Creative Inspiration for Home Improvements

Where Santa Barbara’s Pros Go to Find Their Muse

If sheltering in place has made you eager to do some home improvements, but your creative fire needs some kindling, we’re here to help. From architects and interior designers to landscape experts and event planning pros, we asked a variety of creative professionals what they do to get inspired.

Penny Bianchi


What inspires you? Each house I do, I take a lot of inspiration from whatever the architecture is. Almost all of the houses have some kind of architectural theme,and I always work with that instead of fighting it. I stay away from trends.

Where in Santa Barbara inspires you? Casa del Herrero is amazing; it’s like the original owners just walked out the front door. Lotusland also is very inspiring, the exterior of the house with all that landscaping. I also love the landscape at El Encanto.

What about online inspiration? Pinterest has been an enormous boon. I keep so many pamphlets and papers and idea files, and they organize them for you,and it’s right at your fingertips. Some blogs are very, very helpful and inspirational,too. I love Velvet & Linen, from Brooke Giannetti of [Brooke and her husband, architect Steve Giannetti, have a store, Giannetti Home, in downtown Santa Barbara.]

Merryl Brown


Where do you go for inspiration? Lotusland is the place that some of my best ideas have come to me. There really is something so magical and spiritual about that place. Almost every time that I see movies at the Riviera,I leave with a new idea. I always keep a pad of paper with me.

Nature is huge. Being away from electronics is huge. Putting on music and sometimes putting on new music and just sitting quietly and closing your eyes and listening to it is such a good thing.

Books for me are probably really one of the most important pieces, just having beautiful books and a nice big table where I can sit and look through them.

Going to the farmers’market, just walking around and looking at the colors and looking at people, how people are dressed and listening to all of the different sounds. I find inspiration in the funniest places, you just never know, so it’s important that you’re not just doing research in books and online but also by getting out in the world and looking around.

Billy Goodnick

Billy Goodnick Landscape Design, BILLYGOODNICK.COM

Where in Santa Barbara inspires you? I enjoy visits to Terra Sol for their great collections of succulents (including over 50 varieties of agaves and aloes) and Seaside Gardens in Carpinteria for plant combos. [Goodnick also likes to bring his adult-education classes to this versatile place, which has 11 garden vignettes with an around-the-world sampling of plants that thrive in our coastal environment.]

Margie Grace


Where in Santa Barbara inspires you? You have to clear a space. You can’t be thinking about the grocery list;you have got to clear your head. For me, it’s always a walk on the beach. I can tell when my head’s getting clear because I start observing things on a minute scale.

I will hit the used architectural salvage places or nurseries. Sometimes just a single great urn is the key to a garden that is just such a great thing. You can put four trees on the corners, gravelon the floor and a beautiful object in the middle —but it’s about that thing. It’s like finding an amazing piece of jewelry,and the surroundings are the little black dress.

I feel the same way when I find an extraordinary tree. Plants are not like otherthings we build with. They are ever-changing and each one is the only of each of these living things. When you find a really great specimen is usually when you’re not looking —it finds you. It’s kind of like dating:When you’re not looking,it shows up.

Isa Hendry Eaton

Isa Bird Landscape Design, ISABIRD.COM

Where in Santa Barbara inspires you? Lotusland offers one of the finest examples of how drought-tolerant plants can look lush, glamorous,and architectural. It also teaches one of the most importantprinciples of plant design: masses of one type of plant grouped together create a much stronger design than mixed hodgepodge varieties. On the opposite end of the design spectrum, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden offers a stunning example of how to designa natural look with our local native plants.

Are there any movies that are great examples of design? Clients ask me all the time to reproduce the vegetable garden in It’s Complicated. It’s also one of my favorite movies,and the French-style potager garden is mouth-wateringly gorgeous (even if it’s too-perfect, Hollywood unrealistic).

Any online inspiration? I am a Pinterest garden junkie but am careful to avoid it when I first start a project so I can create a strong original point-of-view and thenuse online images to help inspire some of the details. and Garden Design Magazine online are also great garden sources.

Tammy Hughes

Emerald Eye Designs

What inspires you? Style inspiration can come in so many forms depending on the architecture that I’m working with. Most often for me, finding a strong architectural piece or two launches the avalanche of ideas. From that point, I can’t stop the wheels from turning in my head until the entire project is visualized down to hardware, plumbing fixtures,and paint colors. It’s a very exhilarating process that will often keep me up at night, in the best possible way.

