Previously dark and cluttered, this 40-year-old California rambler is finally cast in its best light
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When Joan and Frank Maxwell decided to update their 1970s rambler in Orinda, they weren’t thinking beyond the kitchen. Known for her elaborate dinner parties, Joan was tired of cooking in such a dark, cramped space. “I spent so much time in there alone,” she remembers. “No one else could fit.”
Architect Lara Dutto had a solution beyond new cabinets and appliances. The second floor—where all the main living areas are located—“was broken up into a bunch of small rooms under this fantastic vaulted wood ceiling,” Dutto explains. “The spaces needed to flow under that big, beautiful lid.” To stretch the light from the living room all the way into the kitchen, Dutto removed the dining room walls, expanded the kitchen entry, and created what Joan calls the “wow wall”: frosted resin panels hanging between the two spaces. “Light filters through, but the wall’s opaque enough to hide my dirty dishes,” Joan says.
Now the couple have the roomy kitchen and endless sunlight they longed for. “We hated so many things about this house for 33 years!” says Joan. “If we’d known how transformative it would be, we’d definitely have done it sooner.”
“We had been using my aunt’s old pieces, which were elegant in my mind only because I’d loved her so much,” says homeowner Joan Maxwell. “Lara helped me see that they were actually quite dowdy.”
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Updated with color
Most of the living room furniture was picked with architect Lara Dutto’s help. The new sofa was upholstered in a neutral charcoal gray. Complementary color accents in yellow and blue unite the leopard-print ottoman and pair of polka-dot chairs.
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The old space was dark and dated with red cabinets and a small window.
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Before kitchen wall
A large wall blocked light and made the kitchen feel closed off.
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Removing the upper cabinets made room for more windows and made the kitchen seem taller and much less oppressive. A corner window in the kitchen gives the illusion of a boundary-free space.
“Now, when I stand at the sink, I have a view of Mt. Diablo,” Joan says. Dutto designed the storage-packed island and peninsula with a few open cubbies to display Joan’s colorful cookware.
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The frosted resin panels weren’t Dutto’s only brightening move. She also replaced visually heavy features with lighter ones—swapping the darkwooden balusters with steel and cables, painting the walls and trim white, and hanging a see-through pendant.
Empty spaces—like the bare hallway wall leading to the kitchen—balance areas with more architectural details. To visually open the space, the renovated portion of the house has no interior doors or standard door-frame heights. Some extend all the way up to the ceiling.
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In the new breakfast nook, Dutto replaced an old sliding door with custom French doors that lead to a deck. “We leave them open all the time when we’re cooking or entertaining,” Joan says. The bottom half of an antique English hutch stores 24 place settings for the couple’s dinner parties.
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“When I first came to see Joan, I had a hard time finding the front door,” remembers Dutto. Landscape designer Katherine Vincent called more attention to the house’s entrance by installing a floating stone walkway flanked by boxwood globes. Dutto also reconfigured the deck so that it would sit underneath the cantilevered dining room and have a view of the valley.