A California House that Breaks the Design Rules
Designer Caitlin Moran tossed out her own professional playbook to decorate her Marin County home
Measure twice, cut once. And if you forget to measure at all? Just cross your fingers and hope it fits. That was Caitlin Moran’s strategy when she decided to buy a massive, showstopping painting at Art Basel before confirming it would actually fit on her living room wall. Given her reputation as a stickler for detail in the dozens of interior projects she has executed for clients, this cover-your-eyes-and-jump approach was out of character for Moran, but it wouldn’t be the only time she flaunted her own rules. The designer was surprised to find that when it came to decorating her home, a 1970s ranch in the Northern California enclave of Tiburon, she followed a different set of directives entirely.
“This was a much messier process than working with clients,” says Moran. “I had hundreds of pieces and dozens of styles that I liked. It was enough to give me an identity crisis.” Figure in the house’s own flamboyant personality—there had been only one owner since 1971 and everything was original, from the shag carpet to the linoleum to the macramé potholders—and even this seasoned design professional was unsure of where to start.
So she did something she rarely advises her clients to do: she worked on one room at a time (as opposed to thinking big-picture from the beginning) and often let a single beloved piece or a swatch of fabric guide the design of each space. “The risk of working that way is that the house can end up being overly eclectic,” admits Moran, who became enamored with a black-and-white textile from Casamance and used it as the jumping-off point for her living room. She covered a long, low vintage sofa in the fabric, and the rehabbed piece soon sparked a flurry of new ideas. “I love bright colors and had rarely worked with black. But this textile set something off in me, and before I knew it, I had a living room with a black-and-white palette.”
Still, the scheme is anything but basic; throw pillows feature a playful mix of patterns flecked with pinks and blues, and a pair of ottomans sport a magenta motif. The artwork over the sofa (the aforementioned Art Basel purchase) is an eye-catching abstraction by Canadian artist Jaime Angelopoulos, in which strokes of yellow, pink, and blue play off a nebulous black mass. (The added bonus of using black in a high-traffic space? It stands up admirably to Moran’s three-year-old daughter and nine-month-old twin boys.)
The dining room is visible from the living room, so although the two spaces are strikingly different in color and style, they play well with each other. Here the stylistic guiding star was an oversize coconut-shell chandelier from Made Goods. “It had that ’70s vibe, so it felt right in the house,” says Moran. “Plus, I just plain fell in love with it.” Classic curved-back, cantilevered chairs in an era-appropriate rattan surround a sturdy dining table, the site of both messy art projects and memorable dinner parties. Tableware, linens, and paintings by Jenny Andrews Anderson provide the vibrant pops in this room, where Moran went consciously neutral for the walls and furnishings. “With the kids and all their stuff, there’s enough color in here to go around.”
The open kitchen gave Moran yet another opportunity to stray from her standard practice. “Most of my clients ask for all-white kitchens, but I wanted something more moody,” she says, referring to the dark Heath Ceramics tile backsplash that, like a sullen teenager, changes character depending on the time of day. “It goes from a dark forest blue to teal to deep charcoal.” The cabinets are a bleached oak, and the same wood and modern moldings show up in the master bath—proof that despite each room’s fierce aesthetic independence, there are some common threads.
And as for keeping to the right side of eclecticism? “It’s all about editing,” says Moran, who has no problem being ruthless in her work projects. “But editing yourself is much more complicated. It’s a totally different process.” What she’s learned, however, is that sometimes it pays to break the rules. “So much of my house is an opportunity to be around what inspires me, such as color or textiles drawn from other cultures. My advice would be: don’t be afraid of decorating with what you love.”