Tour the Midcentury San Fran Home That Launched This Designer's Business

Karen Nepacena never intended to become an interior designer until she renovated her own midcentury modern home in the San Francisco Bay area.

August 24, 2020

Photo By: John Shum

Photo By: John Shum

Photo By: John Shum

Photo By: John Shum

Photo By: John Shum

Photo By: John Shum

Photo By: John Shum

Photo By: John Shum

Photo By: John Shum

Photo By: John Shum

Photo By: John Shum

Photo By: John Shum

Photo By: John Shum

Photo By: John Shum

Photo By: John Shum

Photo By: John Shum

Photo By: John Shum

Photo By: John Shum

Photo By: John Shum

Photo By: John Shum

Photo By: John Shum

Photo By: John Shum

Photo By: John Shum

Falling for Eichler

Karen Nepacena didn't intend to launch her Destination Eichler business until she and her husband, John Shum, were inspired to renovate their own midcentury modern home in the San Francisco Bay area. But it's not just any midcentury dwelling. The home is one of 11,000 designed by Joseph Eichler between 1949 and 1966, mostly found in California, and distinguished by floor-to-ceiling windows and outdoor spaces.

After visiting a renovated Eichler home, Nepacena and Shum realized they wanted to restore their home's original modern feel, and started a blog to document the process. This involved researching midcentury modern design details, studying architecture books and checking out original Eichler homes. "Once we started incorporating these details into our home renovation and sharing them on our design blog, other homeowners began contacting us for guidance on their own midcentury modern homes and business snowballed from there!" Nepacena says.

DIY Renovation

Since buying the four-bedroom, two-bath, 1,663-square-foot home in 2013, the couple have fully renovated the kitchen, dining room and family room. They partially updated the bathroom used by their two boys, Sebastian and Miles, although their own bathroom's renovation remains on hold. "We still have a long list of projects we’d like to complete some day, from renovating closet spaces to removing the wall texture to have smooth walls," Nepacena says.

The Great Outdoors

"The outdoor atrium is one of our absolute favorite spaces in our home, and the primary reason for choosing this particular Eichler floor plan," says Nepacena. (Architects A. Quincy Jones and Frederick Emmonds designed the plan.) "Our house may be small in square footage, but having this additional space makes it feel bigger and acts as an additional space to both work and relax," she adds. Plus, "Living in California, we are fortunate to enjoy mild weather most of the year, so we take advantage of our 'outside room' nearly all year long."

Private Oasis

"We can’t see out to the front street, so we have a lot of privacy, which we like," Nepacena says of the courtyard area. As for the furniture, she notes the mix of new and vintage items. You'd never guess, but one of the Acapulco chairs is a vintage find from Craigslist that her husband restrung, while the matching one is a new purchase.

Opening Up

"We love how much natural light we have in our home thanks to bringing back the glass windows that had been previously closed up in sheetrock," says Nepacena. "Clients often hire me for my expertise advising on which elements of a home should be restored and how to integrate new materials into the home which honor its architecture and style." That expertise is exactly what led her to honor the architect's original intention in exposing this wall of windows.

Overcoming Challenges

"Designing the open kitchen and family room space was challenging," Nepacena relates. "We wanted to ensure each area had enough space to be comfortable, yet functional. We decided on a galley kitchen format with an adjacent family room."

Nepacena and Shum also decided on two-toned kitchen cabinets since their home already featured a lot of walnut, so they balanced the wood with white cabinetry.

Committing to Color

Nepacena highlights the bright turquoise backsplash as the central focal point of their kitchen. "Don't be afraid to go bold with a color and pattern, if it’s something you love," Nepacena advises. "Waking up and having coffee looking at this tile makes us happy every day, so we feel it was the right choice for us."

Practice Makes Perfect

"The concrete counters act as a grounding material and since we DIY’d them, it was a cost-effective way to install new counters," Nepacena notes. "My husband and I formed and poured our concrete countertops for the kitchen. It took quite a bit of trial and error, including a number of unusable slabs in the early stages," she recalls. "Our last slab came out near perfect (seven slabs later!), but we embrace the imperfections of our countertops knowing we created them ourselves."

Small Touches

"Tree cuttings are a great way to bring in some greenery!" Nepacena says. "All you need is a pair of cutting shears, some branches and a nice tall vase."

Vintage Find

After designing the kitchen, Nepacena chose an orange sofa for the family room to contrast with the kitchen's turquoise blue tile and green chairs. "Don’t be afraid to mix colors!" she recommends. "I am not one to match everything exactly the same, but somehow over time, the things you gravitate toward all come together."

