By Gabrielle. Photos by Lisa Leckie.
I love the design of Etienne’s home. To me, it seems like a complicated, layered, and yet still somewhat of a blank canvas that’s able to hold bold and colorful and fresh family memories, day after day. I tour through her home and I spy spots to cozy up whenever the urge to cozy up strikes, books well within reach, and toys that add to the decor, and I find myself breathing a contented sigh. But then I see her views, and sigh again. I highly doubt I’d ever need a piece of art or a television with those stunning scenes peeking in every window.
And speaking of sighing, there’s also this inspired, break-your-heart-a-little advice from Etienne’s dad to his young artist: “Even if something has been made before, it hasn’t been made by you.” I’m borrowing that one, won’t you?
I am the daughter of a poet and an accountant. This means that I am a dreamer and overly practical all the the same time. I am deeply passionate just about everything I do, and live for inspiration. If I am not thinking about the next big thing, I get bored.
I am a design strategist, and formerly an interior designer and educator. My husband is a design manager of the growth team at Uber, was recently at Apple, and has a background in branding and advertising. We have two hilarious sons, Lucian is six and Julian is three. We all love kung fu, ice cream cones (cones more than the ice cream part), and family dance-offs to 80’s hip-hop.
My husband and I met two months after I finished undergrad at an outdoor dance performance with Merce Cunningham at Lincoln Center. He approached me that night because he’d seen me at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Museum (now part of MOMA). That summer, I was an art teacher, archivist, and door girl at the first season of P.S. 1’s outdoor “Warm Up” DJ parties, which spawned museum DJ parties everywhere. As the door girl at the coolest event of the summer, I got to meet the coolest people in NYC. Jason and I fell in love immediately and have been together now for 18 years.
Jason is also the one who introduced me to the world of design. Though I’d studied fine art in college – photography, to be specific – I had no idea what design was. I thought design was something that failed artists did to make money. But when I met Jason and his friends, who were all designers, I realized that design thinking – with its balance of creative and pragmatic – was what I’d been seeking all along.
I was born in Taiwan and moved to Piedmont, California, a city right next to Oakland, when I was in kindergarten. When I finished high school, I couldn’t wait to wait to go as far away as I could to college. So I went off to New York, where I ended up staying for 13 years. Despite falling in love with NYC, I never considered myself a New Yorker. Once my husband and I got married and started thinking about our next chapter, we began plotting our way back to the Bay Area. When we both got job offers in San Francisco, we immediately started looking for a home in the same area where I grew up.
When we were planning our next destination after NYC, my husband created a spreadsheet with various factors to compare several potential cities that we could move to. We quickly realized that the San Francisco Bay Area would be the most expensive, with a higher cost of living than even NYC. It would’ve made more sense to move to Portland or Boston! But that didn’t stop us, as my family is out here, as well as the unparalleled world of design innovation, and of course, the sunshine.
Moving back to the Oakland, the place where I grew up, has been a wonderfully rewarding experience. Oakland has improved tremendously in the past decade and continues to get better. It’s developed a personality akin to our beloved Brooklyn that is experimental and innovative, while staying authentic. I cannot imagine a better place to be living with our kids at this point in our lives. My husband and I would love to move back to NYC once the kids are out of the house, but before we’re too old to walk up subway station stairs or dodge yellow cabs.
We ended up buying the house in the Oakland hills that once belonged to my grandparents who had passed away a few years prior. I had spent a lot of time at this house growing up, so it has a ton of sentimental value for me, and for my large extended family.
When we bought the house, it was a mess. It had three rooms with orange wallpaper, one working stove burner, an amber glass wet bar, and dingy white carpet throughout. We’ve been lovingly restoring our house over the past seven years and have made it unique for our family.
Though we did the lion’s share of the work within the first nine months of buying the house, we continue to evolve and personalize it. There are always more improvements we want to make to our house. Next up might be a hot tub deck, or rebuilding our garage to become a studio and guest cottage.
