The Home Stretch

A Hillsborough couple turned to architect Michael Kao—and his rigorous eye—for an ambitious undertaking that yielded a modernist gem.

Of the backyard, Michael Kao, a design principal at MAK Studio, says: “We opportunistically positioned our addition on the slope and used its roof as an outdoor living and dining terrace adjoining the house.”

There was no question that the Hillsborough pad Zlata and Steve Vernon purchased was a fixer-upper. “The house was a very long, extremely dark ranch-style home, built in the 1950s,” recalls Zlata. “Everything in the home was original, down to the pink-tiled bathrooms and the brown appliances.” While it was evident that the tired, 4,200-square-foot abode was a prime candidate for an overhaul, the transformation into what it is today—the essence of sleek architecture, clad in Vermont stone—was not so simple.

In embarking on a full-fledged renovation, the Vernons—she’s a stay-at-home mom, while he’s an executive with Dolby—prioritized open-plan living punctuated by natural light, as well as larger room sizes. They hired an architect, but after a year of working together, “we were not excited about the plans he had done,” recalls Zlata. “Every room felt like a compromise.” Then a friend suggested that the couple talk to Michael Kao of San Francisco-based MAK Studio. “The first thing he did,” she continues, “was put tracing paper over our plans and with a few strokes completely changed everything. We were in awe and could visualize for the first time a home that was not only beautiful, but captured our needs in a way that we could never have imagined.”

Kao’s foremost challenge was the lot itself: It is shallow but long, and in the back, the property slopes away from the street. By shifting the entrance from the middle of the structure to one end, he carved out a courtyard that leads to a striking 10-foot mahogany front door. Setting foot inside, the aesthetic tone—think neutral hues, references to the surrounding natural elements and a wide-open feeling—is immediately defined for the dwelling, which has roughly doubled in size. In the airy entry, behind a bench made of a slab of redwood, an expanse of glass overlooks a meditation garden composed of boulders that were discovered during the excavation for the lower level of the home. (Credit for the interior design also goes to MAK Studio, which often handles the furnishings for its projects.)

To address a chief objective for the clients, the kitchen, family and dining areas now flow into one another, with a niche next to the latter that functions as a homework spot for the two sons. The kitchen cabinetry was fabricated by Sozo Studio; the finish is a reconstituted veneer called Echo Wood. “We chose the veneer for its consistency of grain and color from panel to panel,” says Kao. The family room is delineated by a plush rug bedecked with a Dellarobbia sectional, a zigzag patterned Missoni ottoman and vintage barrel chairs upholstered in a Pindler & Pindler wool. The Corian-topped dining table is paired with vintage seating as well.
Like most of the spaces inside, the master suite offers views of lush greenery. “It’s like you’re in a tree house,” says Zlata. Kao designed the bed, which is flanked by Brownstone nightstands ornamented with Ralph Lauren lamps. A wall sheathed in a Kneedler Fauchère covering adds texture, as does the brushed and leathered absolute black granite fireplace surround. The bathroom is outfitted with a tub and sinks by Kohler, along with fittings by Lacava. A vintage wooden stool imparts a rustic touch that connects to the scene outside.

The kitchen features Sozo Studio cabinetry, black walnut floors by First, Last & Always, Miele appliances and swivel counter stools by McGuire.

Originally, the sloping backyard restricted the amount of usable outdoor areas. Fortunately, Kao’s ingenuity remedied this problem too: He positioned the home’s addition on the slope, employing the roof as a terrace for lounging and dining. He filled it with a Sunbrella-covered sofa of his own design, a custom fire pit, and a dining table and chairs from Crate & Barrel.

During the nearly-two-year renovation, Zlata was impressed by Kao’s “amazing vision and his attention to every detail,” she says. In some instances, the details are not even visible. At the top of the living room’s casework, for example, the architect punched out a rectangle to take advantage of the light that pours into the adjacent stairwell. That meant he had to devise a complicated system of chases to vent the fireplace.

Among the more obvious improvements that Kao made was the reorganization of the spaces. “As you walk through the house, [it] unveils itself,” Zlata notes. “The high ceiling in the living room [and the] the lower ceiling in the dining room create a more intimate setting. Walls of glass, clerestory windows and skylights create ribbons of light. Sightlines are symmetrical, and the overall effect is very clean, modern and warm.” In other words, mission accomplished.