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Photos: Artist transforms sleepy SF home into technicolor dream house

You see a typical ‘contractor’s special’ in the Outerlands. She sees a liveable gallery filled with glue, fabric, Sharpies, paper and paint.

A woman with glasses, wearing a black top and ripped jeans, stands barefoot in front of a wall filled with vibrant photographic prints, mostly of artistic nudes.
Ginevra Held in her ground-floor art studio, surrounded by works in progress. | Source: Courtesy Ginevra Held

This is The Looker, a column about design and style from San Francisco Standard editor-at-large Erin Feher.

A walk through certain blocks of the outer avenues can feel like a case study in beige. The utilitarian “builders specials” that line the Outer Richmond seem bland and monotonous in contrast to the candy-colored Victorians and stately mansions that are San Francisco’s public architectural face. 

Artist Ginevra Held grew up in one of those technicolor homes: a 1908 Edwardian flat, complete with ornate columns and cornices in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood. It had been thoughtfully updated by her architect father and eclectically furnished by her art historian mother.

But once Held and her brother went off to college, her parents decided to part with the creaky tenancy-in-common in favor of something simpler. To her parents, the freshly renovated single-family home on 40th Avenue, less than 10 blocks from the Pacific Ocean, was a solid investment. But to Held, the 1924 Mediterranean Revival the color of wet sand wasn’t just a snoozefest—it was borderline heartbreaking. 

So, she took it upon herself to shake it wide awake. 

A vibrant room features eclectic furniture, bold wall art, a large dandelion-inspired chandelier, and a mix of classic and modern decor, including statues and patterned chairs.
The living room is a riotous mix of eras, styles, price points and techniques. A Le Corbusier chaise lounge sits below an Ikea Grimsas pendant lamp. The wall features DIY wallcovering made of repurposed book pages, as well as Fornesetti’s Procuratie e Scimmie wallpaper.
| Source: Courtesy Ginevra Held
A hallway features magenta and white vertical striped walls and doors. The door has a gold ornate mirror, and framed artwork decorates the walls.
Bright pink stripes make the small hallway feel like a miniature big-top circus tent. | Source: Courtesy Ginevra Held
A chic dining area features a round table with roses, green grapes, ornate gray doors, white curtains, deer busts, modern red sculptures, and a hanging lamp.
Artist Ginevra Held uses her walls as a canvas and brings a bold blast of color to an unassuming home in the Outer Richmond known as The Rainbow House. | Source: Courtesy Ginevra Held

Held has spent the last five years transforming the two-bedroom house room-by-room with the arsenal of an art teacher—vats of glue, reams of fabric, stacks of sliced paper, bundles of thick-tipped Sharpie markers, and gallon after gallon of paint in a kaleidoscope of hues. The result is more gallery than house, each room an expressive experiment in taste and technique, and bursting with colors so juicy you can almost taste them.  

Held is a mixed media artist who blends her own photography with everything from textiles to beach sand to bright bursts of spray paint. Held was born in Australia and spent much of her childhood traveling the world with her parents, wandering galleries and hunting down architecturally significant structures across Italy, Greece and France. Held knows how lucky she was to learn in such an immediate and immersive way, but she admits it created some challenges. “I think that’s why sometimes I got frustrated in school,” she says, “because I learned so much by just seeing things in real life.”

When she went off to UC Berkeley, Held also studied architecture, a pursuit she initially loved—until she toured an actual working architecture office and saw all the junior architects huddled in a dark room clicking away at AutoCAD. She knew from watching her father at work that building projects could take decades to go from sketch to reality, and that initial bursts of inspiration were almost always stripped away.

“It’s kind of horrifying to me,” she says. “The chasm between what you think about versus what actually happens in the end. It’s so depressing.” 

The room features whimsical wallpaper depicting vintage theater scenes, a clear chair with a winking face pillow and books, a blue-framed mirror, and a hanging bulb.
The bedroom features Fornesetti’s Teatro wallpaper from Cole & Son. | Source: Courtesy Ginevra Held

When Held moved back in with her family after college, she set up an art studio on the ground floor of the house. She produced a handful of paintings on canvas, but the blank walls called to her. Held’s father had recently passed away, and her mother was splitting her time between San Francisco and Paris, so the new house was often empty and stylistically barren, its walls still painted the creamy white bought in bulk by contractors everywhere. 

Held asked her mother if she was alright with her “trying some things.” Her mother nodded in encouragement, and Held quickly decamped for the paint store. First came the purple. “My poor mom,” says Held. The living room has seen the most iterations, beginning with an all-purple scheme that Held admits was something of a disaster. “Everything was wrong with the purple.”

Next came a duo-tone black-and-white look that gave Held practice in cutting lines and mastering her detail work. Held executes everything on her own, from the painting to the sewing and hanging of drapery to the meticulous application of wallpaper (her least favorite task). 

