This Vintage Malibu Cottage Channels the Past (In the Best Way!)
View to a Thrill
The more patina, the more quirk, the better—this became a good rule of thumb for interior designer Christine Markatos Lowe as she dreamed up a design plan for the young California couple who hired her to redo their beach cottage. After working on two previous houses together, she knew that for them, character was king. “I don’t think I could show these clients a brand-new piece of furniture,” says the Santa Monica–based designer. “They believe the beauty is in the imperfections.”
Sea to Table
So Lowe wasn’t entirely surprised when the couple showed her this small, dated beach bungalow along the Malibu shore. “It was livable but needed some work,” she recalls. Because even though its late 1940s lineage was a big part of what had drawn them to the house—as were original details like a weathered mahogany banister and wide-plank pecan wood flooring—there were signs that it had been stripped of some of its personality along the way. There was no other surviving millwork, like paneling or built-ins, and many of the architectural elements that did exist seemed oddly out of scale.
But Lowe could tell it was ripe for a comeback. And not just any comeback—the style approach they settled on was a bit rare for mod-leaning Malibu, but warmly familiar to both the designer and the owners. “I grew up summering in Maine, and my clients used to spend summers at the beach in Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod, and southern Connecticut,” says Lowe. “So we all had similar visual references for what a great beach cottage looks like.” Envisioning heirloom furniture and easygoing living spaces that whispered a bit of history, the team called to mind old cedar-shingled summerhouses as their starting point.
The design approach didn’t exactly roll in with the Pacific tides, but it isn’t out of place, either. “Malibu is a great mashup of architectural styles,” Lowe says. Along the famed Southern California shoreline are homes that range from Spanish Revival bungalows to linear, glass-encased manses to simple midcentury ranches—with a few traditional shingled cottages tucked in there, too. “We weren’t too worried about not fitting in,” adds the designer with a laugh.
Along with replacing the 1950s-era exterior stucco with cedar shingles, she set out to retool the layout to maximize space (the cottage has just two bedrooms and 1,800 square feet), capitalize on the ocean views, and address some curious add-ons from past renovations. For instance, a raised-hearth fireplace was way out of proportion to the living room’s modest size, and its stacked-stone surround “made it feel like it belonged in a big, modern ski house,” says Lowe. To correct it, she brought in a reclaimed 1840s mantel from a house in Massachusetts and refabricated the hearth and surround with brilliant blue hand-glazed tile. The color matches that of the water on the other side of the sliding glass doors. Throughout, the windows were raised and widened to take better advantage of the view.
Because the original wood flooring didn’t extend to the upstairs, and it would’ve been near impossible to find matching pecan planks, Lowe hit on a more colorful solution: installing plain pine floors upstairs and painting them pale blue. “Then we chose variations of different blues and greens and painted the doors and stair treads, too, so the color appears to shift and move from room to room,” she says.
They tucked in storage anywhere they could, “almost the way you do on a ship—we had to get creative,” says Lowe. For example, they used the existing depth in the wall on either side of the fireplace for extra storage in the center of the house. Downstairs, this yielded bookcases, a pocket door, and a coat closet (the latter two are hidden in new tongue-and-groove paneling); upstairs, they carved out a closet in each of the bedrooms.
Rise & Shine
Most of the vintage furnishings hail from the same era as the house (from the 1940s to the ’60s), including a pair of low-slung bamboo chairs and a dhurrie in the living room, and a Swedish rug from 1912 in the family room. A few pieces are older: The oak dining room table was built more than a century ago, and the carved mahogany mirror that hangs above the accompanying banquette seating was crafted in the 1920s.
“The cottage is really imperfect, in a beautiful way,” says Lowe. The key, she adds, is that the owners knew how they wanted to live. “They wanted to be able to put their feet up on anything; they wanted their dog to roam the house and their kids to be able to come in with sand on their feet. That’s the kind of beach cottage we all know and love.”