Inside A Very Stylish, Labour Of Love Family Home In Ojai, California
Ms Sheila Marquez is wandering through the orchard at the home she shares with her partner, Mr Duncan Winecoff, and their two sons, Lucius, eight, and June, four, in Ojai, California. Come springtime, the recently planted “baby trees” should bear enough plums, peaches, apples and pears to feed her young family, as well as the neighbours, who will trade them for their citrus fruits. A nearby vegetable garden is sprouting Japanese greens, artichokes, rocket, onions and carrots. But not broccoli. A gopher gobbled up the last one this morning.
“It’s a battle with the animals living here,” sighs Marquez, who bought the property, which sits on 1.3 acres of greenery (and includes a barn and a swimming pool) in 2019. It’s a challenge to reconcile the image of Marquez, 37, a model and city girl oozing European chic (she hails from Spain), who started her career walking for Gucci and only ever lived in apartments, with the rodent-wrestling woman today. But having kids will do that to you.
“It’s amazing for them to see their mum and dad being resourceful and building things with their hands,” Marquez says. “It’s like, if we want a table, we don’t have to buy a table, we can build it. That’s something we can offer them living here, that’s very important for us right now.”
Winecoff, a filmmaker, nods in agreement. “Not living in a shoe box. Being in nature. It’s a really great place for early childhood.” He should know. Winecoff, who met Marquez through friends in 2013 in New York (the couple owned an apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn), spent the majority of his own childhood in Ojai.
Growing up in the Tibetan Buddhist community of this Californian town, which is set against the Sierra Nevada mountains, Winecoff attended a progressive school on a wooded campus founded by Indian philosopher Krishnamurti. Eventually seeking bigger adventures, he left for the Big Apple as soon as he was old enough, but in recent years, found himself growing nostalgic.
“I always sort of knew I could be really happy here,” says Winecoff, whose parents live five minutes away. The children now attend the same school he did. So, while Lucius plays video games like any other eight-year-old, he can also teach his parents about obscure plants, rather than the other way around. “In this home, the roots run deep. It’s such a special place.”
Having long been a second home to the Hollywood elite (Mses Reese Witherspoon, Emily Blunt and Sir Anthony Hopkins are among the stars to have owned property here), it was during the pandemic that Ojai, which has a population of almost 8,000, became sought after by young, cool creative families.
“I think it’s one of the most unique places in the world,” Winecoff says. “It’s protected by a philosophy. They don’t allow national stores, so there are no chains here. It’s looked the same since I first moved here in 1991. I don’t know if another place like it exists.”
In search of a project, budding but inexperienced renovators Marquez and Winecoff found the ideal solution in a 1,734sq ft three-bedroom property which had already been restored to a high standard – with hardwood floors and doors and lime plaster walls – by the previous owner. Just missing a kitchen and bathrooms, it was a blank canvas for Marquez and Winecoff.
They went without a proper kitchen for 18 months. “We had an old-school gas stove, a butcher block and a fridge in the garage, but we still managed to host everybody here for holidays, parties and big dinners – without a dishwasher or anything,” Marquez laughs.
“You need to live in it and see where you spend the most time,” she says.
“It’s a process thing,” Winecoff agrees. “If you have a ton of money – which we didn’t – it’s like a curse because you can do everything all at once. I’ve enjoyed doing this piece by piece; it’s a really beautiful process.”
With the help of hip LA design and fabrication studio Dusk (who also collaborated on the mid-century modern Capri Hotel in Ojai and buzzy local restaurant, Rory’s Place), Marquez and Winecoff have created a spectacular kitchen space that boasts custom-made wood cabinets and shelves and an oak family-style table and benches. Anyone familiar with Californian wood-sculptor Mr JB Blunk’s work will detect his influence.
The couple’s overall vision for the property’s interior design was wabi-sabi minimalism with a twist, because while that aesthetic does complement the finish of the house, they wanted to build in other “cool, eclectic elements”, too. In the kitchen, for example, there is a brass wall behind the stove. “When the afternoon sun hits, it turns into this little jewel box that glows,” explains Winecoff. “I like things like that, that break the minimalism with some precious colour or texture.”
Apart from Dusk, no contractors or designers have been involved. Marquez and Winecoff are doing this “ongoing project” (they’re about halfway through) themselves – and they make a good team. Winecoff sketches out the plans (his drawings line the walls of the third bedroom, which is currently used as an office) and has an interest in permaculture. Shelia’s artistic eye, meanwhile, ensures the house is filled with enough photography (a striking self-portrait of LA photographer Ms Alex Prager lights up the lounge) and artefacts from Europe and New York to make the house, “feel like our home; not just something out of a magazine”.
“Every corner of this house is functional. Even that weird corner where the kids hide behind the door”
However, their home is always as spotless as it appears for the MR PORTER photoshoot (for which the whole family was dressed in pieces from our ARKET collaboration). “We basically live in a hotel environment the whole time because of Sheila,” Winecoff quips. Indeed, the only initial indication that two children under 10 also live here, is a large wooden table in the hallway housing various Lego constructions. And even that wouldn’t look out of place in a museum of modern art.
“You need a garage room nobody looks at,” Marquez smiles, opening an enormous wooden door that leads into a garage filled with shelves of bright-coloured plastic toys and games. The plan is to eventually turn the area into a bedroom for the boys with indoor and outdoor spaces separated by bi-fold doors.
Winecoff travels frequently for work (shooting campaigns for brands including Nike, Sephora and Porsche) and is particularly inspired by Mexico (the minimalist work of architect Mr Luis Barragán, for example) and Japan. The couple plan to host dinners and Friday night movies in the courtyard – which is positioned at the front of the house and is so clean, bright and spacious, it feels like the entrance to a gallery.
“In Japanese culture, it’s important to have a courtyard that you walk through before you get to the front door,” Winecoff says. “To respect the homeowner, you come to it with some level of formality.”
Equally exciting plans include revamping the 1980s style concrete swimming pool and converting the barn into a guest house with its own entrance. It might seem ambitious for first timers – but Marquez and Winecoff are only just getting started. They recently sold their apartment in Williamsburg to enable them to renovate and restore the prairie-style house next door to this property into a vacation rental.
“We made a lot of mistakes going through the process,” Marquez says. “We could probably have saved a lot of money having a contractor, but it was a learning experience. Hopefully we can do the next one without too many mistakes, but when I talk to contractor friends, they tell me they still make mistakes because each house is different.”
What’s the best advice they would pass onto someone renovating a property? “Be patient, live in the space and don’t let people influence you,” says Marquez. Functionality, adds Winecoff, is key. “Huge properties can be a bit soulless when nobody goes in rooms or something is meant to be observed, but not really used,” he explains.
“I actually love the disproportionality of this tiny, but beautiful house on this big piece of land. We populate this house. Every corner of this house is functional,” he says. “Even that weird corner where the kids hide behind the door...”
Functional, resourceful and, as with Ojai itself, like no other place that exists. What’s not to love?