Last Updated on December 5, 2019 by Kristen
Moving into a bachelor pad when you’re a design-minded woman is a daunting endeavor that requires no small amount of patience and persistence. But Lisa Woo has proven it’s possible. She moved into her partner Mark Sessler’s Pacifica cottage in 2012, and very gradually over the past seven years has created a beautiful, incredibly tidy and comfortable home for what has become their family of three (five including the dog and cat).
Mark, founder of Green Room School of Music, had lived in the home for years, first caring for his mother and later with roommates. By the time Lisa moved in, the small space was taken over by too-large furniture and her surfer/musician partner’s myriad possessions.
But she restrained her urge to redecorate everything immediately, and instead eased into it over a period of years—an approach that’s perhaps best for the longevity of a relationship. The result, I’m sure you’ll agree, was worth the wait. Read on for Lisa’s storage and organization tips, her colorful yet neutral interior style, plus the family’s super cute Minnie Winnie.
Where did you live before you moved to Pacifica, and how did that inform your current space?
“I was in San Francisco in a little cottage that was completely surrounded by buildings. So the address was Polk Street but the entrance was set back. Leopold’s restaurant was on the corner, and then I had Cat Seto on the left, and my doorway was right in between. So you walked down this long hall between the buildings and then it opened up and there was this little cottage back there with a courtyard. It was really cute. It was very similar to the beach cottage in Pacifica that I moved into with Mark, but mine had a slightly different aesthetic.”
And how did you become interested in interior design?
“When I lived on Polk Street I started collecting used furniture—there are so many driveway finds in the city. I had a full time job but I was just obsessed with restoring furniture in a sort of shabby chic style. I had never really been into that style, but it suited my cottage. I had a little back area where I would work. Eventually, I ended up selling some pieces and then I did the Alameda flea market. I busted my butt to find all this furniture and rented a truck and a space, and that was really fun.
Eventually I decided to quit my job and go to school for interior design. My first job out of school was at an architecture firm and I worked there until I had Greyson.
Also during that time I moved in with Mark and my furniture—even though it was a similar cottagey kind of house—it just didn’t fit with Mark’s style and it didn’t fit with the beach style. I had to ease my way into revamping everything because you can’t just move into a guy’s house and change everything. So it was kind of brutal for about four years until I really started changing it.”
What was it like when you arrived?
“It was a pretty dingy bachelor pad. And when I moved in the landlord decided she would redo the bathroom, which was great, but it meant that for the first six months I lived there we had to use the bathroom in the A-frame cottage located across a small field behind our house.”
“I’m not kidding. And I’m a freak about grass so Mark would have to carry me up there.”
Oh my, that is hilarious. Are you allergic to grass?
“I think so. One time Lucy ran into the grass at Crissy Field and pooped right in the middle of it and I had to go clean it up. I was sweating because I was so stressed about having to go through the grass. I think it stems from the pea green shag carpet in the hallway between my bedroom and the bathroom in the house I grew up in. I would never put my feet on it, I would jump over it to go use my bathroom.”
What were some of the small changes you made when you first moved to Pacifica?
“The first thing I did was clean the floors and paint them white. He had really oversized furniture and a humongous TV and it’s a long narrow space so it was really challenging for a while. We finally agreed on a new couch when I was pregnant in 2012. And then we just slowly started getting furniture. Having to compromise with someone else is always a challenge. He always wanted really bright-colored furniture and I love color but I like to do a neutral palette and then use color in the accents.
Like Grey’s art—having him come into our lives also changed my style. His art is so cool and colorful and it makes our home more vibrant.
It’s funny because I always think of your aesthetic as neutral with lots of black and white and then we got the pictures back and I couldn’t believe how colorful everything looked.
“Yeah I like pops of color, and it makes it so much easier to change things. You’re not stuck. Painting is one of the easiest things to do—I would always change the paint color. That living room has been an ocean blue, and then it was an eggplant color, and now it’s gray. It always just changes the mood.
