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Today, I’m speaking with Jennifer from Niche Interiors, an up and coming interior design firm in San Francisco. What I like about Jennifer and her team’s work is the fact it’s so accessible, and yet inventive and unique. It’s great inspiration for anyone wanting to give their home a more polished, pulled-together look: Jennifer combines pattern and color effortlessly, mixes custom upholstery with off-the-shelf pieces, and brings a refreshingly youthful vibe to the San Francisco design scene.

Four Walls and a Roof: What do you consider your big break in interior design so far?
Niche Interiors: I’m grateful for all of the “little breaks” I’ve had along the way, but I would have to say my big break was the first clients that hired me when I went out on my own. They trusted me with their beautiful new home in West Portal, despite the fact that I had a very small portfolio at that time. Luckily, they were the most down-to-earth and fun clients to work with! The project reflected this and our collaboration resulted in a stunning dining room that is still one of my favorite images in our portfolio.

FWR: How do you keep every project fresh and unique to the client, but without losing your own aesthetic? Is it important to have your own ‘stamp’ on a design?
NI: Our philosophy at Niche Interiors is that each home should be as unique as its inhabitant. We focus on creating spaces that reflect our clients’ lifestyles, tastes, and hobbies — not our own. The one thing that we do bring to all our projects is a clean aesthetic. Whether it’s a traditional or contemporary space we always try to keep the design concept very focused.

FWR: It seems that appointing an interior designer is no longer something only celebrities and millionaires do! Who is your typical client?
NI: Very true. Interior design has become much more accessible. Our typical client is a 30-something couple (or family), living in San Francisco, who needs help creating a stylish and comfortable home. Niche Interiors is usually hired with a life change such as moving or expanding the family, and the budgets that we work with vary widely.

FWR: Tell us a bit about your design process. How do you get from vague concept to a concrete design?
NI: We create customized image books for each project. Client feedback on visual images is an invaluable tool that helps us create the design concept. We actually make lists of specific things that clients do or don’t like in the image books. For example, dislikes might be: Stripes, velvet, tufting. ‘Loves’ might be: Contrast, organic shapes, uneven textures. This helps in the creation of a specific design concept.

FWR: You’re obviously not afraid of pattern. What are your tips for using pattern in a home?
NI: Be bold and go for it! Mix patterns in similar tones and in contrasting scales. Small repeat prints mix well with medium or large repeats.

FWR: Do you have any tips for homeowners on a budget? How do they create a great look without spending a fortune?
NI: Start with a clear design concept and specific color scheme and don’t stray! Invest your money in good quality upholstery, rugs, and quality contractors. You can go low-end on things like side tables, lamps, pillows and occasional furniture.

FWR: I’m a big believer in the power of design to change the dynamics of life in a home – do you ever get feedback on whether your designs have impacted the lives of your clients?
NI: Yes, I do — and the feedback I get from clients is the most rewarding part of my job. Not only do we get comments about how beautiful the spaces look, but how much more comfortable and functional the spaces are for our clients. One of my favorite comments was: “We now sit in our living room every night because we love it so much — it’s very us but way better.”

FWR: What’s the biggest design challenge you’ve ever faced and how did you overcome it?
NI: That’s a tough one! I would have to say the TINY bathroom remodel we tackled in Bernal Heights last year. It was just under 6′ x 6′ and the only full bathroom in the house.  We needed to keep the tub since the couple was expecting a baby. The 14″ deep wall-mounted sink saved the day. The glass tiles made the room feel a little bigger, and the skylight brought in much-needed natural light.

FWR: For those of us in San Francisco, what are your favorite design stores in the city?
NI: Monument and Past Perfect remain go-to sources for vintage finds. Kneedler-Fauchere in the design center has a beautiful array of furnishings and lighting. A quirky shop that I like to stop in once in a while is The Apartment on 18th Street — you never know what you will find there.

