Doctor of Design


A few years ago, Denise Williams was a podiatrist with a bustling practice. Then came the birth of her daughter, Emma, and the busy doctor decided to sell her business and become a full-time mother and homemaker.

In her case, making a home involved a complete overhaul of the 1938 Land Park cottage she and her husband, Alan, purchased three years ago. Her goal: to erase all signs of a bad 1960s remodel and restore the house’s original charm and architectural style.

She tackled the project with determination and gusto. “I’m a fanatic for detail,” says Williams, who threw herself into the design and building process, learning everything there was to know about the most arcane elements of home construction. (Heat registers, for example: Ask her anything about them—she’s an expert.) And she proved that, while she has the brain of a scientist, she has the soul of an artist. Just call her “Dr. Design.”

“I like things to be functional and practical, but they have to be attractive, too,” says Williams, who brought to the remodeling process a good eye and a thoughtful approach. She started off by lining up a team of professionals: architect Dennis Greenbaum, interior designer Suzanne Kyle and contractor Joe Dolce. Together, they retained the original layout of the 1,450-square-foot house but added another story and an additional 1,000 or so square feet of living space.

“The existing rooms stayed their original size, so we had to make them incredibly efficient,” explains Williams. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the minuscule kitchen, an 8-by-9-foot space that, she recalls, was “the epitome of inefficiency.”

Without expanding the room so much as an inch, Williams was able to squeeze in all the bells and whistles that are considered standard in today’s high-end kitchens: a Wolf range, a Sub-Zero refrigerator and a superquiet Miele dishwasher, all in gleaming stainless steel. The trick? She chose the smallest, narrowest versions of each appliance, such as the 30-inch Wolf and the 18-inch Miele Slimline.

She opted for plain, glass-fronted white cabinets, a deep farmhouse sink, granite counters and a backsplash of white subway tile, giving the room the classic look of a prewar New York City apartment kitchen.

Beneath the upper cabinets, open shelves provide storage for restaurant-style white china. “I grew up in a restaurant family,” Williams says. “I had a kitchen like this all my life.” In a nod to her medical background, she stores foodstuffs near the range in Pyrex medicine jars that she bought 20 years ago from a medical supply rep.

Like the kitchen, the bathrooms got efficient yet attractive makeovers. “I wanted them to look like the antiseptic bathrooms of the 1920s,” she explains. In both the guest bath and the master bath, that meant old-fashioned white ceramic tile from Ann Sacks, pedestal sinks and nickel fixtures. In each, Williams used a Mipro chrome garbage receptacle with a swinging lid—the kind you might see in a hospital or other industrial setting. “I like the industrial look,” she explains, noting that she had to special-order the containers from a janitorial supplier (Sandy’s Supply Inc.) in Austin, Texas.   

She also got many of the home’s antique lighting fixtures in Austin, where she and her husband had lived before moving to Sacramento. Williams bought many of the fixtures from dealer Neil Tipler, owner of Tipler’s Lamp Shop, snapping up pieces that had hung in Austin’s state Capitol and other historic buildings. “If I found a light I liked,” she says, “I bought it, then found a place for it.”

Upstairs, in the new addition, Williams created recreational spaces for the whole family: a large playroom for Emma, a handsome wine-storage room for Alan and a “project room” for herself, where she keeps things such as craft supplies and gift-wrap. But her pride and joy is her new laundry room, complete with a built-in sewing machine and serger and a Miele rotary iron—a modern version of the old-fashioned machine known as a mangle, used for pressing large items such as sheets and tablecloths. “This is my room,” she says proudly.

In fact, she’s proud of the whole project. “I am mesmerized by old houses: the quality of the workmanship, the attention to detail,” she says. “I love this house, because it has a lot of history.”