Another talking point is this black vintage Eames Lounge Chair. "It was always on my wish list as a must-have piece," Nepacena says, and one day she learned that the chair would be available at a local estate sale in an Eichler home. "We waited in line for over an hour to get into the sale," she remembers. "I was sure it would be gone, but it was still sitting in the living room when we entered the home. The seat leather cover was opened and the filler stuffing coming out of it." Instead of being deterred, she quickly bought it, then fixed the chair after taking it home. "We love that we’ve given the chair a second life with another family in a local Eichler home, plus it’s incredibly comfortable," she enthuses.

DIY Decor

The family room's TV and media components were built into the wall for a seamless look.

Even more impressive? Nepacena actually created the mural next to it from leftover paint and a triangular piece of cardboard. "The design was inspired by Charles and Ray Eames’ midcentury designs," she says.

Artistic Flair

Speaking of art, Nepacena minored in it as an undergrad, although she didn't encounter interior design until taking a class during a study abroad program in Florence, Italy. "That class and professor opened up my eyes to the fascinating world of interior design, but it wasn’t until several years (and jobs) later that I actually started in the interior design industry professionally," she says. In fact, she worked as a professional ballet dancer before eventually making the leap to interior design.

Grand Illusions

"We love the walls of glass in our home," Nepacena remarks about the hallway off the family room. And judging by the previous picture, it makes for an ideal photo shoot backdrop. "Even though it isn’t a very large house, the windows and natural light make our home feel a lot larger."

All in the Family

"Nearly every piece of furniture in our dining room is vintage!" Nepacena says. "It is so special that we now have the cane dining chairs which belonged to John's parents. John grew up sitting in them as a child, our kids sat in them when they visited Grandma’s house, and now we have them in our home," she explains.

She notes how this area also currently doubles as an additional home office and distance learning area. The flexible shelving unit houses a desk area, and provides needed storage.

Classic Pairing

Nepacena finds that books make for a great styling tool, and she groups them by shape and color and stacks them with other small objects to create height, as she did here in the dining room. She also likes combining them with art.

"We love collecting unique artwork from artists near and far. This shot features a print by local artist and friend Soonoak Wood, and it’s paired with a vintage crane sculpture found at an estate sale."

Sustainable Memories

In this corner of the dining room, the credenza, another piece from Shum's parents, functions as a serving station when entertaining guests. "Probably 80 percent of our furniture is vintage or family heirlooms," Nepacena says. "I love going to estate sales to search for unique pieces. It’s also a matter of sustainability. We would rather rescue a piece from going to the landfill and give it a new life instead of buying new products that aren’t the same quality."

Color Considerations

As elsewhere in the house, blue dominates in the home office. "Some say that the color blue is an 'intellectual color,'" Nepacena muses. "I chose it because it’s vibrant and fun."

On the gallery wall, she observes how much of their artwork pulls from a similar color palette, even though the works are by different artists, which makes for a nice grouping.

All Hands on Deck

So far the couple have renovated just a portion of the bathroom for sons Sebastian and Miles. This included adding a floating vanity, both as a visual centerpiece and to make the room feel larger.

"As a family, we have worked on our home renovation together. We feel it’s important for the kids to be a part of our home’s transformation and discover that with hard work, a lot can be accomplished with your own hands and mind," says Nepacena.

Locally Sourced

Similar to the kitchen, the blue backsplash stands out in the compact bathroom. Nepacena and Shum sourced local overstock tile from Heath Ceramics to create this effect.

Green Thumb

Nepacena is a big fan of the snake plant in their main bedroom. "It needs very little water and adds sculptural shape to any space," she imparts. "It is a great starter plant if you are just getting into gardening."

Learn More : Top 10 Houseplants

Original Touches

The couple re-installed wood paneling in their bedroom to reflect original Eichler homes. "We love the warm, cozy feel of wood," Nepacena says. "Pairing it with accents of color and artwork help round out the space and still make it feel fun and not dark," she advises.

Crystal Clear

This angle makes the home's layout crystal clear. "Since we don’t have a ton of space, we try to plan out each space to the fullest by making each area function for different purposes," Nepacena says. "We have also scaled back on acquiring 'stuff' in recent years, aiming to keep and purchase what we really need."

Learn More : Organizational Goals: 14 Spaces That Will Inspire You to Declutter

Happy Ending

"We came into our home renovation pretty blindly, without a grand master plan," Nepacena remembers. "In our case, I think it worked out for the best, as looking back now, we can’t believe how many projects and work we have tackled on this house over time," she says.

"If we had initially sat down to try to budget and plan every project down to each finite detail, I think we would have been too overwhelmed to even start!"

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