The Design Lab
Home stylist Laurie Furber creates chic order out of chaos.
Photography by Thomas Kuoh
At Laurie Furber’s house in Alamo, the couches get dirty. There’s junk food hiding in the pantry. And when she finishes a book, she puts it haphazardly on the shelf, knowing she can always move it later, if she decides it doesn’t look right.
This laissez-faire approach to living may come as a surprise to those who visit her stylish showroom in Concord, where she exhibits the
always-evolving home wares collection she and her husband, J. P., have built over the last four years. The Furber name—and the couple’s business, Elsie Green House and Home—has become synonymous with casual-chic design in the East Bay, thanks to their business savvy, eclectic taste, and ability to make rooms look as though they’ve been built over time.
Get Furber talking, and it becomes clear that her home—with its white walls, high ceilings, and mostly naked windows—is her laboratory, a living experiment where she and her family test everything from how well certain linens hold up in the wash to which plants dry nicely.
“You have to live in your house,” she says. “It has to work for you, and if it works for you, it’s going to show. You’re going to love your house, and people are going to love you in it.”
On the outside, the Furber house looks like a typical home in the affluent Diabloland burbs. In a gated community off Stone Valley Road, the one-story structure is relatively new construction and has modest, clean details, including natural wood shingles and white trim. A red front door, however, is an indication of the expertly executed color palette that awaits indoors.
Step inside, and the first thing that catches your eye off the entryway is the hallway. On its large wall is a showcase of black-and-white photo-graphs in simple black frames that feature her family: beaming children on the beach, professional photos, and vacations in Sun Valley. There’s very little else that the photos have in common: They’re large and tiny, close-up and scenic, old and more recent. But because they’re all black and white, they work together.
“I’m a big believer in drama when it comes to the photo wall, so I don’t think you should be afraid to go to Kinko’s and blow up a picture so it’s supergrainy, like you cut it out of a newspaper,” she says. “I think that’s really cool. In fact, I try hard not to use original photos. I like the copies—this grainy look.”
Through the hall is a traditional great room that includes an open kitchen, a dining area, and the family’s main living space. Furber first points to the couches, which are covered in flax linen. Two weeks before, they were covered in white fabric. She prefers white because it’s easiest to clean (just toss it in the wash with some OxiClean) but rotated to flax because she knows many of her clients are afraid of white.
“I’ll live with these for six months and see what the heck happens,” she says. “I kind of record in my mind how often I have to wash them and how they stand up, so that when I’m talking to my clients about upholstery, it’s from a real-life perspective.”
Between the two facing couches is a coffee table with a prune-drying rack from the French countryside, one of the items she sells in the Elsie Green collection. It holds a shallow dish with trinkets collected from travels as well as a jar of vintage letter-press letters that the family used to teach their youngest member, now 11, to read. Before it sat on the table, the rack hung above Furber’s desk in her bedroom and functioned as a bulletin board for her inspiration tear sheets.
Beside the seating area is where Furber does most of her experimenting: the fireplace. The log in the fireplace changes about every six weeks. On this day, the fireplace houses birch bark, which Furber chose for a clean, autumnal look, but in the past, she’s filled it with books, candles, and plants. The mantel is decorated with things in a neutral palette that have personal meaning to her, including a framed “Work Hard & Be Nice to People” poster by typeface artist Anthony Burrill, which hung in her office for most of her career, including during her time as senior vice president of merchandising at Pottery Barn.
“I like a collection, and I’m always looking for things that layer nicely,” she says. “I don’t do a line of candlesticks.”
This neutrally toned assortment of treasures extends onto a perpendicular wall with large built-in cabinetry. The bottom half holds puzzles, games, and not-so-pretty things behind doors because “you’re not going to want to look at every molecule in your collection—you have to have a place to hide things,” Furber says. The top half, which showcases paper products, including document boxes and a hefty number of books, is where her commitment to her color palette—a combination of neutrals and a base of red—really comes into view.
“When I finish a book, I have no issue walking up and placing it there, but if the spine is the wrong color or I don’t like the way it looks, I turn it around,” she says with shrug. “It’s a little weird, but it’s a stylist thing.”
The Furber family’s living room was designed with durability and simple living in mind, but in a separate living room that the family uses less often, Furber has more freedom. Here, she finds unusual functions for items sold by Elsie Green. Currently, the coffee table is made of a door sitting on stacks of books. In the past, it’s been a cot, a Herman Miller bench, and several little stools.
While this room gives Furber more room to play, it also presents her with her biggest challenge: styling the old scaffolding that lines the home’s largest indoor wall.
“I look at this all the time, and I think, ‘All right, I’ve nailed that top shelf. I love the way that looks,’ ” she says, studying an assemblage of vintage glass bottles. “And then this middle part is not done. I’m always trying to figure it out.”
Still, Furber doesn’t sweat it.
“Nobody’s gonna walk in here and say, ‘Oh wow, she’s not finished with that,’ ” she says. “You just have to give yourself a break, and put out the things you like, and know that people will appreciate that.”
Choose a color palette—and stick to it. Start with a base of neutrals, and add accent colors you love. If you’re going to be warm, be warm. If you’re going to be cool, be cool.
Think outside the box. A basket, for example, doesn’t have to sit on a shelf: It can be hung up or turned upside down as an end table.
Display things with personal meaning. Maps from your travels, photos of loved ones, and family heirlooms show that your home has been built over a lifetime.
Embrace open storage. Cubes and shelves make organizing easy—wine on top, pitchers on the bottom, linens on the left—so that anybody can help clean up after a party.
Have spots to hide things. Putting doors on the bottom of built-in cabinets is one way to store items that don’t look as pretty.
Invest in big-ticket items wisely. Put down a base of neutrals—such as simple, high-quality couches and tables—and then go wild with more affordable, temporary accessories, including pillows, lamp shades, and rugs.
Be afraid of white. It’s a blank canvas that makes treasures pop, and white linens, including couch covers, can be thrown in the wash.
Strive for perfection. Shelves, for example, can be messy as long as there’s discipline in the types of items and color palette.
Be fussy about the photo wall. Photos that are leaning against shelves instead of nailed to the wall can be moved around the house with ease.
Toss quality items just because your style has changed. Reupholstering chairs and adding linen to a table are just two ways to make an outdated set look chic.
Buy everything you like. Just because something appeals to you doesn’t mean it fits with the style and color of everything else in your house.
Worry about making mistakes. If you paint a wall and don’t like it, you can always paint over it. You don’t have to be right all the time—you just have to be right more than you’re wrong.
For more on her showroom, visit elsiegreen.com.