FWR: What do you think are the big interiors trends for 2011?
NI: Lighter woods, brass, traditional shapes, and tufting are all on their way back. I also think there is a shift away from the eclectic “anything goes” look towards more polished, put-together spaces.

FWR: Couldn’t agree more! So, what looks are you dying to try in an upcoming design?
NI: I’m dying to create a huge octagonal ottoman in a bold print. I also would love to switch gears and work on a really masculine tailored space with menswear details such as pinstripes, herringbone etc.

FWR: Sounds intriguing. I hope you get the chance. So, one more question on a topic close to my heart: You’re a great example of how interior designers can use social media to build their business. What does social media mean for you and how do you find time to stay engaged with it?
NI: Social media allows us to connect with potential and current clients and other trade professionals in a more informal setting. We love being able to instantly share the progress of a custom piece of furniture or before and after photos of projects. It’s fun, collaborative and gets people engaged. I will admit that it can be a challenge to keep up with everything — but our goals aren’t too lofty. We try to write one blog post per week — my junior designer Kerry and I take turns writing to keep the content fresh.

Thanks so much, Jennifer!

Credits: Photos 4 and 6 credited to Hale Photography. Other photos via Niche Interiors.

This picture of my husband and son was taken (by my brother-in-law) at Ocean Beach, just a few blocks from our house. It seemed such a fitting way to illustrate the end of 2009. It sums up a year that, although tough (who can claim to have had an easy 2009?), was very much about family. This year, more than ever, we’ve started to feel settled here in San Francisco and are appreciating everything about where we live. We’re excited about what 2010 will bring. There’s both peace and hope in this picture – and I can’t think of a better combination for the end of one year and the start of another.

Happy New Year to everyone. May it be your best yet.

It’s been a while since the first post in my house tour series, so it’s high time for another one. If you recall, my goal with this series was to show how real people live stylishly, and how different homes can really show the personalities of their owners. The home we’re touring today is no exception.

We’re visiting Sarah and Danny’s house in the East Bay, near San Francisco. Sarah and Danny’s story is a familiar one for many young families. Having spent years living in San Francisco itself, the time had come to escape the big smoke. As if having a two-year-old wasn’t enough reason to start looking for more space, the chaotic housing market in San Francisco made buying a first place in the city even more perilous. So Sarah and Danny headed for the hills – literally. They ended up buying a mid-century modern home high up in the El Cerrito hills, near Berkeley, with the most fabulous views over San Francisco Bay. In fact, it was the view that convinced them there was more to life than city-living.

Of course, the house itself played a big role in convincing them too. Sarah says they both instantly felt at home here. It’s easy to see why.

Dining room

Sarah describes their style as ‘global modern’ and I couldn’t agree more. Hardly surprising when you consider what these two do for a living. Danny is a horticulturalist and Sarah works for a global non-profit, a job which requires traveling to Africa and Asia. The house is filled with the couple’s collections of exotic plants, orchids, fossils, stones and statues. Yet, it’s still a welcoming house, suitable for a toddler (and some chaotic, toddler-filled parties!)


At the heart of the home is a huge, open kitchen and dining room. The latter area is a perfect example of the couple’s style. But, although it looks like everything came from some far-flung place, in fact there are several canny local purchases here too. The vintage floor lamp was a gift, but the pendant shade was from Z Gallerie.

Dining room

And this cute little guy was from World Market!


Most San Franciscans would kill for a kitchen like this. Sarah and Danny repainted all the cabinets, but the floor plan was in place when they moved in. I like the huge crystal – citrine quartz, from Living Green in San Francisco – and the way it glows like kryptonite under the lights. The art on the left (just seen) is actually a photo of graffiti in SF (a little reminder of urban life?) The orchids are all by Danny. If, like me, you can’t keep an orchid more than two weeks you’ll appreciate how handy it must be to have a horticulturalist around the place. (Email me if you have inquiries about the orchids).


I expect this kitchen made leaving San Francisco a lot easier. There’s even room for the couple’s little girl to have her own toddler kitchen in the corner.


