Light. Art. Elegance. These three words are synonymous with celebrated local interior designer Martha Angus. With international training in fine art and antique restoration, Martha has every reason to call herself an expert in the overlapping fields of interior design and fine arts. While her career started on the east coast, we are very lucky to have her firmly rooted in the Bay Area. This fall, Mueller Nicholls sat down with Martha at her gallery-like office space on Grant Avenue for an in-depth interview. It will come as no surprise that we came away from the interview even more impressed by her breadth and depth of talents than when we started the interview. Read on to find out why!
MN: Here we are with Martha Angus. I’d like to thank you profusely for participating with us.
MA: Oh, you’re more than welcome.
MN: Would you start by talking about what your relationship to art and interior design was like growing up?
MA: Growing up I always felt like an artist, and having moved over 35 times as a child –
MA: Sometimes up to three times a year. So the whole idea of having a home that’s stable – a place that you can actually stay and develop – is the most important thing in the world to me. And it always was when I was growing up. When I was in high school, babysitting in some of the high end, gorgeous homes in our neighborhood, I just fell in love with the idea of being in one place, really developing it, and creating a home. So that’s always been super important to me.
MN: Can I ask why you were moving so much?
MA: My dad was with the government and they moved him a lot.
MN: What an interesting policy!
MN: Hard on the family.
MA: It’s very hard. I mean, there are good things about it. It makes you very outgoing and very open to new ideas because you’re constantly the new kid in school. So you have to be pretty sociable. It’s also made me very close to my sisters.
MN: How many sisters do you have?
MA: Two younger sisters.
MN: And have they settled down now, too, not living a nomadic lifestyle anymore?
MA: Absolutely. Same thing.
MN: Putting down roots. Were you always painting, and did you always feel like and artist?
MA: Well, when I was little it was more like coloring in coloring books, but I always felt just madly in love with color and art. Actually, when I was in college, graduating from Carnegie Mellon in painting, I was passionate about it, but I also realized it was probably not a good idea. What was I going to do? So I sort of accidentally fell into interior design. I was a receptionist for a showroom, and then I sort of worked my way up through the ranks to actually getting to staple fabrics on the showroom wings. Then a designer who knew me hired me. I just started as a junior designer and worked my way up. But I never studied interior design.
MN: Was that at Sotheby’s?
MA: No that was later. I started in interior design in Philadelphia and spent four years there. When I first went to New York I worked as a textile designer and then went to an architectural firm. That’s when I was studying at Sotheby’s.
MN: How did you hook up with Sotheby’s?
MA: I just heard about the courses and heard that they were amazing. I had always loved antiques and thought, “Instead of just loving them, I really want to study them.” And that’s what I did.
MN: You talk a lot about Gustavian furniture in particular.
MA: Which I love.
MN: Is that where you learned about all the different types of furniture, when you were at Sotheby’s?
MA: Much of it was self-taught when I was a child visiting my grandmother. I would spend summers with her, and next to my bed was a three-foot stack of antiques magazines. When I first saw the stack, I thought, “How boring is this?” Then I just started to read them and I realized that she was crazy about antiques. Then I realized that I really liked them too. Growing up, my mother collected antiques, as did my grandparents. And my parents always bought antique farmhouses and renovated them.
MN: While you were moving 35 times?
MN: So you have a lot of experience with construction.
MA: Yes. Absolutely. We were always renovating and fixing up places.
MN: And were your parents doing some of the work themselves?
MA: Oh, usually doing all the work themselves.
MN: All the work? All the electrical, plumbing, refinishing floors and –
MA: And wallpaper. Only to leave it a few months and do it all over again someplace else.
MN: Your parents must have had a lot of energy.
MA: They absolutely did – always have and my mom still does.
MN: That’s great! So you studied art at Carnegie Mellon?
MA: Yes, painting. When I first started Carnegie Mellon, I was a double major of graphic design and painting and sculpture. Not to diverge too much, but due to student shortages the graphic design students were mixed with the industrial design department.
MA: So I was forced to do industrial design even though I never meant to. But I’m positive it was very good training for interior design. Even though I was doing bus shelters and appliances, it still was very much the same idea – plans, sections, details, materials, and illustrations. If anything, it was more technical than interior design. It was, as I said, a really good background.
MN: I always thought that people who were designing appliances are men.
MA: Well, I was in there doing them.
MN: I feel like when I’m using appliances, no one has paid attention to things like what it’s like to clean them or what it’s like to actually use them. Did you think about that?
MA: Oh, absolutely.
MN: That’s why I think women should be industrial designers, because they’re more likely to be concerned with how to clean things. I don’t know if you agree –
MA: I totally agree. Oxo are beautifully designed.