Where in Santa Barbara inspires you? I always feel like a better person after a visit to Lotusland or Casa del Herrero. Sometimes just driving past a George Washington Smith house or a Lutah Riggs house is enough of a thrill to make me do a double take and slow down for a closer look at the subtle detailing that lends itself to the perfect scale and proportion of that ageless architecture.

What about digital inspiration? Belgian Pearls ( was one of the first design blogs that I followed and remains one of my favorites. The understated Flemish designs stand the test of time and are so exquisitely layered in their simplicity.

Laurie Romano


What inspires you? Things that inspire me are nature, which I know is a vast topic. The natural beauty of landforms, flora,and fauna. I am also inspired by my observations, photographs,and other renowned landscape architects and architects and artists.

Any Santa Barbara spots? Cathedral Peak, Lizard’s Mouth, and Shoreline Park are always inspiring.

How about movies, TV shows, or books? The movie The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces and all kinds of books by architects/landscape architects worldwide.

What about digital inspiration? I use Google as a search engine: type in topic you want to study. Landscape Architecture Magazine, The Dirt, and Landezine are also go-to’s.

Jeff Shelton


What inspires you? Everything inspires me;that is one of my problems. It’s hard to focus when I want to go in every direction. Nature of course is the basis of all ideas: balance, strength, rhythms, mystery, beauty, and joy. But people screwing things up also inspires me. Just when I feel worn out and exhausted, I see some terrible design somewhere, and my inspiration comes back.

Any Santa Barbara places? I am inspired by living on this narrow stripof land between the cold Pacific Ocean and 4,000-foot Santa Ynez Mountains, covered with chaparral, where the fog rolls in during the summer and the air is dry and clear in the winter so we can see the islands.

Digital inspirations? No, I don’t need or want any additional inspiration. I look at succulents or throw the Frisbee for inspiration.

Caroline Thompson


What inspires you? Walks! Whether in nature or a bustling city, I can find interesting colors, patterns, textures, shapes, or a reminder of something that adds an entire new layer of inspiration.

Any Santa Barbara spots? Lately, walking has not only been an exercise but a meditation. There is so much to take in along the way —neighborhoods with trees budding and flowers blooming. All the senses are engaged. The beach with tides going out and in, bringing shells and frosted sea glass to the shore and showing kiwi-colored moss on the rocks. The sand changes color in seconds as the water covers and uncovers it.

Barry Winick


What inspires you? Expansive, celestial spaces; sculptural forms; and materials with textural qualities.

Any Santa Barbara places? The great arch of the County Courthouse view toward the sunken garden, the Chapel at St. Anthony’s, the high ridge of East Camino Cielo where you can view the Santa Ynez Range looking north and peering over Santa Barbara out to the Channel Islands when looking south. The Playground up on West Camino Cielo is amazing, with these gigantic boulders strewn all around the ground, and you can go there and just perch and kind of be mesmerized looking off to the west.

What else? Probably the biggest, most impactful cultural performance that I have attended in the last few years was David Byrne’s American UtopiaTour at Santa Barbara Bowl. I was inspired by the modernity, elegance,and expansiveness of the stage, along with impeccable choreography and lighting.

Thinking of the pandemic, are there any different things that are inspiring that you didn’t think of before? Maybe I’m breaking the rules,but I still ride my bike, solo; I don’t ride with friends. For me,getting out into nature has been really great. But I’m getting out solo, so that’s been a different experience. Normally if I were riding my bike,I would be riding with a bike buddy. Now it’s a little bit more meditative and introspective in these same places.

Josh Blumer


What inspires you? I am inspired by people doing exactly what it is they were always meant to be doing. There is nothing more inspiring than a human being who is filled with gratitude and pulsing with passion!

Any Santa Barbara spots? I love watching the Santa Barbara foothills ignite with color and depth in the late afternoon and evenings. The position of the mountains in the east-west orientation allows the ridges, fingers,and valleys along the entirety of thefoothills to come alive with depth as the late-evening sun reveals their absolutely mesmerizing beauty.

Any digital inspirations? I really enjoy following #simonstalenhag Simon Stalenhagon Instagram. Simon’s digital paintings are full of detail and imagination; they make me dream about other worlds and endless possibilities. I also follow WSL (World Surf League) on Instagram. I seem to need to look at their feed about once every hour! I wish I was surfing right now.

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Barbara Independent on May 14, 2020.

Nature Finds a Way

Nature Finds a Way, originally published in the Santa Barbara Independent on May 14, 2020.

