HOBNOBBING AT THE TOP

By Joseph Lucier    

“You’re the top! You’re the Colosseum, You’re the top you’re the Louvre Museum.” And so, began Cole Porter’s jaunty tune for his 1934 musical Anything Goes. Superlatives abound when the topic of penthouses arise, and why not?  These fabled residences whisper privacy, command inspiring views, and announce the undisputed claim of top dog.  But one wonders what all the fuss is about.  On a recent foray into San Francisco’s penthouse market, I found three maxims to be true.  These apartments carry the undeniable weight of exclusivity, desirability, and intrinsic value. Let’s have a look.

Along the rolling contours of Pacific Heights, Russian Hill and Nob Hill reside approximately fifteen proper pre-war buildings that predate Porter’s ditty.  Some were built as apartments, but the lion’s share was developed as cooperative apartment, doorman buildings modeled after the venerable facades of New York’s Fifth Avenue. Another dozen or so were added in the decades between 1960 and 1985.  Even a baker’s dozen, twice over, offers the owners of these grand perches a swelling sense of pride in a club which they claim membership.  The second and equally important factor to exclusivity is the tenure of ownership that often accompanies these rare birds.  In a recent effort for a well-heeled client to shake one of these apartments loose, I was told by the penthouse owner of Pacific Heights iconic 2500 Steiner Street, “Joe, we are going out feet first!” It’s a common quip and one particular reason it is so difficult to enter this desirable property category.

2000 Washington Street Duplex Penthouse

2000 Washington Street Duplex Penthouse

This storied lack of inventory makes an invite to one of these homes a cause for occasion and, once the visit is over, can kindle a sense of desire.  Yet it is the case no matter your wealth that one is often told they will have to wait their turn to get into the club.  Once the indignation of this reality settles, one of the seven deadly sins often creeps in and whispers, “I want to have this more than anything in the world.”  Any why not?  The exquisite porte-cochère of 2006 Washington Street or the hushed calm when approaching the serene cul-de-sac of 945 Green Street evoke the spirit of a time gone by wrapped in the tasteful architecture of Muessdorffer and Quandt’s elegant designs. But how much will I have to pay, the enchanted, would be owner wonders?

Mr. Porter would mix this potent elixir of exclusivity and desire, pour it into a frosted martini glass, and announce it as “value, simply value, old sport!” This concoction of often generational luxury regularly commands closing prices well above the marketplace. Such was the case when Templeton Crocker’s Russian Hill penthouse sold for an astounding $1,500 sq. ft. in 1999.  The recent purchase of one the city’s crown jewels, the penthouse at 2006 Washington Street, for over $6,000 sq. ft. makes this strong case a reality for the marketplace.  On the flip side, Craig Ramsey’s purchase of Tom Perkins’ Millennium Tower penthouse for $13,000,000 seemed like a deal given the fact that Mr. Perkins was in to the apartment for over $20,000,000.  One bright spot for our leaning Tower of Pisa.

Like the roaring 1920’s, when many of these iconic buildings were realized, the market is again awash in an ocean of money from a strong stock market and another tech fueled bubble.  As our beloved Baghdad by the Bay enters a new chapter, one with a skyline being dotted with pinnacles to new wealth, the rarified air of the penthouse market will continue to be a safe haven for capital and one that will always elicit a sense of mystery and desire.

2500 Steiner Street along Alta Plaza Park

2500 Steiner Street along Alta Plaza Park

Brian Koch - Terra Ferma Landscapes

Digging Deep for Inspiration

By Joseph Lucier

Brian Koch, landscape architect and owner of Terra Ferma Landscapes, is a people person.  It is with this passion for truly connecting with his clients that allows Brian to skillfully bring their gardens to life and set the stage for a family and its surrounding environs to grow together.  It had been a while since I had seen Brian and I was amazed that he has kept his unbridled zest for life alive through the extensive growth of his bustling business spanning the San Francisco bay area and beyond.  While his projects are a treat for the senses, it is his spirit that always comes through in the end.

BRIAN KOCH

BRIAN KOCH

Joseph Lucier: What inspired you to go into landscape design and architecture?
Brian Koch: As a young boy, I would spend countless hours playing in my parents back yard “Dirt” pile, creating miniature landscapes, paths, and water features for my matchbox cars and figures. Later in life as a young high schooler while working on a ranch property in Mendocino, my passion for creative landscape design re-surfaced. Only this time, using tractors and hand tools, I was able to work with the land and shape it into real life paths and garden spaces. After that, I was hooked!  
My most pivotal educational experience was at Filoli, where I interned after college.   With a degree in Horticulture from University of Vermont, I was so fortunate to work in the Bay Area’s premiere historical gardens. What I learned through the time I spent working there is something that I keep with me every day in my work for my clients today.  

JL: Which landscape architects do you most admire?

BK: I admire two landscape architects – one present day and one from the past. For the past, it has to be Tommy Church. He understood life in the Bay Area and was a visionary for western gardens and design. He reshaped how, when, and where people use their gardens. For example, he understood folks gravitate towards the mature stately oaks in the afternoon, sipping iced tea and watching the sun go down. He figured out people and the way they want to use their gardens before they figured it out themselves.

My present day mentor is Andrea Cochran in San Francisco.  One would assume she is my mentor for her amazing designs, but I admire her for her knowledge of plants and their environment. You can have an incredible design, but if you don’t know your plants and you don’t specify the right one for the right location, the design impact will not be fully realized. Landscape architecture only works if the plants are in harmony with the site, the environment, and client’s tastes. Andie would always take her time to understand what environment plants do best in, why they thrive, and would they work for that particular site. 

Brian-Koch.jpg

"You can have an incredible design, but if you don’t know your plants and you don’t specify the right one for the right location, the design impact will not be fully realized. "

JL: What new design trends are you excited to integrate into your work? 

BK: Trends and styles are always changing and evolving. We are in the thick of “Transitional” appeal right now, and although we are digging it, I am exploring some classic garden styles and elements –secret garden spaces, espaliered Fruit Trees, and clean lines and layering. In addition, we are trying to tap into what makes our clients content. Our gardens and spaces are intended to evoke feelings of calmness, by being cozy and carrying genuine charm. 

JL: What is the best way to gauge a client’s personality before starting a project? 
BK: I try not to pre-judge any client, but instead get to know them through a series of inquiries. I always want to know more about my clients’ roots – how and where they grew up?, do they have memories of their childhood?, or do they have memories from a great trip or experience that has shaped their life? Eventually the questions lead towards what appeals to them most about their garden or property and how they see themselves using or experiencing it.
JL: How do you balance sustainability with a client’s desire for a particular garden style?
BK: This takes work!! In some cases, we need to educate our clients when it comes to sustainability.  You have to be a good listener and take the time to inform clients of what you have learned and experiences you have been through. By reviewing your experiences with plant palettes and material choices at an early stage of the design process, you can begin to set the stage for overall style and gauge what clients really want. If we need to, we guide clients into alternate plants or garden materials and elements that are both fitting and appropriate for the environment and site. There is often compromise when it comes to sustainability, and compromise takes time, education, and lots of back and forth discussions! 
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BK: Any project where our team is invited by the client to view an undeveloped property BEFORE hiring an architect. Landscape architects are a bit undervalued about what we can bring to a project, especially before the project begins.  We have an inherent skill to locate a home in just the right spot with all the right orientations that can make an impactful difference in the home’s overall design and outcome. We can minimize negative impact to the site and preserve the key elements that might be overlooked by others. I feel it is our connection with the land, natural features, and existing trees and plants that gives us added value to any project.  We constantly work hard to connect with a site, to understand where its strengths lie and where weaknesses exist, so we can create opportunities to change our clients’ lives for the better with a design they will love now and in the future.
JL: Where do you find inspiration?
BK: Inspiration comes to me at all times and places. I love to travel and observe elements of the land and landscape in other countries AND PLACES. I travel often to get away from the day to day operations of running a company, and find inspiration when my mind is not occupied with other thoughts. In addition to traveling, I get inspiration from exercise. Exercise clears my mind allowing me to envision the various projects we are working on and decipher the right design layout or option. 
JL: What is your favorite part of the work you do?
BK: The best and exciting part of what I do is my clients. My creativity flows from the relationship I build with my clients and the site. I love asking the tough and important questions and digging deep into understanding what makes them content. If we can design and build towards that happy place, we are successful.

"We have an inherent skill to locate a home in just the right spot with all the right orientations that can make an impactful difference in the home’s overall design and outcome."

Terra+Ferma+Landscape-2.jpeg

JL: How do you completely unwind? 

BK: I head up to family property in Mendocino County. It’s so remote, there’s no cell service or electricity, and the water comes out of gravity fed natural springs. Once the Bud-Light has been cracked, boots are up, and the sounds of total remote nature – that’s when I know I’m completely unwound!

JL: If you hadn't become a designer, which career would you have pursued? 

BK: Probably a Pilot. I fight with my kids for the window seat. I love gazing out at the landscape below and trying to figure out how it was shaped and how it all pieces together. 

JL: What’s your favorite recipe? 

BK: It would have to be my slow cooked Ribs. Source St Louis Style ribs, peel the membrane, coat it in French’s mustard, then sprinkle Strawberry Hill Rub from Kansas City Missouri and slow cook for 7-8 hours at 225 Degrees max! Spray Cranberry Juice every 30 minutes. Eat them right away – so good!!

JL: Would you rather shop new or vintage?

BK: Vintage

JL: First celebrity crush? 

BK: Paulina Porizkova!!

JL: Favorite restaurant in your neighborhood? 

BK: Corner Store @ Geary and Masonic Streets

Terra+ferma+Landscapes.jpeg

VISIT TERRA FERMA LANDSCAPE

Thank you BKJ for your work on this feature!

Art Deco Pacific Heights penthouse asks $8.2 million

Circa 1925 co-op polishes its penthouse credentials

CURBED SF - MAY 11, 2017

BY ADAM BRINKLOW

1940 Broadway Street

1940 Broadway Street

The top-floor unit at 1940 Broadwayin Pacific Heights is on offer for a staggering $8.2 million, a sum liable to give house hunters a touch of vertigo even before they ascend to the penthouse level.

The ad for the three-bed, two-and-a-half bath, 2,900-square-foot condo frames it as a ticket to “one of San Francisco's most exclusive clubs: penthouse ownership.”

“It’s only a penthouse if it’s the only unit on the top floor,” realtor Joseph Lucier tells Curbed SF, insisting that while some people will try to pass off any tip-top home as a penthouse that this one is the real deal for sticklers.

1940 Broadway Street

Other ads for homes in the Art Deco building on Broadway date it as early as 1923 or as late as 1926, but the city pegs it as a 1925 building. The listing for the number seven unit credits its design to “noted architects George A. Bos and Frederick W. Quandt.”

Bos’ name adorns the gorgeous George A. Pos Apartments on Green Street in Russian Hill, a building so charming that it even earned the nickname “Paris Block” for the mini-hood surrounding around it.

19409 Broadway Street

But, oddly enough, despite being named for Bos, it was actually Grace Cathedral architect Lewis Hobart who designed that one. Go figure.

Quandt was a German architect who worked in Seattle before coming to San Francisco, famous in his day for the now-defunct William R. Davis & Brother Department Store on Mission Street, which the San Francisco Chronicle in 1923 called “a large three story Beaux-Arts design costing $1 million.”

1940 Broadway Street view

But the building at 1940 Broadway is probably his most visible contribution to the city these days. Lucier notes the extra classy portico entrance, carved plaster ceiling in the lobby, and classic black and white marble floor.

Speaking of class, the penthouse itself has “annexed part of the living room” to serve as a library, but although the ad talks up its wood-paneled appeal there aren’t presently any photos of it, which seems like a loss. But we do get to scope out the picture-frame moldings.

HOAs come to $2,397/month. And this is a co-op, so interested buyers would have to be accepted by the board. In other words, tacky high bidders need not apply.

1940 Broadway Street bedroom

TALK OF THE TOWN

Market Beat

By Joseph Lucier    

San Francisco's luxury real estate market is the toast of international markets with an ocean of tech money coursing through the veins of this reinvented gold rush town.  Enjoy my "Top 10" sound bites and market facts on our white hot luxury market.

1.  The estate of venture capitalist Tom Perkins has gone two for two with Sotheby's in the past few months.  On the heels of the estate's $13M Millennium Tower penthouse sale to technology veteran, Craig Ramsey, Sotheby's closed Perkins 1928 Julia Morgan Belvedere estate to an undisclosed buyer this week for $14.46M.

2.  Developer Trumark Urban hit the bulls eye in San Francisco's mature luxury market cycle with over 85% of this 76-unit project sold at Pacific Heights newest luxury address, The Pacific at 2121 Webster Street.

3.  Meg Whitman's son is trying his hand at luxury spec home development after purchasing Billy Getty's home at 2900 Vallejo Street for $12.5M in 2015.  He will test the rarefied air of the spec market at over $20M when this Sutro Architects project comes to market later this year.

4.  Jay Paul's uber-luxe 181 Fremont tops the high end market with a pre-sale contract of over $4400 sqft for unit 68B, a 3000 sqft half floor atop San Francisco's most exclusive residential club.

5.  Developer Grosvernor is developing the darling of the urban infill condominium projects with Glenn Rescalvo of Handel architects.  240 Pacific will deliver 33 boutique units in San Francisco's historic Jackson Square in early 2018. Get in line!

6.  Pacific Avenue has been renamed "Fixer Row" with three grand dames in need of new life closing in the last 30 days for over $10M.  3060 Pacific at $10.25M, 3383 Pacific at $10.225M, and 3515 Pacific at $10.35M.  High end contractors raised a collective glass of champagne. 

7.  Sotheby's is representing San Francisco's most expensive house ever listed at $40,000,000.  Call for more details on this Gold coast home located at 2712 Broadway.

8.  A rare sale of three merged units at Joseph Eichler's 1963 Russian Hill tower, The Summit, closed for $6.87M through Sotheby's.  In competitive bidding, San Francisco architect Geddes Ulinskas won the commission for this dream project.

9.  Family members of 1750 Taylor's penthouse owner are haplessly seeking over $30M in the city's "no inventory" penthouse market.  No takers after six months of private showings.

10.  Market bubble or not, we live in the most beautiful city in the world.  You can take that to the bank.

Brooks Walker - Walker Warner Architects

San Francisco's Class Act

By Joseph Lucier

Amidst the current South of Market towering development boom, sits a charming historic building along the edge of Folsom and Fremont Streets.  From this unique vantage point, Brooks Walker of Walker Warner Architects designs gracious residences with the knowing hand of a native San Franciscan steeped in the work of Bay Area design icons, William Wurster and Joseph Esherick.  Inspired by the honest and direct approach to design and construction that these two men brought to our unique topography, I found in Brooks a man who who passionately strives for an understanding of context as a universal principle to best offer his clients an inspirational framework to enhance and define their daily lives.

BROOKS WALKER

BROOKS WALKER

Joseph Lucier: You were fortunate to grow up in a family that engaged well-known architects to design their family and vacation homes. How did growing up with these homes shape your viewpoint as an architect?

Brooks Walker: Frank Lloyd Wright designed a home in Carmel for my great grandmother after WWII. As a young child I was awed by the placement of the structure, perched on tide pool rocks above the ocean. The spaces were unlike any home I had experienced….perhaps this is what inspired my early interest in building and architecture. In that same timeframe, I was also fortunate to spend several Thanksgivings at the Gregory Farm House designed by William Wurster during the late 1930’s. This iconic ranch house left a lasting impression with its California ranch vernacular forms and rustic simplicity.

JL: You have an affinity for modernist architecture, particularly William Wurster. What is it about his work that attracts you?

BW: I love his honest and direct approach to design and construction. The timeless quality of his work is elegant and enduring, yet humble.

JL: You reimagined a William Wurster house on Pacific Avenue. What was the experience like reimagining one of your idols original design?

BW: The Pacific Heights Residence [click here] was built in the early 1950’s and had Historic Landmark status, which made the permitting of any intervention difficult. Wurster made a bold move by designing the main south street façade with no windows, which gave the house privacy while focusing attention on the light filled entry courtyard. We respected the key elements of the house and exterior detailing, but opened up the compartmentalized rooms and added a new master suite above the living room. I think Wurster would have approved

"We opened up the compartmentalized rooms and added a new master suite above the living room. I think Wurster would have approved."

JL: Your San Francisco home comes with an architectural pedigree from George Kelham's original design for himself and a mid century redesign by Joseph Esherick for Kelham's son. Did the pedigree of the home encourage you in your decision to purchase the property?

BW: The pedigree was interesting, but not material in our decision. Our interest in the home was all about the south facing garden, the flow of natural light, the large rooms with high ceilings, and the classic mid-century, over-scaled, double hung windows that Esherick incorporated in his radical redesign of Kelham’s original Tudor structure.

JL: You recently finished your family’s home in San Francisco. What was it like being your own client?

BW: It was incredibly rewarding, but stressful. My perfectionist tendencies were hard to restrain when dealing with a 102-year-old house. It was an exercise in client empathy training.

