Renovating Craftsman and brown-shingle homes: Tips and tricks

The living room in a renovated Berkeley craftsman home. Photo: Courtesy Lane McNab Interiors

The East Bay boasts a wealth of architectural styles, among them Craftsman and brown-shingle homes. Berkeleyside asked Lane McNab, owner and principal designer of Lane McNab Interiors in Berkeley, for insights into renovating these particular homes.

What is the appeal of Craftsman homes?

In general, Craftsman homes have so much to offer that resonate with our modern lives: openness, comfort, warmth, connection to nature, casual elegance, and so on. It’s easy to see why there has been such a resurgence in interest in them over the last decade or so.

The Berkeley brown-shingle Craftsman has that added, what I call “professorial” quality, that makes them that much more inviting and charming — the occasional grand staircase, the rambling, continuous floor-plans, gracious entry-ways, quirky additions and nooks and crannies.


Berkeley was able to attract such amazing talent with the First Bay Tradition because these young architects were excited to throw off convention and see what was really possible. I know they would want that innovation to continue and I feel like “contemporizing” while respecting the amazing structures they created would definitely receive their blessing.  

The dining room in a renovated Berkeley craftsman home. Photo: Courtesy Lane McNab Interiors

When people ask you to remodel a Craftsman home, what tend to be their priorities?

Usually they want to update it without losing the connection to the warmth and charm that’s such a part of the architecture. My approach is to never be trapped by the rules of the period but rather to be inspired by the intention and feeling the architecture creates. I don’t do period homes and I don’t try to recreate Craftsman styles and ideas from the past. Authentic design comes from acknowledging a home’s environment and past, understanding its present, and collaborating with the people who live there now.

Just like people, homes evolve — even historic ones. Every home has a story to tell and you and your life are a part of your home’s evolution. The feeling you have when you walk into a room should be that this room belongs in this home in this moment.

What are the elements of a Craftsman home that you like to preserve/highlight?

First and foremost I like to preserve the connection to nature which is so contemporary and on trend right now anyway. This was done in a Craftsman tradition by highlighting wood, contrasting organic and geometric lines, incorporating textural fabrics, and using nature inspired colorways. This is so like the trends of today but what has changed is the way we do it: instead of highlighting wood by putting dark panelling throughout the architecture and adding in many pieces of wood furniture, we choose pieces or areas to highlight and contrast it with warm, lighter neutrals. Instead of organic lines in prescribed wallpaper and rug patterns, it’s more on trend to add nature-inspired fabrics and even furniture with organic lines and live edges. Instead of the darker fall and winter earth tones of the Craftsman era, our current color trends tend to take inspiration from other seasons — spring and summer.  

I also love to maintain the connection to the hand-crafting of pieces whenever possible. Whenever I can, and when budget allows, I like to use handmade tried-and-true craftspeople for the pieces in our designs. I also design custom pieces for clients and have them made and often use inspiration from nature as a jumping-off point — such as a spiral stair handrail we designed a couple of years ago inspired by Yosemite Falls or a custom bed I designed and had made out of 200-year-old reclaimed oak..

Old Craftsman and brown-shingle homes can often be full of dark wood, such as old-growth redwood. How do you address homes that feel dark/don’t have enough natural light?

Wood panelling, wainscoting, chair-rail, ceiling coffers, built-ins, window and door casings, stairs, railings — these are all ways wood was incorporated into Craftsman interiors during the height of the period, and in some homes it’s all of the above! Sometimes the best approach is to embrace the cocoon the wood provides and design with that in mind. Other times though, minimizing the heaviness of the wood in a respectful way is the best approach or, depending on the client’s wants and needs, a complete modern update of the interior — rethinking it from the inside out.  

A really modern interior inside a traditional exterior can be an exciting surprise in a Craftsman especially if there is a reworking that makes sense (when in doubt, think Japanese for a modern update to a Craftsman home). If the woodwork has been painted badly or is in bad shape, removing and installing a modern interpretation can be fresh and still authentic to the intent of the home. 

If I really think a room with dark wood in it should be painted out, I will say so. If the home has a particular pedigree and the wood accents have never been painted, I definitely respect that and will work with it, but sometimes paint is just the right answer.

Besides painting or removing the woodwork altogether, other ways to deal with a lot of heavy wood is to consider restaining it. This can be tricky as, often, the wood used in the Bay Area for Craftsman details was either redwood or douglas fir and these species can go very red when lightened. Liming or washing doesn’t work either with these woods, but using a semi opaque can downplay the heaviness while still showing the grain. The trick is to customize and go slow. White oak was another popular wood and it’s great to work with.  

Also, since wood darkens with time, sometimes clients can be convinced to restore it which can lighten it a bit.

If the wood is staying put and not being touched, I will carefully choose accenting paint colors with high-quality paints and fabrics to highlight the wood in the right way. Since traditional wood panelling immediately makes a design feel traditional and period, I like to contrast this with lighter more contemporary furniture to keep a design fresh.

Also, a decorating trick is well-placed mirrors. It’s like getting an extra window and will brighten any space. Maximizing light coming in through the windows is a good trick too, with shades mounted above the window instead of inset.

And of course every room really has six walls, not four so if you can’t go light on the vertical walls try lightening the horizontal ones — the ceiling and the floor.

The bedroom in a renovated Berkeley craftsman home. Photo: Courtesy Lane McNab Interiors

Assuming a client doesn’t want traditional Craftsman furniture in their home, what sort of furniture and accessories lend themselves to the architecture?

I actually prefer to not put traditional Craftsman furniture in a Craftsman home. For me that would feel too period and of another era. I understand there is a movement for that historical re-creation in the Bay Area and it definitely has its place, but it isn’t my personal aesthetic and isn’t as challenging or inspiring to me. Making a traditional home work in an updated, elegant, contemporary way is really my wheelhouse and contemporary upholstered pieces are a great contrast to the abundance of wood you often find.  

Mid-century modern also translates beautifully in a Craftsman home, and if you can get the right undertone in your wood accents or the wood has already been painted out, I love a “California casual” aesthetic. An elegant, more luxurious, modern update is beautiful as well, especially contrasted against the backdrop of wainscotting or historical architectural elements.

Are there local places you like sourcing from when renovating/designing Craftsman and brown-shingle homes?

We a have so many great places to shop in the East Bay. For mid-century pieces I love Mid-Century Møbler. Ruby Living Design carries many furniture lines that we love to use, like Verellen and Hickory Chair. The Gardener also has beautiful, unique, nature-inspired pieces that work well in a Craftsman aesthetic. If you have the time and inclination to search, Ohmega Salvage has some great finds and they are a useful resource for period hardware. Teak Me Home is another frequent stop for me, and the combination of contemporary and mid-century designs with reclaimed wood is a nice casual accent.  

Mid Century Møbler at 1065 Ashby Ave. in Berkeley. Photo: Mid Century Møbler

I always find something at the Alameda Flea Market that adds just the right amount of character and interest for any design. And Berkeley has so many artists studios that wandering through on open-studio days will always give me that just right piece to complete a project.

Anything else we should know?

I feel like the East Bay is on the cusp of another design boom. We have so much talent and so many resources here and Berkeley in particular has a history of being innovative and artistic in its approach to design. I think sometimes design professionals in the East Bay feel like the less-loved stepchild of San Francisco, but I completely embrace the quirkiness that makes Berkeley unique. I love that I don’t have to feel pressured to make every project sleek and modern, or “SoCal cool,” or “East Coast traditional.” There’s a real freedom in connecting to the Berkeley tradition and then moving forward with fresh, new ideas and seeing where it leads.