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How a Victorian Attic Went from Dark to Light

Mork Ulnes Architects transforms a Mission flat from the top floor down.


Mork Ulnes Architects worked with the Andryeyev family to transform the top-floor space into an aerie complete with two bedrooms, a bath, and loads of daylight.

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This classic San Francisco Victorian duplex suffered from a common architectural ailment—a dark, unused attic.

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The kitchen uses natural light to dramatic effect thanks to window-backed shelves.

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The new bathroom in the attic obviously needed walls, but glass partitions keep the space feeling open.

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The attic’s triangle motif was used throughout the house.

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Mork Ulnes Architects, with offices in San Francisco and Norway, has designed everything from planned communities in the California Sierras to modernist surf shacks in Brazil. But to a certain subset of design aficionados, it’s known as “the attic firm.” That’s because the firm’s principal, Casper Mork-Ulnes, and his wife, Lexie, designed a really cool attic for their own Haight-Ashbury home back in 2008, and no one has really let them forget it. That attic featured a dramatic whitewashed A-frame punched through with skylights and simple wood-and-glass framing, bleached wood floors, and an exposed-brick chimney flecked with century-old paint. It was the kind of space that Pinterest fever dreams are made of. Casper estimates that he’s designed 10 attics since then, and he says that being known as the attic guy doesn’t bother him at all. While he and his family have since moved out of the residence known to attic fanatics simply as Clayton Street, they love that their passion project lives on in various new iterations.

The latest of these is proof that practice makes perfect. Bonnie and Anton Andryeyev were living in a classic second-story Victorian flat in the Mission district below a large but dark and unused attic. They wanted to make the most of their prime, if petite, slice of San Francisco real estate. Besides being among the legion of fans of Casper’s previous attics, Bonnie, who had lived in Norway, especially appreciated how the firm’s projects melded clean, modern Scandinavian-influenced design with a Northern California aesthetic. When the Andryeyevs initially approached the firm, they envisioned keeping the existing floor of their flat as is, in all its Victorian splendor, while going clean and modern in the attic. “The question,” Bonnie says, “was always, ‘How do we marry these two things?’”

Casper and his team got to work, designing a light-filled attic space featuring two bedrooms, a bathroom, and even a small, sunny patio. But as the plans were being finalized and permitted, a fire broke out in a neighboring building, virtually destroying the Andryeyevs’ beloved apartment: All the original Victorian molding, paneled walls, and built-ins were burned beyond repair. The silver lining to the tragedy was that the Andryeyevs were able to enlist Casper to design and rebuild the main apartment as well.

“These old Victorians all come with the same set of design challenges,” Casper says. “The entry level is really dark as you come up the stairs, and then there are these series of parlors throughout—the center is the darkest and most landlocked part of the house. What we needed to do was create light and bring it into the middle of the building.”

He started by eliminating the warren-like layout on the main floor, playing with different shapes and cutouts to let light and views travel throughout the space. Triangular windows provide playful peeks into the attic from the main floor, while open shelving built directly over the generous kitchen windows allows a rotating selection of ceramics to cast ever-changing shadows throughout the room. The new stair, with open risers and a rail that combines unfinished wood slats with solid white masses, lets light shine through in some places but not others. “The stairs and the open risers—I know it was meant for sunlight to travel during the day,” Bonnie says. “But at night, when you have the globe light on, it just glows.”

Casper also opened up the attic completely and perforated the roof with skylights. And while distinct spaces had to be carved out to create the requested two bedrooms and a bath, the walls are partially transparent, with clear glass filling the space between the partitions and the bleached, exposed-wood framing. It’s clearly a Mork Ulnes attic, but it’s also distinctly an Andryeyev one as well. “I have never lived in a house that reflected who I am so much,” Bonnie says wistfully.

Casper emphasizes that that’s just what he strives for, attic guy or not. “All of our projects are different, and we don’t want to do anything cookie-cutter,” he says. “We don’t just duplicate the same thing again and again—that’s boring. I wouldn’t be an architect if that’s what I was doing.”

Originally published in the April issue of
San Francisco

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