JL: How do you approach the blank canvas of a new project with a client?

BW: It all starts with a thorough understanding of the site and the client’s programmatic goals for the project. We then discuss appropriate materials and review precedent images that we, and our clients, bring to the table. Our job is to synthesize these elements into a unique vision for the property that resonates on many levels.

JL: Discuss the feeling that good symmetry and proportion offer.

BW: Symmetry and well-proportioned spaces create a feeling of harmony that is almost always sensed, even if not consciously understood.

JL: Your firm does quite a bit of work in Hawaii. How can the firm’s philosophy be seen through the lens of island life?

BW: Understanding context in all dimensions is a universal principle of our practice. The tropical climate of Hawaii and the unique vernacular that responded to those conditions shape our approach. Buildings primarily provide shelter from the sun and the occasional rain shower. Rooms can be detached from one another and connected by paths in the landscape, which frame outdoor rooms in the garden. The lines of inside and outside are often blurred.

JL: How does designing with pencil to paper connect you to your ideas?

BW: Our brains are more directly connected to the sketching process, which is great for initiating the conceptual phase of a project or when working out some particular detail. Our teams at Walker Warner Architects are fantastic at using computers to develop those sketch concepts into architecture.

JL: Do you have a specific creative process?

BW: Yes, but it has evolved over many years of practice and it is hard to describe. The creative process is sometimes like a Zen Koan….you ruminate and iterate until the solution is revealed.

"Understanding context in all dimensions is a universal principle of our practice."

JL: What do you love about being a native and living in San Francisco?

BW: I feel incredibly grateful to have been born and raised in San Francisco. It is an amazingly beautiful place located on the edge of the Pacific. There is a rich creative history in this city and our work draws from that legacy while interpreting that inspiration into an architecture of our time.

JL: What do you go to rejuvenate your spirit and creativity?

BW: To our retreat outside of Healdsburg or the mountains of Northern California.

JL: Perfect weekend getaway from the city?

BW: Hard to beat exploring some beautiful river with my fly rod in hand.

JL: What are you reading?

BW: Mostly History and Biography. I typically have several books that I am reading and listening to on Audible while driving. One of my recent favorites was the “Invention of Nature” by Andrea Wulf.

Visit walkerwarner.com

Photo Credits: Matthew Millman, Mark Defeo, Laure Joliet

Nicole Hollis - NICOLEHOLLIS Design

Sleek Sophistication

By Joseph Lucier

Operating from a brilliant light filled atelier in the San Francisco design district, Nicole Hollis imbues her designs with the sleek sophistication of a knowing and seasoned practitioner. Whether gathering inspiration from the vineyards of the Napa valley or the tropical breezes of the Hawaiian islands, Nicole seamlessly blends the alchemy of site and design. I had the recent chance to catch up with Nicole in her brimming studio to discuss her tireless pursuit of inspired collaboration with her designers and clients and the inspiration she draws from her good fortune to live with her family in the former Pacific Heights home of Julia Morgan.

NICOLE HOLLIS

NICOLE HOLLIS

Joseph Lucier: When did you know that interior design would be your creative path?

Nicole Hollis: I was 12 years old and visited friends’ houses in Palm Beach. These beautiful interiors inspired me and I knew from that moment that I wanted to create unique spaces for people to live in.

JL: You came out of Howard Backen’s office to establish your own interior design firm. What did you learn while working with Howard?

NH: Howard can simplify the complex for any client with great charm. The flow of his residential spaces are inspiring and he is always thinking about the context of his architecture.

JL: In the Napa Valley, seasoned locals say you have elevated the time honored Backen look. What do you love about working in the wine country?

NH: We continue to be inspired by Howard’s architecture and interpret the interiors through another lens. Wine country mixes awe-inspiring terrain with pioneering attitudes. Napa Valley continues to integrate old with new in every aspect. This makes it one of the most interesting places to design.

JL: Your husband, Lewis Heathcote, is your business partner. What surprised you about him when you two developed a professional relationship?

NH: He and I have been working together for fifteen years so our working relationship has been evolutionary. My biggest surprise is how well we continue to bounce new ideas off each other.

JL: What type of culture have you developed in your office?

NH: We focus on a culture of “we” not “I”, so it’s collaborative and supportive working environment with clients, architects, contractors, artists, and craftspeople.

JL: Who is you perfect client?

NH: We’ve had a lot of really great clients that can give us a sense of what they think they’d like and then grant us the time and space to elevate that concept into something they couldn’t have imagined.

JL: Do you have a creative routine or process?

NH: I do and I don’t. My process is to keep breaking up the process so I can see everything from different angles and continue to be surprised.

JL: You recently collaborated with Brooks Walker on a Tiburon home. [click for feature] What was your experience like working together?

NH: The house is beautiful and stands as a testament to working with Brooks and his team. He truly understands how to listen to clients, collaborate with other parties and that the best idea always wins.

JL: You and your family are fortunate to live in Julia Morgan’s old home on Divisadero Street. Does her spirit inspire you?

NH: Yes I think about her a lot. I cannot begin to imagine the hurdles she had to overcome in the early 20th century as a woman in design. I think of her coming home and ruminating over her projects and how I sit in the same spot, inspired by her

JL: Where do you find inspiration for your designs?

NH: The natural world is of great inspiration to me. I’m also constantly drawn to fashion design.

JL: Who are your design idols?

NH: Jil Sander, Alexander McQueen, Martin Margiela, and Ilse Crawford

JL: Favorite weekend getaway?

NH: We were married in Big Sur and it continues to pull us in.

JL: When were you the happiest?

NH: My two children honestly have excellent senses of humor so there isn’t a week that goes by that we’re not belly laughing with them. That’s hard to top.

PRE WAR APARTMENT - PACIFIC HEIGHTS

PRE WAR APARTMENT - PACIFIC HEIGHTS

Visit NICOLEHOLLIS.com

Many thanks to Nichole Hollis, Katherine Nelson, and Avery Carmassi for working with me on this feature!

Kendall Wilkinson - Kendall Wilkinson Design

The Wilkinson Touch

By Joseph Lucier

As a San Francisco native and daughter of an interior designer, Kendall Wilkinson had the privilege of growing up amidst the city's treasured architectural lineage while developing a sense of scale and color at an early age. Studying abroad in Paris further solidified a belief in the importance of architectural heritage and fine craftsmanship, It also put the City of Lights high up on the list when sourcing objets d'art and furnishings for her sumptuous interiors.  Kendall's evolving design style, coupled with her authenticity and business savvy, have helped build a loyal clientele who have turned her Presidio Heights atelier into a landing pad as she jets between projects in Mexico, Montana, and New York City.  I had the recent good fortune to join Kendall and her million dollar smile in Jackson Square to chat about how she so elegantly choreographs the hustle bustle of life, family, and her creative pursuits.

Kendall Wilkinson

Kendall Wilkinson

Joseph Lucier: Coming from an interior design family, what did you learn early on about the profession and what "good design" really means?

Kendall Wilkinson: My mother was a designer and she taught me the importance of scale, color, and tone at a very early age. I learned that you can mix neutrals as long as you keep in mind the different textures and hues. “Good design” is greater than using the most luxurious materials, custom solutions, or one-of-a-kind furnishings; it’s about how these elements can be applied to create an environment that is restorative and reflective of its inhabitants. While an interior designer can create a home that is considered beautiful, ultimately “good design” comes down to the homeowner—how they feel and live in the space once the designer’s job is complete. 

JL: As a native San Franciscan, what do you see as your part in the stewardship of historic homes?

KW: As a child, I had the privilege of growing up surrounded by some of the nation’s most treasured historic homes and developed a deep affection and appreciation for San Francisco’s architectural integrity. I believe that the bones of a house are a key element in the design process. Keeping and restoring original details is of high importance to me. As designers, we can nod to the future while still respecting the past and there is a wonderful symmetry to that. There’s nothing I enjoy more than juxtaposing old and new by choosing a sleek contemporary light fixture for a traditional Victorian residence.

JL: How did your time living in Paris, and your travels in general, shape your knowledge base and help inform your current design decisions?

KW: Living in Paris taught me the importance historic significance is to design and architecture—and the importance of great craftsmanship. I think we’ve lost something today since we’ve moved in the direction of retail. I want to keep one of a kind pieces as the cornerstone of my design.

JL: How has your design philosophy developed over the past two decades?

KW: While trends in design have impacted how my aesthetic has evolved, my core philosophy remains the same. When it comes to design, my motto is that order equals calm. I believe that interiors need to be not only beautiful, but should also be functional and accommodate the lifestyle of the homeowner. My style has evolved along with the changing design landscape and client demographic; there is a ubiquitous desire for clean lines and spaces where less is more. In the last few years, I’ve noticed a shift in how people want their spaces to feel. Businesses want their offices be more inviting, home-like environments while homeowners seek residences that feel like a hotel or spa retreat and evoke feelings of serenity.

JL: Talk about the perfect dance between an architect and interior designer.

KW: The perfect dance is when both parties respect what each does—because they serve inherently different functions—and can come together to create something beautiful. While interior designers and architects share the same end goal, they are trained differently and each bring unique perspectives to the project. By uniting my expertise in furnishings with an architect’s expertise in spatial configurations, we are able to collaborate to create a home where form and function go hand-in-hand and there is a seamless connection between the home’s structure and its decor.

"Putting a fabulous antique or a wonderful vintage piece in a very modern room can anchor it and give it a feeling of authenticity." 

JL: How do you achieve an alchemy between traditional and contemporary styles in decor?

KW: There is something contrived about a room where everything is new, so I try to avoid that whenever I can. I love the juxtaposition of very clean and contemporary furniture with traditional architecture and classic moldings. There is a pleasant tension that feels very authentic to me. At the same time, putting a fabulous antique or a wonderful vintage piece in a very modern room can anchor it and give it that same feeling of authenticity that it might not have otherwise.

JL: Where do you love to go when sourcing unique furnishings?

KW: New York, Los Angeles, and Paris! You just can’t beat the treasures in those cities. Recently, I’ve explored Mexico City and am enamored with the wonderful contemporary and modern furnishings I’ve discovered, many of which have a strong Italian influence.

CASTLE IN THE SKY - HIGH RISE LUXURY

CASTLE IN THE SKY - HIGH RISE LUXURY

JL: You are fortunate enough to design your clients second and even third homes. How do you nurture a client’s viewpoint when working on a vacation home as opposed to a primary residence?

KW: I always take into consideration the environment and region of where I’m designing. Whether it’s Mexico, Montana, or a New York City penthouse apartment, the location always serves as the point of inspiration. That said, I never want to design a signature Mexican hacienda or Montana log cabin. I take into account how the individuals will live in the home or space while still conforming to the originality of the place and existing architecture.

JL: You have added a textile line to your portfolio. What have you learned through developing this aspect of your business?

KW: Actually, I developed a fabric line like I would any other business: it requires authenticity and business savvy! It’s a very competitive industry with lots of talented people involved, so it requires a lot of focus. As a high-end interior designer who is accustomed to creating custom solutions for each of my clients, it was a challenge to choose colors, patterns, and prints that would be accessible to a broader audience and still feel one-of-a-kind.

JL: Where would your dream vacation home be and what would it look like?

KW: A seaside villa somewhere on the coast of Mexico. It would be modern, very clean, and serene with an emphasis on indoor-outdoor living. I imagine this residence as A place where I can host close friends and family for home cooked meals and intimate gatherings.

"As designers, we can nod to the future while still respecting the past and there is a wonderful symmetry to that."

JL: Outside of your busy life with clients and your children, what do you like to do to unwind?

KW: Walking on the beach with my lab, Biscuit, or a close girlfriend.

JL:  Travel bucket list?

KW: I think Greece, with a chartered boat to a few islands—and stop in Istanbul.

JL:  What are you reading?

KW: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.

JL: Favorite restaurants internationally?

KW: Flora Farms in Cabo, Mexico.

JL: Tell us something that we don’t know about you.

KW: I was in a rock ‘n roll band.

CONSUMMATE COLLECTOR - SILICON VALLEY

CONSUMMATE COLLECTOR - SILICON VALLEY

Visit @ kendallwilkinson.com

Many thanks to Kendall Wilkinson and Nicole Balin for working with me on this feature!

Geddes Ulinskas - Geddes Ulinskas Architects

The Alchemy of Geddes

By Joseph Lucier

High atop downtown San Francisco's venerable Mills Building sits a sun drenched office where elegant designs are created for some of the city's most exacting residential clients. I first visited the offices of architect Geddes Ulinskas last year and was immediately taken by a model of a pool house that he was collaborating on with a Pacific Heights family. The sensitivity and the patience of making such a model made me realize immediately that in an age of CAD design and digitized reality, Geddes is a bright spot shining through to a bygone time where discourse and the flexibility of human touch still guides architectural decisions. During his time working in the San Francisco Bay Area, Geddes has embraced a keen eye for classical proportion, engaged in spirited discourse with San Francisco's unique topography, and, ultimately, delivered his clients beautiful homes that offer them a sense of daily inspiration.

Geddes Ulinskas

Geddes Ulinskas

Joseph Lucier: What was your path like to establishing a career as an architect?

Geddes Ulinskas: Growing up, I was sure that I was going to have a career as a commercial artist or an illustrator. My aunt was a very successful illustrator and painter who trained at Pratt Institute in New York. Pratt held a merit based scholarship program for art and architecture. It was a national competition to gather the best students from all over the country. Somehow, I missed the deadline to apply for the art scholarship, but my art teacher pointed out that I still had time to apply for the architecture scholarship. I didn’t really know anything about architecture, but was told that if I got a scholarship to attend Pratt, I could always switch my major. I entered the architecture competition and was awarded the first-place full scholarship. I was so fascinated by architecture that I never switched my major and graduated from the program.

Prior to establishing my own firm, I was fortunate to work with some international architects like Ricardo Legoretta and Fumiko Maki. I found these architects to be intensely creative and artistic in their approach to space. It reminded me that there shouldn’t be tangible difference between artists and architects.

JL: You worked in New York prior to opening a firm in San Francisco. What are some of the benefits and challenges of working in San Francisco as opposed to New York?

GU: New York is such a vibrant urban context to work in. There is nothing like it. When you design in New York, you are always acknowledging what is near you and what surrounds you, but you are usually creating an inward focused space. San Francisco has such unparalleled topography and natural beauty; the architecture is much more outwardly focused toward views of the bay or the skyline. Because of all the hills and slopes, even back yards and basements have views.

JL: Your offices are in one of downtown San Francisco’s most venerable buildings, the Mills Building (1890). What other public buildings in the city speak to you?

GU: I love the Palace Hotel; the Garden court is a very magical space. The Frank Lloyd Wright building on Maiden Lane is a great gem. I find the Armory to be wonderful. One of the scenes of the original Star Wars was filmed there. It doesn’t get much better than that.

"To draw and build by hand brings the team a more intimate understanding of the design. By designing with traditional methods, more unintended things happen, and that is often a good thing."

JL: What are the things that anybody can do to make their home more livable?

GU: The entrance to a house is so important. It sets up the feeling you get coming home. It reminds you why you love returning at the end of the day. It’s the transition from the outside world into your oasis. The front gate, the steps, the reflecting pool – if you can make that happen, it can be a daily ritual you love.

JL: What signals a "dream client" to you during the interview process for a new project?

GU: A client’s art collection often can tell me that a project is going to be a dream project. The way a client has collected art, objects, and furniture signal a passion for design and craftsmanship. I can also build a plan around their art and understand their home as a space where they co-exist with the work they have collected. I love it when we finish a project and the client’s art and objects breathe life into the home. It is so wonderful to see.

JL: I understand you engage in the more traditional design practices of hand drawing and modeling. Why is that important in a digital age?

GU: To create a work of architecture is an intensely personal endeavor for the client. The architect is the client’s partner and guide in the process. To draw and build the design by hand just brings the team a much more intimate understanding of the design. I also feel that parameters get established very early on when working digitally, but when designing with traditional methods, more unintended things happen, and that is often a good thing.

JL: You have had the fortune to work with some of the great interior design talents in the city. How did these professionals inspire you during the projects?

GU: The designer’s I’ve worked with have developed an amazing sense of scale. They just seem to know the perfect proportion that an object should have and its relation to another object, and all this tells a story.

JL: “Behind every great project is a great client.” What does that mean to you?

GU: It means I’ve been lucky and I’ve had the good fortune to meet some great clients. I’ve learned a lot from the builders I’ve worked with. I have learned a great deal from the designer’s I have been partnered with, but by far, I have learned the most from my clients.

JL: How do you refresh yourself creatively?

GU: I often guest critique at CCA. To see students and the work they are doing is very inspiring. It helps me to understand the directions that design is exploring and gives me a glimpse of what the new generation of architects will be achieving which is very exciting.

"I have learned a great deal from the designer’s I have been partnered with, but by far, I have learned the most from my clients."

JL: What is your favorite color. Why?

GU: Green is my favorite color. It is the color of growth and creativity.

