A Designer's Casual Cottage Remodel Story
A designer with an eye for a find gives her humble 1920s house a clean and pretty look
Rattling around in a 14,000-square-foot Tuscan McMansion may sound swell, but imagine trying to feather a nest that size—the rugs you'd need, the bill for accent pillows! "I've been hired by people who like all kinds of styles, and I try to design for them," says Lizzie McGraw, who helped decorate said mansion on behalf of Hollywood denizens Brooke Burke and David Charvet. "But I have my own thing going on, which is much more pared down and more casual."
Take a tour of the new interior: House Tour: How to Remodel a Carefree 1920s Cottage
It's not every interior designer whose own home could fit in one of her clients' wine cellars. But Lizzie, who also runs a cottage-decor shop in Venice, California, is comfortable toggling between homespun and luxe. "I'm lucky. They're nice to work with," she says of clients like actor Josh Brolin and jewelry designer Sara Weinstock, "and that's always helpful."
Possibly the well-heeled residents of Malibu find it refreshing to step into a store with the sweet name of Tumbleweed & Dandelion and the down-to-earth appeal of a farm stand. Faded signs, thrift-store-style dressers, and "driftwood" tables mingle with other emblems of secondhand chic. "I like to think I was an unwitting pioneer," Lizzie says of a now ubiquitous look she calls urban farmhouse. "But for me it was completely practical—I couldn't afford to buy all new things, so I recycled and reclaimed before it was fashionable and everyone else was doing it."
Learn how to master cottage style in your home: 10 Secrets of Cottage Style
Just cast an eye around the 1925 cottage she shares with her private-chef boyfriend, Jonathan Fineman, and their menagerie of dogs and chickens. Located in low-key Inglewood, California—at the time the house was built, the world's chinchilla-farming capital—it provides an ideal backdrop for Lizzie's rotating collection of vintage-inspired chairs, tables, and squishy pillows.
When they bought it, the elfin house was barely big enough for two. You couldn't say it had good bones—the previous owner had begun, then suspended, a whole-cottage redo, leaving walls demolished but not replaced. You couldn't even say it had hidden charm. The wiring appeared to be authentic Edison-era and the plumbing wasn't much younger. What the home had was outdoor space, with shade trees and enough room for a garden—and garden parties. It was also near Lizzie's store, itself a cottage, where she and Jonathan, plus two dogs and two cats, had been living in a "hut" attached to the garage while trying to find a real home they could afford.
"So one day I was driving through this neighborhood and saw the house," Lizzie recalls. "A lady was putting a sign in the yard, and I pulled over." The sale almost didn't go through—at the 11th hour the owner, worried that she wasn't asking enough, threatened to renege. But the couple prevailed and were soon standing in the remains of a half-done redo, puzzling out their next step.
Enter Lizzie's dad, William, at the time an established architect living in a historic octagonal house, in Fredonia, New York. Already mystified by his daughter's decision to hang out a shingle—with no business plan—on Venice's then dicey Abbot Kinney Boulevard, he rolled his eyes at her latest folly. Then he got to work, drawing up plans for a fluid layout and what Lizzie calls an East Coast–style back porch.
She thought about but ruled against adding a second story—right now, there's just an empty attic, accessible only by ladder—and she also forwent new windows, deciding instead to scrape down the originals, which she prizes for their authenticity.
Jonathan proved to be an amiable silent partner, bowing, for example, to Lizzie's request to restore the 1940s stove that came with the place. ("He wanted a Wolf," she confesses.) He even agreed to hang his extra pots and pans in the rafters of the garage—near the fridge. Seems Lizzie needed the fridge's assigned parking space in the kitchen for a beloved hutch. "It's very rustic and very humble," she says of the arrangement.
"I've never owned a dishwasher, and when my brother came to see me, he's like, 'Where's the refrigerator?' It's right in the garage, two steps from the porch! It was just tight in my kitchen."
Working with general contractor Sam Bienduga, the couple replaced pipes, wiring, and fixtures; erected interior walls; and built a new kitchen and bath. A small forced-air system supplies heat; with all those shade trees and the occasional breeze, the couple doesn't really crave air-conditioning.
Tour a charming cottage-style house: How to Design a Cozy Cottage-Style Interior
The crew at the store's workshop in downtown L.A. made the cabinets and some of the furniture. Lizzie regularly swaps in and out pieces she has gathered while traveling on a tour bus with her brother, country singer Sean Patrick McGraw, whose label she helps manage. She thinks nothing of asking the driver to brake for bargains; Antique City in Walnut, Iowa, is a regular hunting ground.
Same thing goes during cross-country treks with her chief enabler, Jonathan, who helpfully pulls over and loads up the truck knowing that some items will never make it to the store, or at least not right away.
"Johnnie wants you to know I change the house all the time, and he can't find anything," Lizzie joked via cell phone one day while the two were barreling around in her 1997 Jeep.
Lizzie kept the conversation going even after debarking at a leather factory, where she fielded questions while negotiating a price on behalf of a well-heeled client. "An expensive proposition," she said of the client's keen desire for well-tanned hides for upholstery. "I personally prefer faux."
In fact, her home and place of business are advertisements for natural materials like linen, cotton, and salvaged wood—their own kind of status symbol thanks to tastemakers like her. Her store, housed in a rare cottage left standing amid glossy new boutiques, has even spawned a brand carried by other stores eager to market urban-farmhouse chic.
Lizzie credits her dad, who died in 2008, for her start. "I was very lucky, my design aesthetic and my abilities came from him," she says, adding, "I learned from him early on that knowledge is nothing unless you can put it to practical use"—turning a crinkled cottage into a tasteful showcase included.