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House Call: An Exercise in Order with Architect Barbara Chambers

“I don’t think there’s been anybody in my house who hasn’t said, ‘Sign me up’ after ten minutes,” architect Barbara Chambers says, referring to her minimal, almost extreme tidiness. “I design houses to be about having what you need, and nothing more.”

After more than 20 years as a residential architect in Mill Valley, California, Barbara got the chance to design her dream home when she found a too-large lot in the neighborhood and convinced the owner to split the property so she could buy half. On it, she designed a house “that is actually quite small”—2,500 square feet of daily living space, plus a separate, rentable unit perched on top of the garage.

“I designed the house the way I am,” Barbara says, “tidy and simple and straightforward, with no frills.” With children grown and gone, Barbara created a simple floor plan to accommodate herself and her husband, focusing on what mattered to her most: flow, light, and symmetry. Let’s take a closer look.

Photography by Andres Gonzalez for Remodelista.

The front door is a distressed oak Dutch door with an inset cutout window. On warm days, Barbara leaves the top half wide open. “It’s really beautiful to sit in the dining room and look straight outside.”
Above: The front door is a distressed oak Dutch door with an inset cutout window. On warm days, Barbara leaves the top half wide open. “It’s really beautiful to sit in the dining room and look straight outside.”
Barbara designed the living room furniture herself and had it fabricated by UK company George Smith, which added her chaise design to its collection and named it the Barbara Bench.
Above: Barbara designed the living room furniture herself and had it fabricated by UK company George Smith, which added her chaise design to its collection and named it the Barbara Bench.

The living room wall sconces are from Boyd, and the flooring throughout is wire-brushed, fumed oak with a simple oil finish. Barbara used Farrow & Ball paints everywhere: Clunch, her “all-time favorite,” is used in the living room.

 “My kitchen is very minimalist; the ‘stuff’ is stored around the corner,” said Barbara.
Above: “My kitchen is very minimalist; the ‘stuff’ is stored around the corner,” said Barbara.

The stainless steel hood is custom-made by commercial supplier Berlin Food Equipment in San Francisco. The countertop is statuary marble and the kitchen faucet is from Lefroy Brooks. The wood stools were made by a San Francisco artist.

To Barbara, the Viking range is the centerpiece of the room.
Above: To Barbara, the Viking range is the centerpiece of the room.

“I wanted my kitchen to be an example for clients to visit and experience what a minimal kitchen feels like,” she said. When shown a simple kitchen on paper, Barbara reports, clients often think it’s not big enough. “But once they see it in person, they realize it’s plenty big. All their needs are met, just not in a standard way.”

A side view of the kitchen shows two built-in, chest-height cabinets flanking a staircase landing. “It’s an alternate kitchen cabinet solution,” Barbara says. “It means you don’t need cabinets overhead.”
Above: A side view of the kitchen shows two built-in, chest-height cabinets flanking a staircase landing. “It’s an alternate kitchen cabinet solution,” Barbara says. “It means you don’t need cabinets overhead.”
Barbara tucked the refrigerator and the trash and recycling bins into a walk-in pantry around the corner.
Above: Barbara tucked the refrigerator and the trash and recycling bins into a walk-in pantry around the corner.

A rolling ladder in the pantry leads to an apartment unit above the garage. That unit has its own separate, private entrance; the ladder is the only access point between the apartment and the interior of the house, and it can easily be closed off. The ladder is mainly used (and loved) by grandkids when they come to stay.

The daily essentials—including tea and coffee service—are located closest to the kitchen.
Above: The daily essentials—including tea and coffee service—are located closest to the kitchen.

“I wanted to do something different with the pantry,” Barbara says. “I realized this could be a fun design if I focused on what it looked like instead of what I was going to stuff in there.”

For starters, she says, pantries are typically dark, and “it doesn’t feel good to be in them.” She knew she wanted to flood hers with light. “Wherever there is light coming in, that pulls you out into the garden.”

Barbara decants her dry goods into glass jars.
Above: Barbara decants her dry goods into glass jars.

“I’m a devoted follower of Marie Kondo,” Barbara says, referring to the author of the cult-hit organization tome The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. “I was doing that before the book came out and was pleased to see someone else validate it.” (The book in a sentence: Only keep things you love and that bring you joy.)

To Barbara, the concept extends even to food. “I buy only what I need,” she said, “and I celebrate it.”