JL: Are you more of a dreamer or a practical person?

GU: I would definitely say dreamer. I think every great architect is a dreamer, but a dreamer who is smart enough to surround himself with practical people.

JL: Favorite neighborhood in San Francisco?

GU: The Mission is such a great mix of old and new, of cultures and ideals. It is a place where people try things, some fail, some succeed.

JL: What are you reading?

GU: If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler – Italo Calvino

JL: In what international country or city would you like to go to study architecture?

GU: Rome, Rome, Rome.

JL: Favorite thing to do on the weekends?

GU: I love to get outside and do some watercolor on weekends.

Visit Geddes @ ularch.com

Portrait photo: Carly Tabak

Architectural photography: Rein Van Rijthoven, Richard Barnes, Drew Kelly

 

 

Willem Racke - Willem Racke Studio

Walls of Art

Dating back from the Caves of Lascaux and the fresco adorned ancient city of Pompeii to the more refined skills that ancient artisans employed using lacquer finishing and verre églomisé, decorative painting and finishing reflects the history that cultures had for story telling and beauty.  Willem Racke of Willem Racke Studios offers clients an opportunity to enter his world of time honored artistry to grace their homes with his fresh vision on traditional techniques. Sitting down recently with Racke at his production studio in the Inner Mission shed light on the creative talents of this master craftsman.

Willem Racke

Willem Racke

CaenLucier: How did you come to the profession of decorative painting?

Willem Racke: I fell into decorative painting. I decided to take a break from college in New Zealand to travel to the US and Europe for a 1 to 2 year trip. I lived in San Francisco for six months then went to New York with the idea of living there for a while, then moving on to Europe. I had a friend in San Francisco and she put me in contact with a friend of hers who lives in New York that happened to be a decorative painter who needed an assistant. I loved the work and was crazy about the art scene in NYC. That six months lasted over 3 years. I returned to San Francisco, started my studio and haven’t looked back.

CL: If you could indulge yourself at home with your craft, which room and what type of treatment would draw your creative talents?

WR: I have bought, renovated and lived in several homes over the last few years, integrating decorative finishing into every one of them. The building where I live now is an industrial building in South of Market, which I renovated into a sophisticated urban loft. The style is very contemporary and I've used decorative finishes throughout, subtle Venetian plasters, custom finished wood paneling, industrial metal finishes. I’m currently working on a mural for my powder room; it’s going to be silhouettes of trees in black-and-white. In my next house I would love to have a paneled library finished in eggplant color lacquer.

CL: Looking back in history what examples of different cultures informing each other have been brought to your modern day craft?

WR: I think people need to be reminded that decorative painting is the first form of art, man painted the walls of caves long before any of the fine arts as we define them existed. Decorative plaster, frescos and painting techniques all date back to Roman times and probably were established well before that. Many historic cultures were reflected in how they painted and finished their residences and temples, Venetian plaster is written about in Vitruvius's De Architectura, a 1st Century B.C. history of Rome. So nothing is really new, it’s all about a fresh vision for traditional techniques that suits the aesthetics of today.

Lacquer finishing, as another example, is enjoying a revival today. The techniques for creating great lacquer are the same as the ones used in ancient China, we have modern tools and equipment to apply the materials but the hand sanding and buffing are all essential to a true lacquer finish.

"I think people need to be reminded that decorative painting is the first form of art, man painted the walls of caves long before any of the fine arts as we define them existed. Decorative plaster, frescos and painting techniques all date back to Roman times and probably were established well before that."

TORTOISE SHELL POWDER ROOM

TORTOISE SHELL POWDER ROOM

CL: What are a couple of centuries old techniques that you enjoy employing in today’s interiors?

WR: I like subtle, tonal Venetian Plaster, it really elevates a neutral palette, we do a special Strata finish that goes from dark to light in a way that complements the interior furnishings.  I really like Verre églomisé, a reverse glass painting technique that gives an effect that you can’t duplicate in any other way, it plays with the light in a room.

CL: What would the powder room of your dreams look like?

WR: I have always contended that if you are going to go wild, do it in the powder room. I have done many extravagant powder rooms. We did an all tortoise shell powder room in a Nob Hill a pied a terre, walls and ceiling and cabinetry that is just over the top. Recently, I completed a verre églomise powder room inspired by the post impressionist jungle paintings of Henri Rousseau, it was quite a feat of art and engineering to create and install but it’s spectacular. Another over the top powder room was for a young, hip couple. We did the floors walls and ceiling in op art themed polka dots that oscillate for a bit of a mind-bending experience. If you aren’t a bit stoned when you walk in you certainly will be when you walk out.

CL: Have you seen any decorative finish in your international travels that you have developed to make your own?

WR: The Tsarskoye Selo museum in the Catherine palace in Saint Petersburg is one of the highest examples of decorative finishing in the world. Every surface is decoratively painted or gilded or treated in some way. I was really impressed by the elaborate inlaid wood floors and I developed techniques to translate that look into stenciled and stained designs for wood floors.

CL: Have you seen over the years your part of interior design work go through particular fads?  If so what?

WR: When I first started finishing in the 80’s the look was Memphis, lots of pastel blues, purples and greens. There was a lot of sea sponging wall finishes and faux marble was usually over the top. Now finishes are more refined and subtle, I mean we still do faux marble, we participated in the restoration of the Salon Doré at the Legion of Honor where we faux marbled the trim to match the real stone.

Detail of Restored Park Lane Beamed Ceiling - Nob Hill

Detail of Restored Park Lane Beamed Ceiling - Nob Hill

CL: Do you have a particular finish application that is near and dear to your heart?

WR: I am really liking verre églomisé these days, it’s a vintage French technique of reverse painting on glass that has a lot of visual impact when it’s done well. The jungle inspired verre églomisé powder room is a memorable room. I also love tortoise shell finishes, they can be so dramatic in the right setting.

CL: Looking back on your career, what was one of the most challenging projects you were commissioned?

WR: We did a Venetian plaster mural for Cushman Wakefield’s downtown headquarters that were designed by Gensler. The mural is a “snails eye” view of an office tower done in monochromatic tones of plaster and then incised to create a bas-relief. The geometry of the extreme perspective in different tones combined with the thousands of facets were a real challenge to execute but the final result was worth the effort.

CL: How do you find yourself most often brought into a interior design project?

WR: My projects are commissioned mostly through designers, architects and contractors, I also work directly with clients. I have worked to develop ongoing long term relationships with all my clients who rely on me for my knowledge, experience and sense of aesthetics.

TORTOISE SHELL CHEST OF DRAWERS

TORTOISE SHELL CHEST OF DRAWERS

Stenciled Flooring

Stenciled Flooring

CL: Any particular designers that you enjoy working with/understand how best to implement your skills into a project?

WR: I have had the opportunity to work with many of the best designers on incredible projects. I have worked with Jay Jeffers on many of his projects, his work is elegant and beautiful. I enjoy working with Kelly Hohla, she is a rising creative talent with a unique point of view. I love working with Darin Geise of Coup D’etat, he is a unique force in the world of bay area design, we have done wall finishes for the showroom as well as window displays. I have done projects with Peter Marino, an amazing architect and designer.  

CL: What is your idea of a perfect client?

WR: The perfect client is someone who I resonate with on an aesthetic level. I like working with designers and clients who understand and respect the art and craft that goes into finishing. I have a lot of experience and expertise in the field and it’s always great to be able to work with clients and designers who know, for example, that I have an extensive reference library for research that centers on decorative arts, both historical and modern to resource from. I can do my best work when the designer or client gives me some free rein and likes to collaborate.

CL: What is your favorite project that you are working on currently?

WR: We are working on a project in Hillsborough with Kelly Hohla, interior designer and Richard Beard, architect. It’s a big project with great design and finishes; we have been working for six months producing samples and concepts. In one of the rooms, we are doing lacquer finish inspired by the 2015 San Francisco Decorator Showcase room I designed that has a muted, polychromatic palette and high gloss finish. We’re also doing a dark turquoise lacquer pantry. Subtle Venetian plaster finishes and custom wood graining and finishing are part of the plans.

CL: What are you reading at the moment?

WR: I’m reading The White Road: Journey into an Obsession by Edmund de Waal. The author is a ceramicist who specializes in porcelain. The story is about his travels to the “white Hills” of the world and tracing the roots of porcelain and how it became the refined art and collected thing it is today. The book was given to me by Ron Schwartz, my first client and now friend, who is a collector of fine porcelains. It’s really given me a respect for the art and it’s significance in history.

CL: If you could choose another career what would it be?

WR: I would be an architect. That was my original plan. I wanted to travel for a year or two then return to New Zealand to study architecture. Obviously, my life went in another direction. I am really happy though that my chosen career enables me to be a part of the world great architecture and design.

Op-Art Powder Room

Op-Art Powder Room

CaenLucier would like to thank Willem Racke for all his time and amazing energy!

Lewis Butler - Butler Armsden Architects

A View From the Top

 

Lewis Butler

Lewis Butler

Josep Lucier: How has being a professional architect enhanced your life?
Lewis Butler: I like being an architect, and I’m going to do it for a lot longer.  It’s a worn out expression perhaps, but no two days are the same and almost all of them are fun and entertaining.  There are tougher weeks when we have lots of opposition to our projects and have to attend hearings, especially when they run after work hours.  I like my clients, I like my employees, and I like most of the others that help us do what we do professionally.  A great benefit to what I do is the intellectual dialogue that often accompanies the process.  I end up in great conversations on various topics, and sometimes these conversations sail into uncharted areas.  Just yesterday, a client and I were recounting the great Orson Wells movies both famous and lesser known, and we were trying to piece together what happened at the end of his career.  I don’t know where that came from but it delayed the start of our meeting by a half hour!  Today it was a conversation with a potential new client about how Crick and Watson used physical models to lead them to the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA.  

JL: Upon being elected as the chairman of the Department of Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1938, it is rumored that Walter Gropius proclaimed "Classicism is dead!" Do you feel your Masters of Architecture from Harvard gave you a suitable foundation to interact with the strong classical language of San Francisco architecture?

LB: San Francisco is a very young city, and most of its Classical buildings were built when Frank Lloyd Wright was well into his architectural career.  So the Classical architecture in this city was built at the beginning of the Modern Era, which can make working within the Classical context more difficult, not easier.  Classical architecture in Rome or Paris is old, there is no question about that, which makes it easier to appreciate the contrast of modern architecture in its midst.  The best example of that is the Pompidou center in Paris, of course.  We find that our clients appreciate traditional architecture, but don’t want to live in a traditional interior.  So we combine an aggressive approach to open modern living with traditional exteriors in many cases, and find that the two seemingly opposites are very compatible, and elevate the final product.  We are also doing six new houses in San Francisco right now, and two new residential buildings. When we don’t feel that the existing architecture is good, we replace it with new, and that’s exciting.  Where education enters this answer is that one has to know which buildings have merit and which do not, and be able to explain that to the Planning Commission in a persuasive way.  We’ve never lost a hearing at the Planning Commission, and it’s our understanding of architecture and the city that has given us that successful record.

Portola Valley Residence

Portola Valley Residence

JL: I am sure you have seen a lot of technology advancement in the course of your 30 years in business.  How has this changed the way you work with your clients?

LB: New technology for the most part stacks on old technology, with occasional casualties like the Betamax and fax machines.  So we use every tool from hand sketching to complex 3D modeling programs to explore the architecture.  We still build models too; there is no substitute for a great model.  Different clients respond to different mediums, so we adjust our presentations to their preferences.  I will say that my iPad is out every day.  I keep a gallery of project photos in iPhoto, and show them to clients and employees all the time.

JL: Do you miss your drafting table and straight edges?

LB: Wow. Maybe the drafting table and straight edge is like the fax machine: we really haven’t used one in years!  I suppose I miss the idea of it, but not very much.

JL: What is the one tool you never leave your office without? Your iphone doesn’t count.

LB: I don’t leave the office without a sketchbook, tape measure, trace paper, a scale, and spare fountain pens.

JL: I am sure that every project is as unique as your clients and their needs. How do you like to start your relationships?

LB: I’m very honest and up front with my clients from the first conversation on.  If they are expecting something that is unlikely to happen, I let them know that.  We live in a world where it’s rare that people tell each other what they really think.  When you are very honest with a client early on in your relationship, it stands out.  Most likely no one else has bothered to tell them the truth.

Cow Hollow Reimagined

Cow Hollow Reimagined

Woodside Kitchen

Woodside Kitchen

JL: In a way, you establish mini relationships. Do you have a favorite story of a family that you helped?

LB: I have many stories like this, but my favorite family story is when the kids of one of our past clients hire us to work on their house.  It has actually happened quite a few times, and it’s great to get the perspective of the next generation as they become adults.

JL: I cannot wait to read Catherine’s book Dream House! From what I have read, her passion for architecture and family is undeniable. Did she discuss her book with you while she was writing it?

LB: We had many discussions about Dream House. After all, it was ten years in the making.  Dream House is a novel first, and is about architecture second.  The notion of architecture then occurs at many levels.  The chapters begin with a quotation from various famous architects.  The quotations have a lot to do with the content of the chapters in turn, and provide an “architecture” that structures the book.  Then there is the house itself, which is described in detail.  Since the protagonist Gina is an architect, there are great descriptions of the architectural process.  Catherine has a passion for family and architecture, and that’s what drove her to write Dream House. Otherwise you can’t possibly create what she did, because writing a book is much harder than being an architect, much harder.

LUSH WITH SENSORY DETAIL AND EMOTIONAL COMPLEXITY, DREAM HOUSE IS ABOUT FAMILY, HOME, AND AN ARCHITECT’S JOURNEY TO UNDERSTAND THE CRIPPLING HOLD ONE HOUSE HAS ON HER.

LUSH WITH SENSORY DETAIL AND EMOTIONAL COMPLEXITY, DREAM HOUSE IS ABOUT FAMILY, HOME, AND AN ARCHITECT’S JOURNEY TO UNDERSTAND THE CRIPPLING HOLD ONE HOUSE HAS ON HER.

 

JL: When you imagine your dream personal residence, what shape does the form and function take?

LB: Dream House begins with a quotation from Gaston Bachelard from his famous book The Poetics of Space.  A different quotation from the same book applies here, “Sometimes the house of the future is better built, lighter and larger than all the houses of the past, so that the image of the dream house is opposed to that of the childhood home. Late in life, with indomitable courage, we continue to say that we are going to do what we have not yet done: we are going to build a house. This dream house may be merely a dream of ownership, the embodiment of everything that is considered convenient, comfortable, healthy, sound, desirable, by other people. It must therefore satisfy both pride and reason, two irreconcilable terms.”

JL: How would you describe the process of working with developers as opposed to end users on a project?

LB: In the past we rarely worked with developers because they were frankly not interested in the architectural quality that we bring to an end user project.  In the last five years that has started to change, and I think that the markets are starting to overlap for the first time.  Developers are now understanding that the highest profit margins involve houses that have a level of quality that one would expect to provide for a discerning individual, not a mass market.  So we are working for three developers now on single-family houses and two-to-six unit buildings.  Our most exciting developer project is 115 Telegraph Hill, which is four houses on the last large empty lot on Telegraph Hill.  Despite the fierce opposition that fought us for three years, we gained project approval and are going forward.  These houses are finished at the very highest end, and even include a car elevator that allows the vehicles to disappear underground, allowing more view opportunities for the rooms above.  So the developers are really looking for the same thing from us as our individual end user clients, and that’s an exciting new market for everyone involved.

Telegraph Hill Boulevard Development Proposal 2016

Telegraph Hill Boulevard Development Proposal 2016

CaenLucier thanks Lewis Butler for taking the time to share with our readers!

Paul Wiseman - The Wiseman Group

The Tao of Paul Wiseman

Entering the home of The Wiseman Group along the northern slope of Potrero Hill is to be transported into a world of serene order and beauty punctuated by the ever warm greeting from the bespectacled master of ceremonies himself, Paul Wiseman. Before we sat down in the firm's project clad conference room, Wiseman indulged us in a tour of the firm's extensive design studios. During the past 30 years, Paul has become one of the most successful and respected interior designers in America. Architectural Digest’s special edition, “100 years of Design,” mentions Paul as one of the top designers. He has been widely published and over a 16 year period has been listed on the A.D. Best Designers list. Our look behind the TWG curtain tells a story of unrelenting precision and passion where the alchemy of Paul Wiseman and his creations live.

Paul Wiseman

Paul Wiseman

CaenLucier: What do you consider "good" design?

Paul Wiseman: Anything that is appropriate for its location, climate and use. Attention to detail and well considered options result in design decisions of the highest caliber.

CL: How has your constant curiosity as a person kept your work evolving and fresh?

PW: I am always curious and there are only two guarantees in life – death and change, so I might as well be curious about change.

CL: How do you see your client’s process today in relation to the way clients and the process worked as you came to prominence years ago?

PW: I think the internet has been a great benefit and also a great hindrance to our industry. The internet generation thinks that quality and appropriateness come with the push of a button. What we do is a process, not a product.

