Retro Active

sofa and cushion

You might expect the interior of a house in an oceanside community to be awash in the cool blue, sandy beige and seashell white colors of its serene landscape. But Natalie Umbert’s bold decorating choices are an unexpected alternative to traditional coastal décor.

Natalie, an interior designer, was born in Peru, a country whose people’s love of vibrant colors has been woven into their cultural fabric. Although she lived in several places throughout her life, Natalie’s attraction to the vivid colors of her birthplace has remained with her.

colors and patterns

“There are so many beautiful colors and patterns in the marketplace that I am always inspired,” she says, regarding the décor of the 1940s-built home she shares with her 8½-year-old daughter, Carolina. It is the first home she designed for herself, even though she has worked as an interior designer for many years. “I had designed everyone else’s home but not my own. It was about putting down roots—it was a big commitment and a way of saying goodbye to other things,” she says. Natalie classifies her home as a California beach bungalow but more traditional in feel, with wood siding, shutters, window boxes and a front porch. It has two “public” rooms (a living/dining room and a family room/den), a kitchen, three small bedrooms and two bathrooms.

The idea of living in a vintage home appealed to her. “I love places with some history. They tend to have wonderful energy and a cozy, well-worn feel—plus a few quirky elements from periodic remodels, etc.,” she says.

She found herself attracted to the neighborhood as much as to the house itself. “I like that the family that built the house owned it until recently, and that the house across the street is still owned by the original family as well,” Natalie says. “In fact, I have often spoken with the kids who grew up across the street who are now middle-aged and listened to their stories of what it was like to grow up here. It was great, like Main Street, USA. It reminds me of the movie ‘Stand by Me’ —it was the great American beachside place to grow up. There was a sense of roots back then; now everyone is so transient. The neighbor’s kids asked if I wanted anything from their house, so I took some medals from a square-dancing competition their parents competed in many years ago that have the sense of nostalgia that I like.”

kitchen decorations

Natalie was fortunate in that her home was move-in ready when she bought it, so that meant she could get started on her decorative improvements right away. At the top of her list was adding light fixtures. “The house had great windows, so lots of natural light, but not enough artificial lighting. I used low-voltage can lights in the kitchen and hallway, and put sconces in the bedroom because there wasn’t room for floor lamps. Next, I painted the entire house a soothing gray-blue, but it looked a bit forlorn. What the house really needed was color. So I experimented with various shades of bright orange, yellow and green—and voila!”

“From the sidewalk, the house seems very traditional,” she says. “It is painted an off-white and has navy-blue shutters and a fishing reel for a mailbox. When you walk across the pavers, up to the porch and to the front door, you would expect to find a more subdued space than what you see when you open the door and are greeted by walls painted in Lemon Drop (yellow) and Flower Pot (orange).”


Although they are separate, the living/dining and family/den rooms are visible from one another, so the same bold colors—such as turquoise, aqua, yellow, green and fuchsia—are carried through to work with the flow of the rooms. The dining area includes a dark wood table and modern Klismos-style chairs with a linen faux bois (French for “false wood”) embroidered fabric by Kelly Wearstler on the seats. The room’s sparkle comes from a vintage La Barge gold-leafed and painted chinoiserie mirror and a gold and crystal chandelier by Thomas Pheasant for Baker. Vintage teacups and a crystal decanter collection remind Natalie of her late mother, whose china and crystal collections are among Natalie’s most cherished possessions.

tufted bench sofa

The focal point of the family room is a tufted bench sofa from Barclay Butera upholstered in light turquoise. Flanking the sofa is a pair of vintage orange-lacquered James Mont-style Asian lounge chairs with a multicolored stripe fabric. The center table, although wood, is painted to look like shimmering concrete. Modern wood side tables complement the tufted sofa and the swirling movement of the Asian chairs. In the corner is a white Saarinen-like tulip table with a pair of Lucite chairs that mirror the sleek white entertainment cabinet on the opposite wall. Family photos and a Harper’s Bazaar cover reproduction hang above the table. A large sunburst mirror adorns the wall above the fireplace, leading the eye to the far wall in the living room where another abstract painting dominates the space in a combination of turquoises and aquas bisected by a thick horizontal red stripe.

The interior designer’s success in decorating her home using bold, colorful brushstrokes has persuaded many guests and clients who had been reluctant to take the plunge into color to do the same.

By Meryl Schoenbaum
Photography by Mark Tanner
Styled by Jacqueline deMontravel


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