A bright and homey houseboat is a snug love nest for a Bay Area designer and her infant daughter.

Sausalito Houseboat Living Area
Thomas J. Story

When Blythe Friedmann made the decision to move out of her stately Edwardian home in San Francisco’s eclectic Mission neighborhood, she had only one serious criterion: It had to be the opposite of the house she’d lived in for 15 years. That meant no tall, walnut wainscoting, dimly lit rooms, or closets full of memories. The interior designer and art therapist was preparing for her life as a new mother. And she wanted the proximity of suburban living without any of its inherent blandness.

“I was thinking and thinking, and then I just woke up one morning, and it was this intuitive knowing. I wanted to try to buy a houseboat,” she says.

Sausalito Houseboat Blythe Friedmann on Deck
Friedmann sanded the existing interlocked pine IKEA deck and re-painted the exterior Iron Mountain by Benjamin Moore. 

Thomas J. Story

Friedmann hadn’t thought much about the famous floating communities that fill the snug harbors around Sausalito since she visited a friend from graduate school who lived in one over two decades ago. But when she saw a listing for a dated floating home in a quirky neighborhood on the Bay, she knew instantly that she’d found her place.

View from Sausalito Houseboat
The houseboat community in Sausalito is eclectic and colorful.

Thomas J. Story

“The boat where Shel Silverstein lived, the Evil Eye, is just two slips away,” she says. “This is literally Where the Sidewalk Ends. It’s a very tight-knit group of people of all ages, from their 20s to their 80s. I was really drawn to the bohemian, slightly weird community.”

Sausalito Houseboat Dining Area
A rare vintage George Nelson pendant hangs over Friedmann’s grandmother’s marble table. The wall hanging is by Rhiannon Griego. The vintage Eames chairs were an eBay find, and the custom door was made from teak salvaged from a WWII ship.

Thomas J. Story

Transitioning from a traditional, somewhat masculine house that she’d always occupied with a partner or a roommate to a four-level, 1,400-square-foot boat with her little girl, Goldie, required a comprehensive purge, both of bulky furniture and old ideas.

Sausalito Houseboat Kitchen
A Bertazzoni stove and Zellige tile add unexpected sophistication to the small galley kitchen. Vintage Moroccan ceramics mingle with Heath plates and bowls on the open shelves. 

Thomas J. Story

“I got rid of almost everything except for art and a few beloved collectibles, and it felt so good,” she says. “When I design things for my clients, I think about where they’re coming from and where they’re going to. For me, I wanted to come into the light in a bright, feminine, soft space.”

Sausalito Houseboat Sitting Area Malm Fireplace
A cream, vintage Malm stove anchors the sitting area. Dreamer Couch by Pop and Scott. Bauer studios vintage coffee table. 

Thomas J. Story

Friedmann christened the boat Moonstone and began anew, with a light neutral palette and inviting textures. She chose Moroccan rugs and blankets, a cream colored Malm wood stove, a vintage George Nelson lantern, and a mid-century rocking chair for Goldie’s room that she can re-sell when Goldie outgrows it. She’s particularly proud of the nursery, which is outfitted primarily in consignment store finds and collected textiles with pops of primary colors.

Sausalito Houseboat Shelving Detail
Custom shelving in the lower guest bedroom holds Friedmann’s many books and collected treasures. 

Thomas J. Story

Vintage isn’t for everyone, but I love how it allows me to live with pieces for a period of time and sell them when I’m ready to switch it out. It’s better for the wallet and the landfill,” she says.

Sausalito Houseboat Kitchen
The galley kitchen optimizes storage.

Thomas J. Story

The very specific challenges of remodeling and furnishing a boat can intimidate less intrepid designers. For starters, there’s very little storage—no garden shed, garage, or basement. And there are weight and balance considerations that require extra attention. The heaviest elements, like a Zellige tile bathroom wall, need to be in the center of the space. Weighty furniture, like the vintage marble table Friedmann inherited from her grandmother that was the inspiration for pale, earth tones throughout, could easily tip the boat to one side if it wasn’t positioned correctly. The oddly shaped rooms also required creative thinking. Friedmann, who grew up in apartments in Brooklyn, understands the secrets to smaller-space living are smart built-ins and careful editing.

Sausalito Houseboat Bedroom Nightstand
Woven leather headboard, Saffron + Poe. Coyuchi linens in Bleached White. Peruvian Frazada blanket from The Perish Trust. Oak nightstand, vintage. 

Thomas J. Story

“We’re all just trying to be the best version of ourselves, and I think of living spaces in the same way. Maximize what you have. Everything in it should be beautiful and functional,” she says. And, she advises, invest in custom built-ins to make the most of tight quarters.

Sausalito Houseboat Guest Room Custom Built-ins
Clever, custom built-ins in the guest room provide much-needed storage. 

Thomas J. Story

“The downstairs guest room was just a tiny rectangle with popcorn walls, and I built a daybed with deep drawers and floor-to-ceiling storage, wrapped with bookshelves. My niece calls it the mermaid cave,” she says. “Built-ins always make it feel so lovely, especially in a small space.”

Sausalito Houseboat Nursery Blythe Friedmann and Baby
Friedmann and her daughter, Goldie.

Thomas J. Story

Friedmann completed the renovation in 2022, and Goldie was born a little less than a year later. The little family has been embraced by the hardy characters that choose to live right alongside the elements. With seals barking off the stern, “strange clanking noises against the hull” at night, a dampness that can seep into towels and sheets, and fierce storms whipping around wind and rain, Friedmann acknowledges that the lifestyle can be surprisingly rugged, and not the most obvious choice for a single mom.

Sausalito Houseboat Nursery
The nursery features primarily consignment store finds and collected textiles.

Thomas J. Story

“It’s an adventure to be on the water. There are times where there will be a storm overnight and I’ll see my neighbors in the parking lot and you can tell that no one’s had any sleep. We’ve gotten hurricane-force winds. The power goes out. It definitely feels like you’re at sea,” she says. “But I love being impacted by the elements and not just tucked away in a neat little box.”

Sausalito Houseboat Primary Bathroom Sink
The boat’s heaviest elements, like this large vintage sink in the primary bathroom, are centered to keep the boat balanced. The shiplap walls are a nod to the nautical life. The 1930s brass faucet and p-trap were eBay finds. Friedmann swears by Coyuchi air-dry towels. 

Thomas J. Story

She perceives the changing tides and seasons differently in her new home, and the connection she feels to nature, especially when she takes out her secondhand kayak for a paddle, supersedes any inconveniences. In the process, Goldie has won plenty of dockside admirers who love watching her grow and delight in the wonders of life in and around the water. And Friedmann has proven to herself that if she can baby-proof a boat, she can do anything.

Sausalito Houseboat Exterior Potted Succulents
Terracotta pots filled with succulents from Green Jeans on the multi-leveled, tiled light well.

Thomas J. Story

“I’ve done a few different jobs on boats since I moved in, helping pick out floor tile for one and doing some light redecorating for another. I found that a lot of the trades don’t want to work on houseboats, so I know people who are willing to do that now, which helps,” she says of her new-found expertise.

“It can be intimidating. It’s intense, both the beauty and the experience,” she says. “And you have to just accept that everything is going to get a little salty.”