Though I’m a trained interior designer, I had a hard time at first establishing our style at home. Previously, I designed commercial spaces for Rockwell Group Architecture & Design: restaurants, retail, libraries and hospitals, to name a few. However, designing one’s home takes into a completely different set of programmatic and aesthetic considerations. I tend to favor the bold over the subtle and have to work hard at making things homey.
The hanging swing on our front porch is my happy place. And it doubles as a climbing structure for my three year-old whose motto is “nothing is not climbable.” The chair is hung low so that little people can hop right in. We’ve had mamas rock their babies to sleep in this swing at our parties while all the action was in the backyard.
My favorite part of our home are the breathtaking views. The view from our back deck never gets old. We have had countless parties back here, of upward of 80 guests – kid birthday parties, school parties and family parties. You can see San Francisco and the bay from our dining room. This is where the boys learned the words “ascend” and “descend” while they watched airplanes with my mother, who’s formerly an air traffic controller, and keep track of the blue birds and cats that call our backyard their home.
Once you walk into our house, you are welcomed by a large open space. I designed the long benches with storage baskets originally for our Brooklyn apartment, and my talented father-in-law built them. The baskets in the benches are for organizing shoes and jackets. We don’t have a mudroom, so this is it.
Books are our decor. I am a third generation bibliophile, and my husband is a book collector as well. Art is very personal to us, as we are both designers. Our framed art will be hung one day. But for now, we love them clustered on the mantel.
My husband designed the Pina Bausch poster back when he was design director at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), the tower sculpture is by our older son, and the ceramic vase I made in high school.
Our “atelier” is the center of our home. I fell in love with the Reggio Emilia education system when I was studying education (teaching in an alternative public school in East Harlem was my first career). In the center of every Reggio school is the atelier and classrooms revolve around it, and children are encouraged to create as the main path to learning. Our atelier is the center of our home, and was once the dining room. But who needs a dining room this large?
The magnetic chalkboard wall is our art gallery, writing/math practice, and signage space when we have something to celebrate. Guests love seeing a special welcome message to them when they visit. The book rails display our favorite books and make them easy to see and grab (and climb).
Some of my favorite textiles are by Josef Frank that I picked up at the legendary Svensk Tenn in Stockholm where we spent some time. It was possibly my favorite retail experience in the world. They were made into cushions by my friend and are throughout the house. The boys like to make pillow forts with them.
Despite having primary colors throughout the house, I keep our bedroom white. When my grandparents lived in this house, this room seemed so big, peaceful, and airy. I extended that vibe by keeping a neutral palette that’s rich with textures.
I am a design strategist at Clorox, which means that I help guide front-end product innovation for brands like Brita, Hidden Valley Ranch, and Clorox. Previously I was director of consumer strategy at Method (the eco-chic cleaning company) where I got to help the company understand people to better design products for them.
I’ve been lucky to be able to follow my passion throughout my career. With every position I’ve had, I have learned tremendously about myself: my strengths, my weaknesses, and how to apply them toward my next steps. I remember being a middle schooler planning out my four years of high school classes in front of me. So I naturally tend to look ahead, while being nostalgic about the present moment because it’s so fleeting.
Balancing work with motherhood is a constant challenge. Curbing my workaholic tendencies has been the toughest necessary change as a working mom. My career has always been about following my passion. So I tend to throw myself fully into everything I do.
My mother worked full-time though my entire childhood. Therefore, it never occurred to me to stay at home with my kids – I had only envisioned working full-time the way I was used to. Since having children, I have experienced working 60-hour weeks, to being a consultant, to working on my own start-up, to being a stay-at-home mom, to working at a big corporation now. Every variation has been good, though challenging in its own way.
I have learned that I hold the same high standards in my professional work, care for my family, or volunteer work. I simply do not have the same kind of time and space I used to devote to work as I did pre-children. However, I do feel that I am so much more efficient at work than I used to be – there just isn’t the time to waste on anything. The balance between my own high standards and realistic expectations is something I am constantly keeping in check as a working mom.
