There are some interiors where it's clear that aesthetics led the design direction. They're beautiful and they play by the rules with everything in the right place, but they don't feel like home. Then you come across a house that evokes a sentimental mood, and you can almost feel the heart that pulses at the center of it. That's what happened when Sarah Yates Mora gave us a peek inside her 1750-square-foot home in San Diego. Built in 1926, the three-bedrooms, two-bath abode is a mid-century dream with a visible warmth and dreamy Cali-cool style we'll never get tired of.
"My personal goal was to make a home that would be an inviting space for friends, a beautiful backdrop to create family memories, and that would feel like a warm hug when we return to it," she says. "I wanted the beautiful design to align with function and warmth to create a family home that feels thoughtfully curated but not precious."
The Spanish-style architecture is quintessential to the region, and Mora tells me it had a huge impact on the design process. Their house prior to this was modern, and they didn't intend to buy a Spanish home, but they fell in love with the giant windows in the living room and couldn’t walk away from it. "I tried to find a way for modern pieces to make sense in a Spanish home so rich with history and design details," she says. But, of course, Yates was always going to nail it. We're big fans of her style at A House in the Hills, and she approached this home with the same attention to detail and a keen eye.
Yates was also resourceful, spending just under $25,000 on small cosmetic updates and converting the garage into a workspace studio. She repainted the entire home, restored/painted the exterior, changed out all the light fixtures, added some landscaping elements, and central air. "I wanted to give this home a new life. When we moved in, it was dated and in need of some updating," she says. "While we haven't done all of the things I hoped to do, mainly renovating the kitchen and refinishing or replacing the hard wood floors, it feels like an entirely different home than the one we purchased. I think we achieved our mission." We do too. Read on to see the full home tour and hear how she did it.
The living room was Mora's biggest design hurdle. It's a massive room with tall ceilings and multiple focal points that she wanted to be functional, cozy, and inviting. "Fortunately the sectional from our previous home fit into the space perfectly and helped dictate the rest of the design," she explains.
Mora also brought in the two large chairs to create a separate seating area by the fireplace that has been a gathering spot for many a happy girls' night, designed a coffee table large enough to make sense with the giant sectional, and utilized extra-large rugs to help up the cozy factor and add warmth to the space.
She designed and installed a floating credenza to fill the awkward empty area to the right of the fireplace, and it turned out to be her favorite element in the room. "The warm wood, modern design, and that giant mirror reflecting the beautiful windows all work together to create a moment that's just right, in my opinion," she says.
Floor-to-ceiling thick linen curtains made a huge impact, and Mora says was the finishing touch on the room. "It also improved the sound quality so much," she adds.
Mora tells me she is still trying to flush out her design style, but she's drawn to organic materials—wood, leather, marble, and wool. "I love modern design," she explains. "But I can also get swept away by a trend quite easily and embrace what a space demands and love it just as much."
For instance, she found herself coveting pieces like the vintage sconces in the living room, which are anything but modern, but they made sense for the space and added the visual intrigue it needed.
Since Mora likes to mix things up, she decided to invest in neutral furniture so she could swap out smaller pieces and accessories to refresh the space when the urge strikes.
The biggest challenge was having to work specific architectural elements and design features that she couldn't change. "For example, the floors are nearly 100 years old and need to be refinished or replaced, a serious job that was outside of our budget," Mora explains. "The walls are a texture that makes sense for a Spanish-style home, but I would prefer smooth. Alas, another large project that was well outside of our means."
To counteract the unchangeable design features, Mora tried to find ways to work with these details, which included laying large rugs to cover the old tired floors and bright white paint to minimize the texture in the walls.
The smaller decorative details really added to the overall warmth and mood of the interior. This simple pampas grass brings in texture.
The house is a blend of new and old pieces that Mora kept from her previous home like the table in the dining room, which was a happy fit for this space. Despite it being a controversial piece in a dining room, Mora wanted to add the rug for added warmth and much-needed texture. "We removed it for a short time when our son was in the stage of throwing food but put it back after that passed," she admits. "Honestly, wool rugs are so durable, and ours is in great condition in spite of many years of living under a dining table. I know it doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s worked for us."
The same friend who helped her to build the credenza in the living room crafted a floating window seat in the dining room. This unique perch is perfect for watching the neighborhood kids playing outside and one of Mora's personal favorite spots in the house. "The giant framed Otomí is also one of her favorite pieces in the house. "It’s just beautiful and the perfect nod to the Spanish roots of this home," she says.
But when it comes to playing favorites, the primary bedroom takes out the top spot for Mora. "It’s a retreat from the world that feels perfectly suited to us and a place to escape the madness of life," she says. Mora wanted it to feel airy, clean, and relaxing, so she designed the space around the salt mine print. It really informed the color palette and elements for the space, which included warm neutrals and natural materials.
The term “Primary Bedroom” is now widely used to describe the largest bedroom in the home, as it better reflects the space’s purpose. Many realtors, architects, interior designers, and the Real Estate Standards Association have recognized the potentially discriminatory connotations in the term “Master.” Read more about our Diversity and Inclusion Pledge.
The Room & Board dresser, nightstands, and bench are all white oak, which is one of Mora's preferred timber varieties. "While I generally prefer to mix furniture pieces and materials in a bedroom, for this particular space, I wanted the cohesion of matching pieces to create a relaxing sanctuary," she says.
The cactus silk rug turned coverlet brings a bit of pattern to the room and adds a needed pop of texture.
Mora really loves how much history this house has. "I've always loved thinking about the families who've raised children here before us, the stories these walls could tell," she muses. "And of course, the Spanish details are just beyond incredible."
While the color palette is fairly minimal and neutral, the texture of each piece and the varied natural materials really brings it to life.
When designing her son’s room, Mora chose pieces that would transition well as he grows. She also wanted it to be a space that she, along with her husband, could enjoy spending time in. "I knew it would become a gathering spot for our family," she says. The whole room started with the bold patterned rug. "I thought it could withstand spills (it has many) and offer a colorful base for the room," she adds.
While they do actively try to keep a minimal amount of toys, their son's collection is growing and Mora is always trying to edit so that it doesn’t become cluttered and overwhelming. "To me, the room feels playful and fun, but with design elements that appeal to our adult sensibilities as well, so it’s truly a space that all three of us can and really do enjoy," she says.
Mora built the daybed (DIY tutorial here) out of Baltic Birch plywood, and it will become his bed when he's old enough to transition out of his crib. "For now, it’s the perfect spot for us to cuddle up and read books, drink coffee in the early mornings and a place to lay with him on nights when he’s sick," she says.
Mora's dear friend Denisse Wolf painted the llamas, so she framed them in natural wood frames and hung them in their son's room. They’re now one of her favorite elements in the room. Their friend, Max Wanger’s beautiful wave photograph also hangs nearby to bring their love of the beach to his space.
Their guest bedroom is small, so Mora's goal was to keep it simple, clean, and minimal. The Parachute white linen bedding is the perfect reception for guests while the bench provides a place to unpack a few key items. The Joshua Tree photograph provides a graphic element to bring interest to the space. "It’s exactly the kind of respite I’d like to land in after a long day of travel, and I think our guests have really enjoyed staying in the room," she says.