HAWAII RESIDENCE WITH ARCHITECT RICARDO LEGORRETA

HAWAII RESIDENCE WITH ARCHITECT RICARDO LEGORRETA

Hillsborough Library

Hillsborough Library

CL: You are currently working with Richard Beard on a Joseph Esherick home in Hillsborough. How has your experience working with Richard on past projects and this current project been unique, surprising and professionally enhancing?

 PW: Working with Richard has been professionally enhancing due to the fact that we are both well-traveled, with our focus based upon the love of architectural history and cultural references. This also enriches our relationship with clients by offering our special and unique talents within the design process. Working with a great client and a talented architect like Richard reinforces my belief in the collective creative process.  It’s a wonderful synergy! We also share a wicked sense humor.

CL: How have your travels trained your eye?

PW: I was very fortunate to have lived abroad twice in Australia and France and have the opportunity to have extended travels around the world before cultures became more homogenized. Combined with my general curiosity, it allowed me to have a very deep dictionary of cultural cross references.

"The internet generation thinks that quality and appropriateness come with the push of a button. What we do is a process, not a product."

CL: Have you ever traveled with a client for collective inspiration for a project?

PW: I have numerous times over the years.  In one instance even before the house was built, I went on a buying trip to London with our client. We really bonded around discovering four 18th century chimney pieces that set the tone for the entire design of the home. The soft limestone-not marble-suggested a relaxed palette for the décor.  We were so lucky to find them; I have never seen that quality since.

CL: Working with a variety of clients’ personal aesthetics and different property locations, is there a Wiseman touch that is a common thread throughout these homes.

PW: Every client is different. What I hope to achieve with every project is to get the client to connect to the architecture and location based upon their own personal preferences. Good taste comes in many forms and it is my job to be the guide.

Iconic Hillsborough Living Room - Redo of Michael Taylor Design

Iconic Hillsborough Living Room - Redo of Michael Taylor Design

CL: You lived in a very formal residence on Nob Hill prior to your current residence on Belvedere Island. How have each of these residences been a reflection of the same person?

PW: The city apartment formally provided a great backdrop for that part of my life that was much more social. In order to maintain my creativity, the older I get the more I must have sacred space to rejuvenate that creativity. Belvedere provides a perfect venue – I can garden and cook and still entertain, but at a much more relaxed pace.

CL: What is your favorite color and why?

 PW: Most shades of yellow and green, because they remind me of nature.

"We have had clients that became serious students of the architectural styles and design motifs we chose for their home.  Armed with the knowledge and possessing great creativity, they put their stamp on the project and made it their own."

Paul Wiseman / Richard Beard Collaboration 1

Paul Wiseman / Richard Beard Collaboration 1

Paul Wiseman / Richard Beard Collaboration 2

Paul Wiseman / Richard Beard Collaboration 2

CL: How would you describe your "dream client?"

PW: Intelligent, curious, kind and respectful. We have had clients that became serious students of the architectural styles and design motifs we chose for their home.  Armed with the knowledge and possessing great creativity, they put their stamp on the project and made it their own.

CL: What is your favorite project that your firm is working on at the moment?

PW: All of my projects are favorites, but the most unusual is the Frank Gehry house that we are currently working on. It is Frank’s first residence in 25 years and his first residence in Northern California. 

CaenLucier would like to thank Paul Wiseman for all his time and amazing energy! We would also like to thank Layne Varholdt and Kevin Peters of TWG for their organization in helping us produce this feature!

Richard Beard - Richard Beard Architects

A Design Master in Conversation

When meeting Richard Beard for the first time one perceives a sense of calm and good humor.  Recently visiting his new Dogpatch offices, it is clear why, as we peruse high-caliber past projects and current visions underway that cast light on a creative talent at the top of his game.  With his substantial body of work, Beard shows his understanding of the ability of truly listening, deftly assessing a site, and creating an interactive approach with his discerning clientele which engages and always inspires.  After working at BAR Architects and heading up their residential design department, Beard decided to open up his own shop, Richard Beard Architects, in 2014 to create a smaller studio environment specifically focused on residential design.  We found him in good spirits over lunch as he shared some personal insights on architecture and beyond.

Richard Beard

Richard Beard

CaenLucier: When did you first realize that you wanted to dedicate your career to architecture?

Richard Beard: That’s easy:  I was a teenager, working for a bricklayer in Houston, under the hot Texas summer sun.  It was a very Ayn Rand / Fountainhead moment.  Think about when Gary Cooper is looking up out of the stone quarry at Patricia Neal, and you’ve pretty much got it.

CL: After working at BAR Architects as a senior partner for many years and heading up the custom home residential design group, how are you now enjoying having your own firm?

RB: I’m enjoying it a lot.  I’m happy to have been a part of BAR’s growth and success over the years—they’re up to about 85 people now I believe—but it was time for me to take a new tack and move on to a smaller studio of architects primarily focused on residential design.  The size is great, as is my staff, and I’m most happy that we have a roster of great clients and projects. 

SODA CANYON, NAPA VALLEY COLLABORATION WITH PAUL WISEMAN

SODA CANYON, NAPA VALLEY COLLABORATION WITH PAUL WISEMAN

BURWELL HOUSE SONOMA COUNTY

BURWELL HOUSE SONOMA COUNTY

CL: What architecture around the world inspires you?

RB: Wow.  That’s a big one.  I’ve been fortunate to have traveled quite a bit for work and pleasure.  It’s not always just the architecture, but how the community of design and culture develops with it.  From my own home state, Texas, there is Marfa, and all of Donald Judd’s work.  Completely amazing.   Visit his former studio in New York (soho) sometime, too.  And Renzo Piano’s Menil collection—one of the most beautiful yet understated museums in the world.  The Kimball in Fort Worth.  These were all early inspirations. Houston when I was growing up was a big boom town and still is to a degree.  Gerald Hines was bringing in great architects for commercial projects—it was inspiring.

THE MENIL COLLECTION

THE MENIL COLLECTION

But further afield, have you been to the Amalfi Coast and Naples?  While it’s full of tourists much of the time, there are amazing places there that really impress on quite human scales and emotions:  in Naples, the Certosa for instance.  Sublime.  And on the coast, the San Pietro Hotel, sitting on an unbelievably steep bluff, not entirely “designed” but more accrued over the years, is really great.  And then there’s Ravello, the Villa Cimbrone and gardens.  No wonder Gore Vidal lived nearby for so long.

VILLA CIMBRONE AND GARDENS

VILLA CIMBRONE AND GARDENS

I’m also a big fan of Japan.  In particular there’s a wonderful island, Naoshima, in the Seto Sea, that is magical in many ways.  Art installations and Tadao Ando’s architecture really amaze you, and the juxtaposition with the little fishing village’s indigenous architecture makes for quite a place.  I’m glad it’s so hard to get to, otherwise it’d be over-run.

CL: That’s interesting that you mentioned Japan.  I notice that you’ve had some multi-family projects over a long time in Japan.  How is working over there, versus here, for instance?

RB: Well, there’s quite a difference.  My client in Japan values quality, design and operations to an amazingly high degree.  For over twenty years I’ve been working for them, with the exact same team of interior and landscape designers.  They’re an inspirational group, challenging and rewarding.  Japanese contractors are amazing.  I was visiting a recent project under construction—I couldn’t believe how clean everything was.  On each floor are two rolling carts that contain fire extinguishers and five or six brooms.  That should tell you something.  The workers practice group supporting drills every day.

PACIFIC HEIGHTS PAUL WISEMAN AND RICHARD BEARD COLLABORATION

PACIFIC HEIGHTS PAUL WISEMAN AND RICHARD BEARD COLLABORATION

CL: This all sounds pretty great; what would you like to do if you were not an architect? 

RB: Hah!  Concert pianist, but I’m a terrible player.  Ditto tennis.  Rock star?  But then Paul said I’d look like Keith Richards.  Writer was and is always an attraction, both fiction and non-fiction.

CL: What are your reading now?

RB: Apart from keeping up with the ever challenging stack of New Yorkers, I’m currently re-reading some of Truman Capote’s early essays, profiles and observations.   He was a great writer back then.  Also Haruki Murakami, “After Dark.”   And “Rendez-vous with Art” by Philippe de Montebello.

CL: What is your favorite project that you have completed recently?

RB: I think the Cole House project in Calistoga is a favorite.  It’s a historic farmhouse (late 19th century) complex we’ve completely re-done, while keeping all the historic exterior historic pieces in tact.  Great clients.  And the project includes a historic, commercial chicken coop.  Try that one.!

Cole House - Calistoga

Cole House - Calistoga

ABALONE COVE - BIG SUR

ABALONE COVE - BIG SUR

SANTA LUCIA PRESERVE - CALIFORNIA

SANTA LUCIA PRESERVE - CALIFORNIA

ICAA JULIA MORGAN AWARD WINNING RESIDENCE 2014 -  DOLORES HEIGHTS,

ICAA JULIA MORGAN AWARD WINNING RESIDENCE 2014 -  DOLORES HEIGHTS,

Jay Jeffers - Jay Jeffers Studio

The Refined Sophisticate

BY JOSEPH LUCIER

Several years back, I heard Jay Jeffers announce to a designer panel his passionate and constant search for the next beautiful chair.  I was stuck by this singular vision and lifelong pursuit of something as charming and utilitarian as a chair.  It’s this wanderlust for a perfect object being supplanted by another that continues to drive and develop the refined interiors of Jay Jeffers.  In a recent evening at the sumptuous Linden Room in Hayes Valley, Jay romanticized his inspiration for experiencing new cultures through travel, the genesis of his epynomous retail store, and where he escapes to from his tireless schedule of brining his clientele’s dreams to life.

Jay Jeffers

Jay Jeffers

Joseph Lucier: How did you decide upon the profession of becoming an interior design?

Jay Jeffers: I have a  business degree and moved to San Francisco to become the next Hal Riney in advertising.  I landed at Gap Inc. in their advertising department and while I learned a great deal, I soon realized that marketing was not going to be my vibe. I took a night class through Berkeley Extension in interior design and it was the first time I could see myself making a living doing something I love.  That was 20 years ago. 

JL: Of the many past design and style icons, who inspires the work you do today?

JJ: I'm inspired by so many – David Hicks, Dorothy Draper, and Albert Hadley (Mrs. Astor's library!), Jean Michel Frank, Gary Hutton, Jamie Drake, Kelly Hoppen, Kelly Wearstler – the list goes on and on.  But a quote from  Billy Baldwin that I read in design school is a mantra that has stuck with me throughout my career.  He said, "If one walks into a room and says, 'Billy Baldwin designed this space' then I didn't do my job correctly." Meaning that a home should reflect the architecture, it's surroundings and most importantly, it's inhabitants and not their designer.

JL: Brass is back and it seems like the Seventies style has returned to vogue.  Any thoughts?

JJ: There is a glamorous reaction to the Belgian gray that has been in vogue for years and brass is certainly a part of that.  I love the warmth it brings to a room.  But like anything else, use it lightly.  I strive to create rooms as timeless as possible.  I don't want someone to walk into a space 10 years from now and thing it is "so 2016."

"A home should reflect the architecture, it's surroundings and most importantly, it's inhabitants, not their designer.

JL; What is your relationship to using color in your design work?

JJ: I like it. Color evokes a mood in a space.  The mood can be dramatic, sexy, quiet, and everything in between.  The key for me, as with anything, is using it sparingly.  I'm not one to paint every room a different color. 

JL: What is your philosophy on incorporating art and accessories into a home?

JJ: To me art and accessories are the soul of the home.  A home that just has a bunch of furniture but nothing on the walls and no accessories is just a house.  When you have paintings, sculpture, photography, and objet hanging on walls and sitting on tables, suddenly the space reflects who you are.  

JL: You have a retail component to your business at JAY JEFFERS - THE STORE.  What drove you towards opening an atelier and designing products for retail?

JJ: I opened the store for a few reasons.  The main reason is that I love to shop! But in the last downturn San Francisco lost so many great shops that I would have to find interesting things for my clients.  It has been a great adventure finding wonderful one of kind items as well as new furniture and lighting lines to represent.  Funny enough, our biggest customers are other designers, which makes me think we must be doing something right!

JL: How do you see the Tenderloin neighborhood around your store maturing? Where do you see the neighborhood in five years?

JJ: I bought the building we are in 9 years ago and the neighborhood has changed so much.  We've seen the addition of Jane Bakery, Mr. Holmes Bakehouse, Emily Holt's Hero Shop and fantastic restaurants like Huxley and The Saratoga.  The Tenderloin has a rich history and has evolved into many things over the years.  I'm excited to see what comes next. 

Jay Jeffers - The Store @ 1035 Post Street, San Francisco

Jay Jeffers - The Store @ 1035 Post Street, San Francisco

"To me art and accessories are the soul of the home."

JL: How do you like to travel and what inspiration do you find from experiencing other cultures?

JJ: I love all types of travel – experiencing a new culture opens your eyes and expands your mind.  I'm heading to Cuba in a few days on an architectural tour and so excited to experience the history and the people of that country.  I am also very much a fan of sitting on a beach chair with a good book and a glass of rose and doing absolutely nothing! 

JL: What did you get personally from the process of publishing your monograph 'Collected Cool: The Art of Bold, Stylish Interiors' in 2014?

JJ: Publishing my book was a lovely stroll down memory lane! To put the 18 projects together in the book and see their common threads as well as their differences was amazing.  It's hard to explain the feeling when that first copy arrives in mail and you open it and see what you have accomplished over the last 10 years.  

JL: What was your experience like working with Trumark Urban to create model residences on their current Pacific Heights development, The Pacific?

JJ: Working with Trumark Urban was a fantastic experience! They really allowed us to create beautiful and unique apartments that felt like homes. 

Jeffers Interiors at The Pacific

JL: Favorite restaurants?

JJ: I live in Hayes Valley, so my favorites are walking distance – Petite Cren, Cala, Monsieur Benjamin.  And my latest, The Saratoga is just down the street from my office. If someone asked me if I had to choose my last meal, it would be a caesar and roast chicken from Zuni. 

JL: When you want to get away from it all, where do you escape?

JJ: We have a place in St. Helena that is our refuge.  It is cozy and warm in the winter and beautiful and sunny in the summer.  It is definitely my happy place. 

JL: What is your travel bucket list?

JJ: Japan – It's been on the top of my list for years and I still haven't made it there.  

JL: What are you reading?

JJ: The New York Times on Sunday.  I currently don't have a book.  Every time I try to start one I fall asleep after the first paragraph. :-)

Visit Jay @ JayJeffers.com

Thanks to Jay Jeffers and Kat Daly for working on this piece with me. - Joe

Stephen Sutro - Sutro Architects

A Native Approach

BY JOSEPH LUCIER

Year after year the ubiquitous orange and white signs of Sutro Architects dot San Francisco’s highly sought residences.  As a native son, Stephen Sutro embodies the elegance, longevity, and quiet pride that San Francisco is known for the world over.  Sutro’s constant stream of well-heeled clients enjoy his soft business touch, creative design solutions, and his all-important understanding of the dance between San Francisco building codes and the perfect home.  A look inside Sutro Architects downtown offices reveal a passionate man who looks after the heart of the city with his careful stewardship of our picturesque residential neighborhoods.

Stephen Sutro

Stephen Sutro

Joseph Lucier: Being a native San Franciscan, how does your connection to the City inspire the work you do in town every day?

Stephen Sutro: Its great to see some neighborhoods that are changing dramatically and others that change subtly with small improvements.

JL: Before starting your own firm, you worked with local classical architecture firm.  Do you still incorporate the principles of classical proportion and scale in your current designs?

SS: Of course. Understanding fundamentals of proportion is important, no matter what the style.

JL: You have just acquired a building downtown next door to Jay Jeffers atelier on Post Street.  What are your plans for the look and feel of Sutro Architects offices?

SS: We are transforming an auto body repair shop into a light-filled open architecture work space. We’re lucky to have lots of light and southern exposure. We are maintaining the beaux arts facade and use the large, previously auto-entrance as a large steel and glass pedestrian entrance. Its exciting!

Millennium Tower Penthouse

Millennium Tower Penthouse

"I’m currently interested in exterior materials with aesthetic and functional durability - natural materials that can be used with contemporary or traditional detailing."

JL: Many of the homes my residential real estate colleagues and I sell go through complete gut renovations.  With these types of blank canvases, how do you guide homeowners through the process of creating a new home?

SS: We help clients define their goals, understand the opportunity and challenges each property presents and create an action plan to bring it to fruition.

JL: Do you have a particular look or do you try to stay away from a formulaic approach?

SS: I think the context of the project and goals of the clients are the most important. A condo in a contemporary high rise or a new home in the city is a perfect context for a contemporary design. Working in the context of a early 20th century house with similar structures adjacent, would suggest an approach of keeping the details in tact while creating a more fresh plan and juxtaposing more contemporary materials and details.

JL: What is it about your profession that you love?

SS: The creativity!

JL: Are you working on any “ground up” projects?

