Understated Beauty Defines Architect Barbara Chambers’ Mill Valley Home

Ivory shades like White Dove and chalky Clunch predominate in architect Barbara Chambers’ project binders. This rigrously achromatic aesthetic extends from the residences she designs to her own understated wardrobe and even her elegant presence, which whispers rather than shouts. “Neutrality allows me to infuse my interiors with serenity and a sense of calm,” she explains. “I prefer to let artwork, accessories and, most importantly, people,  provide a space with its color.”

Chambers’ work instead showcases a mastery of proportion. Her own home, the fourth she has designed over the past two decades for herself and her husband, achieves its impact through scale, symmetry and purity of form. In relative terms, the two-story, 2,500-square-foot Mill Valley house may be smaller than what she typically designs for clients, but it feels perceptibly grand and airy. One enters the home, for example, through a five-by-five-foot foyer that releases into a dramatic 20-by-46-foot great room. In that space, which contains the living, dining and kitchen areas, 10-foot ceilings and stately doors confer an aristocratic stature.

“Guests are sometimes speechless when they come here for the first time,” says Chambers. “I think they’re surprised that expansiveness can feel this intimate.”

The first floor living spaces are delineated not by walls—indeed, there are none separating them—but by furniture groupings, a strategy that gives the space a modern, loft-like feel. As is the case with most of her firm’s current project list (15 new residences and just as many renovations), Chambers was responsible for the interior design as well. A “less is more” approach underlies its spare sensibility. “I have no tolerance for clutter,” she says. “Life’s too short to be surrounded by things you don’t absolutely love.” Instead, fumed white oak floors and white linen drapes provide a pure canvas for furnishings and art.

The sitting area is centered around a limestone hearth and framed by a pair of customized George Smith sofas and day bed in mohair velvet. A coffee table by Jean Michel Frank for Hermès, and a Cedric Hartman floor lamp and side table complete the scene, adding modernist touches. The dining area, anchored by Victoria Hagan’s dramatic Parker table, flows into a kitchen space defined by a marble island. Throughout, Chambers’ symmetrical repetition adds even more perceived volume, particularly when three drum-shaped ceiling pendants, suspended on an axis with the fireplace, reflect into infinity in a tall mirror.

Chambers also achieves a graceful symbiosis between the indoors and outdoors. “I sited the house so it’s oriented to the south. That exposure is magical in this part of the world,” she notes. “In the winter, the sun’s low position pushes warmth inside. And in the summer, its height bathes the furnishings in a golden cast.” Architectural elements enhance the connection as well: Window casements frame landscapes—like the orderly lineup of rosemary bushes outside her study—as well as any Lippi portrait, and the Dutch front door opens to frame beds of English boxwood and hydrangeas.

Chambers often brings new clients here as the first stop on a tour of her firm’s locally built projects, and on several occasions they have said, “No need to go any further. This is exactly what I want.” Chambers notes: “It’s so wonderful when that happens. It not only validates my aesthetic, it validates how I live.”

A version of this article appeared in the April/May 2015 issue of San Francisco & Gardens with the headline: Simplicity and Grace.