MN: They do a better job.
MA: They certainly do.
MN: So how did you decide to go to École des Beaux-Arts in France?
MA: When I graduated from high school I was 17. My mother was a teacher and she said, “You’re too young to start college. That isn’t a good idea.” She said, “I think you should just go live in France, or live any place you want just for a year.” So I went over there. My grandmother had given me some money, actually a very decent amount of money, to go to school anyplace I wanted for a few years.
I started in France and I actually loved it. I was there for about a year and a half. At the same time, my sister was in Australia so we would visit each other, meeting in Geneva. My parents were afraid I would marry a European.
MN: Oh, really? They weren’t happy with that idea?
MA: No. They thought they were losing me forever. So they forced me to come back.
MN: And you didn’t want to.
MA: No. Absolutely not. No. So I went to school at Carnegie Mellon and actually started over again. But then a few months into Carnegie Mellon they said that they fully accepted all my credits in France, so then I skipped a year at Carnegie Mellon. I still had four years, just two freshman years and then a junior and senior year.
MN: What did you love about France?
MA: Everything. I felt like it was the most profound experience that had ever happened to me. Even though I had studied French for four years, I showed up in France and I felt as if I couldn’t say or understand anything! To have all of my courses in French was staggeringly difficult. But I feel as if my old brain was taken out and I was given a brand new brain. It was the most profound change imaginable.
MN: The École Des Beaux Art – is it in Paris?
MN: Such a fantastic city.
MA: Yes. But I also went to a language institute in Vichy. And then I also went to the University of Grenoble. At that point I was really into skiing, so I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to live in the French Alps and ski every weekend?”
MN: And did you do that?
MA: I absolutely did. Yes!
MN: And you were still studying?
MA: Right. I was taking dissection courses. The French approach to fine art is completely differently than ours. In France, when you study anatomy, you do dissections. It was nauseating, but you really know musculature and the skeleton and Grey’s Anatomy by heart.
MN: When you were doing your undergraduate in art, were you focused more on figurative drawing?
MA: Yes. The idea of doing abstract work in France was just not even brought up.
MN: Even now they don’t?
MA: No, I’m sure now it’s changed. But back then it was all classical. We did tons of drawings and then worked our way up to grisaille – that’s when you’re painting on a tinted ground, sketching in forms, and then doing transparent glazes. They would say, “Every painting should have yellow, blue, and red.” It was an extremely old-fashioned way of making art.
MN: And very demanding and technical.
MN: Are you still painting at all?
MA: I paint from time to time, but I really don’t have enough time.
MN: You have a lot on your plate.
MA: Exactly. From time to time I’ve taken evening courses at the Art Institute, which I love.
MA: But again, it’s so difficult. Because this is, as you know, not a 9:00-5:00 job.
MN: No, it’s way more than 9:00-5:00. And being a parent –
MA: Exactly. Being a parent and going home and helping your kid with their homework and, for a teenage boy, making a dinner. Then making another dinner and then finding him some snacks. It’s kept me pretty busy.
MN: It’s kind of like a second job, feeding a child.
MA: Isn’t that the truth?
MN: There was one article that I read where I saw a photo of a piece of yours.
MA: I wonder what picture that was. Because usually the things I do I feel great about when I’m painting them, and then a few days later I’ll say, “It doesn’t look so good after all.”
MN: Do you have a very strong inner critic?
MA: Yes, I do.
MN: I was wondering about that because you have so much knowledge about art, you travel to Art Basel every year, and you buy art for your clients. But then to also be an artist – if you have any inner critic at all, it would be almost a default position to be hard on yourself and just put everything away. Have you experienced that?
MA: I do. But the one thing I will say is that I draw very well.
MN: I bet you do.
MA: That helps me with clients. So instead of saying, “I’m going to go back to the office and I’ll work something up on CAD,” I just draw the room or I draw the custom furniture right in front of them. So it’s a real time saver. And it’s just a really good way of illustrating things.
MN: Right. And clients really like that, too.
MA: They do.
MN: Even in our digital world, I still think people like they physicalness of drawing.
MN: Does your family like your art? Do you ever show your art to anyone?
MA: It’s funny actually. Both of my sisters have tons of my art in their homes.
MN: So they’re supportive?
MN: They don’t have the same critical eye. Well, it would be neat to see some. I don’t know if you would ever show us, but I would love to see some – especially hearing about your background with doing the anatomy courses. Do you still remember those anatomy courses and what it was like to translate the interior of a body into a drawing?
