Think “luxury” and the adjectives that arise are ones like “prestigious,” “opulent,” “expensive,” or “unique.”
But how about the deliciously plain and oft-neglected word “understated?”
It’s delightful to step into a grand, architecturally significant loft from a funky freight elevator. Or to drive up to a lavish estate via a gravel drive secured by a humble wooden gate. The surprise only heightens one’s sense of prosperity and good fortune.
A prime example of such restrained sensibility is 1050 Filbert Street, currently for sale in San Francisco. Located on the east slope of Russian Hill, it consists of a main house and separate guest quarters. All that’s evident from the street is a boxy two-car garage. The casual observer might say, “Meh.”
But behind its ordinary entry door and down a flight of simple stairs is an elegant oasis – one that’s been thoughtfully remodeled and reimagined for a luxurious yet understated lifestyle. Its muted design is key to its charm and value.
It reminds me of an episode from the book The Wind in the Willows (a children’s classic focused on a group of woodland critters whose genteel lifestyles feature some fabulous real estate): Mole and Rat are lost in The Wild Wood and stumble upon “a solid-looking little door” belonging to Mr. Badger’s house “in the side of what had seemed to be a snow-bank.”
Badger invites his unexpected visitors in for supper and ushers them “down a long, gloomy, and, to tell the truth, decidedly shabby passage, into a sort of a central hall” which leads to “a large firelit kitchen,” which author Kenneth Grahame describes in such delightful detail that it makes me wish I knew Badger myself:
The floor was well-worn red brick, and on the wide hearth burned a fire of logs, between two attractive chimney corners tucked away…Rows of spotless plates winked from the shelves of the dresser at the far end of the room, and from the rafters overhead hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions, and baskets of eggs. It seemed a place where heroes could fitly feast after victory, where weary harvesters could line up in scores along the table and keep their Harvest Home with mirth and song, or where two or three friends of simple tastes could sit about as they pleased…in comfort and contentment. The ruddy brick floor smiled up at the smoky ceiling; the oaken settles, shiny with long wear, exchanged cheerful glances with each other; plates on the dresser grinned at pots on the shelf, and the merry firelight flickered and played over everything without distinction.
It’s the sort of kitchen you’d see in an Architectural Digest spread about an English country house. The restored cabinets date back to the 18th Century. A dishwasher has only recently been installed. Baskets hang by the door so the cook can gather vegetables from the kitchen garden. A well-worn table serves as additional counter space and for casual dining.
There’s nothing new or bespoke. The architect’s name is lost. But the understated estate is the very essence of luxury. It offers comfort and solace. It pleases the senses. It welcomes and delights friends. And it frames and supports a meaningful life.