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Young at Heart

Impeccable furnishings, one-of-a-kind antiques—and a pair of eight-year-old twins in the mix? Welcome to a master class in sophisticated family living

Once a local outpost of the French diplomatic corps, the Georgian residence exemplifies a fresh yet classic look. 
Once a local outpost of the French diplomatic corps, the Georgian residence exemplifies a fresh yet classic look. 

On one of the highest hills in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco, a few blocks from romance novelist Danielle Steel’s hedge-shrouded estate, sits a Georgian-style structure with a redbrick facade and doors of high-gloss black lacquer. Formerly the residence of a French government official, the 1867 structure is part and parcel of its posh environs. And yet despite its discreet appearance, there’s nothing stuffy about its presentation. This is a family home whose formality belies its light and youthful touch.

Owner Susan Greenleaf—interior designer and mom of two—sits at the kitchen’s marble island with her laptop, clad in cropped jeans and a perfectly worn T-shirt. She has already dropped off her eight-year-old twins, Hansen and Quinn, at school; her husband, Jeff Whipps, is on his way to his office on Google’s Mountain View campus. The sunlit kitchen, framed by four sets of French doors that look out on a courtyard, is a testament to Greenleaf’s ability to make a room read as anything but reserved. “A little juxtaposition is always a good thing, especially in a home with a traditional exterior,” she says. “It helps ensure that nothing feels too serious.”

The couple and their children had been living in London when the property came on the market in 2010. Having first met and fallen in love in San Francisco in the mid-’90s, during the heady days of the first dot-com boom, Greenleaf and Whipps felt compelled to move back—and the house represented the best of all possible worlds. “It not only seemed English but also reminded us of spaces in Paris: curved French doors leading out to a front terrace, high ceilings with great light coming through the windows,” Greenleaf reminisces. Crucially for a young family who enjoyed an urban environment, the home was also located between two kid-friendly parks and within walking distance of Fillmore Street, with its restaurants, boutiques, and historic jazz district.

Young at Heart
The herringbone floors throughout the home's first floor were deliberately laid unevenly to lend the semblance and character of age.

There were certainly cosmetic downsides to the previous incarnation—a renovation in the ’80s had yielded cheap kitchen cabinetry and pink-tiled bathrooms, among other less-than-prescient design decisions. But by far the biggest issue was the lack of garage space in a neighborhood where parking was a nightmare. The process of remedying this involved excavating underneath the house and lifting the entire home using 50 tons of steel rebar, all the while being careful not to disturb the neighboring houses that stood just inches away on either side. A year and a half later, with the help of San Francisco–based Geiszler Architects and Farallon Construction, the family had not only a garage but also a completely reimagined kitchen; new bedrooms and bathrooms; and a modern, light-filled third-floor addition with a guest room, a media center, and a deck with sweeping views over San Francisco Bay.

Young at Heart
Susan Greenleaf in her kitchen, a symphony of soft gray tones.
Young at Heart

A gift for bringing impeccable interiors down to earth is evident throughout Greenleaf’s work. The mood is relaxed, the color story is jovial, and the art—at once cheeky and refined—plays a key role in the mix. In the living room, just off the entry hall, hangs a painting by Rene Ricard that riffs on the masterpiece Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 (aka “Whistler’s Mother”). Framed Damien Hirst skateboards add a sense of lighthearted adolescence to a bathroom. Unexpected wallpapers, such as Scalamandré’s deep emerald-and-silver zebras leaping alongside arrows, give surfaces a dynamic rhythm. And pops of vibrant hues, including a pair of lemon-yellow upholstered chairs in the sitting room that echo the citrus shades of the dining area’s framed Donald Judd prints, infuse levity into the home’s classic bones.

Young at Heart
Geometry and juxtaposition play an important role in Greenleaf's interiors.

The majority of our furniture is very resilient.... All of it gets better with age.

–susan greenleaf

The family’s U.K. sojourn had a strong influence on Greenleaf’s decorating sensibility. “We explored the English countryside and stayed in places like the Hotel Endsleigh in Devon and Babington House in Somerset,” she explains. “I loved the mix of the sophisticated with the quirky and cozy—layered textiles, rough-hewn woods—that created something very different from what we were accustomed to in the States.” An appreciation for the European decorative arts had been instilled early on in Greenleaf’s upbringing; her Dutch-born mother, who had studied interior design in Paris, had often taken her and her siblings to Amsterdam to visit family and friends. She describes seeing “antique and slightly threadbare kilims on the floor; large ancestral paintings on tobacco-stained walls; silver with the patina of daily use; and worn velvets on wingback chairs where my grandfather would smoke a pipe and read.”