I am a very neutral, but then I like to have a little pattern and color in my accessories. And I think your interior is very reflective of your personality. I’m not very committal.”
How did you approach Greyson’s room? It’s so incredibly organized.
“My goal was to have a place for his different toy categories while making cleanup easy. The space is small so I wanted to utilize as much wall space as possible. The picture ledges store his books and also become art for the room. Grey loves art and drawing and even with a small space we made su re to put in a large desk so he and his friends had plenty of surface area to be creative.”
How did you decide to make some of the changes you’ve made recently, for example that little nook in the corner behind the front door?
“There was a TV there that took up the entire space. It just never really served a purpose. So when the TV finally died (yay, I was waiting for that moment) we finally got rid of it. I always envisioned a couch in that corner but it’s such a weird space. I love built-ins because it just makes it fell more purposeful and like it was meant to be custom.
And since it’s such a long, narrow space, I wanted to break it up into little entertaining spaces. So Mark built a base and we ended up putting our cushions from the camper there.”
Did you have those cushions in mind or was that a happy accident?
“No it was a happy accident. I was going to buy a cheap couch from Ikea. I remember I found one small enough, but it just looked so cheap. It was like a thousand dollars or so and I didn’t love it. So Mark built the base and I was going to make cushions for it or find cushions, like those square floor ones that dogs sit on. So I had him build it to those dimensions so I could just buy those and pop them on and then he brilliantly thought of the cushions from the camper and he brought them in and they fit. It was the exact same size.
Before, it was always a dead space. When I look at it now it seems like the seating area has always been there—I think that’s what good design is.”
“Yeah and I love the color. I guess I see it as kind of a neutral. And it brings in kind of a water-ocean feel, and it looks great with all of Grey’s artwork.
I don’t spend money on a lot of things. With Grey’s artwork I just use cheap frames, but it’s all in the way you crop it and lay it out. I measured the walls and laid everything out on the floor and took pictures of it first to find the best configuration. I could never buy expensive art and love it as much.”
Can you talk about the artwork that you made to fit above the fireplace?
“So our fireplace was becoming a major hazard. It was put up way back when, all out of brick and it was coming down. In the next earthquake it was going to just fall right into the living room. So we had to take it down and then it was a major eyesore. Until we know what we’re going to do with the house I wanted to create a temporary facade. And so while I’ve been purging—like I am constantly because we have a little house with no storage—I came across all these fabric samples from when I worked at the architecture firm from all these great showrooms and I decided to upcycle them into art.
I had held onto them all these years because I dreamed of having a camper redesign business, but new fabrics are always coming out and these were a bit outdated. So I wanted to use them in a cool way plus it’s affordable and it was fun to make. We had all these different renditions. Initially it was more circular and sort of three-dimensional. Grey loves rainbows and I just improvised. I was doing triangles to make them into shapes, but it just never felt right and then I think we were having a party and I wanted to get something over that space so I stayed up one night and I ended up cutting those into fringes and just gluing them on haphazardly and that’s what we ended up with. Sometimes you think of something for so long and then it just happens. This one is pretty different from the original idea but I love it.”
What would you say are some of the easiest ways to start revamping an interior when things seem overwhelming?
“I would say cleaning and then painting. Decluttering is big, and the painting is going to make you feel like you’re starting fresh, with a clean palette.
Also, use what you have. That’s what we do. Like in our kitchen—we’re renting so we couldn’t get rid of the cabinets and they were really old and smelly. So I went to town cleaning and then sanded and painted them. And I changed the hardware.
We also painted the trim and the bottom cabinets dark, because the kitchen is a relatively big space but I wanted the floor to disappear. Also for dirt, etc., it makes sense. So that’s a super easy fix and when you’re renting you have to do things that are kind of temporary.”
What about mixing old and new? You seem to have mastered that.
