This Cozy Boho Montecito Beach Retreat Is Full of Charming Surprises
A musical family’s cozy Santa Barbara compound is a modern-boho beach retreat, filled with an unexpected mix of Swedish and American antiques, irreverent color, and plenty of relaxed charm.
There’s nothing like a tall, green hedge to create a little real estate intrigue, and the best neighborhoods in Santa Barbara are lined with them. The coastal California community is known as one of the country’s favorite beachside retreats, and for its many homes that look as though they were plucked straight from a storybook—if you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse through thick green foliage.
Yes, Oprah has a palatial house there, and a certain English expat calls it home. But the real appeal of the area lies in the rambling beach houses and quaint cottages hidden behind thick tree cover and unassuming gates. The mini-compound that Nina Gordon and Jeff Russo found on a quiet side street near the shore, hidden by dense greenery, is one of those places. With its off-the-charts charm, pops of cheerful color, and collected vintage pieces, in just a handful of years it’s become a cherished, music-filled family retreat with modern bohemian style.
“The house opens up to the garden, and we are in and out all the time,” says Gordon. Beach walks, bike rides, trips to the farmers’ market, big barbecues, and late night firepit singalongs are regular events, and the guest room is rarely empty. “We eat all our summer meals outside. It’s low maintenance and easy. I expect the floor to be sandy all the time, and I don’t mind it at all.”
Gordon, a singer-songwriter and member of the band Veruca Salt, and Russo, a composer for television and film and guitarist for the band Tonic, spent a number of summers getting to know the area the same way many Angelenos do, renting houses near the beach for a few weeks to escape the hazy August heat with their young children. Occasionally, they’d check open-house listings to entertain the idea of finding a summery cottage of their own.
“It’s easy to fall in love with all of the dreamy little beach towns in the area,” says Gordon. “And there’s just something about the quality of the light and the clarity of the natural colors that is truly magical.”
One property in particular, an acre plot with a traditional three-bedroom cottage that dates back to 1895, a guesthouse, a small creek running through the property, and a mature rose garden, caught their attention back in 2019. Unlike many of its grander neighbors, it felt modest in scale and attitude, just big enough to accommodate visiting family and friends. An added bonus was the replica of a circus caravan, which was built as a playhouse for the previous owner’s daughter, that occupied a rear corner of the garden.
They saw it once and were instantly smitten with the local-stone fireplaces, winding gravel pathways, and mature gardens.
“The first thing I fell in love with was the trees,” says Gordon, “the sculptural California live oaks, the big redwood out front, the massive shady sycamores, and my favorite, a ginkgo tree out back.”
The house lured them back for a second look. When they went back for a third time, it was clear that something stronger than a whim was brewing. Still, they weren’t ready to take the leap. The house was taken off the market, and the thought faded to the back of their minds. Cut to 2020 when a global lockdown, and a Redfin alert, changed everything.
“We got a Redfin notification in March that the house was back on the market, and we jumped immediately and made an offer,” Gordon says. “The timing was perfect.”
After they got the keys, Gordon’s first call was to her mother, Berta Shapiro, who was in the process of retiring from her long career as an esteemed interior designer in Chicago.
“My mother has the best eye of anyone on the planet,” says Gordon. “I wanted to get her out to see the house as soon as I could, but because these were the early days of COVID, we had to do a lot of FaceTiming.”
By paging through stacks of old issues of World of Interiors, sending photos back and forth with Shapiro, and discussing paint swatches, they were able to create a plan to decorate it quickly, without making anything look rushed or haphazard. First, they chose Farrow & Ball Hague Blue for the front doors, then painted the red oak floors white.
“The white floors made the small house feel open and airier, and created a clean canvas to work with,” says Gordon. “Our painter had done her own floors and knew exactly what to do: Three coats of paint followed by three coats of polyurethane. Overall, I’ve tried to keep the palette sort of soft and oceanic, with some jolts of yellow and the occasional pink.”
Another lucky break was that because Shapiro was retiring, she had an inventory of unique furniture that she’d collected over decades, including 19th-century Swedish chairs, an antique Canadian dining table, and wicker pieces from the 1940s. All of it was Gordon’s for the taking.
“It was a very exciting day when that shipment arrived,” says Gordon. “I am so lucky, because it takes time to amass a collection of interesting pieces with the patina and integrity of age. Because I had them, it made it easy to mix in some practical, less expensive furniture so that I could get the house done quickly and not end up with a generic feel. The house is really a hybrid of my whimsical style and my mother’s influence.”
“We started with three of the Roche Bobois modular pieces and then kept adding,” she says. “It was sort of like getting one tattoo, and then you just keep adding more and more. They seem to look handsome and chic in any space.”
The walls are filled with charming artwork, like vintage Japanese block prints, poppy posters, and Gordon’s own work in oil sticks and pastels, depicting female faces in various expressive forms.
“I’ve been drawing these faces for decades. It started reflexively as a doodle, whenever I had a pen in hand,” says Gordon. “Now it’s more intentional. It’s similar to songwriting in that you are always sort of circling the same territory and trying to go a little deeper to get to the really good version of the same thing you’ve been doing your whole life.”
Outside in the garden, they built a pool with a flagstone deck and a firepit, and added to the gorgeous, meandering walkways with an assist from landscape architect Yvonne Chin. Russo has a state-of-the-art studio with a drop-down screen to work in. Their two teenage children have plenty of space to spread out and the freedom to visit friends and explore around town. And Shapiro has a standing invitation to occupy the guesthouse whenever she wants to visit. The best part, according to Gordon, is that the house makes it easy to do absolutely nothing but enjoy the sun-dappled deck and the cool ocean breezes.
“What I love is that the house doesn’t take itself too seriously,” says Gordon. “My most prized possession in the house is the George Harrison needlepoint pillow that my sister-in-law made for me. I feel like the whole house has taken shape around that pillow.”