Out of the 1/9 Debris Flow Comes an Even More Magical Wildlife Retreat

“Nature truly is an awesome force,” says landscape designer Margie Grace, “both in terms of destruction and in terms of renewal.” The founder of Grace Design Associates witnessed nature’s competing forces in working on properties that were devastated by the Montecito debris flow of January 9, 2018.

One such project was for Penny Bianchi, whose ravaged garden reemerged as a thriving habitat less than a year after the catastrophic event. Even though the debris flows left her property covered in three feet of mud and detritus, it never even occurred to Bianchi not to restore her beloved garden. A National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat that was home to coyotes, bobcats, hawks, quail, doves, owls, mallards, songbirds, bats, butterflies, native pollinators, reptiles, and amphibians, the 2.5-acre property sits at the entrance to the 42-acre Ennisbrook Preserve and is bordered by Oprah’s estate on two other sides.

Bianchi had a premonition before that fateful day in 2018. Their house was not in the mandatory evacuation zone, but she fibbed to her husband, Adam, telling him on the way home from dinner at Birnam Wood that the zone was expanded and they had to leave. “I just lied,” she admitted. “I just made it up because I was so worried that he wouldn’t want to evacuate.”

So the couple, who are partners in McCormick Interiors, were safely ensconced at the Bacara when the massive debris flow struck, killing 23 people and destroying more than 400 homes.

“Our neighbor said it sounded like there was a freight train in the house,” said Bianchi, who had to wait three weeks before they could access the property, accompanied by a mental-health specialist in trauma. “I told her, we’re alive, my daughter got the cats out … so I’m not going to freak out,” said Bianchi.

“The scope and scale of the damage was mind boggling,” said Grace. “I’m trained as a geologist, so I know that this could happen, and I couldn’t believe that this happened.… Geology in action is really a lot for humans to absorb.”

Grace’s firm and contractors Giffin & Crane, who were both part of the original build team in 2004, came back on board to reconstruct two decimated structures — a garage and guest house — as well as the expansive gardens. Thanks to strict county regulations to build the main house two feet above base flood elevation, no mud got inside, although every single item in the antique-filled main house had to be removed and cleaned because of toxic contaminants from the firefighters’ boots.

While the Bianchi’s had excellent insurance, the $900,000 allocated for mud removal wasn’t nearly enough to get rid of it all. “I told them that’s all we’re spending, and then I’m making friends with the rest of the mud,” said Bianchi when they got the $1.6 million estimate to complete the rest of the job. She challenged Grace to figure out something to do with the mud.

“It was like, ‘When given lemons, make lemonade;’ this was, ‘Given mud, make mountains,’” laughed Grace. They created mounds along the property line, designed a new hill near the duck pond, and utilized all the boulders, which would have been even more expensive to move than the mud.

“Now our favorite part of the whole garden is the hill that was the result of the extra mud,” said Bianchi. “Margie designed steps up to it, and, where it was flat before, there’s now a beautiful view.”

About 95 percent of the plants had to be replaced — “what a silver lining,” said Bianchi — and now the 28-foot tall hill features sycamore trees and poppies. “Everything I put in the ground grew lightning fast; those trees just shot up,” said Grace. “She has bobcats; she has all kinds of birds, raptors all the way down to the couple of geese and hummingbirds. It is an extraordinary piece of property. I don’t know whether the good juju is part of the property or whether Penny brings that, but her roses even bloom in the shade; it’s just magical. Things just bounce back. Everything that gets put in the ground, you kind of have to stand back; it grows so fast it’ll knock you over.”

Bianchi is pleased with the rebirth. “Some of my friends still think that we’re strange for wanting to be here,” she said. “But we love it here, and we don’t feel worried about it happening again at all.”

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Independent on May 14, 2020. Click here to see the story as it appeared in print.

The Essence of Santa Barbara Style



Here are projects from three of Santa Barbara’s top designers—Penny Bianchi, Jodi Goldberg and Ann James—that are as distinct and varied as the women themselves. From Ann’s Spanish sophistication to Penny’s French Country charmer and Jodi’s clean and serene Zen style abode, a refined sense of design and extraordinary attention to detail imbue each of these homes with a distinctive vision, combining beauty with comfort and livability, that imbues the essence of life in Santa Barbara.

Leslie Dinaberg, Managing Editor

Related Features: 

Sophisticated Spanish Style

Here’s Your Moment of Zen

Montecito Foothills Meet French Country Chic

This story was originally published in the fall 2018 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.