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Living Art

Hush co-owner Joanna Dawson's Lafayette home is another expression of her unique style.


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Joanna Dawson
Caren Alpert

Joanna Daswon's house is hard to categorize, which is just the way she likes it. Set high up in the Lafayette hills, with jaw-dropping vistas of Mount Diablo, the house mixes a casual Mediterranean vibe, bohemian chic, and the features of an old European castle with classic Modernist pieces.

It’s natural that Dawson would live in a home that embraces an eclectic sensibility. She’s a co-owner of Hush, a boutique that opened in Walnut Creek in 2000 and was one of the first in town to offer women an alternative to department stores. With its inventory of clothes by established as well as up-and-coming designers, the store caters to women who want to move beyond a suburban look—whether it’s the mom who wants to stay hip or any woman seeking what Dawson calls that “just-threw-it-on cool look.”

“I have a business background, but I’ve always loved fashion,” says Dawson, who has the fine features, long hair, and lithe physique of a ballet dancer, and is barefoot and wearing a floaty floral peasant top and jeans the day we meet at her home.

Living Art
Caren Alpert


Her ability to mix and match styles becomes clear as we stroll by a Mies van der Rohe Barcelona daybed in the living area and a Herman Miller Noguchi coffee table and Charles Eames lounge chair in the TV room. These icons of sleek, functional design coexist with funkier pieces: the cherished old library desk in her study; a 1940s-style cabinet in her 12-year-old son’s bedroom, bought at a garage sale for $40; and a pair of beatnik Moroccan patchwork poufs in the master suite.

Dawson grew up in Quebec, and her Canadian roots mean a lot to her. She and her husband, Ken, and their two sons spend two months every year at their summer home in the Gatineau Hills of Quebec. “I like the contrast between our busy life here and the more laid-back life we lead there,” she says. “Also, there are no 16-year-olds driving BMWs where we go in Canada,” she adds.

Living Art
Caren Alpert


After moving to California in 1995 and living in Danville for a year, the Dawsons happened upon their current house. Back then, it was in a much more primitive state, even though it was fashioned after Frank Lloyd Wright, and its future transformation required ample imagination. Built as a weekend retreat in the 1950s, the construction mixed redwood with exposed rubble packed in wire mesh. “Very rustic,” adds Ken.

Living Art
Caren Alpert


An initial remodel of the 2,700-square-foot home added 1,200 more square feet of space and smoothed out the exterior, but the result didn’t cut it for Ken, who suggested, after living in the home for just a short time, that they move. “I wanted somewhere more finished,” he admits.

Living Art
Caren Alpert

However, the thought of walking away from those amazing, 270-degree views led to remodel number two, which completely recast the house and infused it with its distinct character.

Instrumental to the home’s transformation was an importer named Franz Fritzenwallner. It was Fritzenwallner who sourced the hand-forged wrought iron balustrades on the wraparound deck. He also found 500-year-old engraved bricks and antique beams salvaged from a Habsburg castle on the Danube River in Austria. He used the bricks to create the patio, and he turned the beams into a garden pergola.

Living Art
Caren Alpert

Most of the art in the house is by Dawson’s uncle, the landscape and abstract artist Duncan De Kergommeaux. A somber, untitled collage above the hearth is a favorite. “I feel really drawn to his darker, more abstract work,” she says.

Although Dawson describes herself as “the Dr. Kevorkian of the plant world,” her garden is inviting. She says the family often takes blankets outside and sits on the terrace to chat. When they have company, they break out the guitars and bongo drums. Her preferred time of year is the fall, when they watch the harvest moon come up over Mount Diablo.

Living Art
Caren Alpert

Overall, Dawson is pleased with the way her home has turned out. “Not mainstream, a little artsy, and it defines what I am comfortable with,” she says, adding that her friend, interior designer Maria DiGrande, helped her steer clear of a “stodgy” look.

That said, it’s a work in progress. The fireplace in the living room, for example, has never been exactly the Dawsons’ style, she says. It will have to go, to be replaced by something more modern. She is also rethinking the kitchen and exploring the idea of building a yurt in the yard. “We don’t move too fast,” she says. That’s probably a good thing, as Dawson’s schedule includes opening a second Hush boutique on Union Street in San Francisco, planned for later this month. The renovations will have to wait. “We’re not in a rush and want to do it well.”

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