Unsurprisingly, when it comes to Design Milk’s catalog of travel guides, our sights have veered toward urban design capitals around the globe. That creativity, commerce, and culture tends to congregate in cities offers no surprises to the global citizenry of design. But there’s a particular wilder section of Northern California, just a 100 miles north of San Francisco, we believe worthy of the venture – The Sea Ranch – a time capsule community stretching across 10 miles of pristine California coast. Representing a stunning confluence where California’s forest meets its mercurial partner of the Pacific, The Sea Ranch is an elemental experience, one affording those with an ardor for modernist architecture to witness how designers and the elements can work cooperatively toward modernity and sustainability.
WHERE TO STAY
Our introductory accommodations to this ragged and rugged section of the Sonoma coast was offered by the Sea Ranch Lodge. We stayed in one of the nineteen rooms, each offering occupants a mesmerizing view of the turgid ocean (the best rooms also presenting a view of the surrounding fields that take on a golden hue as the native grasses dry).
Note, the Sea Ranch Lodge is closed for the winter, but reopens this spring in March 2019. According to the general manager, the property will now follow a seasonal schedule – a reasonable decision considering winters here can thin out the population.
The Timber Cove Resort is only half an hour drive down from The Sea Ranch, but somehow the property feels a world apart from The Sea Ranch. Tamed, but not sedate, the resort is an attractive boutique alternative for guests who aren’t yet ready for the full Sea Ranch experience.
Even if you’re not staying at Timber Cove Resort, it offers a great daytime drive destination, with a short hike along the hotel’s wind-worn sandstone perimeter overlooking the ocean offering plenty of opportunities to fill your Instagram Stories feed, followed by a place to grab a decent bite/drink.
Seasoned visitors up this way often find a favorite home rental they’ll return to year after year. Vacation rentals in the area are plentiful, with many lining the coastline, but even more clinging against the backdrop of cypress and redwood trees along the surrounding hillsides. Ranging from the cozy to the grand, the multitude of listings on Airbnb, VRBO, and Grand Welcome rentals reveal the seasonal nature of the community (in other words, there seems to be a lot more rentals owners than full-time residents). Availability can fluctuate through the seasons, so it’s always best to reserve far ahead of your visit to secure the most choice rental.
One of our favorite home rentals in the area is a property with an arboreal personality protected from the elements – the Sweet Sea Ranch. Furnished with modern amenities and decorative details sourced from Modernica, Eric Trine, and Poketo, the house with the sweet name is a restorative salve for the soul. We spent days exploring the coastline and tossing horseshoes on the property, with impromptu nighttime strolls illuminated by the stars and moonlight before falling asleep accompanied by the relaxing percussive crash of the ocean in the distant.
WHERE TO VISIT
Imagine Gandalf’s hat enlarged into architectural proportions. That was the first thought that popped into our head while walking up to The Sea Ranch Chapel, “a non-denominational sanctuary for prayer, meditation, and spiritual renewal” that welcomes visitors 365 days a year, from sunrise to sunset.
Designed by James Hubbell and completed in 1985, the structure’s whimsical exterior characterized by its sweeping shingle roof hides a tranquil and Arabesque interior decorated in stained glass and an Italian inspired floral mosaic floor. The term “craftsmanship” is often thrown around willy-nilly today, but stepping inside this wee chapel evokes a profound appreciation of the intimate care Hubbell Studio and sculptor/carpenter Bruce Johnson put into nearly every detail welcoming contemplation.
The beauty of The Sea Ranch is resoundingly obvious, but its history can remain a silent mystery for first time visitors. “Who built that house?” “Why is that roof covered in sod?” “What are these flowers growing here?” Local Margaret Lindgren’s 2-hour guided walk, The Sea Ranch Architectural Tour, can offer answers to all these questions and anything more tickling your curiosity. Knowledgeable in the region’s flora, fauna, and geology in relation to the history of the architecture of Sea Ranch luminaries like Joeseph Esherick, Charles Moore, and William Turnbull, a couple of hours in the hands of this knowledgeable guide will impart a deeper and lasting appreciation where humans and nature cohabitate so gracefully.
The Ohlson Recreation Center is one of three activity centers situated in The Sea Ranch (the other two being the Del Mar Center and Moonraker Recreation Center, the second worthy of a visit for the Barbara Stauffacher painted supergraphics adorning the interior if you can gain entry), serving residents and rental guests accompanied with a pass. We think it’s the coolest rec center in the country (world?), and even without an entry pass, it deserves admiration for its mimicry of the interplay between the forest and the ocean.
WHERE TO SHOP
The Sea Ranch is a secluded and small community, with the nearby town of Gualala primarily serving its residents and tourists in the dining and grocery departments. Shopping here is mostly limited to the practical, so don’t expect to dedicate an entire day to retail therapy as a visitor.
But there is one store worth dropping into for the modern design lover: Placewares. Design enthusiasts and Placewares owners, Shev Rush and Kevin Lane, have stocked the store guided by their keen eye for vintage pieces, timeless modern wares from the likes of iittala, Marimekko, Heller, Chemex, Alessi, Normann Copenhagen, Bodum, and Chilewich, alongside some choice contemporary designs.
Placewares also hosts an adjoining art gallery, one extending their spotlight beyond local talent and toward artists, designers, and craftspeople spanning the entire Golden State. The store hints of the next chapter of The Sea Ranch, one honoring the region’s storied artistic, craft, design, and architectural past, but also looking toward a future inviting new figures inspired by the locale.
Despite its utopian architectural legacy, The Sea Ranch has remained a mostly under-the-radar destination thus far. Attribute the solitary exclusivity to its distance from most major cities and the somewhat arduous, though scenic, drive required to get there. And maybe that has been for the best, preserving much of the peaceful respite the locale offers both locals and the few visiting modernist design pilgrims.
That might all change after the upcoming SFMOMA exhibition set to open on December 22, 2018. The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism will feature the works of architects, landscape architects and graphic designers like Charles Moore, Joseph Esherick, Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, William Turnbull, Lawrence Halprin, and Al Boeke, complete with a full-scale architectural replica.
If you’ve traveled to The Sea Ranch and have any favorite spots or recommendations for first time visitors, let us know below so we can share (and also check it out ourselves the next time we’re up there).