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Painting by Numbers
Zahid Sardar | Photo: David Duncan Livingston | August 30, 2016
Designer Fannie Allen systematically deployed color and extraordinary fabrics with an artist’s touch to tame a once drab interior.
In Silicon Valley, “I live at the intersection of art and technology,” says Atherton interior designer Fannie Allen, who has other deeper links to both the worlds of science and the arts, which she cross-pollinates in her work. Not only is she married to a physicist who is the chair of the board at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, she is also a “computer-oriented marketing manager who loves numbers,” she says. “On the other hand, my parents were immersed in art and took us to museums across Europe. When others would go on wine tours, we went to Northern Italian, early Romanesque cathedrals.”
Armed with an MBA as well as a bachelor’s in art history, the self-taught designer with a penchant for color and textures has comfortably toggled between interior design and project management in Silicon Valley industries for the last two decades. So, in 2010, only a short time after she was hired to redecorate a two-story Dutch Colonial-style spec house in Menlo Park, she wasn’t perturbed when she was asked to take a long break from it. “I was used to shifting gears,” Allen says lightheartedly. “I understood.”
The clients—a bio-tech professional and his wife, an emergency-room doctor-turned-jewelry designer—had to leave their favorite neighborhood for a distant job posting, but they planned to return to their 7,800-square-foot, six-bedroom wood-frame house. During the first phase, before the move, Allen worked pragmatically with paint to brighten up the spaces. In the family room, for instance, where the tall bookcase was stained oppressively dark, she added pale shades of gray, celadon and aubergine, and transformed that room into a fresh, multipurpose living space ready for company yet tough enough for the couple’s two teenagers, a puppy and two cats. Window seats on either side of the fireplace, with new cushions, also “dressed things up,” Allen says.
The interior designer made her biggest architectural moves in the kitchen. “The island had a lot of faux millwork, wooden pillars and flourishes, so I had my carpenter simplify it,” she explains. “It was way too much, and we painted it all a warm gray.” The distressed wide-plank cherry wood floors remain, but new river-rock granite counters, a curved stainless steel hood above the Wolf cooktop and a custom glass mosaic backsplash from Walker Zanger all bring a crafted look missing in the old space. When the owners returned to Menlo Park in 2014, Allen resumed where she had left off. In the dining room, “we introduced a lot of color in furnishings, including a pink resin-top dining table,” Allen says. The translucent top is backed with a metallic reflector that adds a silvery sheen and hides the clash of legs under the table. The comfortable Baker dining chairs by Laura Kirar sport bright mismatched striped and floral upholstery from Cowtan & Tout.
Then she repurposed the formal living room into a pale-blue ladies sitting room “where the owner can retreat during the day or host a book club group,” says Allen. “The millwork now matches the walls to make the room more breathable, and since she likes jewelry, I brought in even more decorative fabrics. She loves carefully trimmed draperies, and we added Samuel & Sons trim.” Fortunately for the homeowner, Allen considers herself a “fabric junkie”; it may well be her favorite medium for creating visually rich interiors. Frequent trips to the San Francisco Design Center ever since she started to dabble in interior design blossomed into a taste for lush fabrics from companies like Stark, Donghia and Bergamo.
Working closely with clients, and especially with one who is an artist, has been rewarding for Allen. “The wife’s appreciation of fine detail is linked to her current work as a jewelry-maker, but also traces back to her work as an ER doctor,” the designer says. She continues: “Sometimes it is hard to remember what we did when, but it was always fun to articulate their taste. When the last pieces fell into place, the interior felt like a painting we completed together.”
Originally published in the May issue of Silicon Valley