This Photographer's Light-Filled Oakland Home Is So Tranquil
Every item tells a story.
Upon entering lifestyle and fashion photographer María del Río and her partner Jason's light-filled, three-bedroom Oakland home, it's very evident this is a space built with intention. Guided by design principles rooted in culture, mood, light, and personal history — everything down to the muted, textured walls to the white oak finishes to the turquoise-colored kitchen tile tell a deeper story. The takeaways on how the space came together is a large part of the three-year journey the couple, who also share the home with their son Teotl and dog Blue, set out on. Creating a home that honored del Río's priority for stability and a sense of home was an incredibly personal and a major fixture when acquiring and renovating the space.
"We bought our home about three years ago and it was a major accomplishment and honestly something I thought we wouldn’t be able to do until later in life," del Río shares with us, reflecting on the achievement of home ownership.
"We had very little guidance on the process and it felt unaffordable and intimidating. For me, growing up, housing was something that was unstable and at times unsafe, so being able to own a home and create a sense of security was an immeasurable accomplishment. We loved this home because of the mid-century modern lines and the yard. It’s also in a neighborhood that was within our budget and is diverse in culture and community, which was important for us."
In addition to these environmental priorities, the photographer valued a structure that gleamed from all angles. "As a photographer, light is everything to me. We are in a single-story home surrounded by apartment complexes and multi-story units, so it was important to find ways to let as much light in as possible, which isn’t hard in beautiful Oakland," she continues. "I definitely lean toward minimalism with accents of color and we try to keep areas clutter-free — which can definitely be tricky with long work weeks, a babe, and a dog."
With their defined approach in mind, the couple, along with guidance from architect friend Anthony Roxas, transformed the mid-century modern home into a pared-down respite for the family to thrive in.
Driven by her years spent in Mexico and the Southwest, the home's accents and finishes reflect the cultural surroundings del Río grew up fondly knowing. "I got my love of design and architecture from my mom," del Río recalls, standing barefoot on the Fireclay Tile floors in a neon top and sandy-colored slacks. "I have early memories of her falling in love with items and space and I didn’t realize until recently how much that impacted me. My Mexican heritage and Southwest upbringing probably have the largest influence on how I’ve created our space. I was born in Mexico and was raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico so aspects of both are woven throughout our home," she shares."I gravitate toward minimalism and mid-century aesthetics informed by our cultures. The mid-century homes of Luis Barragan are always super inspiring to me, but on a much smaller scale, and budget."
The terracotta-toned Fireclay Tile floors in the kitchen — which is the space del Río admits she and Jason gravitate to most — are a reflection of how del Río incorporated subtle nods to her heritage throughout. Mirroring the open nook in the kitchen is a turquoise-tiled backsplash, also clad in Fireclay Tile. "The tiles are really special to me. Tiling is another rich part of both the Mexican and Southwestern aesthetic, so they were something that I really cared about," she says. "In the kitchen we did a sort of terracotta floor and for the backsplash we used Fireclay Tile's brick in San Gabriel which I love so much," she shares. "I joked that I wanted to name my son [I was pregnant during the renovation] Gabriel after those bricks. They have so much texture and I love that each one is slightly different."
When designing the kitchen del Río wasn't hesitant to enlist professional intel from friends. "For the kitchen, we got a lot of support from my friend and designer Katie Martinez. "She could just see the space in a way my brain had a hard time visualizing. We kept the appliances — the only thing we moved was the stove for easier access — and we added a drywalled stove hood," she shares about the cosmetic kitchen renovation.
"We had old scuffed up veneer cabinets. We took out the upper cabinets and put in shelves made by a woodworker who also did our pantry. For the lower cabinets, we decided to go with Ikea backs for cost and speediness. For the fronts, we chose Reform because of the clean and minimal lines. I really liked the color as is, which is called mushroom. So far, I’ve been really happy with how all our kitchen finishes have held up in terms of look and durability. We’re sloppy cooks so its nice to not have to worry about anything being too precious."
The kitchen backsplash is accented with wood shelves punctuated with treasures that hold pride of place for the couple. "Having pieces in our home by artists we admire is so special to us and our goal is to continue to collect handmade treasures," del Río shares on the importance of supporting small makers.
"Supporting artists of color, specifically women of color, is really important for us. A few of my favorites include the dishes and mugs, which were made by our super talented friend Rose Tai of Earthtones Studio and the print on the credenza [in the dining room] was made by my brilliant younger sister."
Throughout the rest of the home, the collection of items continues to feel distinct and considered. For instance, two of the anchoring dining room pieces, the table and the credenza, were sourced secondhand. "
"I love finding gems at flea markets and on Craigslist for three reasons: individuality, affordability, and sustainability," del Río proudly declares when pressed on her Craigslist gems. "Probably 60% of our furniture is secondhand. My friends tease me because if I’m driving down the street and see a free piece of furniture on the sidewalk, I’m slowing," she says.
