Château La Fête
Mill Valley home reflects a love of entertaining and all things French
Photos by Barbara Ries
What happens when two established artists with cosmopolitan tastes, decorative pieces collected from travels abroad and a mutual affaire de coeur with France collaborate on a single project—their new house? For Robert Federighi and Toni Wolfson, the result was a stylish château rich in artful details and just right for the dinner parties the couple loves to host.
On a hillside in Mill Valley overlooking Richardson Bay, the site is cozily sheltered and secluded by oak trees. For a number of years, Federighi, an interior designer, lived on the one-acre spread in a ranch-style house he remodeled—“the site had incredible potential,” he says—purchased from an inheritor of the Plant Studios (the Sausalito recording studio) 25 years ago.
When he and Wolfson were married 15 years ago, they set about designing a larger home. “We are both Francophiles,” Wolfson says. “We get excited about French architecture. We even got married in a Beaux Arts–style home in San Rafael.”
A Personal Paris
They found inspiration in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights, where they fell in love with a classic French Beaux Arts mansion on the corner of Washington and Spruce. “It was the house we really wanted, but we wanted it in Marin,” Federighi says. “So, we took a lot of design ideas from it.”
Ultimately, “we became friendly with the owners of the home,” Wolfson adds. “Years later, Bob staged it when they put it up for sale, and when the new owners eventually sold it again, Bob staged it for them, too.”
Federighi is the principal of Robert Federighi Design, a design, construction and staging firm in San Rafael; Wolfson, a jewelry designer, is sole owner of Daniels and Wolfson, an estate jewelry business noted for refashioning of heirloom pieces, on Post Street in San Francisco. She also sits on the boards of the San Francisco Opera Guild and SFMOMA’s Modern Art Council.
The three-level six-bedroom home they created includes formal living and dining rooms, a bold kitchen and sunny breakfast space, a classic library and two powder rooms. Downstairs are a wine cellar, an art deco–style theater with club chairs, a popcorn and candy room and a guest suite. Outside, the formal garden includes a conservatory-style guesthouse, a walled parterre and an adjacent pool terrace.
The living room, in a creamy palette, is divided into twin seating areas with pillows in Old World Weavers and Donghia fabrics. Two Pakistani carpets, in beige and red, lay over a Fontainebleau-patterned parquet floor.
The kitchen is the couple’s homage to Ladurée, the famous (and their favorite) Parisian pâtisserie. It’s outfitted with hardware from the Paris department store Bazaar de l’Hotel de Ville (aka BHV), an eight-burner red-and-gold custom Garland stove and a commercial Traulsen refrigerator, marble floors and countertops. The custom cabinetry’s upper glass-fronted doors are verre églomisé in gold leaf; the chinoiserie motif features fashionable men save for one by the refrigerator, which depicts Wolfson walking her dog.
The red-walled library evokes an imaginary well-traveled adventurer, with maritime paintings, loving cups, zebra rug, an elk trophy head and a wet bar. Egyptian chairs with ram’s-head detailing are a nod to Federighi’s fondness for Egypt. The room’s glamorous bathroom has a see-through one-piece glass sink and a wall of backlit glass etched with scenes from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a memento from a San Francisco Designer Showcase room Federighi designed.
Decking the Halls
The couple’s favorite holiday is Halloween, which they celebrate with a themed cocktail party for up to 80 people. The event, involving elaborate sets and costumes, takes two months to plan. Last year it had a circus theme, with a menu of mini corn dogs, smoked salmon “lollipops” and cotton candy. Guests entered the house through a large clown mouth; when they stepped on the tongue, it released a burst of air reminiscent of the infamous shot of Marilyn Monroe on a subway grate.
“One year it was Hitchcock’s films,” Federighi says, grinning. “We placed a dummy of Mrs. Bates in a dormer window, put up a flashing neon sign that said ‘Bates Motel—Vacancy’ and got 300 fake crows. We had them all over the house, even pecking through plywood on the fireplace and all over a jungle gym out in front. It was great.”
Christmas, by contrast, is for quieter entertaining. “We both love the holiday and to decorate the house,” Wolfson says. “And we love to have people over.”
Large wreaths, hung on the pillars of the driveway gates, greet visitors. A glossy custom magnolia garland, dressed with pomegranates and dried hydrangeas, procured from a vendor at the San Rafael Farmers’ Market, drapes the exterior walls of the front entrance. A matching wreath crowns the door.
Inside, fresh garlands and ornaments drape various fireplace mantels. A pre-lit tree in the living room is plumped with fragrant evergreen branches, then embellished with more lights and generally a collection of rare glass ornaments, though this year it’s red-and-white blown-glass Santas, snowmen and icicles.
The holiday kicks off with a traditional afternoon Christmas Eve gathering at the home of friends in Ross. “We know to leave early so they can celebrate Christmas Eve with their family,” Wolfson explains. “We usually come home and have a couple of friends over for Christmas Eve dinner. It’s simple but decadent: smoked salmon, cracked crab, cheeses, soup and salad.”
She and Federighi exchange presents on Christmas morning; Junior, their 15-year old miniature dachshund, also has presents to unwrap. Christmas breakfast features a Danish pastry made for years during the holidays by Wolfson’s grandmother, Dorothy Weyl. Later that day, up to a dozen friends are invited to dinner and often a movie. A rack of lamb or roast beef is sometimes on the menu, or they’ll opt for a less-formal lively crab feed. Christmas dinner is served in the dining room, where a rock crystal chandelier from Randolph & Hein is suspended over an 18th-century Duncan Phyfe mahogany table, surrounded by neoclassical-style chairs. Triple-fringed silk draperies frame the windows and flank a painting called Odd Man Out by local artist Tom Solteze.
A charming gingerbread house from San Francisco’s Victoria Pastry is the traditional centerpiece, and custom gingerbread-man ornaments are given as gifts to guests. The table is set with Flora Danica china (“we give each other a piece for each anniversary,” Wolfson says), 18th-century bouillon bowls, and mixed Murano stemware they handpick when they go to Italy. “The best part,” Wolfson adds, “is that when you break one, you get to go back for a replacement!”
Home and Landscape Design and Construction: Robert Federighi
Landscape Construction: Diego Landscaping
Dorothy Weyl’s Holiday Danish Pastry
Dough Blend well:
3 oz. Philadelphia cream cheese
1 cup flour
1 cube butter
Filling Blend well:
1 cube creamed butter
1 cup sugar
2 egg yolks (retain egg whites)
1 tsp. vanilla
Add to filling:
1 cup chopped nuts
1 cup raisins
2 beaten egg whites
Roll dough very thin.
Line muffin tins with dough, allowing
dough to come over the edge of the cups.
Add 1 tablespoon filling to each cup.
Fold dough over filling.
Bake at 350° for 45 minutes. Yields 12. (“I always make at least three times the recipe,” Wolfson adds.)