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‘Awesome or Insane’
Anh-Minh Le | Photo: Kathryn MacDonald | December 28, 2016
Two sisters. Two husbands. Five children. One duplex. Let the design-off begin.
Parents often try to instill in their children the virtue of sharing. Sisters Helen and Julie Kim, now grown up and both attorneys in San Francisco, must have learned that lesson well: They currently live in the same duplex in the Castro alongside their young families. Helen, her husband, and their brood of two sons and two daughters occupy the downstairs quarters. Julie, her husband, and their son reside above them. “People usually have one of two reactions to our living arrangement: They think it’s awesome or insane,” Julie says. “The reality is that it’s a bit of both, but mostly the former—and has a million advantages when you put four working parents and five kids together.”
Not only can they easily coordinate play dates between cousins, but they can also divvy up babysitting duties, and most nights dinner is a communal affair. Friday dinners are usually followed by popcorn-fueled movie watching. “The thing I like most about [the setup] is that the kids are growing up together, and despite the occasional sword fight, I think that will really make a difference in how close they are later,” Helen says. “At the very least, if they all end up at the same school eventually, no one will mess with any of them on the playground!”
Before any joint habitation could take place, the Kims’ 1965 building needed an overhaul. The square footage was increased from 3,200 to 4,000—thanks in part to the conversion of a section of the garage into living space (allowing the lower unit to span two levels). And the interiors got a desperately needed aesthetic update, for which they turned to interior designer Grant K. Gibson. For older sister Helen, he conjured a warm environment with Japanese and Scandinavian influences. The palette is dominated by white and wood tones, with the liveliest motifs reserved for the kids’ rooms. Julie, meanwhile, wanted a “jewel box,” she says, “polished and bold in color and wallpaper.” So Gibson introduced a series of eye-popping patterns—Cole & Sons’ Nuvole Storm on the walls and ceiling of a long hallway, Kelly Wearstler’s Crescent in a watery blue in her son’s room, Makelike’s Lush in a red-gold-and-black colorway in a bathroom.
The kitchens provide perhaps the best snapshot of the siblings’ divergent tastes: Helen’s is outfitted with clean-lined white oak shelving and cabinetry, a durable outdoor table plucked from a Restoration Hardware sample sale, and mismatched wooden chairs and a 15-foot bench. Julie describes her sister’s space as “the workhorse of the building. With [her] four kids and us down there for most meals, practicality was definitely taken into account.” The kitchen upstairs is decidedly more luxe—with a Calacatta marble backsplash fabricated from a single slab, alongside cabinets painted to dramatic effect in Farrow & Ball’s Drawing Room Blue. Further adding an exclamation point in here is the combination of the striking La Cornue range and the brass vent overhead.
“I really thought of this as two separate projects, rather than one,” Gibson says. “Just because they are connected—the sisters and the spaces—that didn’t mean there needed to be any flow between the units.” Indeed, while they admire elements of each other’s decor—“I should’ve done a leather couch!” says Helen, referring to Julie’s living room seating—there’s little overlap in their design sensibilities. Adds Gibson: “I wouldn’t be offended if someone looked at the two homes and didn’t even realize that the same designer worked on both.”
Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco