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How This Rental Became a Designer’s European Coastal Dream

Slow and steady wins the (design) race — at least, that’s true for interior designer Ellie Baer. She transformed her living room into a coastal European dream by swapping key pieces of furniture and adding classic architectural elements that her space lacked.

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Designer Name: Ellie Baer (of Ellie Baer Designs)

Instagram Handle: @dept_oftheinterior 

Project Name: San Francisco Living Room

Project Type: Residential

Project Location: San Francisco, CA

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Let’s get acquainted! Tell us about yourself.

My name is Ellie Baer — I am a Bay Area native and live in San Francisco. I work in digital health during the day, helping provide access to quality healthcare for folks all over the country, serve on several nonprofit boards, provide advisory work to startups, and run a women’s investment group during the day. At night, I work with clients nationwide to design the spaces of their dreams. My love of design started as a kid — redesigning my room every month and bringing memories to my space.

I always found it magical to change my environment and let my creativity run wild. I labored over my college dorms similarly, taking a blank canvas and turning it into my retreat from the outside world. When I graduated from college, my friends and family members started asking for my help with their apartments and homes when they saw my first apartment filled with antiques and treasures from my near-constant travels. At a certain point, I had a mental catalog of unique pieces, stores, and resellers I loved but couldn’t spend thousands a month on my apartment. Working with friends and family allowed me to keep my creativity alive — I had an excuse to design whenever I wanted. Once I received positive feedback, I began working outside my immediate network. I utilized Spoak to visualize my client's designs and learn from a network of incredible designers across the U.S. I currently work around 10-15 design projects a year, bringing me immeasurable joy.

One thing I love about designing professionally part-time is being selective with my clients and projects. I always feel like I have a choice and can ask myself: Does this align with my design ideals? Am I the best person for this job, stylistically and budget-wise? Is this going to be fun for me?

Tell us about your design project.

My fiance and I have been living in our current space for a little over three years and owned an exceptionally comfortable yet stylistically impractical couch during that time. The couch was too large for our space but held a special place in my fiance's heart. Due to the size, fabric, and color, it presented a real challenge to design around. Every effort to spruce up the space over a few years seemed to fall flat (the fact is, the couch ate up so much of the room's visual interest that I could never achieve the look I was pining for). The goal of the project was to transform the space by harkening back to the building's old San Francisco roots — adding in classic elements that would have been part of the original building, with a paint color similar to one that would have been seen during that time. When we moved in, the character had been entirely stripped from the unit (the advantages being a new kitchen and bathrooms) but entirely devoid of the original character. Since we don’t own, I have spent the last few years working with the blank canvas we have to make the space feel calming and sophisticated with an eclectic, artistic flair and a good flow for the entertaining we frequently do.

Describe the design process in detail and the budget for this project.

One thing I’ve laughed at over drinks with many interior design friends is how challenging it can be to design your own space. When you’re working with thoughtful, creative clients year-round, it’s easy to draw constant inspiration, and many of us have a hard time actually pulling the trigger on designing our own homes (it can feel so final, which it’s not!). The first step, taken about a year back, was to swap the light fixtures from plastic lights that came with the apartment to antique gas lamps that have since been retrofitted into electric lights. My dad has been an avid collector of antique light fixtures for over 30 years and, luckily, had some incredible options for us to choose from. The fixtures I chose are from the mid-1880s in the Eastlake style and were made by prominent Philadelphia manufacturer Thackara & Sons (the same chandeliers, but larger, exist in the Met in NYC). We had a really great layout in the space since we first moved in — but given the size of the couch, the dining room was a bit squeezed into the corner and rendered mostly impractical.

Once I got the go-ahead from my fiance to replace the couch, I entered deep design mode (the animal part of myself that obsesses over every option and detail). The best part of removing a large piece of furniture from a space is the opportunity to paint and add wall detailing and molding before your new items arrive — an opportunity I was eager to take. I selected a pale sage green, Farrow & Ball’s Vert de Terre, and box-purchased moldings to be applied to the room's walls. I put together three Vizis on Spoak to compare and contrast different seating and color options and landed on a sculptural yet practical sofa, along with two lounge chairs to break up the space that previously blocked access to the dining space. I moved a lot around overall; I replaced the rugs throughout the space, brought in a chair that perfectly matched the wall color (I can be very swayed by monochromatic spaces), moved our teak wood coffee table to the corner to act as a side table, and brought in a vintage gold and glass coffee table to replace it.