MA: Well, in our classes it was called modèle vivant, which is figure drawing. It was absolutely more than just drawing the figure the way you saw it, but also knowing the internal structure and beefing that up so you could embellish a drawing with your knowledge. All those Beaux Art drawings that you see, that’s what they were doing. It’s just not recording what you see.
MN: Right. Did that get translated into your work with Glamour?
MA: Not really. Because when you’re doing fashion illustration, the last thing they want is some super muscular woman. Then it’s more like the 11 heads to the body instead of the 7.
MN: I remember that.
MA: I had studied with Steven Meisel at Parsons. Do you know who he is? –
MN: The famous photographer!
MA: Yes, the famous photographer. But he was also a famous fashion illustrator for Women’s Wear Daily. He also did the book Sex with Madonna.
MN: You studied with Steven Meisel? Unbelievable!
MA: Yes, I studied with Steven Meisel. He’s such a sweetheart. So I learned fashion illustration from him.
MA: Of course everyone thinks he’s a great photographer, but trust me. He was smart enough to see, as a fashion illustrator working for Women’s Wear Daily, that all the big magazines started going towards photography. And he could read the writing on the wall. He thought, “Okay. I’m going to teach myself photography.” He did, and he’s become one of the greatest fashion photographers.
MN: Right. He had that very profound depth of knowledge in the fashion world, starting out with Women’s Wear Daily.
MN: So how long did you work for Glamour magazine?
MA: I worked for them maybe three or four years. It was quite a long time.
MN: That is. What were you sketching for them?
MA: I did “Fashion Workshop.” So it’s the same way it is now, but now it has more photographs. You see someone wearing something atrocious and they put a bar over their eyes. So they may do descriptions of four different people wearing something terrible, and then four different people looking fabulous. In the past that was all drawn, and I used to draw it. I would also put a trip together with all the things to take, and then show a woman with all the separates and how to put them together.
MN: Do you have any of those magazines?
MA: Actually, I’ve saved all my fashion illustrations.
MN: And did you maintain your contacts from the fashion world?
MA: I still have girlfriends who are in the fashion business in New York.
MN: Has that been a source for clients?
MA: It was when I was in New York because I was a store designer. That was probably why I made the shift. I was a store and textile designer working on Seventh Avenue in the garment district. When I was doing stores in New York, we were asked to do the homes of the retailers, which is how I got into residential design. Ralph Lauren wanted us to do his stores and his homes. Interestingly enough, I didn’t even want to do homes. Then as we were doing them, I realized, “You know, this is actually kind of interesting.”
MN: Did it connect with you on that level that you were talking about earlier, about wanting to have a sense of security and help someone else with their home and their stable place? Were you thinking about it in that way at all?
MA: Probably. But I have to say that I was addicted to store design. I loved it because it was a form of theater. You’re selling merchandise, of course, but when you do Saks Fifth Avenue, a million people see your work. Then when you do someone’s home, maybe five people see your work. Or they have a party and 30 people see your work. I just loved the idea of fashion, theater, and a sense of place. Now I’m in San Francisco, and I’ve done a lot of work for some of the Fishers. So that’s sort of a tie into the fashion world. However, I met them out here, not in New York.
MN: Do you have any background in theater as well? Have you done any set design?
MA: I did in high school. I did all the set designs for all the plays.
MN: Did you go to a lot of different high schools?
MA: No, I actually only went to one high school. My father switched from a government job to being a stockbroker, so we stayed in one place.
MN: The whole family breathed a sigh of relief, probably.
MN: And was that back in Connecticut?
MA: No, this was in Pennsylvania.
MN: Dining by Design is also very theatrical.
MA: Very much so. Even a showcase house is theatrical. When you do something like that, you can’t do a real home, because quite frankly it will look boring. It has to be half home, half theater. It has to look amazing to someone just walking past it, and it also has to look good for the press. You have to think about how it would reproduce in a publication.
MN: Did you do the work for Glamour first and then did you get into Sotheby’s?
MA: Yes. When I first went to New York City after having left Philadelphia, I worked for an architectural firm. I made so little money that I had to take a second job. I had a full-time rep who went around showing my fashion illustrations to many different magazines. My fashion illustrations have been published probably hundreds of times in major magazines. I did that for the money. I would do the work at night.
MN: So it was a side job.
MA: Yes, I did it at night when I came home, sometimes not getting home until 8:00 PM. And of course, I was in my 20s so I could stay up ’til 3:00 AM in the morning drawing. I would deliver the work before I went to the office. Sometimes they would call me at work and they would want corrections or changes. Then I’d go over at lunchtime, make corrections and then after work sometimes have to go back to them again. So I was just burning myself out like crazy.
