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Once Upon a Time

A Milly Valley cottage gets an enchanting makeover.

By Marybeth Bizjak
Photography by David Duncan Livingston
Building design: Leigha Heydt, Heydt Designs
Interior design: Benjamin Dhong, Benjamin Dhong Interiors

Sometimes, a small lot can work to a home’s advantage.

Such was the case with a house situated on a not terribly large piece of wooded property in Mill Valley. Residential designer Leigha Heydt and interior designer Benjamin Dhong were brought onboard to help the owners create a spacious family home that blends indoors and out.

“It was a little house deeply set back on the lot,” explains Heydt, owner of Heydt Designs in Sausalito. “There was really no backyard, just a front yard.”

Cottage Makeover

The house is nestled among soaring redwoods. Patios, porches and balconies lend a charming cottage effect.

To begin with, the house was 2,000 square feet, with only two bedrooms and two baths—definitely not enough room for a family with four young children. A remodel added 700 square feet and reconfigured the existing rooms to open them up. Then, Heydt used balconies, patios and porches to extend the house’s livable spaces.

Upstairs Landing Makeover

In the upstairs landing, light pours in from a large picture window, a round clerestory window and a skylight.

“The indoor-outdoor connection is something I really stress with clients on all my projects,” she says. “Because the weather here in California is so fantastic, they can use those porches and patios for the majority of the year.”

The house is surrounded by large redwoods and other trees that give it the feeling of being nestled in an enchanted forest. Balconies off the master bedroom and a child’s bedroom provide tantalizing glimpses of greenery. “You can have a tiny bedroom, but if you add a balcony, you feel like the home is twice as large,” says Heydt. “And you’re much more connected to the natural environment.”

Living Room Makeover

In the living room, wide-plank oak floors give the room a farmhouse feel. Above the fireplace, a mirror fronted cabinet hides a television. A modern concrete coffee table contrasts nicely with the hutch, a family hand-me-down.

Large picture windows and French doors bring even more light and greenery inside. Unusual round and oval windows frame the views. Every room looks out onto something verdant and beautiful. Kids can spill onto the front porch and a porch off the TV room. Another patio off the kitchen nook supplies spaces for barbecues and parties. The way the house is nestled into the landscape, says Dhong, owner of Benjamin Dhong Interiors in San Francisco, “it’s like you’re in a fairytale. It’s very charming. With the doors open, it’s like you’re outside.”

In order not to obstruct the views, Dhong used roman shades for privacy in the bedrooms and left the other windows uncovered. “Nothing makes a home more alive than light,” he says.

The homeowners, originally from the East Coast, are “preppy, young and adorable,” says Dhong, who has done interiors for the CEO of Sony Corp. and Fox Studio’s chairman of the board. His goal was to give the couple a traditional house leavened with big doses of fun. “I wanted an effortless elegance,” he explains. “Every time you turn around, there should be something that makes you happy.”

Master Bathroom Makeover

In the master bath, Benjamin Dhong used white paneling and grass cloth on the walls. “I wanted the feel of a white bathroom, but not 100 percent white.”

Main Floor Makeover

Throughout the main floor and up the staircase, the walls are painted a warm, light gray. “By staying consistent, the house feels larger and more serene,” says Dhong.

Kitchen Makeover

Kitchen cabinets and trim are painted the same color. Bright-yellow metal stools give the space a touch of industrial chic.


‘Every time you turn around, there should be something that makes you happy.’ -Benjamin Dhong

Kids Bedroom Makeover

In the girls’ bedroom, hand-me-down beds needed perking up, so Dhong covered one wall in arresting orange and-pink toile wallpaper. He found the vintage dog rocker at a flea market. The oversized wicker pendant is from Ikea.

Master Bedroom Makeover

In the master bedroom, grass cloth with a slight metallic sheen has the glow of cappuccino. “It’s like a beautiful cashmere sweater,” says Dhong. The balcony overlooks a forest, making the room feel like a treehouse.

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