Barbara stores clear plastic bags from the bulk aisle in a white ceramic bowl. On the floor sits a water bowl for her dog, Coco.
Above: Barbara stores clear plastic bags from the bulk aisle in a white ceramic bowl. On the floor sits a water bowl for her dog, Coco.

Barbara is part architect, part organization coach to her clients. She gives Kondo’s book to each one before starting work, and “if it doesn’t light a fire inside them, they’re not the clients for me and we’re not going to get along,” she says. “Most people want that, they just don’t know how to achieve it.”

“When clients tell me they need storage space for their eight sets of China, I tell them we’re getting rid of seven.”

Mirroring the pantry, on the other side of the kitchen, is a mudroom entrance with laundry. The pendant light is from Urban Electric.
Above: Mirroring the pantry, on the other side of the kitchen, is a mudroom entrance with laundry. The pendant light is from Urban Electric.

“Every house needs this space,” said Barbara: “The entry the family uses ninety percent of the time, where everyone can hang coats and take their shoes off.” Hanging pegs installed in the wood trim hold coats and dog leashes, and storage cabinets are recessed into the paneling to look like part of the wall.

Laundry Room Mudroom by Barbara Chambers Hooks
Above: “The guts of the house are here,” said Barbara, including the washer/dryer and “huge” cabinets with extra storage and pantry space.
 Barbara uses wall paneling in all the mudrooms she designs: “These rooms get a lot of use and get beat up easily,” she said. “You wouldn’t want to do that to sheetrock.” She tucks shallow cabinets directly into the stud walls.
Above: Barbara uses wall paneling in all the mudrooms she designs: “These rooms get a lot of use and get beat up easily,” she said. “You wouldn’t want to do that to sheetrock.” She tucks shallow cabinets directly into the stud walls.

“There’s always more space behind something,” she says. “Try to use every nook and cranny you can find.”

Barbara sited the master bedroom upstairs, at the back of the property where it’s quietest. “It’s really small for a master bedroom,” she says—just 12 feet by 18 feet—”but it has circulation and light on all sides; it’s just really magical.”
Above: Barbara sited the master bedroom upstairs, at the back of the property where it’s quietest. “It’s really small for a master bedroom,” she says—just 12 feet by 18 feet—”but it has circulation and light on all sides; it’s just really magical.”

“All of these things together—the openness, the minimal detailing, the axial relationships—make for a really nice house,” she said. “They all speak to the same vocabulary.”

A chaise sits opposite the bed, flanked by two doors leading to a white-painted deck. The rooms on this floor are painted in Farrow & Ball’s Lime White and Slipper Satin.
Above: A chaise sits opposite the bed, flanked by two doors leading to a white-painted deck. The rooms on this floor are painted in Farrow & Ball’s Lime White and Slipper Satin.
“Nothing in this house is random,” said Barbara. “Anywhere you stand in any room, there is a beautiful, symmetrical relationship in front of you.”

The vanity countertop in the master bathroom is statuary marble. The faucet is from Lefroy Brooks.
Above: The vanity countertop in the master bathroom is statuary marble. The faucet is from Lefroy Brooks.
The bathroom floor tile is half-inch Carrara marble, and the shower fixture is also from Lefroy Brooks.
Above: The bathroom floor tile is half-inch Carrara marble, and the shower fixture is also from Lefroy Brooks.
About a year after the house was complete, Barbara designed a backyard studio for her husband, architect and painter Guy Chambers. The stainless steel desk is a custom design; opposite is a pair of LC2 chairs by Le Corbusier.
Above: About a year after the house was complete, Barbara designed a backyard studio for her husband, architect and painter Guy Chambers. The stainless steel desk is a custom design; opposite is a pair of LC2 chairs by Le Corbusier.
To fill out the studio—in case Barbara and Guy want to rent it out as a separate residence—Barbara designed a breezeway kitchenette between the studio and house, which she currently uses as a potting and flower cutting station.
Above: To fill out the studio—in case Barbara and Guy want to rent it out as a separate residence—Barbara designed a breezeway kitchenette between the studio and house, which she currently uses as a potting and flower cutting station.
The front gate and garden hints at the axial relationship between the landscape and the house. Looking from the street (shown in this perspective), the house is turned sideways: “I always orient the house to the south face of the property, because that’s going to be the best garden.”
Above: The front gate and garden hints at the axial relationship between the landscape and the house. Looking from the street (shown in this perspective), the house is turned sideways: “I always orient the house to the south face of the property, because that’s going to be the best garden.”

See a full tour of Barbara’s garden on Gardenista in Architect Visit: Barbara Chambers at Home in Mill Valley.

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