Healdsburg Tract Home Transformed with Budget Friendly Updates

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The living room at the Healdsburg home of interior designer Benjamin Dhong. (Photo by Erik Castro)

The exterior of Ben Dhong’s house doesn’t look much different from the others on his Healdsburg block, where homes are wedged tightly along a ribbon of sidewalk. But inside, this plain 1980s tract home wears an unexpected glamour. Those who walk through the door forget they’re in a subdivision.

The Healdsburg home of interior designer Benjamin Dhong. April 16, 2016. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)
The Healdsburg home of interior designer Benjamin Dhong.

“It was just a box. An ordinary, boring box,” Dhong said of the three-bedroom house, located not far from Healdsburg High School. It was built in 1981 with the prominent “garage door” architecture of the era.

Benjamin Dhong an interior designer at his recently redesigned home in Healdsburg. April 16, 2016.
Benjamin Dhong at his recently redesigned home in Healdsburg.

Dhong is an interior designer who deftly blends traditional and contemporary elements for looks that withstand the vagaries of time and trends.

With his own home, he pulled off a neat trick on a modest budget, making small changes with big visual dividends, using paint, wood, wallpaper and mirrors. Most of the furnishings are off-the-shelf finds from West Elm, Ikea, Cost Plus, even Marshall’s and T.J. Maxx.

“Everyone can live in a beautiful home whether you’re rich or poor,” he said.

The living room and part of the kitchen area at the Healdsburg home of interior designer Benjamin Dhong. April
The living room and part of the kitchen area at the Healdsburg home of interior designer Benjamin Dhong.

Although his clients tend toward the privileged class, Dhong is proud to say he’s not a “design snob” who insists on custom everything.

“I’ve had some wealthy clients who lived in big, sterile, cold homes. Tacky homes. And I’ve known local people who went to flea markets and have enchanting little cottages,” he said.

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The library located on the second floor at the Healdsburg home of interior designer Benjamin Dhong.

Dhong calls the house “Cloud Walk” because of its airiness and heavenly cream, linen, eggshell and gray color scheme. “It has an ethereal, dreamy quality to it. You float through it. There’s no dramatic shift from one room to the next.”

A strong center piece sits among a selection of art and design books at the Healdsburg home of interior designer Benjamin Dhong.
A strong center piece sits among a selection of art and design books at the Healdsburg home of interior designer Benjamin Dhong.

A giant Wade Hoefer painting of puffy clouds above a bare slip of landscape consumes a prominent wall in the dining room. An ICBM missile mold Dhong found at a San Francisco antique store appears poised to blast off into the clouds from the center of his dining room table.

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A cloud piece made of plywood and wallpaper hangs above the fireplace.

Above the contemporary fireplace is a cloud panel that only looks expensive. Dhong made it by creating a pattern and cutting it out of a piece of plywood he then covered with leftover wallpaper that had a dramatic cloud design.

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Panels of mirrors and artwork greet visitors at the entrance of the Healdsburg home of interior designer Benjamin Dhong.

Dhong lives and works much of the week in a studio in Berkeley, though he spends long weekends in Healdsburg, where he was a close pal of the late interior designer Myra Hoefer. She encouraged him to buy the 1,700-square-foot house as an atelier and retreat.

The Powder Room with its decorative ceiling at the Healdsburg home of interior designer Benjamin Dhong.
The Powder Room with its decorative ceiling at the Healdsburg home of interior designer Benjamin Dhong.

“I didn’t necessarily want to buy a house that’s in a development,” Dhong said. “But when I closed the gate — and it’s a very nice development and very quiet — I never heard or saw another person. It just shows you don’t have to buy a big estate to live nicely. You don’t have to have the most expensive things. You just have to have a little creativity and put a little thought into it.”

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A Frank Gehry Wiggle Chair stands out in the living room.

Most of Dhong’s furnishings and improvements were made within the budget of the average homeowner. He sheathed a single wall here and there with wide, rough boards he found for next to nothing at lumberyards, and painted them in light tones. These accent walls dress up an otherwise boxy room with what Dhong calls “instant architecture.”

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The living room at Benjamin Dhong’s Healdsburg home has light streaming in from 3 different windows.

Dhong made the most dramatic changes in the kitchen. Before, it was like a long dark tunnel with a bit of light at either end. Working with architect Matthew MacCaul Turner, Dhong opened up the ceiling to the gabled roof, added 12-inch whitewashed planks, popped in a porthole and inserted skylights.

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Benjamin Dhong’s kitchen, with a high ceiling and rustic color scheme.

A breakfast nook, kitchen and dining room were incorporated into the only large open area. The focal point is an antique apothecary cabinet that consumes a good portion of a kitchen wall. Even after it was cut down to fit the space, it stands a stately 10 feet tall, offering ample storage on beautiful open shelves, at less cost than conventional kitchen cabinetry.

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A Swedish sleeping alcove in the kitchen.

Among the signature elements Dhong added is a little Scandinavian-style sleeping nook cut into a closet of the breakfast nook. On full-moon nights, he sleeps there and looks up through the skylights.

The Opium Den at the Healdsburg home of interior designer Benjamin Dhong.
The Opium Den at the Healdsburg home of interior designer Benjamin Dhong.

At the top of the stairs, he removed the doors of a linen closet and turned it into a grand recessed entry point. Above a Chinese lacquered table with elephant feet is a plaster profile of a Swedish king.

Even the backyard is a trick. Dhong figured out that the view through his back windows is of a nice archway along the driveway to a church above his house. From certain points through the window, it appears that the open space is part of his own estate.

He calls it “stealing the view.”

Photography by Erik Castro.  

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