We hired a painter and a handyman to install the moldings and paint, which was a lot of fun. I took the time to supervise the work of painting wire covers to conceal the mess of wires by the TV console. Once the painting had time to cure, I scheduled our furniture delivery to arrive just in time for Valentine’s Day. I took a few days to rearrange our antiques, lamps, vases, and sculptures to fit the space better. The last step was installing sconces into the wall, which was a huge challenge given that the back wall is entirely concrete. We had to try four different drill bit options to secure them finally — nothing is ever easy in design! Since we couldn’t wire them in, I removed the wiring and added remote-controlled battery-operated puck lights from Amazon.

Scroll down to the end of this article to find Ellie's sources.

Can you describe the "before" photos of the space?

“Rental eggshell” is the bane of my existence, which rendered any attempt at a serene, old-world European coastal space nearly impossible. There was a warm yellow tone to the eggshell on the walls, bringing out the stained wood floors in a way that felt garish. I salvaged some style with the antique shell lamp, antiques, and some original art, but the colors didn’t go together. The warm and cool tones contrasted in a way that didn’t look cohesive. I deliberately purchased items I knew I wanted forever, but they didn’t necessarily look good with the arrangement with the original couch. From there, it was a waiting game until I got the green light to redesign.

Pictured above, Ellie's space before the makeover. She struggled to make her vision work with the original sofa.

What do you love about the "after" photos?

I love everything about this — the green is perfect during daylight and cozy at night. The colors are harmonious, the space seats more people now than before, and most importantly, it’s modular and suits our lifestyle. Our larger coffee table allows ten people to play games together (with room for cocktails or wine), and the pieces that languished before have a chance to shine.

Ellie's space post-makeover, shining in all its glory!

How did Spoak’s software help you bring your design vision to life?

I use Vizi constantly for both my clients and myself. Seeing how things will look given different pieces allows me to perfect a space before seeing it in real life. Most of my clients want to know what the whole project will look like, even if they purchase items in stages – and I am no different. I don’t know how I designed for myself or my clients before Spoak’s Viz tool, but I certainly don’t plan on designing a space without it ever again.

What was your favorite part about working on this project?

The design process with Spoak is always my favorite part, rivaled only by every time I sit in my living room after a long day of work! Nothing is more special than finding gorgeous pieces for your home and removing the doubt by seeing how they will play together in your space.

Do you have any final words of encouragement or advice for people tackling a design project?

First, understand how you or your clients want to utilize a space. Is it for relaxing after a long week? Entertaining? Playing with the kids? Working on your art? Watching TV? Make sure you have a layout that reflects how the space will be used. If you have children, opt for round corners and soft landings with durable fabrics, and spend more of your budget on art out of their reach.

Second, think about where you want your budget to go. When I first graduated from college, I was a 22-year-old making barely enough money for rent, travel, and small beautiful items for my space. I started by investing in small, beautiful items to give myself time to develop my personal style and save on the big stuff (22-year-old Ellie couldn’t afford tens of thousands of dollars of furniture at the time). “Soft” pieces like rugs, couches, and bedding need to be swapped out (or reupholstered) occasionally, but a stunning original painting or sturdy side table can be restyled and kept forever. 

Lastly, remember that certain pieces in a home hold deep sentimental value. Though the couch we owned for years didn’t fit the look I wanted (as a designer, you can imagine that it drove me crazy!), I waited until my fiance (the other person who has to live here!) was comfortable with the change. Sometimes we have to wait for what we want, and our clients are no different. If you work with clients, ask them what pieces they don’t want to say goodbye to — most have a few!

Ellie's new space feels refreshed and serene, reminiscent of airy days on the coast of Europe.

What’s next on your design project radar?

I’m working on a home redesign in Piedmont, a beautiful neighborhood in the Oakland Hills. The home is an airy, light-filled classic Craftsman for a family with two young children, with beautiful nooks and crannies that allow for some really creative design moments.


Project Sources:

Furniture: CB2 Durant Sofa; Crate & Barrel x Leanne Ford Patty Armless Chair; Soho Home Dolly Chair; France & Son Teak Wood Coffee Table; Lighting: Burke Decor Shelly Sconce; Paint: Farrow & Ball Vert de Terre.

Have a design project created in Spoak that you're proud of? Email our team for a chance to be featured!

Date Posted
March 10, 2023
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