By using solely recycled materials, spending as little as possible and indulging a passion for garage sales, Constance Dean has doubled the size of her Ashland house and created a fanciful domestic realm.
Dean bought her modest 1965 house on Garden Way 15 years ago. Since then she has gathered a plethora of castoff doors, windows, flooring, insulation, lighting, framing wood and heaters, and fashioned a tall-ceilinged, two-story addition that has little respect for straight lines and muted colors — yet comes off with a lot of class.
Walking through her unconventional addition, Dean spins tales about the origins of every sconce, lintel, stained-glass panel and set of drawers, fondly recalling the price — usually $1 to $10 — and the fun connections she made with sellers.
In a kind of magical, intuitive process, Dean often envisions the need, place, size, shape and color of something, notes it in her dream book and, as fate would have it, the item soon appears.
Pointing out the tasteful, blond, pine flooring in the upstairs bathroom and art room, Dean recalls how she wished for it — then saw it bounce out of a truck ahead of her as it rolled over a curb.
"I stopped to help him, and he said he was taking it to the dump because it was stained too dark for people doing a remodel," says a delighted Dean. "I told him I'd give him $100 if he drove it to my house. He was happy to do it. We planed the stain off it, and it's perfect now.
"It's ridiculous, so many materials and furnishings getting thrown out," she adds.
Simple, orderly and tasteful as you enter, the rooms gradually bombard your mind and eye with intricate and exuberant designs that seem to mimic nature itself — random yet orderly, chaotic yet harmonized.
Gauzy lengths of fabric serve as screens, draping entries to a lush backyard garden. Twin, squarish sconces, handmade of milky glass by a man who sold them to Dean at a yard sale, adorn 8-foot, twin, rear doors. Imprints of leaves punctuate the poured-concrete main floor, along with an arc of river rocks. Strong madrone railings snake their sinewy way up a staircase. Tasteful, antique-y shelves and sideboards abound, many refashioned and built into walls, one serving as a sink base.
Windows match, or they don't — but they all "work." They draw the eye, just as the irrepressible Dean's stories draw in listeners.
A lover of doors, Dean has 18 of them in her addition, several with etched glass in the style of a century ago and two from a bank in San Francisco. Often, she says, it's the doors that inspire the vision for the next little nook or room ... or light well?
What's a light well? Who builds light wells? OK, you're standing in the middle of Dean's kitchen (in the old part of the house), and you look up and find yourself gazing into a vertical tunnel traversing several floors, and you say, "OK, Constance, what IS this for?"
First, it brings in light without using any energy. Second, it carries oppressive summer heat out through the top of the house without any fans or air conditioning. Third, it's a charming excuse to use two, lovely, etched-glass doors which, of course, Dean scored for five bucks at a yard sale (they open to heat or cool bedroom and bathroom). And, last, it's an interesting conversation topic.
You can't help but smile. Your mood lifts. You laugh; you talk; you investigate every closet and cranny, finding nothing ordinary. You marvel. You congratulate Dean for her unbridled imagination, zest and courage, all carried out, by the way, with full approval of city code inspectors. And of course, you formulate the obvious question: How come Constance Dean can break all the rules and have so much fun while I just paint my walls beige or yellow and buy curtains from the big-box store?
For $5 at a yard sale, Dean picks up a big, charming, handmade dollhouse. Why, you ask? How could a dollhouse possibly work within her decorating scheme? It will end up in the garage, right? Wrong. Without planning it out, Dean takes it home, screws it to an outside wall — next to the outdoor shower — and cuts a little hole in the wall so her cats, Sebastian and Belle, can use it as an entry and chill room in rainy weather.
Dean searches for castoff treasures and, when she finds them, lets the treasure guide her vision, telling her how they can fit in and enhance her hand-built paradise. Or it can be the other way around.
Dean had a recurring daydream of a beautiful, little, metal stove in the corner of her upstairs bedroom, and within days it turned up on the website Freecycle (only free stuff is posted) in Hornbrook, Calif. She drove down, and it was exactly the stove she'd envisioned.
The adjacent bathroom features a marble sink, found for $8. The elegant wallpaper was $1 a roll. The spacious shower has a mural she painted and is paved with heart-shaped rocks she has found.
No blueprints, no architects but, muses Dean, "the whole thing just kind of evolved. The house built me, and I built the house. The more clear you get about it, the more easily it comes."
On the upper-rear porch, you see a big tree limb sprawling in the space between columns. She just couldn't cut it off, she says, so they built the porch around the limb.
But what about resale? All these charming, eccentric features are the kiss of death for buyers, right? You'd have to BE Constance Dean to like them and buy the house, right?
"I'm not worried in the least about that," says Dean. "If I can't enjoy it in my lifetime, well, why would I design it for someone else I don't know? It's for living in the moment.
"People love it. It's like a magical space. A lot of people think if it's all recycled stuff, then it has to be funky, but this is elegant."