It’s clear that Greenleaf prizes the creation of sensory memories for her own brood. “The kids are central to our lives,” she says. “It was important for us to have a home where Hansen and Quinn and their friends could feel comfortable.” Most of the furnishings in the main living areas were chosen for their resiliency—vintage leather Norell chairs, a PK80 daybed from Belgium, and a gray B&B Italia sectional that has survived many a baby bottle. Even the herringbone floors “look even cooler with the inevitable dings,” she says. (Greenleaf deliberately had the floors installed piece by piece so they were not level—in her words, “a little wonky”—to give the semblance of age.) In the kids’ rooms, formal flourishes such as an antique child’s bed and luxury blankets join age-appropriate details such as walls bordered in hot pink and gold, and built-in bunk beds connected by a rope ladder. 

Young at Heart
Young at Heart
Quinn (top bunk) and Hansen at play in his room. Damien Hirst skateboards are framed as art in Quinn's bathroom.

Back in the kitchen, the family has reunited at the end of their day. Greenleaf and Whipps are cooking dinner and catching up over a bottle of wine from the cellar in the garage. The twins do their homework at the Saarinen table. A fire has been set in the sitting room, which morphs into the de facto “rock hall,” from which the twins belt their after-dinner renditions of Pharrell and Bruno Mars. “Our life together is fun but very busy,” muses Greenleaf, surveying the scene. “This home and everything in it—children and friends, furniture and art that remind us of where we’ve been together around the world—make each day and night feel special.”

Design Lessons from This House

Susan Greenleaf shares what makes her home’s interiors work

  • Bring It Together

     Plan for unifying elements throughout individual rooms. Paint is an easy and affordable way to do just that; Greenleaf used varying shades of whites, taupes, and grays in finishes that range from matte to high-gloss.

  • Create a Focal Point

    Identify one or two elements in a room that will draw attention—a fireplace with a mantel on which art can be arranged, a tableau of books and objets on a cocktail table, a large-scale piece of photography that grounds a living room, or a grouping of chinoiserie vases with sculptural blooms.

  • Consider Unexpected Juxtapositions

    “The key to an element of surprise is establishing some tension in a room,” Greenleaf says. “I love wingbacks and Louis XVI chairs, but they’re much more interesting when upholstered in a colorful, graphic fabric, such as those from Christopher Farr, Quadrille, or China Seas.”

  • Sweat the Details

    Small decorating decisions make your home feel carefully thought out and less formulaic. Instead of using wallpaper, cover a powder room in a favorite fabric; buy an inexpensive mirror frame and install antique glass. One of Greenleaf’s favorite finds: vintage St. Regis doorknobs she sourced on eBay and installed on closet doors in the butler's pantry and kids' rooms.

Young at Heart
The modern addition at the top of Greenleaf's home looks out over San Francisco Bay.
What Lies Beneath

The secret to a well-maintained family home? In two words: smart storage. Here’s how Susan Greenleaf hides it all away


  • The Garage

    A small wine cellar and a room for toys join the subterranean parking space, whose back wall is taken up with floor-to-ceiling cabinets that “hold all things seasonal—Halloween and Christmas decorations, wrapping supplies, and the like.”

  • Kitchen Cabinetry

    “No dead space allowed—this was designed to take advantage of the 12-foot ceiling height,” Greenleaf says. Tall cabinets with pullout drawers hold appliances (a Vitamix blender, a Cuisinart food processor), helping avoid cluttered countertops. Open glass shelving holds everyday plates and bowls; below-counter pullout drawers house dinner-party accessories such as formal linens, candles, and coasters. Extra-large platters and vases are stored above the two commercial Sub-Zero refrigerators.

  • Kids’ Rooms

    Along the left and right sides of Hansen’s and Quinn’s closets, Greenleaf designed both fixed and movable shelving to hold books and small toys. She then installed shoe cubbies beneath them and top and bottom hanging bars across the remaining closet width. “I avoid lots of drawers [for clothes] as things tend to get lost. If I can hang it, I hang it!” she says. A row of baskets between the bars holds T-shirts, socks, pajamas, and bathing suits.

  • Kids’ Bathrooms

    More baskets come into play here, organized and labeled neatly on shelves and each containing an arsenal of supplies. “They make [everything] easy to find—and hide,” Greenleaf says.