The greatest career advice I ever received was from my best friend’s dad when I was finishing graduate school. He said, “Every job you have in life is a revelation of you.” And he gave the analogy of peeling back the layers of an onion to reveal its core. That image has alway stuck with me.
Rather than building a career, you are revealing your truest self.
The massive toy shelf is our toy editor. If there’s no more room on it, it’s time to give away some old toys, to make room for the new ones. The block set is the best money I’ve spent on toys. Well worth it.
I avoid big bins for toys as they can easily become abysses for junk and difficult for kids to navigate. We only have one big basket in the corner for indoor balls and costumes. The rest of the organizers for the kids are sorted by category and tuck away on the shelf.
We got the biggest table we could fit in our dining area. We do everything on here: eat, do homework, fold laundry, make art, and have big dinner parties. It’s huge and it’s indestructible. Writing and drawing materials nearby invite the kids to create. Often I find them just sitting on the floor in next to the markers and crayons, creating some crazy thing with washi tape and the hole punch.
The boys’ room has evolved from having one bed, to bed and crib, now to two twin beds. I turned a neglected dollhouse into a bookcase. Low drawers make it easy for them to get dressed by themselves. We have an understood rule in the kids’ bedroom: no hard toys, only books and stuffed animals. This way, the bedroom is for sleep and quiet play only.
I think the boys will remember the garden as a world of endless exploration. When we envisioned our large front and backyard, we imagined the space as being highly structured and geometric in the front, that becomes gradually more organic and wild toward the back.
In the front, our landscape architect friend designed an incredible recessed seating area with a weeping rock fountain that serves as the an imaginary swimming pool, meteor crater or hot lava bed for the boys. We wanted the backyard to be about discovery. Wander around the bushes, pluck a fig, orange, apple or pear from a tree, or snack on the tastiest tomatoes you’ll ever encounter. Play soccer on our new drought-tolerate turf. Climb on the Bucky dome. No one gets bored back here — not even the teenagers who’ve come over.
I hope that the boys remember me as a mom who created time and space for them to be curious — and that I gave them to tools to create whatever they can imagine. My father used to say to me when I was a young budding artist, “Even if something has been made before, it hasn’t been made by you.” That creative spirit has always stayed with me, and is one I want to pass on to my boys.
The mom moment I would live every day if I could is a weekend morning snuggle in bed with the entire family. I love how giddy the kids get when we are all laying in bed together: my husband asleep, me half-awake, and the two boys giggling. I’ll miss the day when we don’t all fit in one bed. And when they won’t want to snuggle (which I hope will be never).
The other moment that I’d love over and over again, is when I visit my sons at school. I try to make as many classroom volunteer opportunities I can at my sons’ schools. I love being able to see them in action with their teachers and classmates. It gives me such a different perspective of them as people. My most favorite — though admittedly, most difficult part — is when they get sad and don’t want me to leave. Usually, I’m in a rush to get back to work after volunteering in the classroom. I try not to get annoyed by their clinginess, as I realize that the days of wanting Mommy to around at school will not last forever. I’m pretty sure they’re not going to want me to chaperone for middle school dances! So I make the most of the school moments now while I am fortunate enough to have them.
I wish someone had told me that having two kids is exponentially harder than having one. It’s not 1+1=2. It’s 1+1 to the nth degree. I am an only child so two seem like a lot. I have no idea how people have three, four……or six kids!
Ha! You bring up a very interesting topic, Etienne! I wonder how many parents, who were once an only child, are shocked by the chaos of more than one kid? On a related note, what about parents who hail from huge families who are completely happy with one child? I am looking forward to your thoughts!
Thank you, Etienne, for showing us around your place. And thank you, too, for sharing your friend’s dad’s genius advice: “Every job you have in life is a revelation of you.” I’ve just spent an enjoyable few — more than I care to count! — minutes thinking about what my jobs reveal about me!
P.S. – Are you living with your own kids in a unique way? Are you interested in sharing your home and experiences with us? Let me know! We love to be inspired! And it’s a lot of fun…I promise! Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.