The ’90s may be enjoying an aesthetic revival these days, but that doesn’t mean every one of the decade’s creations deserves celebration. In fact, when she first saw this house from the period, Los Angeles–based AD100 interior designer Mandy Cheng says she remembers thinking, “It looks very early-’90s Tuscan, and in a bad way.”
The home—located in LA’s Pacific Palisades—showed off what Cheng describes as “modernish Santa Barbara Mediterranean style” exterior architecture. The interior spaces, many of them double height, glowed warmly with sunlight from large windows. But that glow revealed an array of glaring 30-year-old missteps: the highly polished marble floors throughout the ground level, say, or the conspicuously anachronistic columns ending in pony walls that marked the entrance to a sunken living room.
Though the Mediterranean aesthetic appealed to Cheng and her clients—a young couple with a five-year-old daughter and a son on the way—the designer recalls, “There was no way I could turn this home into a grand old 1920s Spanish-style house. It just wouldn’t have translated correctly.”
Instead, Cheng made surgical changes to the interior architecture by bringing up the floor of that sunken living room and getting rid of those columns and pony walls. She then reimagined practically every surface of the five-bedroom, nearly 4,000-square-foot house and selected furniture, fittings, and fabrics that blended old and new. The clients “lean more contemporary, and I was mindful of that,” the designer says, noting that this gave her the freedom her to reinterpret traditional Tuscan vernacular in modern ways.
“It was all about elevating the design while keeping it approachable,” says Cheng. “We wanted to find ways to make it contemporary and pull in the Old World feel without making it seem dated.” This meant using classic materials like warm woods and beautifully grained marbles but on modern silhouettes, and mixing in contemporary items, like of-the-moment bouclé upholstery, with items that read as more traditional.
A former Hollywood set designer, Cheng is known for the range of her portfolio, from approachable DIY makeovers to the brightly colored, pattern-filled LA home of actors Daveed Diggs and Emmy Raver-Lampman. Although the final product is always quite different, Cheng begins every project the same way. “With all my clients, I ask them to send me pictures of everything they like,” she says. “Even if it seems to them the images don’t all speak the same language, I’ll be able to figure out what the connection is.”
Here, Cheng noticed the clients, particularly the wife, gravitating towards neutral colors and textural finishes. “Whether in modern contemporary spaces or older ones, texture was what appealed to her—the more layers, the more she liked it.” And so, in the home’s living room, a wool-and-cotton, hand-knotted rug with a relatively high pile now pairs with oatmeal-hued, bouclé-covered armchairs and the clients’ own cognac-colored leather sofa. A trio of vintage taupe batik Hmong textiles, framed like artwork, hang over the newly streamlined Calacatta-marble fireplace.
Occasional pops of color also emerged as a theme in the clients’ inspiration images, which Cheng obliged with some amped-up hues. In the primary bathroom, Portola’s hazy green Nitty Gritty washes over a Roman clay finish, and in the daughter’s room, Portola’s pink Casa California covers nearly every surface. “We only left the ceiling white,” says Cheng, “so you don’t feel like you’re inside a Pepto Bismol bottle.”