A ‘Starter Home’ Gets Permanent Residence Status with a Few Key Upgrades
Interior designer Corine Maggio didn’t intend to settle in to her Marin County cottage for too long. But the home’s charm and potential, and a challenging market, convinced her to stay.
In 2018, Corine Maggio was pregnant and looking for a house. Anyone who’s been in this situation knows that no further extrapolation about stress and nesting instincts are needed.
“We had six months to move,” she says. “I look back at that time, and it’s funny to talk about the market being difficult. It’s so much more so now.”
Maggio, her husband, and their newborn son settled into a 1939 cottage in Mill Valley, California, with two bedrooms on the main floor; a guest suite on the lower level, which they use for guests and will rent out to their friends’ parents when they come to town; and a large shed that functions as a lovely office for her interior design business.
“The housing market here has always been expensive and limited. It’s one of the first towns across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. We’re 15 minutes from Muir Woods and tons of hiking. There are redwoods. It feels rural, but it isn’t.”
The Chicago native has been honing her aesthetic, which she describes as “rooted in tradition” and straddles the worlds of coastal-western and East-Coast prep, for 17 years, including a stint in La Jolla where she had a housewares shop. And she made every effort to weave character and charm into the house, despite the fact that she didn’t think they’d be staying there for long.
Maggio loved the history of the house, which had only a handful of owners (the first of which was a woman who was a part of the Women’s Army Corps in World War II), but the structure was devoid of character and the layout felt a little tight.
“It didn’t have the character of an older house because it had been changed so much over the years,” she says. “But it had so many things that we loved that are hard to find in the area, including that additional unit downstairs, a yard, and a view of the water, that we decided to make it work.”
First on the to-do list was to open up the smaller rooms to one larger living and dining area, and re-locate the kitchen, to maximize the windows and layout. They shaved some square footage (and a bathtub) off of the primary bathroom to create an enclosed laundry room on the main floor. They added wainscoting, wallpaper, classic tiles like the white hexagonal floor in the bathroom, and—against all conventional house flipping wisdom—removed a mantel and hearth that Maggio knew they would never use.
“People will say that for resale value, you need the fireplace. But our living room is a little bit narrow, and we wanted the space,” she says. “There are air-quality issues here because of wildfires, so we weren’t using it. It doesn’t really get that cold here. I love that great nostalgic feel of a fire, but we didn’t need it. Once we decided to stay here long-term, we weren’t thinking about resale value. We did what was right for our everyday life. So we put in that reading nook and we use it all the time. It’’s the perfect place to curl up and feel like you’re away from the rest of the house. I have a three-year-old and a baby on the way, so underneath the bench we have tall, deep drawers and we store away all the toys. The living room is the play room. And all of our son’s toys are in there. And then the big wooden cabinet behind the cane back settee holds everything else.
Another conventional no-no is to install only one sink in a primary bathroom. But, ultimately, her instincts led her to install one wide sink (that’s large enough for two people to use) and a bigger countertop in the tight space.
“I wanted to be really smart about using space,” she says. “One sink gives you more storage underneath and more usable counter space.”
The long, galley-style kitchen is another place where Maggio bucked conventional wisdom. There’s a section of built-in cabinetry that’s only seven inches deep, which she says functions like a dream pantry where everything lives within easy reach.
“We keep canned goods, boxed mac and cheese in there. It holds a lot. The beans and rice and sugar we just leave on the counter in jars,” she says.
Glass-front upper cabinets and some open shelves make the kitchen feel lighter and more dynamic.
“Our everyday dishes and bowls live right next to the stove, so it’s so easy to serve dinner. It’s very functional but there’s a lifestyle idea of ease, simplicity, and utilitarianism.”
There’s no space for a mudroom or entryway, so a black cabinet near the door with storage keeps all of those daily essentials out of sight.
Maggio describes their primary bedroom as “restful” and “no fuss,” kind of like a great hotel room that feels fresh, clean, and accommodating. Playing with the paint scheme—Benjamin Moore Black Panther in a flat finish on the bottom half of the wall and PPG Hot Stone on the stop—creates some visual interest without fussy pattern.
“The headboard wall is paneled, but the rest of it is just a chair rail with a plain wall underneath. It’s kind of a cheat, but it’s a gorgeous backdrop to all of the furniture.”
The only new furniture items in the house, aside from the mattresses, are an Interior Define sofa in the living room and iron dining chairs from Made Goods that work outside as well. Everything else, including the rugs, the dining table, and various chairs are antique, vintage, or sourced from Facebook Marketplace. The kids’ room, which has a “very subtle outdoors and camping feel” was designed with no pastels or elephants painted on the wall, and Maggio says it “channels a little Wes Anderson.”
And she applied the same adaptive, low maintenance approach that she applied to the other rooms of the house.
“I wanted that room, like the rest of the house, to grow with him,” she says. “When we want to update, we can change out the art and call it a day.”