The living room is very mid-century with those vast windows (overlooking the Bay). It’s truly a place to chill out and enjoy the view. Sarah says they often feel like they’re on vacation when relaxing in here. Like the dining room, this space uses a clever combination of finds and buys. The green glass lamp base was actually salvaged from a street corner.

Living room

The gray brick fireplace is original to the house. The orange dogs are from Pier One.

Living room fireplace

And the 50-year-old Buddha was a gift from a friend who bought it in Vietnam.


Here’s a closer look at the orange Staffordshire dog. Quite the cheeky pup, this one!


And here, posing for the camera, is the reason for the big move! Sarah and Danny’s daughter proudly shows off her bedroom, which is a treasure trove for little girls. I love those little suitcases – they’re from Noodle Soup in Corte Madera, just north of SF.


Sarah and Danny chose deep greens and oranges for their walls. The effect is restful in the master bedroom.


And welcoming in the entryway.


Outside, there’s a patio for BBQ-ing and a lawn for playing. Plus, there’s another benefit of moving out of the city: sunshine!


And so, back to that view. Quite apart from the space the new house provides – perfect for hide and seek, apparently – it’s easy to see why Sarah and Danny were able to move away from San Francisco. They may have left the city behind, but the view meant it was never out of sight.


It looks like it’s going to be a lovely sunny day in San Francisco (is the August fog over??). So we’re going to try and get out and about to the park, the beach maybe. In making our plans, I was reminded of this lovely photo, spotted on Flickr a while back, of a window in the Marina District.


The Marina, with its views of the Bay, beach and space to run or walk, is a great place to spend a sunny weekend in SF. The extremely grand houses overlooking the Marina all have these fabulous picture windows. I’d love to explore some of these houses one day and look through those windows from the other direction. I like the way this photo captures the reflected sky and picks up the yellows in the flowers and the exterior paint. Tranquil yet happy – just right for a sunny Saturday morning.

Have a good weekend everyone.

There’s only one week left of the San Francisco Decorator Showcase. So, before it’s over, I thought I’d share a few more reasons to go and visit it. Here’s a clue: they’re all very small, but very important reasons…

The great thing about the Decorator Showcase is that every single spare inch of the place is decorated – which means every closet and every corner has a treat in store. It is in some of the tiniest spaces that you can discover the grandest ideas.

Check out this amazing wine cellar, for instance. Only the size of a deep walk-in closet, it is an absolute treat for the eyes. I can actually imagine sitting down and checking off my wines on that leather wing chair. The best feature, however, is the wall – a commissioned mural. It really opens up the space.

Vintner's Vault

Vintner’s Vault, designed by Zumaooh, picture via access.decorati.

Then there’s the Powder Room. A tiny sliver of a space, it is so simple yet so very stylish. There’s a  mosaic tile design with an ‘S’-shaped curve which continues up the wall in a single tendril. The same shape is echoed in the colored glass window. It’s fanciful but very subtle.

Powder Room

Powder Room Revisited, by Marsh & Clark. Picture again via access.decorati.

For even more tiny spaces, how about this windowless closet on the second floor landing? It’s been converted into a sweet wrap room by Gale Melton. Much as I can’t imagine ever having the space for a wrap room, I have to admit to coveting the custom shelving, a perfect fit for rolls and rolls of ribbon, sheets of luxurious wrapping paper and various other finishing touches.

Wrap room

Wrap Room by Gale Melton, photo via Anh-Minh.

And it’s not just the little rooms, it’s also the little details. There are lots of (almost) hidden tips and tricks to spot. Silk drapes backed with coarse linen, for example, were a surprising twist in the living room. A glorious bar filled with silver and crystal, was tucked away inside a gentleman’s closet (!). I also really liked the use of black task lights against dark chocolate (almost black) walls in the study, by John Wheatman & Associates. The lamp almost disappears and all that’s left is the little pool of light underneath.


The study, by John Wheatman & Associates, photo via Inside SF Real Estate.

