How to turn a blank canvas into a warm and welcoming home – 8 lessons to take from this San Francisco redesign

Adding character to this once-neutral property created a relaxed family home with a mid-century modern appeal

three views from a San Francisco redesign
(Image credit: Christopher Stark. Styling/Yedda Morrison)

As interior design challenges go, this is one that crops up over and over again. How do you transform a characterless blank canvas into a warm and welcoming home? 

It's a problem that the California-based interior designer Jaclyn Christensen is well used to solving and in this San Francisco family home redesign it was a major part of her brief. 

Take the tour and discover how the designer breathed new life into this once-neutral property. There's plenty here to inspire anyone on their renovation journey. 

1. Wallpaper the ceiling to layer color and texture

blue wallpapered ceiling in living room with white sofa and vintage rug

The ceiling wallpaper is from Cole & Son. Coffee tables, Molteni. Sofa, Dmitiri with custom upholstery. Window treatment fabric, Zoffany.   

(Image credit: Christopher Stark. Styling/Yedda Morrison)

The living room is designer Jaclyn Christensen's favorite room. 'The round-top windows are filled with morning light and the space itself has gorgeous trims that I couldn't wait to emphasize. I love juxtaposition so pairing the more formal architecture with modern, more funkier pieces is a dream for me.'

Using the original 1916 features, the arched windows, a fireplace, and the generous proportions of the room itself, the designer's living room ideas began to take shape.   'I knew I wanted to bring some pops of unexpectedness which led me to wallpaper the ceiling and paint the trim to create some drama,' she says. Papering or painting the ceiling in a strong color like this works best in larger spaces with high ceilings. Although even in a smaller room a contrasting ceiling color can bring add extra atmosphere and coziness.  

2. Use vintage pieces to create a relaxed lived in look

eames style leather chair and footstool near fireplace in living room

(Image credit: Christopher Stark. Styling/Yedda Morrison)

Designer Jaclyn had decided that a midcentury vintage décor style would not only suit the age of the house, but would suit the family's needs too. She set about sourcing furnishings to fit with her mid-century modern living room ideas

The vintage pieces proved to be the perfect way to add character to the space, and are a good choice in a heavy-use space since no one worries too much about keeping pre-loved furniture in a pristine condition. Family life gets to carry on as normal! That said, the items Jaclyn chose are mostly midcentury modern classics, design icons that were built to last. This classic Eames lounge chair and ottoman are exactly that. 

3. Make the most of architectural features

living room with fireplace and yellow armchair and arched window

(Image credit: Christopher Stark. Styling/Yedda Morrison)

The owners of this house were lucky in that the 1916 architectural details were strong, even though the home's décor had become a little lost. The high round-top windows, and the large fireplace were details worth enhancing. 

'The challenge I gave myself was to incorporate the existing architecture while creating a more modern, family-friendly vibe,' explains designer Jaclyn Christensen. 'Everything needed to be family-friendly, but still stylish. Having warm, approachable spaces with the subtle, more formal tonality of the architecture.'

A cheery mustard chair by Amber Shoppe is the perfect counterpoint to the gray fire surround, and for anyone looking for window treatment ideas, this soft diaphanous curtain fabric from Zoffany allows the beauty of the high windows to shine through. 

portrait of designer Jaclyn Christensen
Jaclyn Christensen

Designer Jaclyn Christensen loves to solve challenges and while this particular property did not have many, as it was generally a blank slate, Jaclyn challenged herself to find a balanced approach to incorporate the existing architecture, while creating a more modern, family friendly vibe. 

4. Give existing furnishings a new lease of life

midcentury teak cabinet with two statement armchairs and vintage red rug

(Image credit: Christopher Stark. Styling/Yedda Morrison)

By moving the homeowners' existing oriental rug to the living room, Jaclyn gave it new life and a new perspective and used it to lead the room's color palette. Similarly, moving any distinctive piece of furniture or accessories to a new place in the home will change the way you see it and use it. 

Discussing her living room rug ideas, Jaclyn says: 'I wanted to minimize the bold red colors so it didn't overpower the room. I started with the vintage shelving unit to ground the one side of the room and to complement the rug. I selected two very comfortable and stylish chairs that we upholstered in beautiful black and neutral fabrics so that they seamlessly worked with the area rug and popped off the new shelving unit.'

