An update of a classic 19th-century home shows a fresh approach to tradition

Diving headlong into a challenging project was never an issue for Catherine Bailey and Robin Petravic. The two designers found themselves having their first child, getting to know a new town, and renovating a house ― not to mention acquiring Heath Ceramics, the iconic Western pottery line ― all at the same time.

“It was a truly organic process,” Petravic says about their home remodel (though he could be talking about their approach to life in general). “I guess we’re lucky it worked out in the end.”

Their open-minded attitude came in handy when they moved from San Francisco north to Sausalito, where homes cling to steep hills at the edge of Richardson Bay. The house they bought ― a pre-1900 cottage on the hillside above the harbor ― badly needed an update. “We’re always drawn to houses and objects with history and purpose,” says Bailey, who along with her husband was a designer of products from snowboards to cell phones.

Then an accidental discovery became a major source of inspiration for their remodel. While exploring their new neighborhood, the couple stumbled upon the factory for Heath Ceramics. The company, founded by pioneering designer and ceramicist Edith Heath, had been producing artisan tiles and dishes for more than 50 years, furnishing thousands of homes (as well as Berkeley’s Chez Panisse and other restaurants) with its signature pottery sets in earth-inspired tones. The practical yet elegant pieces appealed to Bailey and Petravic’s streamlined sensibilities. Then they learned that the company, with Edith Heath in ill health, was no longer thriving.

The couple formed an unlikely dream ― to take over the ceramics factory, despite the fact that neither of them had any experience in the field. And yet, with resourceful financing and a few silent partners, the dream came true: They bought Heath in 2003. 

Bridging old and new

The new business influenced the couple’s decisions as they began their cottage makeover. Attracted to the simple beauty of functional items, they brought a similar aesthetic to their home. First, to get the most out of the view, they tore down a wall that closed off the kitchen from the dining room ― leaving a central tower with cabinets on one side and the fireplace on the other. They warmed rooms with fir floors and filled spaces with modern furniture whose clean lines made the most of small quarters.

“It’s a challenge to do modern in an old house,” Bailey admits. The solution was to mix it up: a Saarinen chair next to garage-sale finds, Ikea cabinets surrounded by custom woodwork and period molding.

Surprising jolts of vivid color punctuate a mostly gray palette. The three tones of deep charcoal tile are a rich background for a vintage turquoise fireplace. In the newly terraced yard, rust-orange tile benches are brilliant against the poured-concrete raised beds and bluestone pavers.

The couple nearly doubled their space by adding a bathroom, playroom, and family room where once there had been an unfinished basement. There they brought in matte brown tiles in a larger size for the floor (a practical choice for a family with a toddler and two large black Newfoundland dogs). Avocado green paint brightens the walls; sea green Heath tile gives the bathroom an otherworldly, undersea feel.

Bailey and Petravic considered their plan for quite a while, developing ideas until they found a workable design. “We redid the kitchen sketches at least eight times,” Bailey says. But the long timetable allowed them to evolve as they adjusted to the home and the business. Today, with their business thriving and construction finished (their toddler, Jasper, is an enthusiastic fan of the remodel ― particularly the backyard sandbox), they’re happy they took the plunge. Still, Petravic adds with a smile, “We’re not going to start anything new for a while.” 

Lessons from this remodel

Take your time. Catherine Bailey and Robin Petravic initially dove into their project, but then proceeded piece by piece over 2½ years. “If you can do your remodeling over a long period of time, it makes it more manageable financially,” Bailey says. And they didn’t change the structure’s footprint, which helped keep costs down.

Be creative with reuse. Tiling large surfaces can get pricey ― even if you own the company. The couple tiled the kitchen and downstairs bathroom with overstock and seconds (available at the Heath Factory Store, 415/332-3732).

Play to your strengths. The most impressive element of this home is the view to the bay, but previous owners had let overgrowth in the yard block it out. Plus, without any hardscape, the muddy yard was virtually unusable half the year. After some tree trimming and a redesign featuring a three-level garden by landscape architect Antonia Bava, the yard is now the family’s favorite hangout.

Landscape design: Antonia Bava Landscape Architects, San Francisco (415/882-7915).

Resources: Nelson Criss Cross Bubble Lamp from Hive ($329; 866/663-4483). Textured Belgian linen drapery in Acanthus from Restoration Hardware ($159–$510; 800/762-1005). Dawn Mist paint by Pratt & Lambert Paints (item 32-25). Field rug in black-gray (in hallway) from Peace Industry ($1,000; 415/255-9940). Bertoia Bird chair and ottoman in polished chrome from Hive ($2,032). Sister Mary of Mercy painting by Walter Kuhlman (1987; oil on canvas) from George Krevsky Gallery (415/397-9748). Concrete countertops in Moby from Concreteworks (510/534-7141). Bertoia stool with chrome frame and cushion in Sunflower vinyl from Circa50 ($683; 877/247-2250). White birch cabinets fabricated by J. Spix Fine Cabinets (415/339-0228).

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