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Heightened Vision

An ordinary house becomes extraordinary with rich interior architecture and a stellar art collection.

Robert Wright, the mastermind behind this house’s interior makeover and its juxtaposition with modern art

Designer Robert Wright transformed a once-drab spec house into a marvelous residence filled with details like barrel- vaulted ceilings, carved marble fireplaces and contemporary art.

In the dining room, an abstract painting by Hans Burkhardt contrasts nicely with a new walnut buffet and a sparkling crystal chandelier and sconces

Under a newly enhanced, rustic ceiling, the family room blends cozy indoor living with expansive vistas, enjoyed through wood-framed floor-to-ceiling windows.

The paneled study features a 1952 painting by New York abstract expressionist Charles Cajori, who has captured the husband’s interest. Like a retreat in a private club, the room lacks a desk because he prefers informal, comfortable seating.

In the wife’s favorite space, the master bedroom, a recent painting by James Nares hangs above the bed. The couple wanted the master suite to feel like a calm hotel room.

Upon first glance, one would never guess that this elegant, Mediterranean-style Rancho Santa Fe home—filled with coffered ceilings, marble fireplaces, subtle decorative painting and iron chandeliers—was actually built by a developer on spec.

Well, it was and it wasn’t. Said developer was satisfied with low, flat ceilings; lackluster fireplaces; and faux woodwork smothered in brown finishes. The home’s future designer was not.

This inferior interior bothered the buyers, but their top priority was remodeling the small, inefficient kitchen, a curious flaw in this single-story, 10,200-square-foot manse. Enter Robert Wright, a nationally known San Diego-based designer with Bast/Wright Interiors Inc. His most recent honor, among many, may be his most significant yet: the 2013 Designer of Distinction Award, one of the American Society of Interior Designers’ highest accolades.

The owners, philanthropists who retired early from high-tech careers, hired Wright to tackle their kitchen remodel, and to “lighten and brighten” all of the rooms. Soon, new grayed white paint replaced the developer’s whole-house, peachy-yellow walls.

However, it was in the kitchen where the game plan changed radically, after workers found attic space above the flat ceiling. To their surprise, the entire house was hiding this expansive bonus area. Wright seized upon the discovery by designing a two-tiered tray ceiling with skylights that trickled sunlight into the kitchen below. Instantly, the room felt bigger. After that, the owners naturally wanted more variety over their heads elsewhere. Next came a vaulted, herringbone brick ceiling over the bar Wright redesigned, followed by beamed and coffered ceilings in the main rooms. “I never thought you could have ceilings too high, but in the living room Robert brought the ceiling down,” the husband recalls. Now it’s handsomely vaulted.

Guided by his clients and the home’s exterior look, Wright began ordering and designing new furniture, carpets, fabrics and lighting fixtures that evoke Old World Italian and French estates.

The dining room became one of the house’s most lavishly decorated spaces, with a new inlaid wood floor framing an abstract-patterned area rug that the wife had bought earlier. This is the only room with walls painted bold blue and chairs covered in printed blue velvet. (Most evenings, the couple dines here, then moves to their intimate theater to watch movies or TV.) In other rooms, calmer blue, gray and tan fabrics and furnishings pick up hints of color in the existing limestone floors and counteract the dismal brown woodwork.

Another game changer: Wright suggested the couple acquire contemporary art for a striking contrast with the traditional-looking interiors. The owners seriously leaped into research and gallery visits in New York and Los Angeles. Wright enlisted L.A.-based advisor Tiffiny Lendrum to open the art world to the couple and demystify buying pieces at auction and from dealers.

“We’re really proud of our collection,” the husband says. “I like the fact that it’s different than what’s expected.” Prized art they’ve purchased from the 1940s to 1970s include works by Hans Hofmann, Ed Ruscha, Sam Francis and Michael Goldberg. A unique painting by James Nares, one of the wife’s favorite artists, hangs in the master suite.

The couple’s art choices are so sophisticated that Wright adjusted his plans partway through the year of designing: “We switched to more contemporary accessory pieces and cleaned up the furniture to create a more modern environment.”

Asked about their favorite works, the husband and wife each name one or two. “But we do love all the pieces,” she adds. “Ask us in a month and we’d probably say something different.”