The image shows a vibrant pink house with yellow window and door trim, lush green garden, lavender plants, and a large tree partially obscuring the view.
Once overgrown with weeds, Held transformed the backyard into an English-inspired garden bursting with trees and flowers. She also painted the back facade to better match the home’s newly colorful insides. The home's street-facing exterior, however, is still the original beige.
| Source: Courtesy Ginevra Held
The image shows a blue-painted room with a green chair, a pile of books on it, a small gold side table with a black animal-shaped lamp, and magazines on the wooden floor.
A corner of Held’s blue bedroom, featuring a playful Moooi Rabbit Lamp. | Source: Courtesy Ginevra Held
The image shows a stool with blue legs featuring a cushion adorned with whimsical black-and-white cartoons, including various characters and scenes in an urban setting.
Artist Ginevra Held uses her walls as a canvas and brings a bold blast of color to an unassuming home in the Outer Richmond known as The Rainbow House. | Source: Courtesy Ginevra Held

The living room’s current color scheme was inspired by a visit to the Paris showroom of Farrow & Ball, the esteemed English paint company that offers fewer than 150 shades, every one of them exquisite. “It’s like Barneys New York—somebody curated all of it. There are not 100 shades of blue. There is one and it’s the perfect one,” says Held. This is how she confidently combined blue, orange and minty green in the living room for the design that ultimately stuck—for now. 

In truth, the paint colors may be the most down-to-earth thing about the living room. The showstopper is the main wall surrounding the Bay windows, papered in fluttering pages from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Beautiful and Damned.” To either side, like a curtain parting on a stage, is Fornesetti’s Procuratie e Scimmie wallpaper, which features monkeys perching amongst the pillars and arches of the famous Venetian facades in St Mark’s Square. If the house was lacking in ornamentation, Held would find a way to bring it in. 

The adjoining dining room got a similar illusory treatment, the back wall plastered with trompe-l’oeil French doors from Maison Martin Margiela. Held sewed and hung floor-length white drapes on either side of the faux doors, leaving the possibility open that century-old French windows might be hiding behind them, instead of the reality of a solid, flat wall. 

The image shows a colorful bookshelf organized by book color, with various decorative items. In front of the shelf is a brown leather armchair and a side table with books and a lamp.
Held curated the bookshelf by color, using the art and architecture books her parents have collected. | Source: Courtesy Ginevra Held
The image shows a cozy living area featuring a white armchair with yellow trim, two pillows with faces on them, and a small table, supported by a golden sculpted figure holding a vase of red roses.
A wingback chair and ottoman upholstered in French white linen got a fresh look thanks to brightly painted frames (blue and yellow, respectively) and Sharpie doodles by Held’s brother, Nicolas, also an artist. | Source: Courtesy Ginevra Held

The hallway from the dining room and kitchen leading to the bedrooms and bath is striped like a saccharine circus tent in bright pink and white. A gilded mirror and a skateboard featuring cherubic angels reminiscent of Michelangelo only reinforces the “Fifteenth century, but make it cool” vibe that permeates the house. 

Held’s own bedroom features no less than a dozen shades of aquamarine. She painted the room by hand with a brush, layering paint directly over empty picture frames nailed to the wall. The effect is of ornate moldings at first glance, but closer inspection reveals the trick. Held then decided to halt the blue about 80 percent of the way up the wall, leaving perfectly imperfect brush strokes along the top. 

Held employed the same technique in the second bedroom, brushing mint green paint seemingly slipshod across (and around) the windowsills. The rusticity is a foil to the high gloss blue and orange statement wall, finished with a floor-to-ceiling graffiti piece by Held’s younger brother, Nicolas. He is also an artist, currently focused on glass blowing at Public Glass, a longstanding arts nonprofit in the Bayview.

A dining area with a round white table, light wooden chairs, and a pendant light. The backdrop features ornate double doors, accented by plates and deer head wall decor.
Artist Ginevra Held uses her walls as a canvas and brings a bold blast of color to an unassuming home in the Outer Richmond known as The Rainbow House. | Source: Courtesy Ginevra Held
A vibrant room has an orange and blue wall with large graffiti art, an orange armchair, a bed with colorful pillows, stacks of books, and bright windows.
In the second bedroom, Held collaborated with her brother Nicolas to create a bright statement wall. | Source: Courtesy Ginevra Held

Nicolas’s is the only other hand that has touched the home’s design. Held isn’t into collaborations, and her short stint designing for other people only clarified that for her. 

“I had one client and we just worked by correspondence. She had seen my work and was totally open to it. And so it was really great,” says Held. “But then a second person came along and told me she needed help with optimizing storage. And I’m like, I am not your person.” 

Immediacy and integrity are Held’s guiding principles as an artist. And for now, the place that best embodies that ethos is within these wildly colored walls on the sleepy, heavily beige edge of the city.  

“This is art on my walls,” she says. “It’s my big canvas.”

A woman with long hair and sunglasses reads a book while sitting on an orange chair in a brightly lit room, decorated with art and pages on the walls.
Held sitting in the living room underneath a wall papered with pages from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Beautiful and Damned.” | Source: Courtesy Ginevra Held