SS: Quite a few… some in town and some in the country.

Cole Valley Cool

Cole Valley Cool

"Its always fun to learn about a particular function or interest in a project, or work with different climates and environments."

JL: What materials are you most enjoying integrating in your current interior/exterior designs?

SS: I’m currently interested in exterior materials with aesthetic and functional durability. For me, this means brick, stone, metal - natural materials that can be used with contemporary or traditional detailing.

JL: Do you have a dream project that you would like to have someday?

SS: Its always fun to learn about a particular function or interest in a project, or work with different climates and environments. We’ve completed a fly fishing guest ranch in Montana, which was awesome. We also have worked on some hospitality projects, which are super interesting and new. It would be fun to work on a horse ranch, beach house in Hawaii or mountain house or lodge.

JL: Favorite travel destinations (past and future)?

SS: Argentina has been a highlight — both for fishing and architecture. I’m looking forward to going to Japan.

JL: What are you reading?

SS: Mostly historical fiction.

sutro 2.jpg

Suzanne Tucker - Tucker & Marks

The Timeless Elegance of Suzanne Tucker

BY JOSEPH LUCIER

As a little girl, Suzanne Tucker grew up in the idyllic southern California enclave of Montecito, rearranging all the ornaments on the family Christmas tree. It was no surprise that she would eventually begin a career as an aspiring young designer with the legendary Michael Taylor, setting the stage to become the last word in interior design for San Francisco’s beau monde and beyond.  Having enjoyed a friendship with Suzanne for over a decade, I have had the pleasure of intimately witnessing the weave she creates from intermingling a passion for design with her zeal for living. Suzanne's attention to every detail and a genuine caring personality, topped with an unerring sensibility for scale and proportion, give her interiors a sense of refined comfort and livability that speak to the very essence of her well heeled clientele. Her ability to frame classical principles with a modern sensibility allows homeowners the comfort of Tucker's guided collaboration.  I spoke with Suzanne between projects in Pebble Beach, Aspen, and the Yellowstone Club to learn a little more about what makes the “Queen of Custom” tick.

Suzanne_TuckerLR.jpg

Joseph Lucier: Was there something inside of you as a child giving you a notion that someday you would enter the world of interior design?

Suzanne Tucker: My mother will tell you she saw the decorating inclination in me when I was a very little girl, apparently spending hours rearranging all the ornaments on the Christmas tree.  But growing up in Montecito, the world was my architectural and horticultural oyster. My sister and I would spend days on end building forts and creating fantasies, roaming through next door properties with romantic names like Lotusland, Val Verde, and El Mirador. I loved tagging along with my parents to their friends' parties so I could see their houses and explore their gardens.  Art classes outside of my school curriculum were a must and it seemed a given that I would gravitate towards the arts, art history, architecture and design when I was in college. I studied interior architecture and design at university and was happiest when totally immersed in the art department. For a moment I had seriously considered architecture school but all that tedious math and years of more schooling seemed so boring - I wanted to get out into the “real world”!  It may sound a bit odd but I didn't set out with the intention of having a career. I followed what I loved, traveled to Europe, lived in London, worked for some inspiring people, had some incredible mentors, and it all fell into place. Interior design is a fantastic profession - constantly evolving, always challenging, very hard work, and immensely rewarding.

JL: Having grown up in Santa Barbara, are there any stylistic elements of the Tucker & Marks look that owe themselves to this part of California's architectural, interior, and landscape design heritage?

ST: Absolutely, although I was also strongly influenced by living in London for several years – another architectural feast and a great decorating influence. But Santa Barbara is in my soul and has had a powerful effect on me, given the importance and beauty of the local architecture, the inherently gracious houses, historic precedents of style, enchanted gardens, the unique quality of the light, and the colors of the mountains and beaches.  All of this lives deep in my visual and sensual memories, grounding how I create layered and elegant environments for others. I would say London gave me my extended education in decorating and architecture with courses at the V&A that were invaluable and the deeper understanding of a “proper house”: how rooms should flow, how a house should function, the graciousness of space, putting a house together and the ease of living comfortably, whether casual or formal.

JL: How did you come to work for Michael Taylor and, more interestingly, how did you manage to stay in a position that tested so many before you?

ST: There are several very funny stories in answer to that question, but that’s for a tell-all book.  I consider myself very fortunate to have landed that job – even though to get my foot in the door, I had to swallow my pride and start as Michael’s secretary – albeit one with rather pathetic secretarial skills who could barely type.  But that lasted all of three months when he figured out I actually knew something about decorating and began taking me to client meetings and involving me in the projects. Michael was notorious for hiring and firing and was an incorrigible bully to his staff.  I suppose I stayed because I wasn't afraid to speak my mind – chalk it up to chutzpah or naiveté, or a mix of both – and he respected that… and was amused by it. Michael, lovable tyrant that he was, took me under his wing as “teacher’s pet”, spoiled and indulged me, and thus became my greatest mentor.   After his death, Tim and I bought his interiors business and the furniture line Michael Taylor Designs was sold to Paul Weaver who built it into the line it is today.

JL: What element of Taylor’s style, both in business and design, did you take into the formative years of Tucker & Marks?

ST: I couldn’t help but be greatly influenced by Michael's mastery of scale and proportion, his use of color and light, and his knowledge of furniture and antiques. And those are all aspects that I utilize in some form or fashion every single day in my work. I’ve definitely done my own thing, but every once in awhile, I find that I pause and ask myself “What would Michael do with this space?”   And as to the business, Tim (Marks) and I have modeled ours along the same high-end service and custom design work that Michael did.  But the best part is that he showed us how not to run a business and how not to treat employees. He was abysmal at both.

"Michael, lovable tyrant that he was, took me under his wing as 'teacher’s pet', spoiled and indulged me, and thus became my greatest mentor." 

JL: How has your design style developed over the years?

ST: Stylistically I’ve never been trendy.  Trends are great for fashion but the kiss of death in decorating.  Who wants to live in yesterday’s fad?  My own style has always aligned with what is current yet timeless, elegant yet approachable, more classic than cool. And my design philosophy has always been the same: scale and proportion are key; color is subjective; make it individual – make it timeless - make it beautiful. I always strive to create uniquely personalized residences that reflect my clients – who they are, how they want to live, and I hope, where they ultimately are most themselves - at home.

JL: You have done a number of units in 2006 Washington Street in Pacific Heights. How do you keep the ideas fresh as you go from apartment to apartment?

ST: That’s easy for me because I don’t have a cookie-cutter look.  For me, each project is about the client – who they are, how they live, their likes and dislikes, and my job is to create something that is personally reflective, so much them, that it’s beyond anything they could dream on their own.  A house should reflect those who live in it not the decorator, and should become a personal haven.  And 2006 is my most favorite San Francisco building – great architecture, full floor apartments, a classic circular flow, excellent proportions, light on all sides and fabulous views.

Apartment at 2006 Washington Street

Apartment at 2006 Washington Street

JL: As a founder of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art’s Northern California Chapter and a current national board member, what importance do you place on the stewardship of these centuries old design and proportion principles?

ST: For me this stewardship, as you call it, is vital.  Classicism today is still about the essentials of scale and proportion and balance. Education is the key and the ICAA still teaches these fundamental courses that are no longer being taught in 99% of the architecture schools in the country.  My interiors work is not about being a slave to traditional formality or unimaginative constraints, but rather, it’s about a suitable approach in today’s world. I find that many clients and even some architects associate classic design simply with predictable forms—arches, columns, pediments, moldings, etc. But even the most modern structure needs to have its grounding in classical proportions. For my work it’s maintaining a creative focus that is both timely and timeless because it’s based in a classic approach. The human eye will pick up an imbalance and the psyche will know when rooms feel harmonious and others feel discordant – it’s not about the style or the colors, modern or traditional, it’s all about the proportions.

JL: What are your secrets to perfectly marrying art, antiques, and furnishings?

ST: The rigid rules are gone – thank goodness. There are some definite “Don’ts” – don’t buy a “suite” of furniture, don’t buy pairs of everything, don’t hang art too high, don’t have everything in a room brand new.  I love the mix so I would say never to be afraid of putting a piece of great value - art or antiques - next to a flea market find. Mix the high with the low – it will have more character.  I'm also not a purist and definitely believe in mixing contemporary pieces with antiques, modern elements with antiquities. But regardless of style or era, the balance of the furniture and elements in a room are always the most important. Does it fit? Does it look out of place? Look at the lines, study the bones... If it speaks to you, buy it! Live with it and love it, don't forget to feed it with a good wax and pass it onto the next lucky person.  And approach art the same way… love it? Buy it! Move it to different walls, live with it in different spaces.

JL: As this year’s chair of The San Francisco Fall Art and Antiques Show, how do you see this highly regarded event keeping up with the times as current tastes veer away from traditional antiques?

ST: Interestingly enough, we are finding there is still a very strong market for the high-end collectors – that has never changed.  And the pendulum has definitely swung back to mixing the old with the new, the antiques with the modern. In the design world we are always talking about the mix – it’s nothing new and the most chic interiors have always had those ingredients. I always encourage my clients to have at least one piece with some age in a room. It does not have to be over-the-top expensive, but antiques resonate with history's silent voices. The appeal resides in a patina only achievable with time: their very imperfections speak to me of soul and character and life lived.  Besides, a room filled with all new things is so boring… and remember, you don’t want to be the oldest thing in the room!

The San Francisco Art & Antiques Show in its 35th year is one of the oldest and most revered antiques shows in the country and was actually the first show to have international dealers exhibiting.  It’s a not-to-be-missed opening night in San Francisco and there are some exciting changes this year to keep things current and fresh.  The word "Art" is now added to the name of the show by popular demand from many dealers.  The art world goes hand in hand with the decorative arts and collecting plus it opens the show up to a broader range of art galleries exhibiting this year. We have also invited our dealers to think beyond antiques and bring pieces from antiquity to present day (no more 50-year cut-off date). With architect Andrew Skurman, we have reconfigured the entire layout of the show, making the booths much more interactive and compelling, displaying contemporary art with antiquities and 18th century with modern. Wandering through the show is always a visual feast but I think this year it will be particularly compelling especially with the Animalia theme.  

Joseph Lucier Suzanne Tucker

"A house should reflect those who live in it not the decorator, and should become a personal haven."

JL: With purchasing becoming more independent through online bidding at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, do you still work with clients on an advisory basis when they acquire items at auction?

ST: Absolutely. I am often bidding at auctions around the world for my clients or for myself.  And while I rely on the auction house experts to advise on condition and value, there is nothing like seeing a piece in person.  Working with trusted dealers is where you really learn about furniture, what makes something valuable, what to collect and what to avoid.  Trust the experts!

JL: Any favorite current projects?

ST: I consider myself rather fortunate at the moment as all my projects are truly exciting and inspiring for me.  They are also quite geographically varied - here in San Francisco, a breathtaking penthouse for dear friends, a historic Italianate Renaissance house in Presidio Heights, and another historic French house in Pacific Heights, a very cool “surf shack” down the coast and an exquisite 1920's Spanish compound in Pebble Beach.  My work takes me all over from Napa, Tahoe, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, to a spectacular ranch in Aspen with multiple structures for a dedicated environmentalist, a family vacation home at the Yellowstone Club in Montana, and an ongoing project in Little Rock, Arkansas with clients of 28 years.  They’re all my favorites!

JL: How have you seen the design profession change over the years?

ST: Certainly the 80’s had the most profound impact on the profession when we lost so many to the AIDS epidemic.  It’s hard for young designers to understand the magnitude - the loss of knowledge and expertise, the taste and talent, that old-school know-how.  And the designers we lost back then would now be the mentors to the new ones now. There is a generation that has missed out on that experience.  The internet and the digital revolution have certainly impacted our profession in a life-changing way. While I embrace the fact that information is so much more readily available, ultimately the pillars upon which a good design business is built remain the same no matter what: impeccable customer service, excellent relationships with clients, vendors and other partners, and plain old hard work.  You simply cannot get that surfing the internet.  But having product easily available to the customer is not a bad thing – Mr. Macy did that years ago with the concept of mass merchandising in his department stores.  But everyone needs to decide for themselves – are you a Macy’s customer or Bergdorf Goodman?  Me?  I’m unapologetically the latter.

Monterey Peninsula Residence

Monterey Peninsula Residence

JL: What is on the top of your bucket list?

ST: Travel is always up there and I’m forever nursing a case of wanderlust.  So not necessarily in order - India for sure, Peru and Patagonia…Build my dream house one day… Perhaps my dream would be to tackle the interiors of the White House?   But that could end up a total nightmare...

JL: Favorite city in Europe?

ST: London…Paris…Rome…  you’re getting at that wanderlust thing with me.

JL: Favorite romantic weekend getaway?

ST: The Auberge du Soleil in the Napa Valley (Yes, I’m biased because I’ve worked on it for 30 years) … the Post Ranch in Big Sur is heavenly… and our little house in Montecito – simple perfection and muy romantico.

JL: What are you currently reading?

ST: I read multiple books at once and always have stacks by my bedside… Thrive by Arianna Huffington… Jay McInerney’s latest novel Bright Precious Days…  The Collected Stories of Louis Auchincloss, because he was a good friend of my father’s and I’m missing my dad… something about the Paleovedic Diet … A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander which isn’t new but is utterly compelling for anyone interested in architecture, designing a house, getting it right… and the just released Interior Design Master Class by Carl Dellatore, a wonderful volume of essays on various design-related subjects to which I and many of my peers have contributed. A great read and a classic in the making which should be on everyone’s shelf!

Many thanks to Suzanne Tucker and Vera Vandenbosch for working with me on this feature!

Photo credits: Matthew Millman, Peter Estersohn, and Michal Venera

Miguel Villafranca & Brigitte Michelet - Villafranca Studio

Modern Day Stewardship of an Ancient Craft

By Joseph Lucier

Verre églomisé is a technique dating back to the pre-Roman era, but its name is derived from 18th century French decorator and art dealer Jean-Baptiste Glomy (1711–1786), who is responsible for its revival. One of the key historical periods of the art form was in Italy during the 13th to 16th centuries when small panels of glass with designs formed by engraved gilding were applied to reliquaries and portable altars. In one of a number of related processes, the metal is fixed using a gelatin adhesive, which results in a mirror-like, reflective finish in which designs are then engraved.

Working out of a light filled studio in San Francisco's Bayview district, Brigitte Michelet and Miguel Villafranca design with passionate care and precision to keep this centuries old fine art technique alive. Collaborating with many of the Bay Area's top interior designers, their work graces the homes of knowledgeable clients that understand the importance of modern day artisanal patronage.  I was welcomed into Villafranca Studios recently by Brigitte's warm smile and a welcoming discussion of the technique led by Miguel. Theirs is a magical world where dreams come to life on the gold leaf adorned glass known as verre églomisé.

MIGUEL VILLAFRANCA & BRIGITTE MICHELET

MIGUEL VILLAFRANCA & BRIGITTE MICHELET

Joseph Lucier: Tell us about your studies in Paris that laid the foundation as professional fine artists.

Miguel Villafranca:  I studied architecture at The École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts. Besides the disciplines inherent to the profession of architect, there was a large emphasis on architectural drawing, composition, perspective, landscape and human figure. At the same time, I took private painting classes using mediums such as oil paint, acrylic paint, and watercolor. With the school of architecture, we traveled twice a year to Italy, Spain, the South of France, and the Loire country to sketch and paint cityscapes and landscapes. These memorable experiences strengthened my training. It was at that time and in this school that, Brigitte and I met.

Brigitte Michelet: I also studied architecture for 2 years at The École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts before attending The École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs (ENSAD) for 4 years. Also casually called “the Arts Décos,” ENSAD is a school of art and design in Paris and is one of the most prestigious French grandes écoles.  I graduated from ENSAD where I studied with great teachers in different fields such as illustration, typography, graphic design, colors, animated movies, and engraving gaining a broad education in all the visual arts.

JL: What did you get out of being surrounded by centuries of art and architecture while being a student in Paris?

MV: Through being surrounded by centuries of art and architecture from a young age I acquired something we can call a “cultural capital.” It’s something intangible that becomes part of yourself and guides your aesthetic taste throughout your life providing bases and parameters to evaluate and appreciate beauty.

BM: I was born in Paris and studied there. It’s a magical city that had an enormous influence on me. I have always loved it, ever since I was a child, (I learned how to roller-skate under the Eiffel Tower!!). My exposure to Paris trained my eyes in a very unique way for all that is visual.

JL: Do you think there is a stronger sensibility and appreciation towards craftsmanship in Europe as opposed to the United States?

MV: I think that sensibility and appreciation towards craftsmanship manifest themselves in different ways in these two parts of the world. In the United States surprise and subsequently admiration and curiosity is often the response to a high level of savoir-faire. In Europe there is greater familiarity due to long-standing exposure to art in its many forms.

