Wedding photographer Stacey Ramsey knows a lot about capturing special moments, but little did we realize she is equally adept at designing special spaces. This charming 1920’s Spanish cottage she rented with her husband is located in the historic district of Old Towne, Orange, CA. At 900 square feet, the Mediterranean revival feels more like an apartment than a house but was blessed with details including arches, coved ceilings, a plaster fireplace, and candle alcoves.  

When you first moved in, you had your work cut out for you. What condition was the home in?
We loved it the moment we arrived, however the property and condition of the house was in pretty bad shape. It had been rented out for many years and not properly cared for. The gorgeous formed plaster fireplace was hiding behind a hideous pink-brown paint, which further offset the muddy beige coloring throughout the rest of the house’s interior. The narrow kitchen had no place for a refrigerator, except in front of a window. There was no storage for most of our plates and kitchen paraphernalia.   Not even a spot to plug-in my coffee maker. The counter tiles were stained, and the drawer bottoms were falling apart. Grout spilled into the sink every time we ran water, which in turn, would clog the drain—then flood the kitchen from time to time. The inside of the house’s cabinets were chipped and filthy.  I used to joke that the bathroom’s greenish-white walls and poor lighting looked like the inside of a prison asylum.

Wow. Sounds like it definitely needed a lot of work – and it is also a rental! Were you hesitant to move forward with renovations and updates?
Honestly, we knew what we were getting ourselves into. At the end of the day, having a nice, clean environment was more important and my husband and I really enjoy designing and doing projects. We are pretty handy so we began with small refurbishing right when we moved in. However, at that point, I don’t think either of us knew we would continue to do more and more projects. For our first endeavor, I sanded back the cabinets and we repainted them. We landscaped the yard with free used bricks I hunted down, rather relentlessly, on Craigslist. We went to a quarry and bought several tons of crushed granite (which looks pretty identical to gravel) for practically nothing to replace a pretty scant (drought-ridden) grass yard. Room by room I repainted the house a classic plaster white.  Tyler installed salvaged wood ceiling beams in the main living space.  Once the landlord saw the TLC we were putting into the property, she asked if I could design a kitchen renovation within her (very strict!) budget.

So it was largely a continual process, and the kitchen was one of the most significant transitions! Walk us through the that:
Since the budget was slim, I spent a considerable amount of the time just hunting down elements that worked both with my design and my landlord’s budget.  There was a lot re-working. Overstock.com was definitely my friend. The stainless farmhouse sink and vintage looking faucet fixtures were all on purchased from the site. Newer stainless steel appliances were bought at a steep discount from a dealer that sold second-hand from foreclosed homes. I found a marble guy that did marvelous work at an affordable price for the counters and subway tile. We went with a polished Carrera marble for the counters. Then we took honed Calcutta subway tile halfway up the wall for texture and interest—it really made the marble sing to see it grace so much wall “real-estate” in such a small space.  For color, I went with white on cream monochrome to open up the very narrow space, and open shelves were purchased at Ikea and installed over the stove for needed storage.  Within the limits of her budget there wasn’t much we could do with the refrigerator except put it in front of the breakfast ”nook” window, and build open air shelving around it for a semblance of being built-in. We covered the window with a wood panel to block out all light, and black was painted on the shelf (base) walls to make it recede.  It was an optical illusion at best—but it made for a cute coffee cup “bar.”

 The space is quite small. What are your tips for bringing personality and style to the home while avoiding clutter?
I think strategic empty space is actually part of good design. Not every blank wall needs something.  And it’s a fine balance, because you don’t want the place to look sterile. Warmth can be added with texture, and a lot of it—especially when working with monochrome spaces. Incorporating elements of soft next to structured or ornate is also a fun combination. Soft fur beside cold, tarnished brass. Shiny faceted glass decanters incorporated on a distressed, sun-bleached wood surface. I love playing with these types of decor ingredients.  And little goes along way.  Too much clutter only makes the eye not be able to “rest” on any one thing.

Wise advice. You (unfortunately) have had to move out of the place. What do you miss most about the home?
I miss the unique charm.  Since all old houses are different, there will never be another one (that we will live in) quite like that one.  I enjoyed it’s one-of-a-kind character while we are there, but I am excited for the next stage…our first home where I can really stretch my wings doing something I love.