"For several of the items we sanded them down. We rarely even stain them, partly out of loving the natural look, and partly out of laziness. We often change the handles on things or the legs. Jason is really good at getting creative with repurposing. A favorite find are the dining chairs which we got at a flea market eight years ago. At that time we didn’t even have a real dining table to put them with because our dining room would moonlight as a bedroom. Those chairs have come with us in several moves. I love the brown corduroy and the curved shape."
As oftentimes expected with a renovation it was both equal parts exciting and unnerving for the couple as they were met with a number of roadblocks throughout, especially when it came to building out the bedroom and bath.
"Unfortunately, we rushed the process of vetting a good contractor [important advice — if possible check your Contractors State Licensing Board to see if they have complaints filed against them prior to hiring] and there were a lot of bumps along the way. Towards the end I was very pregnant and then the pandemic hit, so the project shut down for several months. We ended up hopping between friends' houses and Airbnbs — with a newborn and large Pitbull — it was a wild journey."
"We learned a lot of lessons the hard way but now that we are here, I’m grateful,"shares del Río. We added a bedroom and a bathroom into the backyard," del Río shares about the extent of the structural work."We knocked down the wall between the living room and the dining room to open it up. We talked through lots of dreams and then had to be reigned in by cost, which is probably the case no matter the budget."
Sail through the dining room into the newly minted bedroom and bath and you'll find a space that embodies "serenity and texture" — as del Río puts it. To harken back to the region del Río knows and loves, the bedroom walls were given a textural, sandy-toned treatment with Portola Paints' Roman Clay.
"We did the paint treatment in the main bedroom and bathroom. We wanted a plastered texture to the walls because that look reminds us of Mexico," del Río shares on one of the main reasons she wanted to do the treatment."My boyfriend, Jason, and I did the treatment ourselves, which was actually a lot of fun and almost meditative at times. But, because we were squeezing it in between work and a new baby, it took us months to complete. Glacier-speed aside, I’m so glad we did it ourselves since it saved us a lot of money and I really feel that anytime we can put our own hard work into a home project, it makes the space that much more rewarding and special."
"For the bedroom we did a two-tone effect, with the color Patagonia as the base layer and Brooks for the top coat. For the bathroom we used the color Persona, which is a dusty pink. It’s so dreamy to me, sometimes I just run my fingers along the walls when I walk into our bedroom."
The bedroom and bathroom's natural, lived-in approach is only amplified by the decor choices del Río peppered throughout. A dresser she acquired from a local Oakland native was sanded down and replaced with handles by Pala Ceramics. The top of the dresser is lined with items found in Mexico (including a Native American medicinal spoon purchased in New Mexico), a lamp from Clove + Whole — and the planter cradling the budding olive tree is by Ombia. "Her stuff blows my mind," del Río shares excitedly .
"I love that the new room isn’t just a square, but has some dimension to it. The ceilings in the house are pretty low, so it was nice for the new bedroom to add height which gives the illusion that the room is bigger than it is. Overall our main goals were to open up the house to a more airy layout, invite light in, and add some room," she shares about the overall goals for the project. The main bathroom, decked out in Fireclay Tile's Koi and Sand Dune has a peachy, spa-like color story — calming yet invigorating. It has has the Portola Paints' Roman Clay treatment applied and is accented with brass fixtures.
When asked to ruminate on her favorite pieces in the home, del Río shares that she is "slowly starting to build a collection of meaningful items from trade with artist friends and family."
"One of my favorite parts about being an artist is knowing other artists who inspire me and having their pieces in our home. One piece that is a favorite is the coffee table made by Josh Podoll. We got to design it together and I feel like it takes on a personality of its own," she shares about the bean-shaped coffee table made for the living space.
"Another favorite is the hand-shaped stool that I got in my family’s hometown in Mexico. I bought it from the guy making it, he was selling it for $35. My sister and I walked all over town on a very hot day to find a way to take it back to the States with me and package it. We had it boxed up and I checked it as luggage," she muses.
When pressed on her takeaways about the entire process, del Río offers some sage advice, "Be realistic with yourself that it's most likely going to cost more than you anticipated and take longer. Give yourself a financial padding above the amount you agree on with the contractor. Take your time to really interview a solid contractor and find the right fit. Treat the people working on your home well, they give so much of themselves to your home and the more they feel respected, the more they’ll give you in return," she shares.
"At the end of the day, having a home is a privilege [I believe it should be a right but that’s a larger conversation]," she says. We have a home we love, we have stability — we are beyond lucky. With so many people struggling with houselessness in the Bay Area, I am constantly reminded to enjoy our space with gratitude."