BM: I will not say stronger but different. In Europe, a cultural heritage has been transmitted through generations. European countries have a lot of savoir-faire in so many areas and there is a strong sense of aesthetics. In France there is a culture of memory so to speak; there, for centuries people have kept track of all kinds of methods, techniques in very diverse fields (food, arts, artisanship, architecture, etc.). It’s quite amazing what kind of treatises you can find in specialized libraries! The influence of history is strongly felt in Europe. The USA is a vast country that integrated many diverse influences in a shorter time period; being a young country, there is tremendous enthusiasm and eagerness in welcoming new possibilities and discoveries.

"I was fascinated by the double nature of the gold which appears darker or brighter and luminous depending on the circulation of light and depending on your own movementrevealing the kinetic aspect of églomisé glass which makes it so alive"

JL: What is it about verre églomisé that captured your attention and inspired you to learn the craft?

MV: Brigitte and I discovered verre églomisé many years ago in Paris while visiting an antique dealer. In his store, we saw a mirror with a frame in églomisé glass that left a strong impression on us. I was fascinated by the double nature of the gold which appears darker or brighter and luminous depending on the circulation of light and depending on your own movement, revealing the kinetic aspect of églomisé glass which makes it so alive.

BM: Yes, definitively light was a factor in this love affair! There was also the challenge of working in reverse that was appealing. When you paint on canvas or wood panel or whatever substrate, you build up layers of paint towards you because you will look at the final painting from that same side, the reverse side is not visible and the canvas or wood panel will even disappear from the sight of the viewer under the layers of paints. In églomisé the process is different. We are not only working on the back of the glass but we are also working with a reversed layout. So here is the challenge, you have to control what is happening on the front because it will be the visible side and consequently there is not a lot of space for mistakes! The glass panel plays three important roles. It is the substrate on which precious metals and pigments are applied, it is an integral part of what is seen due to its unique property of reflecting the light, and it importantly acts as the protection to the artwork itself. 

JL: How difficult was the process of teaching yourself this art form?  

MV & BM: When we started to focus on this art form, we saw that we could incorporate our lifelong experience as illustrators and decorative artists in the fields of painting, drawing, engraving, gilding and illustration.  It was a matter of adapting ourselves to working on glass and learning the principles connected to it.  We used all the knowledge and experience we had accumulated until then to master what we have called Églomisé Architectural Glass.  Our approach is a major change of scale from what the original technique was historically intended to be.

JL: What are some of the technical aspects that you have mastered over the years?

MV: I worked for 3 years in the 80s for a prestigious set décor atelier in Paris doing enormous canvases for the Opera de Paris and the Opera de Monte Carlo among others where I became very familiar with painting on a very large scale. Brigitte and I then became illustrators for magazines and books, drawing and painting on a very small scale; I switched from one-foot wide brushes to triple zero brushes, the smallest brush you can find! These two complementary experiences were very valuable to launch myself into the Églomisé Architectural Glass technique.

BM: Conceptual thinking in design, drawing and engraving.

JL: Have you had to educate design professionals to incorporate your work into their interior designs?

BM: We had the incredible luck to be in contact with extremely educated and talented interior designers; they recognized instantly the high value of our work and what they could do with it; it is rewarding to see that what we do is inspiring for them. So the process in that case is very enjoyable and we are very grateful to be involved in remarkable projects. Sometimes we meet clients who don’t know much about verre églomisé, which is perfectly understandable as it is not a common form of artwork and craftsmanship. In that case, we can help them with ideas, suggestions, concepts, showing them a variety of possibilities. We love the collaborative process of our work.

MV: Most of the time, the numerous samples we have, along with photos of completed projects, and a visit to our studio are enough to educate the designers or private clients who don’t know the technique of Eglomisé Architectural Glass.

JL: Are there particular qualities or personality traits that you see in yourselves and artisans who design for the home? 

MV: A great attention to detail as well as to the whole finished piece within its context. The ability to control and master our work ourselves from the very beginning of a project to the very end, a process that is not so common nowadays. I would also add that most of the artisans we have met are very kind, very gentle people, passionate about their work.

BM: I would like to also add that communication and the ability to listen are very important qualities in this profession. In the art field, sometimes respecting a project parameters can be seen as an obstacle to creativity, but I think it’s the opposite, they stimulate and promote creativity.

JL: Do you have a favorite placement for your work OR is there a particular room in the home that best takes advantage of the technique?

BM: Powder Rooms, Master bathrooms, dressing rooms, bar areas and kitchens are quite in demand because verre églomisé creates depth, space, and perspective along with an ethereal atmosphere. In addition, églomisé glass surfaces, in spite of their high refinement, are very easy to maintain and clean. Dining rooms, living rooms, foyers, hallways can be greatly enhanced either by églomisé glass paneling, an accent wall or an églomisé glass art piece.

MV: Églomisé Architectural Glass enhances each place where it is installed playing the role of a jewel within the space. As we can control the level of reflectivity of the panels they can go in every room of the home. For example, in a dining room, we can completely reduce the reflectivity of the panels since people prefer not to look at themselves while eating. Nevertheless the églomisé glass will create a poetic atmosphere with depth, perspective and soft reflections.

"Églomisé Architectural Glass enhances each place where it is installed playing the role of a jewel within the space."

ÉGLOMISÉ GLASS MURAL COMMISSIONED BY ORLANDO DIAZ-AZCUY DESIGN ASSOCIATES FOR A SAN FRANCISCO PENTHOUSE

ÉGLOMISÉ GLASS MURAL COMMISSIONED BY ORLANDO DIAZ-AZCUY DESIGN ASSOCIATES FOR A SAN FRANCISCO PENTHOUSE

JL: What do you love about living in San Francisco?

MV: I love San Francisco! I think it would be difficult for me to live anywhere else in California because of the beauty of the Bay that one can enjoy from so many places in the city. I also love how close it is to the ocean, wine country, and the mountains.  I very much like the “Spirit of San Francisco” with its variety of people, and its multicultural aspect.

BM: San Francisco is a very vibrant and alive city full of charm. Because of its unique and exceptional location, surrounded by water, the quality of the light is very special, there is something ethereal about this city, it has an ever-changing mood. I even start to find charm in the fog! I like the diverse neighborhoods and the San Franciscans so far have taken great care of their city through time and it is very rewarding. It’s also very urban but at the same time the relation to nature is strong here, which is very healthy and contributes to the feeling of wellbeing.

JL: Favorite restaurants?

MV: Flour + Water for its creative dishes and its laid-back atmosphere - Saru Sushi Bar in Noe valley, a tiny little Japanese restaurant with exceptional tasty sushis in a warm, cozy atmosphere - Locanda in the Mission.

BM: Bar Tartine, my favorite Fusion restaurant, Una Pizza Napoletana, the most authentic pizza in San Francisco in a minimalist essential trattoria setting, and Farina.

JL: What are you reading?

MV: I am reading three books these days: The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi, Llamadas Telefónicas  by Roberto Bolaño, and Rue Des Boutiques Obscures by Patrick Modiano who won the 2014 Literature Nobel Prize.

BM: Right now I am reading several books, three by Pr. Michel Pastoureau on colors, Bleu, Vert, and Noir. He is the first historian to specialize in the history of colors in depth, it’s very enriching. I’m also reading l’Africain by JMG Le Clézio, a beautiful novel based on childhood memories in Africa in the 30s-40s .

JL: What do you like to do in your free time?

BM: I never lived in a city by the sea before, so hiking by the ocean is one of my favorites things to do, it’s really regenerating. Spending time with Miguel and friends in the city’s museums, parks and gardens, in particular walking the many stairways in SF, it’s a great way to discover many surprising sides of the city.

MV: Besides all the promenades we do together, I like to practice new techniques in painting like encaustics (beeswax and color pigments).

MIGUEL VILLAFRANCA IN THE STUDIO

MIGUEL VILLAFRANCA IN THE STUDIO

BRIGITTE MICHELET AT WORK ON SCHOOL OF FISHES

BRIGITTE MICHELET AT WORK ON SCHOOL OF FISHES

Please visit the website villafrancastudio.com

Projects included in this piece are from work with ODADA, The Wiseman Group, Navarra Design, Jabarra Athas Associates, and Kathy Best Design.

Photo credits: John Casado and Matthew Millman.

The Big Sink - Millennium Tower

How San Francisco’s ultimate power tower became “a modern-day La Brea tar pit” and, potentially, the city’s costliest real estate battle.

SAN FRANCISCO MAGAZINE NOVEMBER 2016

By Lauren Smiley and Eskenazi

Jerry and Pat Dodson’s problems with Millennium Tower—not of the sinking-into-the-earth sort, but of the social variety—started with a walk around the block. 

It was August 1, the day the news hit the front page of the Chronicle that the 58-story luxury condo building that the Dodsons called home was settling and tilting. Like many of her neighbors, Pat had only learned in May that the Millennium was in a different state than when she’d bought her unit back in 2009 for $2.1 million—namely 16 inches lower and listing several inches to the northwest. Suddenly, the warped, cracking sidewalk at the monolith’s base—like the leaks in the basement and the splintering interior ramp purportedly marbled over by the developer—signaled that something was amiss.

Within weeks, the Millennium would be surpassed in height by the ascending Salesforce Tower and 181 Fremont. But on that day, it was still the tallest building in SoMa, a flashy heavyweight champ draped in architectural awards. High within were the lairs of luminaries like Giants outfielder Hunter Pence (Pablo Sandoval, too, before he decamped for the Boston Red Sox). The late venture capitalist Tom Perkins lived in the penthouse with a steel Minotaur statue, and below were people who had served as a U.S. ambassador, or written a treatise about voting machines, or counted Kimye as friends. 

Millennium Tower.jpg

As Pat headed out for her walk, a TV reporter posted outside the main door asked if she would talk about the leaning tower of San Francisco. He added that the homeowners association (HOA) didn’t want people talking to the press. Pat’s ears perked up. “I’ll call my attorney,” she replied, and with that she dialed her husband of 34 years, Jerry.

Anyone who has an image of downtown high-rise dwellers as reclusive elitists cloistered from the civic fray surely hasn’t met the Dodsons. Pat, a vivacious 71-year-old, had been the director of casework for Representative Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco office. (“Do what Nancy would want you to do” remains a guiding principle.) Jerry, a 69-year-old contrarian with a crown of gray curls, made a career as a government litigator suing U.S. Steel and the coal industry, and later took on Genentech on behalf of the University of California (billing up to $1,100 an hour in private practice, which helped finance the couple’s taste in real estate). Both are attuned to the value of the right press at the right moment, and they weren’t about to be squelched by the building’s resident power structure, or anyone else. 

So Jerry gave Pat the go-ahead to tell the TV reporter whom they see as the primary culprit: the building’s blue-chip New York developer. “The Millennium Partners did not build to bedrock, and that’s the cause of the problem,” Pat stated into the microphone, no nonsense, her bob neat, collar protruding from under her jean jacket. “They will lose in any court, I believe, if they fight this.” By “this,” she was referring to the new focus of Jerry’s in-home law practice: suing Millennium Partners on behalf of himself and allied residents.

After the TV appearance, the Dodsons quickly became the go-to public face of the building, offering a counternarrative to that of the developer and a contingent of more than 140 fellow residents who have opted to direct their legal rancor at the tower’s next-door neighbor, the deep-pocketed, taxpayer-subsidized Transbay Joint Powers Authority. The TJPA has poured billions into building a terminus for California’s high-speed rail project—an aspirational Grand Central Station of the West—which, Millennium Partners charges, has “recklessly” undermined the soil beneath the tower, causing the skyscraper to sink and lean and setting countless parties on a collision course of blame, scorn, and litigation.

But the Dodsons had been bucking that line ever since Southern California attorney David Casselman first showed up at an HOA meeting back in May, several months before the building’s woes would come out in the press. At the meeting, the attorney broached the legal option of suing the TJPA. Jerry Dodson argued that the residents should not be trusting the developer, or Casselman, who had also been representing the HOA in negotiations with Millennium Partners. Rather, they should be looking hard at why Millennium had allegedly never disclosed the building’s condition when residents were buying their units in the first place. “Why on earth would you not sue the party that’s responsible for the building sinking?” he asks. (The HOA itself initiated legal action against both the developer and the TJPA in August.)

As the Dodsons started speaking regularly in the news, Casselman charged right back, in an August mass email to the tower dwellers who’d signed up for his lawsuit, that Jerry, by talking in the press, had blown up the board’s attempt to “handle these matters in a discreet, professional manner.” (“I think Jerry is totally overreacting,” says one TJPA-suing resident. He compares Dodson to an apoplectic backseat driver screaming during a treacherous stretch of road, “You could get into an accident!”) Casselman contends that the publicity generated by Dodson’s accusations has only made life worse for his fellow tower dwellers, triggering an avalanche of unfortunate events: banks halting lending to would-be buyers, condo sales flatlining, Uber drivers pulling up and asking, “Is this building sinking?” 

The answer to that question is, sadly, yes. And the harsh truth is that the problems with the sinking, tilting Millennium had already been noticed by many knowledgeable parties around the city even while being hidden from residents who had invested millions—for some of them, their life’s savings—to buy in. In fact, City Hall staffers and construction professionals had been chatting about it for years. “Mil-lean-ium,” as one wag has taken to calling it, was “the worst-kept secret in town.”

Tom Perkins Grand Penthouse Living Room by Ryan Associates 

Tom Perkins Grand Penthouse Living Room by Ryan Associates 

When work started on the Millennium a decade ago, word got out fast in the development community that the concrete tower—uniquely heavy for such a tall structure built on landfill and not anchored to bedrock—was having problems. “Construction guys are like everybody else,” says one major city developer. “We’re all gossipy—like little old ladies.” Another builder says he heard that an acquaintance was considering buying into the building when its units first went on sale. The developer told him about the rumors of sinkage: “He did a little homework, and, even in 2009, there was enough evidence. He backed out.” 

This question of who knew what and when is at the heart of the inquiries that are now roiling City Hall and occupying an army of lawyers and engineers up and down the state. And it’s opening the door for a political power play that’s likely to reverberate for years to come.

On the afternoon of September 22, Supervisor Aaron Peskin lifted a packet of papers to his graying mustache with a theatrical flourish in his City Hall office. He gave it a deep, suspicious sniff. The ink was still wet, the paper warm. “These have just been printed,” he said, playing the sleuth in a 58-story mystery series unspooling nightly on the news. The temperature of the document roused the lawmaker’s suspicion because the man presenting it to him—Tom Hui, director of the city’s Department of Building Inspection (DBI)—had failed to mention the existence of this seven-week-old report during several hours of persistent grilling earlier that day at a Board of Supervisors hearing. And yet here it now was, hot off the presses.

Recounting the incident one day later at a North Beach café, Peskin chuckled at the ridiculousness of the moment. Although, in a deeper sense, he wasn’t laughing. “This is getting to where somebody calls the FBI,” he said. “This ain’t funny.” Peskin’s suspicions of official misconduct start in the office of the DBI and trickle upward, perhaps all the way to the upper echelons of City Hall. These suspicions are not yet backed by hard evidence or (so far, at least) anything that one could construe as a political smoking gun. 

But Peskin does have a letter penned in 2009 by then–DBI deputy director Raymond Lui—a document that, in mid-September, the supervisor blew up to poster size for a televised press conference. In this letter, Lui grilled the Millennium’s engineer of record with eight separate queries regarding the building’s “larger than expected settlement.” Before the first luxury condo had been sold, the Millennium had already sunk 8.3 inches and counting, more than the 4 to 6 inches that originally had been predicted by the developer’s engineers for the building’s entire lifetime. “That, Mr. Lui, is quite the letter you wrote,” Peskin told him at the September hearing. “What got you to write it?” Lui calmly said he could not recall.

Despite clear evidence that DBI higher-ups had approved a building they’d been warned was sinking, the department’s representatives maintained that their on-the-ground inspectors hadn’t actually detected any sinking—and no higher-up appears to have clued them in. As the denials piled up at the hearing, dozens of Millennium residents seated in the Board of Supervisors chambers murmured and shook their heads incredulously: The “worst-kept secret in town” had eluded the two groups who could have benefited most from learning it—building inspectors and condo buyers. Instead, in August 2009, the DBI green-lit the building to begin sales. Moving trucks packed with Minotaur statues were soon pulling up out front.

September’s hearing was a transcendently bad showing for the DBI; an Internet video soon began circulating among city political junkies featuring a mash-up of Peskin’s sharply worded questions and clips from Hogan’s Heroes. (Peskin: “This is not adding up. Do you want to take another run at what you just said?” Sergeant Schultz: “I see nothing! I know nothing!”) The supervisor chalked up the DBI’s performance to “a combination of things ranging from fear to incompetence to malfeasance.” Mayor Ed Lee’s summation was, in its way, even harsher. Hours after the hearing, the mayor announced that DBI leadership changes were in store: City Administrator Naomi Kelly and Department of Emergency Management director Anne Kronenberg—neither of them with any experience in building or construction—would be brought on “to strengthen, if necessary, existing building codes and independent review processes for current and future high-rises.” 