MN: And you did that for four years?
MA: Yes! But I made lots of money and I had –
MN: A lot of fun.
MA: A lot of fun. Lots of wonderful clothes and trips and things like that.
MN: Do you miss that world?
MA: Not really. Because I found that once I was 30, I couldn’t pull off those all-nighters any longer.
MN: I guess so. But the trips and the clothes, I bet that was a blast.
MA: Absolutely. Living in New York I was so close to Europe. One of the nice perks or working in retail is that I got a huge discount. Not only did I get a huge discount – I also knew about the sales before anyone else. So I wore really incredible clothes when I worked at Saks. I was wearing Yves Saint Laurent all the time in my 20s, which I couldn’t even pull off now.
MN: Well, that’s so very fun. Do you still have any of those clothes?
MA: I still do.
MN: That’s great. Do you still go back to France a lot?
MA: I do. As a matter of fact, I’ve already been there twice this year. And a client just called yesterday who wants me to go in September. I’ve gone up to four times a year in the past, and this year will probably be about three times.
MN: Do you maintain a lot of contacts there?
MA: Yes I do.
MN: And you still have friends from your days when you were studying?
MA: No, but I definitely have a lot of friends who are furniture dealers and art dealers over there.
MN: Do you buy more of your furniture and art in France? Or is it kind of half-and-half?
MA: No. Believe it or not, I actually think they’re not so great in art. I find art is best here in the States.
MN: Interesting. So Art Basel is coming up?
MA: Yes it is, in the beginning of December in Miami. Of course, they had the other one in Switzerland in June.
MN: Do you ever go to the one in Switzerland?
MA: No, I haven’t been to that one. I prefer the Miami one. It’s easier to get to and I love Miami. It’s an incredible affair.
MN: Well, talk a little bit about it. What do you love about it?
MA: Well, it’s essentially every major gallery in the world in one place.
MN: It sounds huge!
MA: Yes – there’s the convention center, which has all the major galleries. But smaller galleries actually take nearby hotels and take all the furniture out the rooms, so every single room in the hotel is a different gallery. Even individual artists who do print making or works on paper – things at lower price points, come to set up a room.
MN: So artists also come and sell?
MA: Yes. An artist sometimes will take a room themselves. So it’s a great way of just going from room to room to room, hotel to hotel to hotel, and just finding out about new artists, new work. It’s overwhelming, but it’s so worth it.
MA: I’ve gone with clients who actually know nothing about art, like some of my Wall Street clients in New York. These people may not know a lot about art, but they’re very fast learners. As I give them a tutorial and take them in and out of all these different galleries, they ramp up incredibly quickly. Sometimes we’ll buy art for an entire home in two days.
MN: That’s thrilling.
MA: It is thrilling.
MN: Then you get to go back there and place it all.
MN: When you’re with a client and you’re buying that much art, do you kind of know where each piece is going to go?
MA: Oh, absolutely. You have to.
MN: How do you keep all that information in your head?
MA: Well, before you even go on the trip, you figure out how many walls need art and what size they are.
MN: Okay. Do you try to coordinate colors in art?
MA: God, no. Art comes first. If there’s going to be any color coordinating, it goes with the art.
MN: It’s afterwards.
MN: Like with the – I love that rug that you did.
MA: Oh, the Lichtenstein rug?
MN: Yeah, the Lichtenstein.
MA: You’ll appreciate this. That was my son’s baby room carpet.
MA: Yes, it’s Roy Lichtenstein from Vorwerk, which is a Belgian manufacturer. It was wall-to-wall. When I sold that house, I thought, “I’m not giving this carpet up.” So I had it taken up and cut down to an area rug.
MN: That is great. And did you already have the Lichtenstein piece?
MA: No, actually I bought from the Berggruen Gallery downstairs. I’ve always loved Lichtenstein.
MN: Have you really?
MA: I even had his dinner plates.
MN: And I also read that you’re a big fan of Jeff Koons.
MN: What draws you to his work?
MA: He reminds me a little bit of a modern day Warhol. Since I went to Carnegie Mellon, which is where Warhol went, I’m crazy about Warhol. But Jeff Koons has taken things that seem so common, like a blow-up floatie for little kids in a swimming pool, and he then casts them in aluminum and paints them. I was in France, actually as the market tanked in October, and I was seeing the Jeff Koons exhibition at Versailles. So I was looking at these floaties on a chain link fence in the middle of the Hall of Mirrors. It was phenomenal. I liked the high contrast. I’ve always loved that sort of everyday thing made into high art.
MN: I wonder if he also echoes any of your study of industrial design.
