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Publication Date: 2014-06-19

House Tours

Young at Heart in Pacific Heights

Impeccable furnishings, one-of-a-kind antiques—and a pair of eight-year-old twins in the mix? Welcome to a master class in sophisticated family living. Written by Ondine Cohane | Photographed by Bess Friday | Produced by Wendy Scofield

On one of the highest hills in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco, a few blocks from romance novelist Danielle Steel’s hedge-shrouded estate, sits a Georgian-style structure with a redbrick facade and doors of high-gloss black lacquer. Formerly the residence of a French government official, the 1867 structure is part and parcel of its posh environs. And yet despite its discreet appearance, there’s nothing stuffy about its presentation. This is a family home whose formality belies its light and youthful touch.

Owner Susan Greenleaf—interior designer and mom of two—sits at the kitchen’s marble island with her laptop, clad in cropped jeans and a perfectly worn T-shirt. She has already dropped off her eight-year-old twins, Hansen and Quinn, at school; her husband, Jeff Whipps, is on his way to his office on Google’s Mountain View campus. The sunlit kitchen, framed by four sets of French doors that look out on a courtyard, is a testament to Greenleaf’s ability to make a room read as anything but reserved. “A little juxtaposition is always a good thing, especially in a home with a traditional exterior,” she says. “It helps ensure that nothing feels too serious.” The couple and their children had been living in London when the property came on the market in 2010. Having first met and fallen in love in San Francisco in the mid-’90s, during the heady days of the first dot-com boom, Greenleaf and Whipps felt compelled to move back—and the house represented the best of all possible worlds. “It not only seemed English but also reminded us of spaces in Paris: curved French doors leading out to a front terrace, high ceilings with great light coming through the windows,” Greenleaf reminisces. Crucially for a young family who enjoyed an urban environment, the home was also located between two kid-friendly parks and within walking distance of Fillmore Street, with its restaurants, boutiques, and historic jazz district.

There were certainly cosmetic downsides to the previous incarnation—a renovation in the ’80s had yielded cheap kitchen cabinetry and pink-tiled bathrooms, among other less-than-prescient design decisions. But by far the biggest issue was the lack of garage space in a neighborhood where parking was a nightmare. The process of remedying this involved excavating underneath the house and lifting the entire home using 50 tons of steel rebar, all the while being careful not to disturb the neighboring houses that stood just inches away on either side. A year and a half later, with the help of San Francisco–based Geiszler Architects and Farallon Construction, the family had not only a garage but also a completely reimagined kitchen; new bedrooms and bathrooms; and a modern, light-filled third-floor addition with a guest room, a media center, and a deck with sweeping views over San Francisco Bay.

A gift for bringing impeccable interiors down to earth is evident throughout Greenleaf’s work. The mood is relaxed, the color story is jovial, and the art—at once cheeky and refined—plays a key role in the mix. In the living room, just off the entry hall, hangs a painting by Rene Ricard that riffs on the masterpiece Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 (aka “Whistler’s Mother”). Framed Damien Hirst skateboards add a sense of lighthearted adolescence to a bathroom. Unexpected wallpapers, such as Scalamandré’s deep emerald-and-silver zebras leaping alongside arrows, give surfaces a dynamic rhythm. And pops of vibrant hues, including a pair of lemon-yellow upholstered chairs in the sitting room that echo the citrus shades of the dining area’s framed Donald Judd prints, infuse levity into the home’s classic bones.

The family’s U.K. sojourn had a strong influence on Greenleaf’s decorating sensibility. “We explored the English countryside and stayed in places like the Hotel Endsleigh in Devon and Babington House in Somerset,” she explains. “I loved the mix of the sophisticated with the quirky and cozy—layered textiles, rough-hewn woods—that created something very different from what we were accustomed to in the States.” An appreciation for the European decorative arts had been instilled early on in Greenleaf’s upbringing; her Dutch-born mother, who had studied interior design in Paris, had often taken her and her siblings to Amsterdam to visit family and friends. She describes seeing “antique and slightly threadbare kilims on the floor; large ancestral paintings on tobacco-stained walls; silver with the patina of daily use; and worn velvets on wingback chairs where my grandfather would smoke a pipe and read.”

It’s clear that Greenleaf prizes the creation of sensory memories for her own brood. “The kids are central to our lives,” she says. “It was important for us to have a home where Hansen and Quinn and their friends could feel comfortable.” Most of the furnishings in the main living areas were chosen for their resiliency—vintage leather Norell chairs, a PK80 daybed from Belgium, and a gray B&B Italia sectional that has survived many a baby bottle. Even the herringbone floors “look even cooler with the inevitable dings,” she says. (Greenleaf deliberately had the floors installed piece by piece so they were not level—in her words, “a little wonky”—to give the semblance of age.) In the kids’ rooms, formal flourishes such as an antique child’s bed and luxury blankets join age-appropriate details such as walls bordered in hot pink and gold, and built-in bunk beds connected by a rope ladder.

Back in the kitchen, the family has reunited at the end of their day. Greenleaf and Whipps are cooking dinner and catching up over a bottle of wine from the cellar in the garage. The twins do their homework at the Saarinen table. A fire has been set in the sitting room, which morphs into the de facto “rock hall,” from which the twins belt their after-dinner renditions of Pharrell and Bruno Mars. “Our life together is fun but very busy,” muses Greenleaf, surveying the scene. “This home and everything in it—children and friends, furniture and art that remind us of where we’ve been together around the world—make each day and night feel special.”


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