more traditional and formal." Some of that southern gentility and has certainly hitchhiked with her to San Anselmo. Her front dining room could be right at home, as is, in Savannah or Atlanta, with its vintage high wainscoting and modern down country style, silver, antiques, patina and a vibrant dot of outsider art.

Upstairs, class is still in session as Julie schools us in why white is always right and how to mix patterns, in her two daughter's rooms, both refreshing, vibrant and personal. White anchor pieces prove the perfect foil to her love of pattern. But don't let the white fool you into thinking Julie is a tone-a-phobe. The lady loves her color. A white backdrop just lets her do it more easily. "All you need to do is change some pillows and a rug and you have a totally different look." She also thinks white is a great starting point, not a copout. "It's actually a great way to decorate if you don't have an idea about what you want to do yet." Plus, she says, "It always looks good, it always looks classic."

While the white is the calming influence, personality comes from pattern, and Julie is adept at mixing them. Scale, again, comes into play. "A solid, one large-scale pattern, a small geometric and then some kind of stripe or small texture, and there you go... already you have four patterns."

Still, in a home professionally designed and carefully considered, things don't always unfold as planned. That paint sample perched on the dining room plate rail didn't exactly translate from swatch to wall. "I painted it that mango color, and the next day I walked in and thought 'Wow, I must have lost my mind or had a couple of bottles of wine to drink!'" A more neutral grasscloth from Thibaut is on order. "I think it just needed some texture rather than paint." Even for a pro, Julie admits, "It's all about trial and error."

Her son's room is, well, underdesigned, and off-limits to cameras and even the housekeeper. "This is my home, this isn't a project. It's something completely different when I'm working for a client, because I need to help them interpret their vision, their desire, their needs. My house is just my own vision, my own experience." She layers those life experiences, of the neighborhood's and the home's own history, and her own life, past and present, like she layers pattern in her girls' rooms. She shrugs it all off with another laugh, "It's a home right? It's not a show house. This is where we live... this is where dogs live!" Class dismissed!

Hear Julie talk more about her home, and why she thinks every six months, you need to haul everything out and start over, here.

Apartment Therapy Survey:

My Style: Eclectic but edited and high/low

Inspiration: Sister Parish, Dorothy Draper and Madame Ganna Walska (Lotusland in Montecito). These were cool women interested in design- the three of them together combine most everything I love about the profession. Classic with a twist (Parish), confidence in scale (Draper), and whimsy, drama and the unexpected surprise/twist (Walska).

Favorite Element: Classical lines! Beginning with my first job at Sotheby's in NY, I look for a certain line in objects regardless of the iteration. I love modern design, went through a sick French phase when the dollar was at 4 francs and furnished an entire house from the flea markets in Paris, went crazy in Brimfield a few times (how many silhouettes does one person need?!)

Biggest Challenge: It's easy for me to help others but when it comes to my own space, I have a hard time moving things around since I take so long to figure out the spatial planning in the first place! I should challenge myself to pull things out every 6 months and start over. It's a good exercise for everyone! Luckily I am moving to a new house in Sausalito this summer, so I'll think about that tomorrow ☺

What Friends Say: Well, the first thing you need to know about my very tactful friends is that they're not afraid of a little white lie in order to make their pals feel good about themselves! Having said THAT, most of them say I have a good eye and like me to help them in their homes.

Biggest Embarrassment: My love of taxidermy. I saw a woman walking with a fox the other day in San Francisco and I wanted to stop her but my daughters literally pulled me down the street. I should have lived in the Victorian Age!

Proudest DIY: Desks in closets and covering ugly bands of tile in the kitchen with tape from Britex in San Francisco. That was pretty genius.

Biggest Indulgence: Going with an open mind and pocketbook to flea markets and auctions.

Best Advice: Don't buy things online unless you know EXACTLY what you're looking for. The thrill is in the hunt and pieces are more meaningful when you source them yourself.

Dream Sources: Wait, I lied a little about that advice, since I love 1stdibs!

Resources of Note:

PAINT & COLORS

    • Throughout: Farrow and Ball: "James White," #2010

    FRONT PORCH


    LIVING ROOM

      • Waterfall coffee table: Knoll
      • Armoire: Paris Flea
      • Lamps: Currey & Company
      • Side tables: bespoke (my design)
      • Club chairs: Charles Stewart club chairs with Quadrille fabric,
      • Artists: include Jules Tavernier, Roger Muhl, Bernard Cathelin, Bill Turner
      • Silver trophies: various flea markets.


    DINING ROOM
      • Table: Craigslist ("$150!!")
      • Louis XVI chairs: Michaan's Auctions, Alameda
      • Bureau: family antique


    KITCHEN


    GIRL'S BEDROOM 1
      • Sectional: B & B Italia "Charles": auction
      • White lacquer bookshelf: IKEA
      • Linens: Sue Fisher King, San Francisco


    GIRL'S BEDROOM 2
      • White linen canvas: Jo-Ann's fabric covering pair of chairs and settee from Paris flea market
      • Louis XIV-style bed: Paris flea market, covered in red and white fabric, Pierre Frey


    Thanks, Julie!

    Images: Patrick J. Hamilton

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