Who says you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? AD100 designer Charles de Lisle has performed just such a feat of alchemy, transforming a particularly porcine sow’s ear—a bizarre, dilapidated shack set in a garbage-strewn Sonoma County wilderness—into a vision of unpretentious, idyllic country charm. “It was like a satanist yoga den,” de Lisle says of the cabin’s crumbling structure and lunatic decor, which included black-painted walls, a giant red-and-black yin-yang symbol emblazoned on the floor, strange plastic Buddhas tucked in niches, and a janky DJ booth. Dirty mattresses strewn about, a rusted claw-foot tub, and old clothes stuffed into the walls and ceiling as insulation added another layer of Dickensian texture to the decrepit hippie hut. “There were a bunch of dudes sleeping there and growing marijuana. It was a total dump. We dubbed it the ‘Bro-jo,’ ” the designer adds.
The adventure began when de Lisle acquired a 10-acre parcel of land as a weekend getaway for himself and his partner, Ralph Dennis, design director at the office of AD100 designer Steven Volpe. The inauspicious property encompassed a two-bedroom house, a redwood barn from the 1880s, a ram-shackle chicken coop, and two sheds (the Bro-jo and a separate outhouse). As part of an earlier, aborted renovation of the primary residence, a previous owner had set up an elaborate garden, with a koi pond and waterfalls, planted with an array of decidedly non-native species that had grown, unattended, to elephantine scale in the obliging Northern California climate. “It was a wild scene,” de Lisle recalls. “The vegetation had gone haywire, and there was junk everywhere. We had to haul off seven giant semitruck dumpsters of trash.”
De Lisle tackled the rebuilding of the Bro-jo and the bath pavilion first to establish a hospitable place to stay as he and an ad hoc group of builders, artists, and friends cleared the land and laid the groundwork for the future renovation of the main house. After major structural reinforcement—the shed was sinking into the ground—the metamorphosis of the Bro-jo was accomplished with a few bold strokes of paint, plywood, and redwood-framed windows salvaged from a nearby Air Force base. “I like rolling fast, down, and dirty. This was really a play space for me, so there wasn’t much planning. I didn’t need to get permission for anything, which was incredibly liberating,” de Lisle explains.
The decor of the Bro-jo represents a merry mélange of odds and ends, both pedigreed and obscure, including chairs by Gaetano Pesce and Max Lamb, a Hans Wegner love seat, Charlotte Perriand–inspired daybeds, Moroccan rugs, and a 1960s table from the designer’s childhood home. “There’s a bunch of stuff I’ve had for years, things I just held on to or couldn’t sell because they’re a little worn or bent. Basically, it’s like a fancy yard sale,” de Lisle says of his humble assemblage. The same freewheeling attitude animates the freestanding bath pavilion, where an antique Japanese tansu, a graphic Isamu Noguchi lamp, a vintage Bas van Pelt rope chair, and a knotty-pine room divider repurposed from the designer’s erstwhile office in Hayes Valley all mingle amicably in polite conversation. As in the Bro-jo, the quotidian plywood walls of the bathhouse recall the unpretentious beauty of early Frank Gehry interiors.
Asked whether his partner—a high-powered designer in his own right—had much input, de Lisle demurs: “All Ralph and I do is talk about design, so it was impossible for us not to discuss. But this is obviously not the kind of thing Ralph does at Volpe. He gets to enjoy cooking and gardening while I’m working the backhoe and moving rocks around. This nutty project is really my folly, and I can’t tell you how much joy it brings me.”