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Clark Collins: Committed to creating second acts

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

After working in his family’s finance business post-college, Clark Collins decided his passions resided elsewhere. He went back to school, enrolled in UCLA’s design program and found a mentor in famed interior designer Michael Smith.

Learning from one of the best

Among his many famous clients, Smith went on to design the Obama’s living quarters in the White House. William Seale, author of The President’s House: A History, believed Smith was a good choice because, “What works best in the White House is someone who is immersed in the past and can design in a modern way.” Seale’s description of Smith is relevant because it could just as easily be applied to Smith’s former protege who has made a career of giving old beach cottages “a second act.”

The penultimate West Coaster goes east

After several years of working with Smith, Clark Collins went off on his own as an interior designer. He also started a lighting company. After a few years, the Pasadena-born, Newport Beach-raised designer packed up and moved to western Massachusetts when his husband took a teaching job at Williams College. 

Coming back to California for some family business

“The family business needed some help,” explains Collins. He sold his lighting business and the couple returned to the West Coast, settling in Laguna. Eventually the family business got sorted out. “After working with my dad, we decided we were better as just father and son than working together,” says Collins with a smile. 

A new direction both personally and professionally

This decision coincided with Collins and his husband deciding they wanted children. “I tried to figure out a middle ground between design and finance.” That “middle ground” became Collins Design and Development. He began buying houses, restoring them, and reselling them in 2008 and, in the full ten years since, Collins says he has done 77 homes. “I have focused on historic houses close to home,” he says. 

Clark Collins close up

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Clark Collins of Collins Design and Development and chair of Laguna’s Heritage Committee

Why these particular homes? “The early beach houses just have a simplicity about them that’s so unique. In redoing them, it’s not only modernizing them, but taking what’s special and embracing it,” he explains.

A commitment to preserving Laguna’s past

Collins’ passion for restoring old homes has made him a dedicated member of Laguna’s Heritage Committee where he is in his third term and currently the chair. “Laguna has embraced historic preservation. Corona Del Mar, Newport Beach, Dana Point – they have not embraced it, and they’ve lost the charm of their towns,” laments Collins. 

To Collins’ point, May is Preservation Month in Laguna Beach. The Heritage Committee is celebrating with a trolley driven tour to the still existing early artists’ studios in town on May 5th. The tour will be led by local historian Eric Jessen.

And while celebrating Laguna’s past is very important to Collins, he is definitely not stuck in a time warp. He himself lives in home built in 1942 for plein air painter and Laguna Beach outdoor festival originator Isaac Jenkinson Frazee. And while it exudes the character and charm that makes older homes so special, Collins, like most homeowners, certainly wants to live with every modern convenience. “These homes have to evolve and be made practical,” he says. 

Clark Collins family

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Clark Collins at home with his husband Greg and sons Sawyer (left) and Jackson

His home, for example, had the kitchen in the back of the house, too removed from the central hub of the home. So Collins moved it. It’s now central to the home’s flow. 

As it was a completely new addition, great care was taken to add design elements to seamlessly merge this brand new part of the house with the older, vintage part of the house. It is warm, inviting, and oozes understated character. In short, it embodies all the reasons Collins is committed to restoring these homes as opposed to bulldozing them and starting from scratch. “It’s very difficult to recreate the warmth of these houses in a new house,” he says.

A labor of love that is also good business

“In order to do this kind of construction, it’s always going to be more time consuming and more expensive,” explains Collins. “But if you do it right, they get the highest dollar amounts per square foot. I’ve never had a hard time selling.” This is the business side of things. However, while that is a critical component, it does not seem to be the driving factor in Collins’ choice of projects.

“I just get early California houses,” says Collins. “I get the period specific details right.” In addition to his own projects, Collins will also work with others on their projects. “Having done it so many times, I’m not fazed by things that might faze other people,” he says.

The fun is in the unknown

Sometimes these houses are “pretty quirky.” Many were built as vacation homes and were, therefore, built with small budgets. Small kitchens, non-existent closets, and ancient plumbing are all things Collins is well-versed in. And for him, that’s the fun. “How do you take it apart and put it back together to make it better?” he asks. He likens the process to unwrapping a present. You don’t know what you’re going to get until the wrapping has been removed. Whatever you find underneath, Collins believes it’s worth saving and enhancing.

Hoping incentives will be enough to motivate preservation

That’s why he has committed so much time to the Heritage Committee. The Heritage Committee advises Laguna’s Design Review Board and the City Council on historical structures. 

Clark Collins home

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The exterior of Collins’ 1942 restored home in Laguna. He and his family previously lived next door in a 1930s Collins-renovated cottage on the historic register.

The City Council is currently crafting a new historic ordinance. “The Council voted in favor of making the historic program voluntary,” he says. And if Collins finds this at all dismaying, he doesn’t say so. Rather, he sounds optimistic. “With the right incentives, you can encourage people to preserve their houses,” he says confidently.

Thoughtful development is a mantra

So while Collins clearly has his aesthetic preference, his overriding concern is responsible development. “Change is okay,” he says. “Just be thoughtful about it.” Collins says other cities like Montecito, Santa Barbara, and Carmel have managed to keep their charm. He hopes Laguna follows suit. “It really makes Laguna different. I know people are under pressure to maximize their investment, but you can sense it’s a little different in Laguna. And by different, I mean good,” he says.

And different does not mean only beach cottages. “I love Mark Singer houses,” he says enthusiastically of the well-known contemporary architect’s homes. “I think you can have both. The look and feel of the town allows for change and modernization. It’s thoughtful development versus blatant greedy development. I hope we embrace thoughtful development. It’s why we live here.” 

Fighting to maintain Laguna’s character

As far as Collins is concerned, every old home he (or anyone) restores is a victory not just for that home, but for the city as a whole. The way he sees it, these homes are a critical part of what makes Laguna “Laguna.” 

“It’s not cookie cutter,” says Collins. “It is definitely something worth fighting for because once it’s gone, you can never get it back.”