Mid-century shelving unit from Mid-Century Mobler. Channel tufted swivel chair with Lorna Piana fabric and Cloven lounge chair in Rose Uniacke fabric, both from Coup d'Etat. Coffee tables, Molteni. 

5. Try decorating with darker colors for instant atmosphere

dining room with leaf print teal wallpaper and table with broad base

Wallpaper by Cole & Son. Dining chairs by De La Espada. Sconces by Workstead.

(Image credit: Christopher Stark. Styling/Yedda Morrison)

Explaining her dining room ideas, Jaclyn says: 'Being a little more moody in light this room was a great space to play with wallpaper which we did with the fun, bold forest print.' This might seem counterintuitive but darker spaces really can look good with darker wall treatments or paint colors. Here, the heavy, leafy print gives a cozy, intimate feeling to the space – perfect for entertaining. 

The family wanted to use this space for family dinners and extended family dinners,  and the Doorman Designs dining table has easily hidden leaves. Other plus points are 'the amazing texture of the bases and a little pop of brass' adds Jaclyn. 

6. Choose styles that are durable

family room with teal sectional sofa and gray walls

(Image credit: Christopher Stark. Styling/Yedda Morrison)

The key to family room ideas for any home is that the furnishings and furniture are good quality and long-lasting. Often this is the most-used room in the house, particularly if it's near or open to the kitchen, so it makes sense to make comfort a priority too. 

'This needed to be the most family-friendly space and is also a direct path for the gardeners, the flooring in the family living room/den needed to be flexible,' says designer Jaclyn. 'I chose carpet tiles so that if/when one gets destroyed they can easily be replaced.'

It's a practical space, but there's no reason why that should ever mean a compromise on style, as the designer explains. 'This space is darker than the others so I wanted to lean into the moodiness by wallpapering the walls in a soft gray, fabric-like wallpaper and let it all pop off the deep turquoise sectional.'

Wallpaper, Philip Jeffries. Shelving, West Elm. Sectional, Interior Define. Carpet tiles, Flor. 

7. Use wainscoting to add definition and character

room with teal walls above wainscot paneling

(Image credit: Christopher Stark. Styling/Yedda Morrison)

Wainscot paneling can transform a room, restoring character to older properties, and adding interest to newer homes that are lacking in architectural features. Millwork like this can be custom made, or bought off the peg and added relatively cheaply. 

Painting the walls above the paneling in a different shade like this adds another layer to the room and emphasizes the crisp lines of the wainscoting. 

'This room is more of a transition space, right off the backyard so serves as a landing zone for putting shoes on and for enjoying a cup of coffee looking out into the backyard,' explains Jaclyn. 'I wanted to bring some of the green in from the dining room while also giving a nod to the landscaping which is why I chose the teal paint color for this space.' 

8. Make first impressions last with a welcoming entryway

entry foyer with stained glass window and window seat with round rug and glass table

Table, Crate & barrel. Custom area rug, Atelier Fevrier. 

(Image credit: Christopher Stark. Styling/Yedda Morrison)

It's always worth investing time and effort to come up with the best entryway ideas. Take inspiration from this foyer, where a window seat is a good perch for removing shoes, and a statement glass table provides space for seasonal floral displays. Keep the décor bright and light to optimize the sense of space, and to create an uplifting feel for family returning home and for visitors to the house. 

'This light-filled space didn't need much, other than a landing place for mail and keys and a sense of arrival which I created with the glass top table and funky shaped rug,' says designer Jaclyn Christensen. 'I wanted to accentuate the original stained glass with complementary colors.'

Interior design: Jaclyn Christensen Design
Photography: Christopher Stark
Styling: Yedda Morrison

Karen Darlow

Karen is the houses editor for and homes editor for the brand’s sister titles, Period Living and Country Homes & Interiors, and an experienced writer on interiors and gardens. She loves visiting historic houses for Period Living and writing about rural properties for Country Homes & Interiors, and working with photographers to capture all shapes and sizes of properties. Karen began her career as a sub editor at Hi-Fi News and Record Review magazine. Her move to women’s magazines came soon after, in the shape of Living magazine, which covered cookery, fashion, beauty, homes and gardening. From Living Karen moved to Ideal Home magazine, where as deputy chief sub, then chief sub, she started to really take an interest in properties, architecture, interior design and gardening.