“Yes that makes the place a little more interesting. In our kitchen I got these tables, they were actually in our conference room at my architecture firm and when we moved I took them and made a long table so we can entertain.”
Okay, and this is my big question for you. How do you not have clutter all over the place? My mother’s motto my entire life was “there’s a place for everything and everything in its place,” but I’ve not come close to mastering that.
“Yeah, I’m your mother and Mark is like you. That’s why I love you guys. But I’m very type A; I can’t do anything until I get everything in order. I’m jealous of the people who are really creative and can get a lot of things done because they’re not letting this, you know, tidying up the house get in their way. But it’s in me, and it’s kind of useless but it makes me feel good.”
It’s not useless, you know where your stuff is and your place looks beautiful.
“I do have places for everything and I hide them in unconventional ways because I’ve always lived in little spaces. So everything has a dual purpose. For example the dresser in the dining room area, that was my grandfather’s dresser and it has come with me everywhere. I had it in my apartment in Seattle, and then I moved it to San Francisco, and I moved it to Pacifica. I love it. I just can’t get rid of it. Mark sanded it down for me because it was darker and the finish was really bubbly. It’s so pretty now and it fits perfectly there. I keep everything in there: papers, stationary, office supplies. So that’s my little office area.
Then on top are all my pretty things like my Jonathan Adler vases. I got them to represent each of my cats when they died. I don’t like to have a lot of trinkets around but the ones I do have are meaningful. And it makes me happy and we’re not spending on frivolous things. Everything’s pretty much pared down.
The spaces in this house are all a result of our lifestyle. They are simple solutions that ended up making sense. For many years we just dealt with the fact our living room is too narrow to house a coffee table or even end tables. We thought of arm tables on the couch, until we came across the perfect piece of walnut that ended up becoming a ledge/sofa table flush to the top of the back of the couch. Remember we all enjoyed it for the first time with wine and apps?”
Yes, that was so lovely! OK and we need to talk about your cute bag-slash-storage that hangs off of the front of the dresser.
“Yes that’s my inbox. I love that bag. It’s so pretty and I look at it every day. So I know that everything I put in there are my to-dos.”
Every time I come to your house it’s neat as a pin. How do you manage that?
“I don’t know if everyone else is like this and I’m really curious, and I don’t know if it’s because we have a little house but every tiny place I’ve ever lived in feels better if you do a reset before you go to bed. Because if you have like two things out of place, your place looks cluttered and it’s a downward spiral. So I have to do it for clarity and sanity, and it cuts down on major cleaning—especially with a child and a dog and a cat.
If we weren’t entertainers, and we didn’t have people over all the time, I could potentially keep it a little messier. But I like to be ready for guests. It’s just the way I am.
The camper is the same. I always like to tidy it up when we’re camping. I’m just an organizer.”
Do you think you’ll ever get back into interior design?
“Well, when I when I was working it was not as inspiring, because of course a firm has its own vision. My style is not fancy. That’s why I thought camper design would be awesome because I think people are a little more open and more free and fun, and they don’t want to spend a lot of money on designing a camper. But in a big fancy home that I never lived in, I could never relate.”
“Growing up we lived in a big house, and it just scared me. There was just too much space. What’s going on in the other areas? And then as a grownup living on my own I always had animals and I always have friends over and it’s just easier to maintain a nice cozy place. All my places have been super cute. I lived on the beach in Seattle in this little brick cottage with wood floors and lots of windows. It feels safe and I need that for a variety of reasons. Even now, Mark and I talk about it—I could go smaller but I don’t want anything bigger.”
Tell us about your amazing succulent garden.
“I brought them from the city. There was a flower shop on Polk Street and they did a wedding and had leftover plants. This is way back when, and I didn’t even like succulents then. But I brought them with me to Pacifica and they just flourished. They had so many babies. When I moved here we were in a drought so it was perfect for keeping things simple and not having elaborate landscaping.”
All photos for Mean Magazine by Megan Bayley.