Architect Stephen Willrich and interior designer Ken Fulk craft a quintessential Napa Valley retreat for a client to host summer weekends and holiday celebrations.
It’s late fall in Calistoga. Weeks of harvest are finally and joyously completed, and the earthy fragrance of ripe grapes lingers in the autumn haze.
In a very private corner of the valley, within sight of the majestic Palisades, a family house basks in the slanting sun. And in evening hours, doors are now closed after a summer of open-air activity.
The house, in the manner of a traditional Napa Valley farmhouse, was built to transition seamlessly from summer to fall and winter. It’s a house for all seasons, with ample porches, enclosed terraces and shaded decks beckoning the family outdoors, and stone fireplaces for gatherings and contemplation.
The owners, a couple with three young children, commissioned San Anselmo architect Stephen Willrich, noted for his fine-tuned understanding of site-specific design, to execute their dream. They wanted it to be low-key, not so much a design statement as a continuation of the handsome structures that have dotted the valley and its rich agricultural land since the 1850s.
“I drove around the valley looking at these classic farmhouses, now over a century old, and so noble, so firmly rooted,” says Willrich. “They are part of the area’s life and history. They live and breathe Napa Valley and offer the ideal example of a house that will be beautiful a hundred years from now. I admire that heritage.”
The vernacular, notes Willrich, is pared down and very functional. Early settlers used materials that were readily available, creating a precedent with simple board-and-batten siding, deep porches and verandas, and the most cursory of detailing.
“I was inspired by the simplicity of its silhouette, the honest authenticity of a very functional farmhouse layout and materials,” notes the architect. He followed the early example, finding stone from local quarries for the steel-banded fireplaces, designing traditional horizontal lathe siding for the interior walls and using California craftsmen to perfect the concepts.
While the house was under construction, S.F. designer Ken Fulk worked closely with the family to create a highly customized decor. Fulk’s quick-witted approach is always grounded in comfort, so there are overscale leather club chairs, plush sofas and chic chaise lounges at every turn. For a playful touch, the breakfast banquette is crowned with a light fixture made of vintage soda pop bottles, and above the stairs is a soaring antler chandelier shaped like a peace symbol.
Fulk rejected “country” clichés in favor of abstract leaf motifs for custom-printed fabrics, and he displayed quirky vintage collections against walls splashed with gallons of white paint. It’s casual and polished—and designed to evolve as the children grow and their activities and styles continue to change.
Written by Diane Dorrans Saeks
Photographed by Matthew Millman