Katie Labourdette-Martinez and Olivia Wahler are the founders of Santa Barbara’s Hearth Homes Interiors. Their aesthetic is that coveted, quintessential Santa Barbara-style that’s often imitated but can be tough to get ‘just right.’ Think spaces that look like a Nancy Meyers movie: approachable, refined, livable, and organic. They also happen to be sisters-in-law, resulting in a fun, synergistic energy that they bring to every project.
Their staging company saw great success, but they longed for more involvement with the design process and decide to make a big pivot towards interior design. In a candid and lively conversation, Katie and Olivia tell us more:
First, tell us a bit about your business. How did you get started in staging? What do you love most about the industry?
Olivia: We started our business in 2017. We had both burned out working more corporate jobs and needed something that was more fulfilling from a creative perspective. We had always loved interior design but didn’t have any formal education in it. So, when my parents listed their home for sale and were really underwhelmed with the quality of the staging options in Santa Barbara, we had a bit of a light-bulb moment. With staging, we were able to get into the interior design world without jumping straight to full-service design, and it kind of gave us a crash course in the industry while giving us an opportunity to build a network and a portfolio.
Katie: Since then, we have fallen completely in love with the industry. My dad is a General Contractor, so I grew up on construction sites. I love that this industry reminds me of my childhood (my favorite smell in the world is fresh cut lumber), and I get to take a space from rough and raw all the way through to all the pretty finishing touches.
Olivia: Being able to see the process through from just the spark of an idea all the way to the celebratory glass of wine at the end is so fulfilling.
You soon pivoted to interior decorating and design. What sparked the change?
Katie: When we launched our staging business, we also launched a house-flipping business at the same time. Over a bunch of flip projects, we started to develop a reputation in Santa Barbara for designing spaces that accentuated a home’s existing character. That, combined with the high-end network we built through our staging business, led to a whole bunch of clients calling us and asking us to design their homes.
Olivia: Initially, we tried to take on all the new clients while simultaneously continuing both our staging business and our flipping business, but what we found was that because staging is so time-sensitive and labor-intensive, it would always yank our attention away from design projects. It was never so bad that it negatively impacted our client work, but it definitely slowed down our personal projects.
Katie: Not to mention it started to completely burn us out mentally and physically!
Olivia: We just realized we were trying to do too much. And as much as we loved staging, we knew that focusing on building our interior design studio was the right move for our long-term goals.
In a few words, how do you describe your style? What “feeling” do you hope your spaces convey?
Katie: I think what’s great about Hearth Homes Interiors is that we are really good at adapting our style to whatever the home demands. With both flipping and staging, we had to create spaces that were immediately inviting and drew people in from the moment they walked in the front door. That meant that even if the home was a brand-new remodel, it had to have elements that felt like they’d been there forever, and the furniture had to match the structure – it couldn’t be jarring in any way. So, we got really good at working with all kinds of styles and homes. But if I had to describe my personal style, it would be California casual with a vintage Parisian twist.
Olivia: I think the other great thing about our team is that while Katie and I have very complementary styles, they are slightly different. While we both have a California casual aesthetic, she’s a little more vintage and classic, and I tend to lean more toward modern and clean lines. But the thing that we definitely have in common is the feel of our spaces – they are all extremely livable and comfortable. We are in the business of creating homes, not museums, so everything we do is targeted at creating that super approachable feeling.
Tell us about the home we’re looking at today! Where is it located, and what was your scope of work on the project?
Katie: We call this project The Fleur House because of its French Countryside architectural style. It’s located in Santa Barbara’s prestigious Upper East neighborhood. This was a full gut remodel that we actually completed as a flip.
Olivia: Well, it didn’t start out as a gut remodel, but that’s what you sometimes end up with when the houses are almost 100 years old!
Katie: That’s true, we actually convinced ourselves early on that it was just going to be a cosmetic remodel (hah!). But then we started peeling off the layers (literally, peeling layers of paint off basically every surface) and realized it was going to take much more to bring it up to our standard. The layout of the home was pretty great originally, so we didn’t have to change much there, but we did add a true primary suite in what was formerly a hobby room and updated or refurbished nearly every surface.
Could you share a few of your favorite details throughout the home?
Katie: My favorite elements are the vintage pieces that we were able to salvage or add to make the home shine. In the living room, we sourced a beautiful marble mantel (circa 1880) that was shipped from Paris to serve as the focal point when you walk in the front door. In the kitchen, we refaced a second fireplace and designed a plaster detail that tied back into the arches and soft lines found elsewhere in the house. In the guest bathrooms, we refurbished the original shelf back sinks and set them on new custom vanities. In the primary bathroom, we designed a huge 9’ arched ceiling in the shower, and used a beautiful exposed brass plumbing fixture from Waterworks. Throughout the home, we refurbished the original door hardware that had been covered in layers of paint. When we stripped it all off, we found the most incredible patina on the brass that we absolutely love.
Olivia: I also really loved the tile that we sourced for the front entryway. It was the perfect combination of elevated yet subtle, and it made a big impact. We also designed a really cool beadboard wall in the kitchen that had an integrated shelf and hooks that gave the kitchen such a great, comforting feeling. Oh, and I was obsessed with that soapstone we sourced for the pantry. It was the perfect room for us to make a statement, and it flowed so nicely from the kitchen.
Are there any elements—furnishings, finishes, wallpaper—that you feel “makes” the home?
Katie: I think the biggest statement is the vintage marble mantel in the living room. It gives the home a feeling of permanence, and the mantel looks like it’s always been there. I also really love the wallpaper that we sourced in the dining room from House of Hackney. I love the way it gives the room a vintage feel, but with a modern design. We’re also big fans of Waterworks plumbing fixtures. We used those throughout the home – they are so beautifully crafted, and they really give the bathrooms an amazing finishing touch.
Olivia: In the kitchen, we sourced a vintage pine hutch that fit so perfectly in the space and accentuated the French Countryside design aesthetic. We also used an Ilve range, which gives the look of something like a Lacanche or a La Cornue, but without the long lead times and hefty price tag.
What is next for your business?
Olivia: We are working on selling our staging inventory now so that we can dedicate all of our time to growing our interior design business. We are hiring some Junior Designers right now, and we’re in the process of renovating a large part of our warehouse into some additional office space to support the growing team.
Katie: The Fleur House was actually our last flip, too. We made the decision to pivot from house flipping to hospitality design, and we’re actually working on renovating a 100-year-old inn that we purchased in Downtown Santa Barbara. We have a few other properties (we call them Hearth Homes Stays), that we use as short- and medium-term rentals. They present a different design challenge from flips, and they really let us flex our design muscles.
Olivia: Plus, we get to keep them after we finish, instead of selling them off!