So even if you’ve been once, maybe it’s worth going back for a closer look…

I’ve just come back from the 2009 San Francisco Decorator Showcase. It’s in a stunning four-storey mansion on Pacific Avenue. Since I used to live on the same street (several blocks away, in a far less posh area, I might add!) I’ve passed the house many times and often wanted to look inside.

It certainly lived up to expectations. The house has beautiful high ceilings, wide stairways, moldings and lots and lots of natural light. It’s hard to imagine anyone ever living there – but then that’s kind of the point, it’s supposed to be slightly dream-like.

You can’t take pictures in the house so I found some on other sites. In particular, Anh-Minh has a great sneak preview. I hope they make more photos available after the event though.

This is the family room, designed by Michael Leverone. This was probably my favorite room in the house. It somehow manages to be extremely special, while also being comfortable and eminently livable. I think that’s because of the proportions of the furniture. The coffee table, for example, is enormous. It’s made of teak – apparently the trunk of six trees that fused together. I can’t imagine how heavy it must be. Then there’s the sofa which is about twice the length of a normal sofa. Because Leverone has chosen fewer pieces, but on a larger scale, the result is a much more simple space. The other thing I loved about this room is all the texture – again it makes you want to actually sit down and stay for a while. The stools are covered in fluffy mohair, the teak table is smooth as silk, and the sideboard by the window is covered in linen with a pattern in brass studs. Oh, and those little glass ornaments under the wall light are old fashioned electric bulbs!

Family room

Photo via Anh-Minh.

Leverone also did the breakfast room. I could definitely enjoy a morning coffee here…

Breakfast nook

Also via Anh-Minh.

The kitchen is by Jennifer Weiss. I learned in this room that stainless steel countertops don’t have to feel cold and industrial. [UPDATE: I’ve just had an email from Jennifer and they are actually zinc, which explains why they seemed much lighter and warmer than steel]. I also love the white tiles with oval reliefs on them. I’m going to think about that for our kitchen (if we ever get it done). Photo via Apartment Therapy.


This is the dining room, by Orlando Diaz-Azcuy. I forgot to count how many you can seat at this table, but it has to be about 14. I’m really into white ceramics at the moment so this was a fun room to browse in. Photo via Anh-Minh again.

Dining room

Here is one of the bedrooms, by Cecilie Starin. I like the gray and lilac. The Louis sofa and the screen behind the bed are both really pretty. It looks a lot more serene here than when I was there, though. Probably because there weren’t 15 people all crammed in when this pic was taken! Photo via Apartment Therapy again.


Palmer Weiss did the teenage daughter’s bedroom. This was one of the brightest rooms in the house. I would have loved this as a teenager. She really hit the nail on the head with this. You can’t see it, but there’s a black (I think) leather Louis chair in this room too!


On the top floor is the penthouse, by Heather Hilliard (photo from her web site). This is a much smaller space, but I really liked it. It felt much more like home. The views, though, are incredible – right across the bay. Heather has done a wonderful job: those peacock blue chairs against the orange flowers are great.


In the basement there’s a silent auction. If you want to buy the shooting script from Milk, signed by Sean Penn, this is the place to get it. Last bid is $1250 though…

I’ll post some more on the Showcase later. Meanwhile, enjoy!

I read on Apartment Therapy today that San Francisco is hosting the National Convention of the American Institute of Architects this month. As a result, Architectural Record magazine has created a video series with local architects talking about their favorite buildings in the city. Check it out here.

What surprised me was that I had never even noticed some of these buildings before. Take, for example, the Modernist building at 675 California – so easily missed and yet, as Don Rudy, president of the SF chapter of the AIA, says, it’s a feat of simplicity and elegance. Then there’s the Swedenborgian Church, which I had never even heard of but will definitely be checking out. Picture via AT.

Swedenborgian Church

One of my personal favorites is the Ferry Building. I’ve been there lots of times and always thought it has a really great atmosphere (which I had put down to the dozens of retail outlets selling delicious cheeses, fish, chocolates…yum…). But I had never really looked up at the structure before and it’s quite stunning.

