How We Make a Home: Denny Ferry

Every time I visit Denny Ferry’s home in the foothills of Marin, I have to resist the impulse to take a million photographs. Every inch of her home is so thoughtfully appointed, so aesthetically pleasing, so oriented to fostering a welcoming space. It is a joy to spend time there, and it is just the type of space I hope to create in my own home. Denny very generously invited me over for wild watercress soup recently, and shared the planning process that went on behind the scenes in the making of her home. Here, she discusses the importance of flexibility, simplicity, and softness.

According to Denny, in order for people to feel truly happy in their home, they need to feel that their home serves as a place of refuge, and provides shelter, comfort, and warmth. It must be a place of psychological security from which one ventures out into the world, and to which one can retreat. Denny believes that much of modern architecture sacrifices this sense of security: “With modern architecture, there’s such a desire for the view, but there becomes too much glass. The ratio of the entranceway for the outside world into this space, which needs to be secure and sheltering, has become too large. And there’s something psychologically that gets lost.”

Consequently, she opts instead for returning to our more ancient roots when considering interior design. For example, she favors natural materials, such as those found in the Santa Fe adobe tradition, because, “They’re very human. You can’t work with these materials on some grandiose scale. Or, you wouldn’t. You would pick another material. So I think they keep things at a very human scale.” To mimic the effect of adobe in her own home, she applied  a special tape and a rounded aluminum edge to all of the wall corners as well as the window casings. As for color, she relies upon restful (earth tones, rather than primary) palettes. She explains, “you don’t see those things, but you feel them. You feel the softness they add.”


She also believes that simplicity contributes to a restful and tranquil (and thus, ultimately satisfying) environment. She achieves this in her own home, for example, by intentionally leaving wall space blank. “People come in here,” she explains, “and they look and they say, ‘oh, you could have a painting there.’ But for me, that’s not the case. White space, for me, is really important because I find it restful. I think that’s why people who have never been here before, will look around and say, ‘you know your house is so’ and then they’ll think, ‘peaceful.’ Or, ‘restful.’ They don’t use words like beautiful. They speak more to an emotional tone. I think this is something the Japanese understand.”

My favorite feature of Denny’s house is her daybed. It overlooks a gorgeous canyon, and on warm nights she uses it to sleep outside.


I also love the floating shelves in her kitchen. Each piece on display is beautiful, and together the pieces are beautifully arranged, transcending their functionality to become a decorative element.


Another element I love is the dining area. According to Denny, it arose out of a puzzle regarding space. For Denny, it is critical to maintain a 36 in. wide gap for traffic, because it allows people to pass each other when navigating a space. She also believes that an ideal table should seat 8. But a table with 8 chairs around would not afford the 36 in. traffic area. She solved the problem  by remembering and imitating the dining area in a cousin’s houseboat; she built benches with built-in storage space up against the window and outfitted the space with a trestle table (it is easy to seat many around such a table because the legs do not get in anybody’s way), and pulled the table up to the benches. She also built a shelf for magazines into the wall between the seating and open kitchen. The result is a cozy nook, with plenty of storage.


For people just moving into a space, she has three pieces of advice:

1. Don’t rush into filling the space: “At least when you’re starting out, the more you can resist the impulse to buy things –particularly decorative things – the better off you will be. Focus on the essential things: The main pieces of furniture. The table. The chairs, the seating area. Get that right. That’s the place to spend the money. Don’t try to do too much at first. Camp out there with whatever you’ve brought for a few months before you start loading up the space by buying things. Get to know how you want to move around in that space and interact in that space, before you start investing. It’s better to keep your old stuff before you spend a lot of money to buy things that may not ultimately really be right.” And “when in doubt, leave it out.”


2. Work with what you have, rather than scrapping everything and starting afresh. She likens this approach to Akido – you work with what you are offered (no matter how negative it be), rather than against it. In her own home, she applied this approach to the exterior paint color: “The red house just really depressed me to look at it. But I knew that I loved the Himalayan color palette–so many of the Tibetan buildings are red, and they have white and green trim on them. So how could I capitalize on and utilize what was already there? The color was called Barn Red, but I decided to think of it instead as Himalayan Red.”


“That’s how I ended up with this color scheme.”


3. Make a space that’s flexible. For example, Denny has arranged the furniture in her living room in an L-shape and decked the floor with a soft carpet and pillows, so that whenever she entertains a large crowd, she can seat people on the floor and add more chairs. For smaller groups, the chairs can be pulled closer in. As a result, her living room has been able to fit upwards of 30 guests. “But yet,” she says, when I’m alone in the house, too, I feel completely comforted.”


Thank you, Denny, for welcoming me into your home and sharing your wisdom! I can only hope to achieve a home as beautiful, inviting, and peaceful as yours!

For more interviews with women about crafting warm and welcoming spaces: Follow me on twitter @shespoised or like She’s Poised on Facebook (and select Get Notifications from the drop down menu).

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2 replies »

  1. I loved this article, and the house. Your characterization reminds me of a colleague’s work from Sydney University, Maree Stenglin, on the interpersonal semiotics of 3D space. She was interested in the feelings evoked by big and small, imposing and welcoming spaces. And she described how that shaped our interactions within the space, our sense of wellbeing within it and the kind of interpersonal interactions the space seemed to presuppose. She used two scales, “Bonding” and “Binding” to discuss these relationships. Here’s how she described them:

    “Binding is a scale that organises spaces along a cline from extreme openness to extreme closure. Extremes of binding evoke both claustrophobic and agoraphobic responses, whereas median choices produce comfort zones of security, or freedom and possibilities. Bonding is also concerned with interpersonal meaning in space but focuses on affiliation rather than insecurity. It expires ways of building togetherness, inclusiveness and solidarity through connection.”

  2. The semiotics of 3D space! I love this idea. I wonder how other factors (in addition to size) contribute. Like the soft edges versus angles that Denny mentioned. I will have to check out Dr. Stenglin’s work (looks like Semiotic Margins also considers the semiotics of music, laughter, and color – fascinating)!

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