Little Cottage by the Sea

Steve and Carol Cook followed Thoreau’s lead to the Lanes—where sand is normal, art abounds, and the couple can live the life they imagined.

By Lisa Snider—Photography by Gaszton Gal

The dining room in the 1928 Tudor home connects to the front door. Or is it the back door?


here is the front door the back door and the back door the front door? Why, at a quaint beach cottage on Brunswick Lane in the Pierpont community, of course.

It’s a story that Steve and Carol Cook love to tell about their 1928 Tudor home. The backyard was originally the front yard, but over time, zoning changes put the main street on the other side of the house. Pieces of the original front sidewalk dot what is now their backyard garden as stepping stones.

The couple removed wall-to-wall carpeting to reveal original hardwood floors. Hanging behind Steve’s favorite chair, his rendition of an antique truck in a Sonoma vineyard.

“It’s a magical place,” says Steve, who reluctantly bought the house at his wife’s urging 15 years ago. According to her decorating blog, Carol wanted a beach house because, “Marriage to an avid surfer means sand tracked throughout the house. I constantly complained about sand always underfoot. I said we should buy a beach house where sand is normal. We did. And I no longer complain about sand.”

It wasn’t easy, though. At the time, they lived comfortably just a mile away in Midtown. The beach house presented challenges; it was twice the money and half the space. At just 1,000 square feet including a small one-car garage, the couple, now both 64, had to downsize significantly.

“It’s like living on a boat,” Steve says with a big smile. Two bedrooms and one bathroom meant getting creative with the space, but with their daughter in high school and their son in college back then, they could see the big picture.

The artist’s beloved studio is cluttered but functional.

At the time, Steve worked at a manufacturing company, and Carol’s salary as a teacher made getting into a more expensive home tricky. One thing that worked in their favor was that they bought at the bottom of the market. “We got in just before the prices took off,” Steve says.

The first weekend in the house, Steve painted a surfer on their mailbox. Next he painted the kids’ surfboards, and soon, he was scouring yard sales for old surfboards to paint, which were quick to sell. Before that, he hadn’t painted in 25 years. “This house brought out his muse,” Carol says.

Ever the creative homemaker, Carol constantly tweaks the living room, the couple’s “main cocooning spot,” as Steve describes it.

Meanwhile, the manufacturing company Steve was working for sold, and he used his severance to invest more time and effort into his art and to fix up the house. “She had a job, and she had benefits, so that helped,” he says.

Steve quickly became a prolific and successful painter best known for his use of vivid colors and light. His subjects range from land and seascapes to surf culture, old cars and buildings, and gardens. He refers to his work as “painterly realism.”

In their spare time, when Steve wasn’t painting and Carol wasn’t teaching, they turned their attention to much-needed improvements to the home. First, they removed the wall-to-wall Berber carpets to reveal beautiful hardwood floors, which better accommodated their new sand-loving lifestyle.

A favorite poster ballyhoos the man who “danced along a colored wind. Dangled from a rope of sand.”

What was originally the back porch still held a water heater, which was moved to create a more inviting front entrance. The wall that divided the front entrance from the rest of the house was opened up, and the addition of a bright red Dutch front door completed the look. Now, looking through the front door, visitors can see all the way into their backyard, where Carol has created a vibrant garden.

Also an avid cook, Steve saw to it that the kitchen receive some updates, including granite counters, hexagonal tile floors to match the original bathroom tiles, and a new Viking range. But some of the best features of the home needed no improvements. All of the white wood-framed windows are original, and they have left them without curtains or screens to flood the home with natural light and a feeling of being outdoors. The original moldings and curved ceilings reflect the period the two have grown to cherish and wish to preserve. Since space is at a premium, details like a built-in dining room window bench seat and pull-down attic stairs offer more options for easily accessible storage.

Steve’s painting took off, and he painted anywhere he could—in the house, in the yard, and in the garage—and oil paints dripped all through the house. Carol pleaded with him to build a studio, and Steve soon saw the benefit. “I painted in the garage with the garage door open, and it would always turn into a party,” he says, recalling well-intentioned critiques from some passersby.

The distractions proved overwhelming. Working with a contractor, they designed a small art studio at the back of the cottage in the home’s classic Tudor style with a tall pitch to the roof. High skylights and French doors provide perfect lighting for Steve to work. A stained-glass window featuring a sea glass wave lends a signature artistic touch.

No longer treating his passion for art as a hobby, Steve has realized a successful business. He sells some 20 to 30 paintings per year at prices ranging from $400 to $4,000. He does well commercially, too, selling his work to the Ventura Visitors & Convention Bureau for posters and tote bags, as well as to Firestone Winery for a series of wine labels.

Many of his paintings, 70 in all, hang proudly in their home and are constantly rotated to accommodate the seasons, shows, and sales. “I have to work with the decorator,” Steve says with a nod to Carol, who has developed her own creative passions in the home, painting their furniture pieces, designing functional and striking vignettes, and sewing custom pillows and slipcovers to make the space into a cozy livable beach retreat.

Carol and Steve Cook at home in their seaside cottage.

Both have an eye for stunning colors, sometimes muted, sometimes boldly displayed for impact, with the two often negotiating for places to display their works. Carol’s work has also spilled over into crafting handmade books and cards, which, in addition to her designs and décor for the home, are all detailed in words and photos on her whimsical blog. “It makes me do the things I want to do,” she says of her blog, which enjoys quite a following and espouses Thoreau’s advice to “live the life you have imagined.”

Now fully entrenched in beach life and a neighborhood that has become what they refer to as their village, with holiday progressive dinners up and down their street and picnics with the neighbors on the beach, everything is as it should be. “It’s a good life,” Steve says.

Looking ahead, Carol is making plans to retire from teaching, a profession she loves, in 2014. Years ago, she recalls, she and Steve attended a retirement planning seminar, and the one question she still remembers being asked by the facilitator was, “Where do you picture yourselves in retirement?”

Carol says she answered without hesitation: “I’m walking on a beach!”


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