Arts & Crafts Dream
An East Bay family tucks a spectacular home into the hills.
Driveway and entrance to the Cocotis home in Lafayette.
Photography by Jim Fidelibus
It all started with an antique dining room table. Many years ago, newlyweds Paul and Alison Cocotis bought an antique oak table that was perfect for their Walnut Creek home. Well, almost perfect—the couple loved the piece’s Craftsman style, even if the tabletop needed some work.
“We had to have a new top made, so we took the table to the Craftsman Home store in Berkeley,” says Alison. “Soon after that, we had a set of chairs made to match the table. Then, we found an antique bar set that we loved. As we kept going to these Berkeley antiques shops to find pieces for our living room, we realized how much we loved the Craftsman and Arts and Crafts design styles.”
What started as a small collection inspired a passionate quest for knowledge about the history, techniques, and design elements of these styles. The Cocotises found themselves drawn to the work of Charles and Henry Greene, the legendary architects whose early 20th-century buildings and furnishings combined American Arts and Crafts style with Japanese techniques to create a higher form of art. On trips to visit Paul’s sister near Pasadena, the Cocotises would drive by the historic Greene and Greene–designed homes and bungalows featured in the architecture books the couple kept on their antique coffee table.
“We visited the Gamble House,” says Alison, referring to the National Historic Landmark originally built in 1908 for David Berry Gamble of the Proctor & Gamble Company, “and we realized that if we ever had a chance to build our dream house, this is the kind of home we wanted.”
Chasing the Dream House
For years, the Cocotises continued to add to their Arts and Crafts collection while raising their son and two daughters. Then, in 2004, a friend told them about a primo 5.7–acre lot in the Lafayette hills that had just gone on the market. The land had been waiting for development since the early 1980s, but since the property was right on a ridgeline, anyone who wanted to build on it would have to endure an arduous approval process.
“Alison and I came up here many times,” says Paul, looking across a spectacular view of rolling hills and Mount Diablo. “We were happy in our house in Walnut Creek, but we realized that if we were ever going to build a custom home, this was the place to do it. So we put in a bid on the land, and we got it.”
Buying the land was a hurdle, but building their house was a marathon. The Cocotises hired Lafayette-based Ward Young Architects to design a 5,800-square-foot home that satisfied the couple’s Greene and Greene–inspired ambitions, but also satisfied the strict approval process required to build on a ridgeline. After two-and-a-half years of meetings and presentations, the Cocotises got the green light from the city. Construction began in 2007, and the home’s exterior took more than a year to build. The interiors took another two years, and the Cocotises’ dream house finally became a reality in September 2010.
The Invisible Manor
The city of Lafayette’s requirements were strict: The Cocotis home could not be an eyesore for residents accustomed to seeing open space on the ridgeline. While it’s impossible for a 5,800-square-foot building to be invisible, the home comes remarkably close. It is nestled into the hillside beneath a small forest of old oak trees—only one of which was removed during construction. Forty new trees were planted, and the exterior’s green- and brown-stained cedar shingles, consistent with the classic Greene and Greene Pasadena bungalows, provide further camouflage, as does a line of newly planted trees along the property’s west side.
“This is a perfect model of how to build on a ridgeline,” says Mike Mussano of Ward Young. “We fulfilled all of the city’s rules and expectations, without having to compromise for our client. It was nice to have clients who understood exactly what they wanted. With that clear definition in style and also functionality, we were able to get to all the wonderful detailing and nuances of the design.”
Paul Cocotis, who is president and CEO of a contracting company that works on large projects, including the Golden Gate Bridge seismic restoration, was on the building site every day of construction and sourced all of the materials that make the house unique. For example, he found a sustainable mill in Oregon to provide enormous beams of old growth Douglas fir that extend from the home’s interior to create exterior coverings on all sides of the house. For the charming, asymmetrical fireplaces and entryway brickwork, Paul found a business in Ohio that produces clinker bricks—bricks that are uniquely puffed and bloated in the baking process—to achieve the texture of similar elements in the best-known Greene and Greene buildings.
Meanwhile, Alison spent countless hours sourcing the many Arts and Crafts–style doorknobs, lighting fixtures, and picture frames. She found some artisan tile-makers from the North Bay to make unique 1920s-style tiles to decorate several bathrooms and had a 250-year-old marble coffee table transformed into a bathroom counter top.
“While we were building, we weren’t in a hurry to move out of our home in Walnut Creek. That was nice because it gave us time to find all these wonderful decorative items,” says Paul. “The downside was that we always had enough time to find ways to spend more money.”
Greene and Greene 2.0
While the Cocotises and principal architect Tim Ward honored the Greene and Greene style throughout the home, their desire for utility trumped tradition in the home’s five-bedroom interior.
“This house is very different from any Greene and Greene houses,” says Paul. “Our layout really came from a use standpoint. We wanted the guest and children’s bedrooms to have their own wing, and we wanted the master bedroom to be more centrally located.”
These elements combine for a pleasant flow, giving the home separate areas that feel farther apart than they are. The master bedroom and bathroom in the northeast end offer a sense of privacy from the rest of the home, as do Paul and Alison’s adjoining offices next to the kitchen.
For the kitchen, the Cocotises veered completely away from the Greene and Greene tradition, which often called for a kitchen that would be managed by a professional staff.
“I wanted to sit in the kitchen and feel transported,” says Alison, who minored in French Language at UC Berkeley. “I’ve always loved Europe, specifically France, and wanted that feel in the house.”
Alison envisioned a large and friendly space reminiscent of a French bistro—complete with a custom pewter counter and a boothlike breakfast nook. Even the refrigerator door is covered by a Parisian-style art piece designed by Alison’s friend Béa Johnson, a French-born artist internationally known for her zero-waste lifestyle in Marin County.
It’s a dreamy, magical notion: a customized kitchen that transports you to Paris, in a home that harkens back to Pasadena, circa 1900—all located in an invisible house atop a Lafayette hillside.
But when you leave the kitchen and walk into the dining room, you notice the antique table that inspired this wonderful home.
And you realize it’s a dream come true.
The East Bay is home to some of the finest Arts and Crafts and Craftsman-style artisans and resources in the country. Here are several to check out.
A Bit of Everything
Alameda-based website the Craftsman Home is a treasure trove of Arts and Crafts–style furniture, lighting, and artwork. Owner Lee Jester opened a Berkeley store in 1995 and has since switched to a web-only business. craftsmanhome.com.
Fabric and Textiles
Oakland’s Arts and Crafts Period Textiles features bedspreads, table linens, pillows, and more, and offers embroidery workshops so you can make your own. textilestudio.com.
Oakland’s Caledonia Studios handcrafts oak furniture and cabinetry in the Arts and Crafts tradition. caledoniastudios.com.
Lamps and Lighting
Metro Lighting and Sue Johnson Lamps in Berkeley offer artisanal lamps and fixtures. metrolighting.com; suejohnsonlamps.com.
Vintage Arts and Crafts–style wallpaper is available at Bradbury and Bradbury Art Wallpapers in Benicia. bradbury.com.
Tours and Sightseeing
The only existing Greene and Greene building in the East Bay is Berkeley’s Thorsen House at 2307 Piedmont Avenue. The building currently houses Cal’s Sigma Phi fraternity. thorsenhouse.org.
Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association organizes tours of Arts and Crafts and Craftsman–style homes in Berkeley; berkeleyheritage.com. Oakland Heritage Alliance organizes similar tours in Oakland; oaklandheritage.org.