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Bridget and Bill Watson Payne and their daughter Mabel at home in San Francisco.

This Family’s Cozy San Francisco Apartment Is Bursting With Books, Color and Art

published Nov 4, 2020
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Names: Bridget, Bill, and Mabel Watson Payne
Location: Nob Hill/Tenderloin — San Francisco, California
Size: 650 square feet

How do you fit more books into an apartment with 20 bookshelves is not a question most families find themselves asking, but it’s constantly on the minds of Bridget and Bill Watson Payne, who are parents to one daughter, Mabel. “One look around will tell you that we love books, color, and art,” Bridget says.

Most of the unfinished wood bookcases are from Fenton MacLaren in Berkeley.

Indeed, books cover nearly every wall in the Watson Payne’s home (they even form the walls to Bridget and Bill’s daughter’s room!), but there’s a method to their book-loving madness. The couple has four(!) main organizing systems: Starting in one corner of the living room are the books Bridget has read, and Bill has not, arranged alphabetically; halfway around the room start the books Bill has read and Bridget has not, extending into the hall; then interspersed amongst those are the books neither have read, which are stacked horizontally in their own alphabetical order; and finally, in the hall, extending to the bedroom, are the books both have read. Maybel’s books are in her room.

It will come as no surprise that Bridget is Executive Editor at Chronicle Books and an author of five books, including the parenting book The Secret Art of Being a Parent and most recently How Time Is On Your Side. (She’s also the founder of Open Studio (a shared work, learning, and retail space in San Francisco), a speaker and an artist. Her husband Bill is a special education teacher.

Says Bridget of her book The Secret Art of Being a Parent, "I wanted to make a book that would feel like a really kind older sister taking you aside and telling you a few useful tips but also mostly just telling you that you get to trust yourself and do what’s right for you and your family."

When Mabel was a baby, Bill and Bridget carved a corner out of the living room for her crib. However, when Mabel turned four she outgrew her toddler bed and with it her sleeping nook. “As we’d watched her toes getting closer and closer to the end of her tiny bed, we knew something had to change,” says Bridget. “She was getting to be a big kid and, as such, needed a room of her own.” So, the family rearranged the space to its current configuration with bookcases creating a larger “room” for Mabel. Their daughter is now ten, and they still love their 650-square foot home. “We live here now as a family of three, and plan to for a long time to come.”

Read on for how they make their small space work:

An open-back bookcase forms one of the "walls" to Mabel's room but still let's some daylight into the hallway.

On living in a small space: “I think you have to enjoy living on top of one another,” says Bridget. “Either because you naturally enjoy it, or maybe because you cultivate learning how to enjoy it. Family snuggles; dance parties where you all bump into one another; family meals and board games and art projects around your one good table (you need one good table) – this has to feel like fun close togetherness. It can’t be a chore or a burden or an irritation or you’ll just drive yourself bonkers.”

Simple framing holds the readymade bookcases to create "walls" that go all the way to the ceiling. Bridget tacked up fabric to cover the unfinished backs of the bookcases.

On staying organized: Bridget says her family lives by the old mantra the everything has to have a place. “Organization is key,” she says. “You don’t have to be rigid or minimalist, but you have to have places to put all your stuff so clutter doesn’t overtake you.”

The family's dining table sits in one corner of the living room.

On maximalist style: “We once read about a hotel in a travel guide described as “a hodge-podge of colors in quirky surroundings.” Yes! We thought. That’s our style, right there,” says Bridget, who notes that they have packed in a lot of things in, but also love a tidy, organized, curated look. “Maximalist, but not chaotic.”

The colorful bookcases continue into the kitchen where they supplement the small amount of built-in storage.

On quirky layouts: When Bridget and Bill first moved in, they were a bit dismayed by the fact that the kitchen was off the bedroom. “We tried to think how we might “work around” that fact. But within a month of living here we’d adjusted,” says Bridget. “You can handily get a glass of water at night!”

All of the walls in Bridget and Bill's home are covered in art by friends, family, and artists they admire.

On historic details: “When we first looked at the apartment, they were still doing some maintenance on it, with drop-cloths and tools scattered about. But the lovely original windows, with a gentle arch and central circle in each, shone through the disarray. We fell in love with our place then and there.”

The sailboat kite is from Haptic Labs.

On secondhand scores: “A lot of our best items come from secondhand stores or estate sales,” says Bridget.” “Bill got our bed for $125 dollars in the Mission 20 years ago, and our teacher desk is from Belle Cose, a delightful vintage shop. They’ve also found a trick for other secondhand finds: Paint. “Most all the colored bookcases in the hallway and our bedroom are just crummy old cheap things from IKEA or wherever, that we painted in colors we love,” says Bridget.

On storage space: “We are blessed with four closets, three of which are walk-in size,” says Bridget. “The extra storage space is really what makes it feasible for the three of us to live here so comfortably.”

Credit: Submitted by Bridget

Thanks, Bridget, Bill & Mabel!

This post originally ran on Apartment Therapy. See it there and get the full list of art sources: This Author’s Cozy San Francisco Apartment Is Bursting With Books, Color and Art