Ferry Building

The videos also include one on the Federal Building completed in 2007. I watched this building being built, always wondering quite what to make of it. It really is the most extraordinary structure. But, close up, as in this video, it’s actually rather appealing.

Federal Building

Nothing on the de Young Museum though. Or the new Jewish Contemporary Museum (below) – both of which I think are pretty spectacular.

Jewish Contemporary Museum

San Francisco is one of the most distinctive cities in the world, architecturally speaking. And I don’t think I’m biased just because I live here. The famed ‘Painted Ladies‘ – those pastel-hued gingerbread Victorians – are as much part of  San Francisco’s personality as the cable cars and Golden Gate Bridge. But, in terms of interior design, I’ve been wondering if there’s a distinctive San Francisco style that defines this city. There are certainly several recurring themes. In this blog I want to explore each of them and see if it really is possible to define San Francisco by design.

The most obvious place to start is back at those Victorians. When we were real estate hunting in SF, these were the most hotly-contested (and highly priced) homes. Painted every color of the rainbow they look as tempting as an ice-cream shop.

SF Victorian

SF Victorian 2

SF Victorian 3

But the interiors varied wildly. Some were dark and gloomy with poorly-converted rooms. Others were bright and spacious. Some owners had tried to honor the period of the house itself with their choice of furnishings, others embraced a range of styles from mid-century to contemporary.

In general, however, these Victorians have fantastic interior architectural details. High ceilings, lots of moldings, fireplaces, bay windows (originally designed to maximize the light in the narrow lots). At the top end of the market, many homes emphasize these details with a refined and elegant style of decor. You’ll find Baroque lines mixed with a little Hollywood Regency, slipper chairs, silks, velvets, trompe l’oeil, formal symmetry, pastel colors to echo the exterior paintwork, mirrors and gilt to reflect all the light from the windows. The homes below, designed by San Francisco designers Angela Free and Palmer Weiss are good examples.

Angela Free

Angela Free 2

Palmer Weiss

Palmer Weiss 2

Of course, not all Victorians have this amount of space. But, if you’re a fan of the look, the diminutive proportions of these ladylike pieces of furniture can work well in smaller rooms.

The alternative is to go for altogether more modern interpretations of the style. The Louis ghost chair by Phillippe Starck is a good example.

Louise ghost chair

Or a daybed from Room and Board.

R&B daybed

Or, the more expensive version from Williams Sonoma Home.

Williams Sonoma Home

Or a modern chandelier such as this one from Z Gallerie.

Z Gallerie chandelier

Anthropologie also has some great Baroque-inspired chairs in fresh, modern fabric, such as this ‘Antwerp chair’.

Anthropologie chair

For table lamps that suit this style, I don’t think you can beat Restoration Hardware. It has a range of crystal lamps that span simple to ornate.

RH lamp

RH lamp 2

There are some San Francisco boutiques that make good sources for furnishing a Victorian home at a more reasonable price. Past Perfect on Union Street is an absolute treasure trove of antique and retro items. You can mix and match design eras to your heart’s content here. McCarney’s Furniture on 9th Street is also great for antique furniture at a decent price. A lot of it is from Europe – specifically England and Scotland. Swallowtail on Polk and Alabaster on Hayes Street also have some quirky accessories – vintage medical equipment, globes, teapots – for that ‘collector’ look which was so popular among the Victorians.

But as I said at the start of this post, San Francisco style is much more than the painted ladies would have you believe. We should consider Marina, Spanish, Mission, Asian, bohemian and dotcom loft styles. I intend to do that in future posts. Meantime, if you have a view on what San Francisco style means to you, let me know. Send me a picture that represents this city’s interior design ethos and I’ll post it here. I don’t know yet what the conclusion of this exercise will be – but it will be an interesting exploration for sure.

The design discoveries and dilemmas of a Brit in San Francisco as she turns a house into a home.
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