Preserving and Updating a San Francisco Victorian

Interior designer Ingrid Ternynck updates a classic Victorian with a preservationist’s heart.

IT’S A TRICK AS OLD AS MIGRATION: if you want to have an instant sense of “home,” always bring along your art collection. But it’s a concept at risk of being forgotten by today’s fast-traveling urban tech nomads seeking chic turnkey plug-and-play houses. Bucking that trend, San Francisco interior designer Ingrid Ternynck tries to carefully integrate a client’s life and things into her designs.

Her own 1880s Italianate Victorian in Pacific Heights is dotted with the art and objects she and her tech entrepreneur husband, Jerome, like to collect.

“In some ways, he was my client here,” she says. Jerome, creator of a recruiting company app, is French and she is Slovakian, but when it comes to design-speak, they’re on the same page.

“We are modernists, and so most of our art tends to be contemporary,” Ternynck says. Some of it is from Prague, where they met 20 years ago; the rest comes from Paris, where they lived for a decade before moving to the Bay Area with their two teenage daughters five years ago. But their taste is eclectic enough to embrace cherished gifts from Jerome’s parents in the austere yet decorative Gustavian style, a Swedish interpretation of French antiques. “I also love history,” Ternynck adds, “and we certainly did not want to rip out all the details within this beautiful building to match our collection.”

In fact, in their house-hunting trip to San Francisco in 2011, she and Jerome were specifically looking for a true Victorian house. It was hard work. Every time they found one with a well-preserved shell in a neighborhood they liked, the interiors had been gutted to appeal to younger buyers.

“The original crafted details of Victorian interiors are the timeless art of San Francisco,” Ternynck muses. “They have to be saved. Without that, these houses lose their soul.”

Finally, they found an intact Victorian in the Fillmore area. With a park for the dogs, a bread bakery, good coffee and a bus trundling down the main street, it felt like the 16th arrondissement in Paris. “As soon as I saw the house I knew what we would do with it,” the designer says. “I loved the original features and even the old poorly designed kitchen because it had a sunny south-facing deck.”

Within six months of buying their rare three-story, 3,500-square-foot survivor with unaltered interiors, the couple managed a long-distance face-lift from Paris. Without touching any of the original wainscoting, door trims, oak wood floors or elaborate stair railings, they added new up-to-the minute wiring, updated bathroom plumbing for the three top-floor bedrooms, and a mainlevel modern Bulthaup kitchen that opens to a back deck. It overlooks a tiny French-style ground-floor garden that is now accessible from a new family den/home office near a guest suite for the in-laws.

To create a more modern feeling in the high-ceilinged living rooms, Ternynck added new lighting from Artemide and Fontana Arte to complement vintage crystal chandeliers. Eames dining chairs also provide a timeless but contemporary touch, along with a spartan palette of earthy grays and sun-bleached tertiary colors from Farrow & Ball for walls, harmonizing with matching blinds and fabrics for drapes and upholstery from Knoll.

“Those colors always have a calming effect and also provide both a dramatic and yet neutral backdrop for all kinds of art,” Ternynck says. “And a bit of gold and silver in objects and picture frames adds just the kind of period glamour that an interior needs.”

As she surveys her handiwork several years later, Ternynck is proud that none of the walls has had to be repainted to accommodate even the latest works in their collection — several vibrantly colored canvases by San Francisco artist Michael Brennan.

“It is great to work with a mate who shares your taste,” she adds, marveling at her husband’s input in the design. “He has an architectural eye and led the construction decisions, and during his work-visits to the Bay Area he was like a bulldozer, pushing the crew to finish in time.” Some new elements, such as skylights and a formal foyer for privacy, took more time and added expense, so Ternynck chose relatively affordable furnishings from Restoration Hardware, Blu Dot, Design Within Reach and Dzine, along with vintage boutique finds from Past Perfect and Coup d’Etat.

The most significantly altered room is the kitchen, which is where the whole family seems to congregate. “I work in the kitchen because it has the best light and it is the center of everything. The dogs are there and the kids come there first from school,” Ternynck says. Her husband is partial to its back deck — a de facto home office when the sun is shining.

Out there, as a reminder of their former home, “he wanted a reproduction of a little antique étagère in my parents-in-law’s house,” Ternynck says, clearly touched. “It is the last of the 25 copies reproduced for a lunch party held during our wedding in France.”