For Peskin, the mayor’s underlying message was clear: “DBI is a hot mess.” The supervisor pledged that the September hearing would be the first of many. New information, he said, was already flowing his way: “Generally, what happens at moments like these is, people come out of the woodwork.”

Millennium tower and the san franciso-oakland bay bridge

Millennium tower and the san franciso-oakland bay bridge

On a Monday morning in September, Jerry Dodson rushed into the Millennium’s 42nd-floor elevator and zoomed down to “L.” He’d gotten an urgent email from a tower neighbor who was being blocked from entering an HOA press conference on the ground floor. (The HOA claimed that the meeting was only for the press.) There, a clutch of reporters was listening to geotechnical engineer Patrick Shires as he explained how, at the behest of the HOA and the developer, his company was boring three holes down to bedrock to test how the soil was settling under the Millennium. Only the homeowners association has the legal standing to sue for construction defects of the entire building, which could force a fix. The state of the soil—how it’s compressing, and where—is an important clue to what’s going on and why.

Arriving, Dodson was also blocked from entering the room by the press conference’s handlers. (“I wasn’t planning on attending the damn thing until they told me I couldn’t attend,” he says.) To him it seemed like more secrecy from a board that had been rebuking his calls for transparency for months. Residents elect the members of three different “baby boards” governing different levels of Millennium Tower; those boards elect members to the Millennium Tower Association, known among residents as the “Center Board,” a nonprofit corporation that makes building-wide decisions and has a fiduciary duty to the building’s homeowners. Yet the Center Board hadn’t been telling members everything it knew: Residents weren’t informed that the HOA had hired Shires to look into the settling back in 2014, or that Millennium Partners had made a presentation to Shires and the Center Board about settlement issues in June 2015. It would be nearly another year before all residents got notice of a special meeting for homeowners on May 10. The 100 or so curious attendees were asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement before Shires explained to them that the homes that many thought were the city’s gold standard were tilting and sinking.

After the September press conference, Shires and the HOA’s hired spokeswoman, Evette Davis, led the media outside to where a drill was boring down into the sidewalk, pumping displaced water out of the SoMa earth like a turbocharged chocolate fountain. Soon a scrum of reporters drifted over to another free-flowing source of information: Jerry Dodson, tucked into a doorway, holding forth in full prosecutorial mode for 40 minutes regarding everything that stunk about how Millennium Partners and the HOA were handling this. All the while, Davis stood off to the side, her brow furrowed with evident displeasure.

Dodson’s conflict with the HOA had begun long before reporters were on hand to document it. At his first meeting serving on the association’s legal committee in the fall of 2014, he recalls, he heard a “mild allusion” to a problem with the building. Dodson demanded documents analyzing the building’s stability, he says. The acrimony escalated once the settling was officially revealed to residents in May 2016, at which point Dodson began voicing what would become his refrain at such meetings: that the board needed to hire a construction defect attorney, someone who would look at legal action against the developer itself. “Over and over again, in private and public meetings, I was told to shut up,” he says. 

Instead the board introduced Tarzana-based Casselman, a specialist in so-called inverse condemnation cases, or suing a government agency for damage to private property. The board invited Casselman to speak to residents at a special May meeting. “Lawyers in the building were pushing for other law firms [to be interviewed], but no one got this treatment,” says one resident present at the meeting. “Next thing you know, [Casselman] was in the club lounge with a box of business cards.”

Dodson resigned from the legal committee in June and went into full gadfly mode, starting a private website for residents chronicling the saga, reporting on meetings, and posting documents he tracked down. He wrote a blog post about going to visit former mayor Willie Brown, who he says advised him to hire the best construction defect attorney money could buy and offered to broker an intro to former secretary of state and Bechtel president George Shultz. (Helpfully, Brown also suggested that Dodson sponsor a contest for civil engineering college students to come up with unorthodox fixes for Millennium Tower.)

The Dodsons have many defenders in the building—one of them, who prefers to remain anonymous, calls them “our champions”—yet the pushback from other residents has made their “vertical neighborhood” no longer feel so convivial. “People are upset about the Dodsons because they’re unilaterally doing their own thing,” says one resident. “But the things they’re saying in the press affect everybody. This is not just their own house.” The backlash is the reason Jerry told a reporter not to take photos during a private tour through the tower’s Club Level dining room, gym, movie theater, and wine cellar. To be quoted in the press was one thing, but to be seen traipsing through the halls with a journalist was another. “I am so controversial in this building,” he later said.

But the most polarizing—and consequential—action from the Dodsons is still yet to come: the promised lawsuit versus Millennium Partners. Casselman, the attorney suing the TJPA, maintains that his strategy is the sounder one (not just because he believes the agency is the problem, but because inverse condemnation law allows residents to collect legal fees on top of any award, whereas suing the developer will steer up to 40 percent of any award to lawyers). Dodson isn’t buying his logic. “Why would you let [Millennium Partners] off the hook and continue to say, ‘We had nothing to do with it,’ and blame it on Transbay?” he vents. “You go after the party that’s responsible.”

glenn rescalvo of handel architects designed millennium tower

glenn rescalvo of handel architects designed millennium tower

On the morning of September 20, an email landed in journalists’ in-boxes spotting them 63 minutes to make a date with Millennium Partners founding partner Christopher Jeffries. “This will be Mr. Jeffries [sic] only media availability,” the invite stated. The media dutifully showed up for a detailed presentation, aided by a PowerPoint featuring a slide that read, “We Did It Right.”

It was a tense affair for the developer—all the more so because, two hours earlier, he’d been hit with a subpoena from City Attorney Dennis Herrera. “I have serious concerns that the disclosures required by state law”—three-inch-thick binders distributed by the developer to buyers like the Dodsons prior to finalizing sales—“did not contain information about the settling of the property,” the city attorney wrote. The closing line of Herrera’s press release noted, significantly, that the investigation was being led by his Complex and Affirmative Litigation Unit. This indicated that the city attorney had an interest in suing the developer on behalf of the people of California, as former city attorney Louise Renne did with Enron in 2001. The city attorney, it seems, may be more eager to enter into a legal firefight with the developers of Millennium Tower than many of the tower’s own residents. 

Faced with this threat, Jeffries and his attorney Peter Meier went on the offensive. The TJPA, Jeffries said solemnly, had been “reckless,” sucking groundwater out from beneath Millennium Tower in violation of both written agreements and common sense, causing the skyscraper to settle into the bay mud sloshing beneath the streets of SoMa. Reporters were shown photos of supposed dewatering tanks on the site of the TJPA’s excavations; after an hourlong salvo directed at the TJPA, Jeffries told the crowd that “we are appalled that this situation has become one of finger-pointing.” 

Undeterred, the TJPA pointed a finger right back. Agency spokesman Scott Boule claimed that by the time the TJPA began dewatering in 2013, the Millennium “had settled approximately 12.1 inches.” He emphasized that the tower is leaning away from the TJPA and its supposed “reckless” dewatering (and toward another construction site: Kilroy Realty’s project at 350 Mission Street). Boule noted that 350 Mission Street and various other adjacent properties have also been dewatering. The problem, he claims, is not the dewatering at all, but Millennium Tower’s “inadequate foundation.”

At his press conference, Jeffries stated—truthfully—that many large buildings in San Francisco don’t reach bedrock, and that his tower and its foundation conform to city codes. But he did not divulge that Millennium Tower is the tallest residential structure west of the Mississippi and, crafted of poured concrete, may be the heaviest, too. Concrete is both cheaper and far heavier than steel (the price of which can fluctuate sharply) and affords developers a chance to maximize the bang for their buck. Rather than requiring three-foot gaps between floors as steel structures do, concrete buildings require only a foot-wide slab. You can, lucratively, cram more units into a building this way—Millennium Tower features 58 stories in a 645-foot-tall structure; steel-framed 555 California, by contrast, is only 52 stories tall despite its 779-foot height. The weight adds up, though: One city structural engineer estimates that Millennium Tower may carry the bulk of a 150-story steel-frame building. 

What’s more, the heavy Millennium occupies a relatively svelte footprint, like a stiletto heel. “It acts like a javelin,” explains a developer. “The weight is pushing it down.” The tower, according to a report prepared by the engineering firm Arup and disseminated by the TJPA, is nearly five times heavier than any of the other structures abutting the TJPA, none of which are sinking. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that if you build a super heavy building on friction piles on bay mud and sand,” says a veteran city developer, “something bad might happen.”

millennium tower (right) flanks Jay Paul's 181 fremont

millennium tower (right) flanks Jay Paul's 181 fremont

When plans for the Millennium first landed at the Department of Building Inspection in 2002, fairly little new high-rise construction had sprouted downtown in 20 years. Nearly every building followed the voluminous building codes, which include the recipes for the city’s iconic Victorians as well as the first iterations of New York–style high-rise living. Even through the ’90s, high-rise development continued to cling to the old-money havens of Nob and Russian Hills and Pacific Heights. The “good buildings” were stately places like 2006 Washington Street, whose residents can peer behind the bush that encases Danielle Steel’s Spreckels Mansion. 

Yet at the conclusion of the first dot-com boom, plans for the Millennium and other neighborhood-transforming towers began inundating the DBI. Unfortunately, the city’s building inspectors were not equipped to monitor this new style of building. During Peskin’s September hearing, DBI deputy director Ronald Tom acknowledged that his department remains dependent upon the advanced engineering work of third-party contractors who are hired not by the city but by the developers. The Millennium, Tom said, was “one of the first tall, heavy buildings” to cross the department’s docket and, as such, was not subjected to the same level of outside peer review by academics and working engineers that similar structures now are. A longtime DBI staffer sums up the Millennium debacle thusly: The tower’s designers “fucked up the calcs.” And small wonder: “We’d never seen one like this before; we’d never seen a 50-story poured-in-place concrete building on compressed soil.”

And yet that’s not quite true. The city had seen one like this before—and rejected it. At around the same time Millennium Tower was moving toward approval and construction, developer Jack Myers submitted plans to erect a skyscraper at 80 Natoma, just two blocks away from the Millennium’s site. It would, like the Millennium, be a poured-concrete structure, though a daintier 52 stories instead of 58. As described by then–DBI director Frank Chiu in 2004, the proposed tower at 80 Natoma and the ground upon which it would have stood reads like a mirror image of the Millennium: It would be “thin relative to its height,” “built on soft soils that are subject to compression, and supported on short piles that wouldn’t reach the bedrock 190 feet below.” Also, it would be “an extraordinarily heavy structure.” 

Sans in-house rocket scientists, Chiu called in outside experts for detailed analysis on 80 Natoma. After a full peer review of the building, its foundation, and the soil, Chiu wrote that the experts had determined that “the building could settle an alarming and unacceptable 9–11 inches.” Based on the result of this peer review, the DBI halted the project. (Following a lawsuit, the city eventually purchased the property—which sits above the right-of-way for the proposed path of the high-speed rail tunnel—for $58 million.) For the Millennium—essentially across the street—a similarly rigorous peer review panel was not convened to evaluate the soil and foundation under the tower, and instead largely focused on its aboveground elements.

So why would the DBI pursue full peer review for one heavy, tall, thin building resting on sand and fill and not mandate it for another? Peskin asked about this discrepancy at his hearing. Hanson Tom, the city’s principal engineer, testified that he could not compel the recalcitrant Millennium Partners to submit to a full peer review—a potentially years-long process that can cost developers a fortune, especially if the ever-cranky engineers return bad news. And so the Millennium, unlike the proposed tower at 80 Natoma, simply skated through. The DBI claims it had no authority to force the developers of a structure that “followed the building code in effect at the time of submission” into including a geotechnical engineer on a peer review panel studying the subterranean elements of that project. This is an argument that many in the city, including Peskin, are loath to accept. “We are far from having gotten to the bottom of this,” he says. “The city had absolute authority to require peer review on every element of the project. But Hanson Tom was thwarted in that.”

What’s not at question is where things will go from here: sideways. Everyone is going to sue everyone. Residents are gearing up to sue the TJPA; Dodson is promising to lead a suit against Millennium; the HOA has initiated legal action against builder Webcor, Millennium, and the TJPA; the city may sue Millennium; Millennium may sue the TJPA; and, if Millennium claims dewatering is the source of its woes, it may additionally sue all the adjacent properties that also dewatered. “It’ll be the largest construction defect lawsuit in Northern California history short of the Bay Bridge,” predicts a veteran developer. “It’ll be a 10-year nightmare: a modern-day La Brea tar pit.”

bamo designed interiors for millennium tower client

bamo designed interiors for millennium tower client

For certain parties, however—most notably Supervisor Peskin—the Millennium fiasco also presents an opportunity. For the ambitious parliamentarian, this is a chance to wade deep into city building rules (his happy place) while, in the words of one City Hall fixture, “looking like Eliot Ness.” As an added bonus, he gets to cause grief for some of his least favorite entities: rapacious developers, the spendthrift TJPA, and “Oh, by the way, it doesn’t hurt that it causes pain for Gavin Newsom,” notes a veteran political operative. At his first Millennium-themed press conference, Peskin issued a “very serious allegation”: that a decade ago “there was some level of political interference” with DBI officials.

And yet nobody has solidified the charge that then-mayor Newsom or anyone in his inner circle leaned on the DBI to grant Millennium’s approvals. DBI insiders, in fact, claim that top-down pressure is applied less overtly. The Mayor’s Office “will never tell you, ‘You must sign, no matter what,’” says a longtime department staffer. “They say, ‘Hey! This is an important project. Can you put this guy closer to the top of the list?’” Like deep beneath the ocean, pressure at the DBI is amorphous, constant, and exerted from all sides. “There is always some pressure,” admits 29-year department veteran Hanson Tom—who testified that the “deficiency” in city strictures that allowed the Millennium to skimp on peer review ultimately inspired him to tighten the rules (by which time the tower was both ascending toward the heavens and sinking into the earth). 

Still, even without rock-solid evidence of political interference, Peskin has navigated into a target-rich environment. He’ll get credit for whatever malfeasance or ineptitude he uncovers and dodge criticism for whatever he doesn’t. He’ll also be acting as an avenging angel on behalf of wealthy tower dwellers, who could be a useful asset if he chooses to run for future office. “If 20 percent of what Peskin is alleging is true, [the media] will report he saw it coming,” continues the operative.

What’s more, say observers, the Millennium campaign helps return Peskin to his activist roots while revitalizing the outsider status that he first rode into office as part of a wave of discontent with Mayor Willie Brown in 2000. “If he wants to recapture that magic, bringing back these examples of developers running roughshod over San Francisco could be politically advantageous to him,” notes a city political consultant. “If Aaron wants to be mayor, and I believe he does, standing up to perceived corruption in City Hall would be a powerful platform.” 

Whether or not the city will be forced to strengthen its building codes—and some developers hope Peskin’s crusade will force just that—the Millennium meltdown will create new demands from buyers. “People who can afford to spend millions on condos are going to ask [about going to bedrock]—and if they don’t, their attorneys will,” predicts a condo developer. 

City structural engineers have long pined for a safety rating of sorts, something that discerning types could use to determine how sound a building is. Skeptics predicted it’d take a good-size earthquake to jolt people into thinking this way. Now maybe it won’t.

As for the Millennium, realtor Joseph Lucier of Sotheby's International Realty, who has clients residing in the tower, thinks the problems will hurt the resale of midsize units, of which there is ample inventory throughout SoMa—but likely won’t affect the highest-end units. “There’s only so many penthouses in San Francisco,” he says. “And when you get into that category of individual, I don’t care how nice they are, there’s a bigger-than, better-than sense to their assets.” Also, penthouse seekers are all-cash buyers, so banks refusing to lend on the properties is a moot point for them. Lucier figures that ultimately the tilting and sinking—when fixed—will become a blip in the building’s history. “If the Transamerica sunk and tilted in 1978, and it was fixed by ’81, would that deter a tenant now?” he asks.

But that seems a distant hope for the people still inside. Casselman, the TJPA-suing attorney, says one of his anxious clients already sold at a loss and moved out. The Dodsons had hoped to pass on their unit to their adult son, but now, Pat says, “I won’t let him spend the night.” More than 150 homeowners have sought property tax reassessments—with some reporting the value of their property as $0.

One resident who didn’t want to be identified was remarkably sanguine about the financial repercussions: “These people have shitloads of money—what are they complaining about? It’s an investment. I may lose money, but such is life.”

His insouciance doesn’t seem to be shared by many. Numerous residents don’t think they have two years, let alone decades, before the building’s systems begin failing: The elevators may tilt out of alignment; the plumbing may burst. So incensed is Nina Agabian, a UCSF professor who lives in the building, that she wrote a Chronicle op-ed demanding that the city halt Millennium Partners’ other S.F. construction project—the 47-story luxury condo tower and adjacent low-rise housing the future Mexican Museum—as an incentive to force a fix.

The Dodsons are keeping the pressure on. After crashing the HOA’s press conference, Jerry invited a TV reporter up to his condo for a sit-down interview. The newsman had an idea: With the camera recording, Dodson placed a few golf balls on his living room floor. One by one, they rolled to the northwest.

