The Little House with Big Views

Inspired by Big Sur's mountains, native oaks, and crashing waves, a California couple takes a humble cottage with a storied past back to its roots.

Big Sur Cottage: Exterior

Photographer David Tsay

Charming Facade

A certain timeless, off-the-beaten-track grace still haunts this Big Sur world, particularly in an old community of homes where a small redwood-clad house perches 1,000 feet above the crashing surf.

Once owned by modern architect Philip Johnson, this one-bedroom, 1930s cottage tucks seamlessly into its woodsy setting. The roaring ocean is audible from its decks, garden, and rooms, which open to the outdoors. On clear days, these same spots capture vistas—30 miles south down the coast, northwest to the sunset, and east to the mountains—where, at night, the moon rises through the oaks.

Big Sur Cottage:

Photographer David Tsay

A Fresh Look

By the time the wood structure came on the market in 2006, nature had taken a heavy toll: Years of beating rains and heavy fogs had rotted window frames and decks; the once-glorious garden was mostly gone. "This cabin was worth saving not just because of its history, but also because of its relationship with its mighty surroundings," says Mary Ann Schicketanz (pictured), the architect and interior designer who oversaw the renovation.

The new owners were drawn to the cottage's cozy warmth and wanted to celebrate its woodsy ocean and mountain views, but they preferred a more modern approach. So they enlisted Mary Ann to restore the cottage in a manner that reflected their tastes but also honored the place and its past. Out went view-blocking blinds and dark wall colors. Much of the Monterey pine flooring stayed bare, and Mary Ann swapped a bamboo kitchen ceiling for pine to match others throughout the house.

Big Sur Cottage: Deck

Photographer David Tsay

Restored Deck

Then: Added in the 1970s, the cottage's wraparound decks had taken a beating from years of storms and fog.

Now: With its stunning views, restored flooring and trellis, and easy access to the kitchen via French doors, the shaded deck is ideal for alfresco meals.

Big Sur Cottage: Sitting Room

Photographer David Tsay

Modern Sitting Room

Then: The previous owners filled the home with heavy, custom furniture and art.

Now: Mary Ann selected more modern pieces. She pulled the warm palette—cream and chocolate with pops of orange and green—from the house's natural surroundings.

Big Sur Cottage: Decorative Accents

Photographer David Tsay

Eclectic Accents

Midcentury ceramics make a dynamic display.

Throughout the house, fresh details mimic the old. The decrepit window frames, for example, were replaced with similar redwood ones, and new fir kitchen cabinets received the same clear, natural finish as the originals. "We worked almost surgically," says Mary Ann, "as if the whole house were a piece of furniture we were restoring."

Big Sur Cottage: Living Room

Photographer David Tsay

Living Room with a View

Then: The cottage quadrupled in size with the addition of a living room, bedroom, bath, and sunroom in the 1970s.

Now: Mary Ann chose an area rug and Roman shades that can be hiked all the way up to let the room's best features—original end-grain Monterey pine floors and windows framed by native oaks—shine.

Big Sur Cottage: Bedroom

Photographer David Tsay

Understated Bedroom

Then: The cottage's only bedroom was added to the back of the house in the 1970s.

Now: To create a comfortable resting spot, Mary Ann used super-soft textures such as the silk-lined linen coverlet on the bed and a silk rug.

Big Sur Cottage: Furniture

Photographer David Tsay

Midcentury Mix

Mary Ann chose furnishings in earth tones inspired by the environment to instill the space with a comfortable, easygoing vibe. A mix of midcentury and contemporary upholstered pieces, tables, and accessories with sleek, low-slung profiles reflect the homeowners' modern sensibility. New lighting is subtle, calling out the collections of art and midcentury California ceramics. Rich silk and velvet fabrics in warm cream, orange, green, and brown respond to the surroundings and reflect the lush plantings outside, completing the picture of a world where past and present meet on a ridge high above the sea.

Big Sur Cottage: Bathroom

Photographer David Tsay

Crafty Bath

In the home's only bath, new fixtures were added around vintage hand-painted zigzag tile and a built-in chest. The pine floors and beams were sanded and the plaster walls painted a single warm, creamy hue, which unites the disparate spaces and allows the dark green oaks and azure sea, visible through every window, to take center stage.

Big Sur Cottage: About

Photographer David Tsay

About the House

Style: 1930s redwood cottage, expanded in the 1970s, with warm, California-modern furnishings.

Space: 1,600 square feet, with one bedroom, one bath, a bright, open kitchen and living room, and ocean-view decks.

Setting: Historic Big Sur, off scenic Highway 1 between Monterey and San Simeon.

View: From its wooded, 1-acre ridge, the house overlooks the open sea, north and south coasts, and Santa Lucia Mountains.

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