Paradise Found
A Designer's Family Paradise in Hawaii

California Home + Design

January 2006



Very few people can describe their childhood as idyllic, but Marion Philpotts can state with confidence that hers was nothing short of paradise. Growing up on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, she could stand under the spray of a backyard waterfall, hide behind giant palm fronds and watch a rainbow appear after a sun shower. "I wanted my kids to experience that kind of freedom and joy," she explains. "I wanted to capture that in the way we live and the way we entertain."


Philpotts, a partner in the San Francisco interior design firm Your Space, Inc., and her husband, attorney Jeffrey Miller, decided to make the move after living in a Pacific Heights Victorian home for seven years with their daughters, Makena, 14, and Marée, 10. Jeffrey, a Bay Area native, was also ready for a major lifestyle change. "We both wanted something softer, more relaxed," Marion explains. "We wanted a house where you could accommodate kids and adults in the same environment—something that would be beautiful and, at the same time, function well."


The couple found what they were looking for in a modest 1920s bungalow, the anomaly in a neighborhood of Mediterranean and French manor-style homes in the Nuuanu Valley of Oahu. Delighted to be surrounded by all the benefits of the tropics, Marion and Jeffrey quickly discovered that the house had suffered from all the drawbacks: Rot, mold and not one but two types of termites had destroyed most of the frame. But instead of tearing the house down, the couple opted to redesign it, adding only a small sunroom to the home's original footprint. Marion was intent on preserving the best of the original plantation house, which included board-and-batten walls, a columned wraparound porch and carved pineapple finials on the staircase.


"We took our urban sensibilities, our Hawaiian hearts and a modest budget, and created a place that speaks to our family yet celebrates what was wonderful about the original house," Marion says.


The family remained in San Francisco for nine months while major construction was under way. Fortunately, Marion's mother, interior designer Mary Philpotts McGrath, lives next door and could intervene when problems arose with the project. (Although Marion returns to San Francisco monthly to continue her association with Your Space, in Hawaii she works at her mother's 40-year-old Honolulu design firm, Philpotts & Associates.)


In order to correct the structural problems, the existing 3,000-square-foot, three-bedroom house was peeled away layer by layer, until only the studs and floor joists remained. Working closely with Honolulu architect Robert Alexander Lazo, Marion used the opportunity to make the house more spacious and conducive to her vision of a casual lifestyle, paying special attention to the dialogue between indoors and out. Windows and doors were added or modified to capitalize on the views and natural light as well as the gentle breezes that do away with the need for air-conditioning.


The kitchen—once the darkest and dreariest room in the house—is a testament to such efforts. The cramped labyrinth of heavy, built-in cabinets was gutted, and the space was connected to the adjacent laundry room to increase its size. The original ceiling was then raised to create an airy 16-foot cathedral ceiling. Marion updated the room with a slick new palette intended to be both classic and modern, "so the room wouldn't date itself too much." White walls, stainless-steel appliances and Carrara marble countertops and backsplashes make for a timeless look. In the center of the room, an 11-foot island topped with honed black granite was intentionally designed without built-in appliances and plumbing so it could function as a kitchen table when the family wants to forgo the formality of the dining room. The new kitchen is perhaps too successful, Marion admits. "We spend so much time there that we don't use the other areas of the house as much as we'd like to."


Most of the interiors are a study in white on white, with warmth provided by Brazilian cherry floors, dark-wood accent pieces and scattered splashes of color. Marion carefully chose furnishings and accessories that come together in a style that reflects her pan-Pacific roots. Even the large foyer, which the family uses for reading and games, has an assortment of exotic touches: The chairs around the gaming table are from China, the rug is a Hawaiian lauhala woven from coconut-palm fronds and the hanging lamp is from Paris. Another window seat, lined here with neutral-toned pillows, encourages relaxation.


Upstairs, the master bedroom was reworked to accommodate the modern-day demand for ample closets, and a picture window was cut out to frame a dramatic mountain view. Space constraints and Marion's long list of criteria made the renovation of the master bath particularly challenging: "I was determined to have a separate toilet room, a soaking tub, a huge walk-in shower and a double vanity," she says. To offer the illusion of space, an open floor plan in sand-colored limestone visually connects the floor, shower and tub.


Outside, a new garage also serves as a playroom, theater and dining pavilion. The interior walls were plastered and then waxed to better tolerate the elements, and a rubber floor and ballet barre were installed for the couple's dancing daughters. Striped taupe-and-black draperies made from Perennials' indoor/outdoor fabric hang on motorized tracks, creating a stage for the girls' theatrical productions.


"Real outdoor living and dining goes on in these spaces," Marion says. "It's not formal, and it's not real structured, yet there's a lot of grace to the way people live and entertain here. We were able to accomplish that in this house, and that was really important to me."