A Townhome at the Base of the Ski Lifts
Photos by David Duncan Livingston
The whole family was coming for Thanksgiving, and that was that. Martha Ehmann Conte’s ski home would need to be renovated and ready, with every last fixture and accessory in place and the refrigerator stocked, in time for the feast. It was already summer in the Sierras, and the four-month remodeling timeline might have sent a less courageous interior designer scurrying for the foothills. But Justine Macfee isn’t one to shrink from a challenge. “It was a fun creative push,” she says with a laugh.
Conte initially envisioned just a few cosmetic changes to her decade-old, three-story, 2,500-square-foot townhome located at the base of the ski lifts at the Sugar Bowl Ski Resort. But, as is often the case, the scale of the project grew as opportunities arose to make the home more functional and family-friendly.
“My preference is for lots of people and lots of noise,” Conte says—she and her four children have plenty of friends—so Macfee aimed to accommodate as many as 20 people. With the goal of making the most of every space, the designer and homeowner began with a bold decision: The master suite would move down from the third level to the first floor, allowing the kids to have the run of the top floor with their own brand-new custom-designed bunkroom and play area. The living room, kitchen and dining area would be sandwiched in between on the second floor.
The townhome’s original rooms were heavy with European chalet clichés, including dark woodwork and whimsical alpine-themed murals. Conte wanted to maintain some of that warmth and coziness, but in a “clean, contemporary and open space.” And Macfee, who knew that her client’s primary residence in San Francisco has a formal style, wanted to create a relaxed vibe that would make the ski home a true getaway.
Inspired by design and color trends she had studied during recent travels to the Swiss and French Alps, Macfee began by lightening the palette with soothing neutrals “that lean on the gray side,” then added a few pops of color. “It’s a fresh take on that chalet feel,” she explains.
A harmonious mix of old and new furnishings underscores the effect. “The addition of antiques gives the space a European, ‘collected’ look, as if she’s been here for a long time,” Macfee says, “but it still feels updated.” And when the designer couldn’t find the right table or chair, she had one made. “Every single new piece was designed down to the quarter of an inch to fit perfectly,” she says.
Vibrant patterns and strong textures contribute to the home’s sense of laid-back elegance. Macfee’s approach involved playing and layering, “making everything coordinate, but not necessarily match.” Adding a touch of the rugged outdoors—from barnwood to limestone to a bouquet of branches—created a natural connection to the home’s alpine setting.
And so Thanksgiving did arrive, and Conte’s family and friends were welcomed into a warm, inviting—and fully renovated—home. While it hadn’t been easy, the constraints presented by small spaces and a compressed timeline yielded not just big design ideas but also clarity for Macfee: “Martha wants to come to the mountains to retreat from her city life and enjoy time with her family. If her home allows for that, then I’ve done my job.”
The light and luxurious living room of this chalet at California’s Sugar Bowl ski resort was originally dark and heavy, dominated by a river- rock fireplace wall. Removing the stone opened up an extra two feet of depth to use for a hidden television cupboard and decorative shelving. Barnwood provides a rustic-elegant backdrop for the crisp limestone fireplace surround, inspired by the homeowner’s European travels. Interior designer Justine Macfee describes the cozy furniture’s style as “relaxed Tahoe.” Crisp white paint covers the stairway’s original dark woodwork for a brighter and more modern feel, but the alpine charm of its original heart-shaped cutouts remains.
The design team painted the kitchen cabinets a bold shade reminiscent of the ski resort’s signature color, so they nicknamed it “Sugar Bowl Blue.” Waterworks backsplash tiles contrast with pale quartzite countertops and a barnwood-clad breakfast bar. “I love everyone lined up at the breakfast bar eating, and I’m on the other side feeding them,” homeowner Martha Ehmann Conte says.
The dining-room table, set for a feast.
A playful mix of patterns and oversized seating makes the den an ideal hangout for movie nights.
Macfee was inspired by a fresh “lakehouse look” when she designed the ground-floor guest room, with custom twin beds and a nightstand fashioned from an antique box.
Light, comfortable, calm and cozy—that’s the mood Martha Conte hoped her new home would capture, and it’s how she describes her bedroom’s understated yet vibrant mix of lush textures and harmonizing patterns. “Everything had to be furry and cozy and feel great,” Macfee says. The custom-designed bed is flanked by lamps with tramp-art bases.
With a red-painted vanity and big trough sink, the third-floor kids’ bathroom “feels like summer camp,” Macfee says.
The sleep-over-friendly bunkroom provides cozy nooks (each individually lit and equipped for cell phone charging), a blackboard wall and fuzzy beanbags.
Finding enough space for a house full of guests to sleep, eat and play can easily turn a host from gracious to grouchy. But interior designer Justine Macfee knows all the tricks for making your home a place where everyone fits just right:
- FLEXIBLE SEATING “Comfortable extra seating that feels like an essential part of the room is a must for small spaces. A stool or pouf upholstered in fur, for example, is portable, whimsical and still feels as important as the main furniture pieces. Float one in front of a fireplace, use a pair as ottomans or tuck them behind a sofa back or beneath a console table.”
- CREATIVE SLEEPING SOLUTIONS “Building an extra-long twin-size bunk over a queen-size bed is a great way to maximize space in a small room—while accommodating guests of all ages. The queen bed feels formal enough for the adults, while the playful bunk entices the kids and their friends.”
- SMART SCALE “Don’t be afraid to incorporate large furnishings into smaller rooms. In fact, a piece of furniture that takes up the entire space may actually be the best use of that space. For this home’s small den, we designed a giant U-shaped sectional sofa to fit perfectly in the room. It’s functional, ‘pile-in-and-watch-a-movie-cozy,’ and when you remove the pillows there’s a sleeping space the size of two twin beds.”