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Open Door Policy

A modesty-free Noe Valley designer prefers bathing in the bedroom.

Nir Stern in his bedroom with his Abyssinian cat, Alpha. The bedside bathtub is fully functional.
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Stern found this stainless steel cabinet at The Industrialists in the Castro and had it completely altered to fit the guest bathroom.
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An aluminum shelf spanning the length of the kitchen bears art, photos, and food.
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Orange accent paint pops amid Stern's muted wood, fiberglass, and stainless steel decor.
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The deer doorknob leading to the guest bedroom mimics the taxidermic head mounted in the front foyer.
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Stern restores vintage motorcylces in his garage.
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Victorian-style fireplaces contrast with Stern's contemporary art collection.
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The deer trophy in the foyer "has a presence no manmade art could ever create," says Stern.
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Stern mends his own clothes by the light of a Bauhaus Scissor lamp that he found on eBay.
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A silk-screen print by a friend is displayed beside one of Stern's photographs in the kitchen.
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The chalkboard wall near Alpha's food bowl charts the cat's growth.
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A photograph taken by Stern when he was 14 is displayed in the guest bedroom. The quilt is embroidered with a map of San Francisco.
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You don't have to be the jealous type to envy aspects of Nir Stern’s life. The thirty-something architect turned user-interface designer is a wanderlust-driven bachelor whose work-from-home schedule allows for frequent international jaunts. A consummate tinkerer, he refurbishes vintage motorcycles, mends his own clothes, plays the guitar, and builds furniture. Stern champions engineered utility—design that’s streamlined, but clever. If it’s not to his liking, he’ll alter it; if it doesn’t exist, he’ll make it.

So when Stern saw potential in this Noe Valley Victorian five years ago, the first thing he did was tear down walls and rip out doors. “I wanted a big, open space where people would naturally drift between rooms,” he says. For the overhaul, he enlisted James Hill, an architect and friend who made his name retrofitting historic Victorians. The result is a quirky but cohesive mash-up of old and new: restored original elements up front, a gut-renovated social space in the back, and a palette of stainless steel, wood, and orange accent paint tying it all together. Stern’s taste skews toward the clean and functional, “like an early 20th-century insane asylum,” he says. Thus, an old stainless steel cabinet from an army hospital was repurposed for the guest bathroom, and the originally “coffin-size” shower was expanded to accommodate several people at once. a gas fireplace warms the adjoining room, which is outfitted with steel chairs from Ironrite, a company best known for its short-lived ironing contraption (the mangle) in the ’40s.

Though such vintage (and modified-vintage) pieces are scattered liberally throughout, Stern’s eclectic art collection keeps the effect from feeling contrived. Frames, leaning against walls rather than mounted, display anatomical illustrations, a motorcycle engine diagram, architectural plans, and paintings by friends.

The kitchen is divided from the living room by a 10-foot-long banquet table, which serves as Stern’s office by day and entertaining nexus by night. But the most surprising social space is the master bedroom, where a claw-foot bathtub is stationed on a raised platform near the bed. Here, too, walls are unnecessary. (“The body is a beautiful thing; there’s nothing to hide,” Stern says, without irony.) A digital projector casts television and film onto a bare 10-foot wall opposite. During movie nights, guests sprawl across the bedroom floor—or vie for a spot in the tub, which has, on occasion, held up to four people at once. Stern’s artful digs and regular parties beget a perpetual stream of visitors. “I heard a friend at one of those parties jokingly say that if he were to murder someone and steal his life, it would be Nir,” says Hill, laughing. “I guess, as an architect, that’s the goal: to produce envy to the point of homicide.”

Originally published in the July 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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