Stop Searching for the Ultimate California Ranch House… Because We Found It for You
In the rolling hills near Santa Ynez, Rita Chan—a sustainability-minded interior design firm based in Santa Barbara—created a warm, minimal “ranchette” that represents the best of wine-country living.
When you close your eyes and picture the perfect California wine-country retreat, what comes to mind? Do you think of rolling, golden hills dotted with sprawling, ancient oaks and lines of grapevines threading through the landscape like grooves in corduroy? A simple but inspired ranch house that opens up to let the beauty of nature in?
We do, too. And so does Rita Donahoe of Rita Chan Interiors, a Santa Barbara-based designer and founder of Good Ancestor, a design initiative that emphasizes sustainability in home construction and decoration. The 1970s-era Santa Ynez valley 3-bedroom, 3.5-bath ranch house and guest house she transformed for a young Los Angeles couple—on a pocket-sized vineyard—is the stuff dreams are made of.
Donahoe was inspired by the modest, traditional ranch soul of the home, which is understated, classic, and welcoming. Partnering with Elliott & Pohls Construction, Dylan Henderson of SALT architecture, and Rob Maday of Bosky Landscaping, the team kept the color palette light and neutral and opened up the windows and doors to embrace the gorgeous surroundings, including a newly planted wildflower field. They added clean-lined, minimal hardscaping outside and natural finishes like Roman clay and wide-plank tongue-and-groove cladding to the interiors. There are very few mass-manufactured furniture items in the house, an intentional choice that Donahoe makes in all her projects. Most pieces are made-to-order by local California artisans or vintage.
“I was always obsessed with all-thing green living,” says Donahoe (her maiden name is Chan) who grew up in Menlo Park enjoying the lush forests of Woodside and the majestic nature of the Bay Area. “Then when I got into interior design, I was so focused on building and creating that I wasn’t paying attention to the waste. It takes time and effort to be more sustainable with a project, and isn’t considered convenient or affordable. As I went along, I just couldn’t ignore it.”
Donahoe went to USC, worked for a non-profit, and had a stint in advertising sales—coincidentally, working for Sunset at one point—but she was not fulfilling her dreams.
“My favorite childhood book was Miss Rumphius, where the main character spreads lupine flower seeds all over the countryside and poses the question ‘What will you do to make the world more beautiful?’ This planted the seed at an early age for me,” she says. “I knew I wanted to create beauty. And I had a huge pile of design articles I saved throughout my work life without a thought about what I was going to do with them.”
Then she started to connect the dots. Donahoe took the leap and attended the UCLA interior architecture extension course, and then a part-time job working at the Waterleaf shop design studio in Manhattan Beach on the weekends. In 2009, she quit ad sales to work in design full time. In 2013, she launched her own business. Now the mother of three calls Santa Barbara home and has shifted her focus to sustainable design.
“Good Ancestor is based on the concept of seriously considering a future world, the generations we will never know, and acknowledging that we are all playing a role in shaping that future world,” she says. “To be a ‘good ancestor’ means examining your lifestyle decisions and considering whether or not this future earth and these future generations will look back and be thankful or resentful for the choices you made.” She was inspired by an interview she heard with author Andrew McFarlane, who invoked the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
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“He said ‘I find it useful and, in its way, calming to invoke what King called ‘the long arc of the moral universe.’ It says, ‘Look at the gift of being, now. Look at the astonishing responsibility of legacy-leaving. And look at what you’ve inherited in the wonder of this world. And what will our time leave?’ I found that to be so powerful,” she says.
How does furnishing a home play into this idea, you may ask? Donahoe explains.
“Our homes really do tell a story of who we are and what we care about, which is why old artifacts dug up from ancient civilizations are so fascinating,” she says. “They tell us how the people were living and what they focused on. I think about that when making a purchase. In an ideal world this purchase will go back into the earth naturally and decompose, but if it does live on, my hope is that items future generations will find will say, ‘They were creative, thoughtful people who cared about keeping the earth healthy.’”
Her priorities are simple: First, try to salvage or use as much as you can that you already own, which could mean painting or reupholstering. Then, source as much vintage as possible. If you purchase new, make sure it’s through a company that makes small batches of products or custom to order, which keeps waste and energy use down. Consider whether a piece will decompose naturally or if it will take up space in a landfill when it’s no longer useful. With materials such as paint and tile we also try to stick to vendors that we know are making efforts to be sustainable, such as Portola Paints and Fireclay Tile. Make thoughtful choices with construction to avoid wasting materials.
Donahoe’s sustainable fingerprints are all over this Santa Ynez property, which consists of a handful of renovated outbuildings that create a retreat large enough to host visiting family and friends. Old barns and workshops were repurposed into an art studio and a guest house.
“Initially, the clients gravitated toward more modern and a little bit mid-century style, but we wanted to be sure to honor the vibe of the area and take our cues from natural elements and the lifestyle they envisioned for their vacation time at the ranch,” she says.
Vintage pieces with “soul” like rugs and light fixtures blend with new items for a rustic, modern mix that feels in harmony with nature.
“I wanted the color palette to be calming to reflect the colors found in the surroundings, so we used mostly neutral tones with one big pop of green on the living room sofa, which reminds me of the deep green of the massive oak tree on their property,” Donahoe says.
Muted finishes, like unglazed tile and stone that will patina with time, and colors drawn from the surroundings play into the nature.
A 100-year-old vintage bench is the first item of furniture you see when you enter the house. “We joke that 10 people could sit down and take off their shoes at the same time. The interior walls and trim are painted in Dunn Edwards Swiss Coffee. The piano is vintage with a custom bench cushion in Peter Dunham Fabric.
Relaxed bedding from Parachute Home sets the tone for the spare guest bedroom, with a bench by Made Goods and Nickey Kehoe nightstands.
Under a chandelier by Apparatus, the dining nook table is by Dos Gallos. The custom benches are outfitted in practical outdoor fabric by Thibaut (which is Greenguard certified). The pillows are vintage.
The Nickey Kehoe table is surrounded by Four Hands dining chairs (the only mass pieces in the house). The cushions are made with Peter Dunham fabric and the rug is vintage.
The kitchen barstools are by Lee Industries. The tile is Natural Zellige by Clé Tile, and the plumbing fixtures were made by Devol Kitchens.
“Another favorite piece is the vintage chest of drawers in the art studio that we salvaged from the original owner’s workshop. I love knowing that in the ’70s, he was using those drawers for his tools to build and create and that today my clients are using them for the same purpose,” Donahoe says.
A Brendan Ravenhill chandelier and sconces, a vintage rug, a concrete desk by Zachary A, a Ceramicah lamp, and vintage accessories outfit the sleek home office.
Windows looking out onto the vineyard steal the show in the guest room. The walls and ceilings are a custom white plaster.
The guest bathroom vanity is painted in Pigeon by Farrow & Ball.