Villa Feltrinelli - BAMO

Sophisticated Italian luxury along the shores of Lake Garda

There is that day that we all wait for: when the phone rings and we are asked to come along for a ride – a ride into a dream from another world, maybe even another time.  Such was the case when Pamela Babey and Steve Henry of San Francisco’s premier design firm, BAMO, received a call from Bob Burns, an old client, friend, and collaborator. After the 1992 sale of his storied hospitality group, Regent International Hotels, legendary hotelier Bob Burns purchased Villa Feltrinelli along the shores of Italy’s Lake Garda and set about turning it into his perfect summer house.  Uncompromising to the last and with vast budgets blown, Burns ultimately brought in BAMO to fashion his retreat into one Europe’s most dreamy hotels.  The Villa, built in 1788 for the Feltrinelli clan, had a storied past including an occupation by Italian dictator Mussolini (from 1943 to 1945) where he ran the Fascist puppet republic of Salo (although the view of the water from his bedroom – now known as the Magnolia suite – didn’t appeal to him; Mussolini hated lakes).  Opening in 2001, Villa Feltrinelli offered guests a fantasy of towers and frescoes bathed in wonderfully lavish interiors and cradled by sumptuous lawns and pools of marble.  
Having just completed a light-handed update of the Villa’s interiors in 2014, Pamela Babey and Steve Henry talk to CaenLucier about their personal stewardship of this legendary continental property.
Pamela Babey and Steve Henry

Pamela Babey and Steve Henry

CaenLucier: BAMO has a made name for itself in the hospitality space.  How did the firm get established working with hotel owners and operators?

Pamela Babey: With hotelier Bob Burns, it was with the Pfister office and a prior existing relationship with his earlier Regent Hotels. This led to the design of the Four Seasons Milan and the Villa Feltrinelli.  We first worked with Mandarin Hotels--probably because we were next door--and had experience in doing several hotels from previous offices and they were renovating.  It was a simpler process in the 1990’s.

CL: Villa Feltrinelli is such a magical location and a storied, family residence.  What was it that Bob Burns initially saw in the property and how did you work with his vision to create what welcomes guests today?

PB: Bob was fascinated by The Point in The Adirondacks.  The idea that one could stay in a lodge and feel “at home.”  The concept that you would not feel that you needed to lock your door, that everything was taken care of and personal.   Bob thought Italy could do this even better with more romance and style and the best food!  We began the discussions and the stories, worked with him for approval on the basics, and from there we just built a dream.

CL: You mentioned that exceptional hotels come from exceptional property owners.  How have you seen Burns’ style mature over the years as an hotelier?

PB: For me Bob did not mature… he was perfect, he had done this for years top to bottom.  Steve and I matured.  We learned to care about every little knob, and hook and painting: every cushion, every chair’s comfort and purpose.  It was an amazing experience.  Then to top it off, we worked hand in hand with the training of staff until the opening celebrations.  It was a complete sort of project rarely seen today.

"The setting of the house on the lake, the constant sounds of the waves, the breezes, and the majestic old trees in the gardens.  The Villa interiors are amazing, but when you add in the atmosphere of the surroundings, it becomes a full sensory experience."

CL: Do you remember the feeling you had when you saw the villa for the first time?

PB: YES, It was a chilly February night. The project manager picked me up from the Milano train, and we drove over the hill at Salo on a very damp night.  Driving up the lake for about an hour was rather romantic, and arriving at the villa, coming down the steep drive to a deserted house, was mysterious. Walking in through the padlocked doorway, into the poorly lit foyer was almost disheartening!  Its feeling was sort of lost in time, with no sparkle.   The next day under the sun and glitter of lake, all possibilities were apparent and the future was thrilling. 

Steve Henry: Absolutely, it was late afternoon and all the rooms were shuttered. Lightbulbs dangled in the center of each room by a wire illuminating the most wonderful painted ceilings and woodwork—all covered in decades of dust and cobwebs. I opened a shutter in what would become the bathroom of Turchese and a bird fluttered and snuck out to the gardens through a busted window.

CL: How does it feel now when you revisit the property?

PB: It feels fabulous!  It is breathtaking and such a marvelous location.  No wonder some guests come back each a season.

SH: It feels like going home. When Pamela and I returned in 2014, it was the first time I’d been back since the opening in 2001. Everything was absolutely the same as we’d left it. It was impeccable. We sat on the terrace and had a glass of prosecco as a guest departed in a helicopter right beside us.

CL: What parts of the property are most inspiring to you?

PB: The walk along the lakefront.  Sitting on the “front porch.” Closing the door behind you in the cool dark Veneziana room, I love it.

SH: The setting of the house on the lake, the constant sound of the waves, the breezes, and the majestic old trees in the garden. The Villa interiors are amazing but when you add in the atmosphere of the surroundings, it become a full sensory experience. 

CL: Did you try to give the interiors a specific Italian look and feel or, simply, old money elegance?

PB: Definitely understated.  No cliché glamour.   But guidelines of fresh, Italian. Italian-made, and with objects from the family visits around the world.

SH: When we first designed the Villa, I would bring things to show Pamela and she would always say to me, “That doesn’t look Italian. We have to make it an Italian country house”, so I learned!! As the project neared completion, everyone’s curiosity was so heightened. Mr. Malzonni, the head restoration expert was always puzzled, trying to understand what our final rooms would look like. He was expecting a very serious Italian museum-like approach and he was so pleased that we respected the integrity of the rooms but brought a very livable, relaxed atmosphere of a private home - one that was lived in and nurtured through the generations.

CL: When you completed the project, what rooms or attributes of your work please you the most?

SH: I was happy that we were able to achieve a really layered atmosphere.  As you walk from room to room, you truly feel like you are a guest in a luxurious private house. In other words, there is a very strong point of view that is consistent throughout all of the Villa.

PB: There is a feeling that you could “live there,” it is not untouchable and precious. It may not be apparent in the photos, but when there it is very comfortable wither you curl up on the terrace sofa with the newspaper and coffee, or drew up for dinner in the evening.

CL: How do you define luxury?

PB: Luxury here is a sense of freedom, an environment of pleasure and satisfaction.  A visual calm and the presence of nature is definitely a key player here.

SH: To me, luxury is being taken away from my day-to-day world and given a wonderful experience that enriches my life. Luxury is an escape from the real world.

CL: How did you approach your recent updating of the villa?  Were there specific items on the list to tackle and were there improvements that were identified organically from a second look?

SH: For our “new look” we were very careful not to change the mood, but we definitely lightened the palette and a new “summery attitude” to the rooms. The Villa is open from the spring through the early fall, so it’s a summer place by the lake.

PB: Part of how we approached it was to include artisans and workshops from the local area to do paintings and slipcovers, so they have a personal, vested connection to the property. We wanted most of what was done to be Italian, all of the craftsmen and workrooms are from the surrounding villages and towns: the painter, the woodworker, the seamstress.

CL: What is your viewpoint on the importance of a hotel’s guest reception experience?

SH: At the Villa, it’s a very old fashioned greeting – the charming married couple Gabi and Peter meet you on the front terrace with a bouquet and glass of champagne as your car sweeps down the drive and the front entry is brought into focus. It’s a bit like arriving at Downton Abbey. They whisk you inside and out onto the lakefront terrace while your luggage is taken to your room and unpacked for you.

PB: When arriving you see little glints of the lake through the trees, stepping inside to the cool foyer and seeing the full lake view is both exciting and calming.  I think this sets the mood for the visit.

CL: How does a particular property inform design decisions?

SH: You always have to let the individual property lead the way. You have to do what the project wants, not necessarily what you want as a designer. For the Villa, each guestroom is different and unique. Since it was to feel like a grand country house, there are tons of antiques and objects that we bought in little towns throughout the region. These give that personal flavor that we sought.

CL: How do you approach a master bedroom and bath in a hotel as opposed to a private residence?

SH: For a hotel, you are striving to please a broad range of tastes. For a residence you are working directly with one of two people to give them exactly what they need. The design becomes much more personalized.

PB: On this property we have sort of two styles, the Villa has a white marble and tile environment that is “more of the estate.” While the buildings scattered on the gardens, the Casa di Fiori, the Rustica, and the Limonaia, have hand-painted tile bathrooms that are a bit more of the “Italian Countryside.” Both have every comfort and every element well placed and thought of. 

"You always let the individual property lead the way. You have to do what the property wants, not necessarily what you want as a designer."

Jerimiah Goodman's Rendering of the Salon

Jerimiah Goodman's Rendering of the Salon

CL: What other hotels in Italy or, for that matter, internationally do you dream about?

PB: Aman in Venice (I want to redo it) and I want to see the Ritz in Paris.

CL: Speak to our readers about the importance of lighting.

SH: It is super critical and when it is done right, you aren’t consciously aware of it at all. You just know that something has been done to make the room look just right. What Bob Burns taught is that when dining, nothing makes a person’s face look more seductive than when lit by the warm light of a well-placed lamp. So when we designed the dining room at the Villa, we dotted red silk lampshades around the room, and created new wall sconces that look as if they had been there forever— and they have red shades too. Then we did clever things like developing historically evocative up-lights that softly light the old painted ceiling. Our lady in France who developed them from our sketch called them “the black lettuces.” Everything goes into place and then we dim all of the lights so that each one plays its own individual role.  

CL: How has your experience given you an eye and a feel for layering details and finishes?

SH: The layering of a room gives it personality and richness. A new client came to us to do their house in New York because they loved staying at the Villa on their wedding trip. When I quizzed them as to what they liked about the Villa, the husband said, “Everywhere my eye looked, I saw an intriguing detail.”

CL: At this point in your career, what would a dream project look like?

SH: Honestly it was our recent refresh of the Villa, because our client told us to “just do what you feel is right.” It takes a lot of confidence for a client to give you that brief and then to let you run free. They didn’t hover and question what we did. Every detail of every room was reconsidered but with the overarching idea that a return guest would arrive and think , I don’t know what was done but somehow it feels even lovelier that I had remembered.

Arrivederci...

Arrivederci...

Stacey Caen and Joe Lucier thank Pamela Babey, Steve Henry, and Alyssa Terry for the creation of this feature!

Image credits
Renderings: Jeremiah Goodman
Photographers: Oberto Gili, Henry Thoreau, Ottovio Tomasini, Lucas Allen, BAMO

 

 

BAMO - Residential & Hospitality Design

The timeless elegance and sophistication of BAMO

In 1991 BAMO was born.  Initially working together at Charles Pfister's eponymous San Francisco design firm, Pamela Babey, Michael Booth, Gerry Jue, and David Moulton set out to carry on the principles of Pfister’s firm as a foundation to explore their collective talents and create the BAMO alchemy of quality, service and attention-to-detail.  With the addition of principals Dorothy Greene and Steve Henry, the firm has built a reputation that solicits calls from the hospitality world’s top tier as well as the world’s most discerning residential clientele.  To experience a BAMO project is to admire a work of art – one that defies fads with timeless elegance, formulas with inventive design, and everyday life with the sophistication of true luxury.

CaenLucier had the opportunity to sit down with these San Francisco design luminaries to offer our readers an opportunity to hear the dialogue inside the heart and soul of BAMO. Enjoy the read!

BAMO - Gerry jue, dorothy greene, michael booth, steve henry, and pamela babey

BAMO - Gerry jue, dorothy greene, michael booth, steve henry, and pamela babey

CaenLucier: When BAMO formed in the early 1990s, what design principles were brought along from the team’s prior work with Charles Pfister?  Do any of those design maxims remain today?

Michael Booth: Yes, those maxims still resonate today. You need to watch the Charles Pfister video on YouTube. Pamela, Gerry and a little bit of me are interviewed extensively about Charles personally and his firm. You’ll learn all you need to know about the roots of that office. That said, we have moved on with our own identity and the Pfister legacy is part of our history.

Gerry Jue: We brought many design values with us from the Pfister office: e.g. a strict attention to detail, the importance of lighting, and clarity of color.  But we also felt that the new firm was, and still is, our opportunity to explore new ideas and new ways of achieving them.

CL: How have you seen the interior design profession change over the last 25 years?

MB: That’s a big question. Biggest for me is the level of sophistication and “worldliness” of our core client base which has grown dramatically.  

Dorothy Greene: Maybe as a result of this, we’ve seen a gradual change from illustrating or presenting a design to the client, to a more immersive process of narrating the full story of the design – from context and inspiration through to the resulting design concept.

GJ: The way designs are generated, studied and presented has changed drastically. Twenty five years ago everyone from partner to intern communicated about design through drawing - it was the common language regardless of age.  And drawings, along with physical models, were how we presented a design.  Since then, technology has really changed everything - from how we work inside the office to how clients expect design work to be presented, to how much financial resources are needed to service that technology.  And all of that in half the time we used to have!

"A true collaboration and open sharing of ideas between the architect and interior designer will create the most seamless and successful projects."

CL: Working on hospitality projects all over the globe, how do you best succeed with different cultural business practices and construction work ethics?

DG: That’s a great question.  Each country has its own cultural communication and construction process, and conducting work in, for instance, Brazil is a much different process than working in a country like Japan.  The key is to listen, observe, and adapt.  The goal is always the same – to have a successful project for everyone involved – and we realize that the road to reaching that goal may not be the same for each project.

CL: You have had a client in Japan for over 25 years.  What benefits and challenges, if any, does such a lengthy relationship offer?  

GJ: The benefits come from knowing each other so well; the challenges come from knowing each other so well, too.  We're like an old married couple!  It's a constant struggle to keep the relationship - and the work - from getting stale and predictable.  Sometimes we have to push hard to get new and innovative ideas approved.  Through it all, however, the trust and respect we have for each other comes through in the finished work. 

CL: When you dance the perfect dance with an architect during the design process, what does it look like?

MB: A beautiful marriage between inside and outside that one would never know or appreciate until you see it finished.   

DG: A true collaboration and open sharing of ideas between the architect and interior designer will create the most seamless and successful projects. 

CL: LEED certification receives a tremendous amount of attention these days.  You were involved in a “ground up” residential project in Portola Valley recently. What was that experience like?

MB: It was one of the most valuable and interesting later-life learning experiences I’ve had. It was a truly “hands on” learning process about sustainability and the holistic nature of the building, occupants and community beyond. For me sustainability is about responsibility.

CL: Does BAMO have a signature look in the hospitality world?

MB:  Quality.   

DG: A reputation in the hospitality world for quality, service and attention-to-detail.

"One project having both hotel guests and residential owners opens up tons of exciting challenges...hotels that are as comfy as residences, and residences that are as glamorous as hotels."

CL: You are currently working on creating new ‘entry experiences’ and amenity areas for a few office building projects. Where do you see the similarities and/or differences in creating this experience as opposed to a hotel or a private residence?

GJ: That’s funny because our office clients want us to bring our hotel experience to the design of the building entry and amenity areas.  In either case, the goals are similar: create a ‘wow’ moment, foster activity and buzz, and make everyone look great. 

DG: Hotels and public lobbies play to a wider audience and usually aim to make a strong impact. When designing an entry to a private residence, sometimes the project calls for a ‘wow’ factor experience, but more often it takes on a more subtle and personal mood.

CL: BAMO has grown along with the advent of residential ownership being integrated into hotel projects.  You have recently completed such a mixed use project for the Four Seasons in Bangkok.  How have you seen this overall real estate package refined over the years?

GJ: In the early days, it seemed that the main purpose of residences was to pay for the hotel; now the hotel is often there to sell the residences.  Of course, from a design point of view, having both integrated into one project and having to think about both hotel guests and residential owners opens up tons of exciting challenges and opportunities: hotels that are as comfy as residences, and residences that are as glamorous as hotels.

CL: What are your favorite aspects of working with residential clients?

MB: Interpreting their goals and aspirations in ways they may not have thought of before.

CL:  Explain the importance of lighting.

MB: It is absolutely critical to the success of any interior design. It sets the mood, ambiance, and comfort of the occupants.  

CL: Are there any occupational hazards when you personally select a hotel for a special vacation?

MB: Many. The more expensive the hotel the greater potential for disappointment.

GJ: If it's not perfect, either the manager will drive you crazy or you will go crazy yourself!

CL: What does the perfect Sunday morning look like?

MB: Beautiful linen sheets, sleeping children, and a snoozing dog. 

DG: Coffee, quiet, and time to flip through the Sunday NYT and Saturday WSJ.  The only days of the week I get physical newspapers anymore….

GJ: Dark, because my eyes will be shut tight; comfy, because I'll be in my own bed; and quiet, because no one else is awake yet. 

CL: What are you reading?

MB:  "American Heiress" by Jeffrey Toobin

DG:  "Just Mercy" by Bryan Stevenson

GJ:  "Dead Wake" by Erik Larson and "The Shadow of the Wind" by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

CL: Do interior designers ever retire or do they design forever?

MB: They never retire, right up to designing their own funeral probably.

GJ: No, we will always rearrange the furniture in our hotel rooms!

 

Stacey Caen and Joe Lucier thank everyone at BAMO that came together for this feature!