MA: You know what? I never thought of that. You’re probably absolutely right.
MN: I was looking at his website and he has some sculptures he does with vacuum cleaners. When he’s doing that art, he’s just taking a vacuum that’s already made, right? Or is he designing it himself?
MA: He may be casting it or recasting it. I have to say I’m not sure.
MN: Well I just thought that was very interesting. Industrial design is so interesting in because of the impact design has on everything. That’s one of the reasons why I do like companies like OXO. Because they try to make things that are functional and beautiful.
MA: Exactly. They feel good.
MN: Is the creative process for you with interior design different than it is when you’re doing art?
MA: No. As a matter of fact, I treat them the same way, which I like.
MN: Tell me more about that.
MA: Instead of the cerebral approach of what goes with what and what feels right, it’s more like making art. I actually go into a zone and I actually stop thinking. I just start feeling. It’s almost like playing on a Ouija board. You don’t think, you just let things flow and develop. That’s how I like to approach fine art and interior design. I absolutely approach it the way I do with painting.
MN: And do you have clients that let you do that?
MA: Of course, because I also absorb information about what they own, and all the fundamentals of a project. I take those and work it to what I think is the best solution. I find those solutions are better than just obsessing about it and debating it endlessly. Reworking things is not a good idea. In painting, there’s something called A la Prima, which means like the Impressionists, an artist just takes paint and starts painting. Let the paint fly. You get a better result from that rather than taking a single-hair brush and spending years on something. To me, that just kills a painting. And the same approach kills interior design.
MN: Interesting. And do you look for that when you’re looking for artists, who have a less premeditated approach?
MA: No, I just look for the end result. I’ll give you an example. Look at the Louise Fishman that I just bought. You can see that she didn’t belabor them. They’re just spontaneous and energetic. I love her work.
MN: And how did you find out about Louise Fishman?
MA: I first found out about her things because I saw them at Cheim & Read. Her paintings are extraordinary. And actually I do have a picture for you. I borrowed a gigantic painting of hers for Hamptons Showcase a few years ago. And when you see the photograph, you’ll admit it makes the room.
MN: Oh, I’d love to see it. I am a big fan of Helen Frankenthaler.
MA: Oh, I love Helen Frankenthaler. Did you see the exhibition downstairs? You must see it before it leaves because it’s phenomenal.
MN: I think I missed the exhibition but I looked at their website and it looks like they always represent Helen Frankenthaler, which is so exciting.
MA: They do.
MN: Her approach was very unpremeditated. With the staining of the raw canvas…
MN: Have you ever experimented with that kind of thing?
MA: No, I’ve never done that sort of flowing paint. No.
MN: What is your medium?
MA: Well, I’ve worked in oils, acrylics, and wash. I’m open to mediums. Spray paint… All of the above.
MN: I’d like to see the spray paint work!
MN: As builders without a background in art or interior design, we can sometimes be intimidated by this world of high style and high fashion. Do you ever have clients who come to you who say, “We don’t know how to negotiate all this art and design.” How do you help clients who might say that to you?
MA: Well, some clients are already seasoned collectors, major collectors. But most of my clients are young people in their 30s, maybe early 40s, in Silicon Valley who very much want to get into it and want to learn.
MN: So do you spend a lot of time educating them?
MA: I do. Usually I have to educate clients without them knowing they’re being educated. Sometimes I’ll lend a client 50 auction catalogues so they can get a feeling for artists out there, as well as actual prices. Sometimes I’ll give stacks to a couple and they’ll each notate artists that they like. I’ll go to museums and galleries with them. I go to Europe with a lot of my clients. So I feel as if I’m teaching them and helping them and trying to find their inner voice and respect that. However, I do like emerging artists – it’s always good to get emerging artists. But I think it’s also important to get blue-chip art.
MN: Who are some your favorite blue-chip artists?
MA: Well, I’ve bought a lot of Cy Twombly, Agnes Martin, quite a few Lichtensteins, quite a few Warhols, Ellsworth Kelly – the list would go on and on, but would include blue-chip artists primarily from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s. Well, Brice Marden’s making work now – I love his work.
MN: What do you think people will say about art in the 21st Century, 100 years from? What trends to you see? Do you ever step back and observe?
MA: Oh, absolutely. But the thing is, if you think about 100 years ago, Bouguereau, the Victorian painter, was the hottest thing imaginable, at least in the late 1800s. Well he’s been despised for the last 90 years – despised. So his things went from the top of the market to the bottom of the market and stayed there. Recently there’s a little bit of a resurgence, like it’s almost kitsch to like him again. So it’s very hard to project who’s going to have staying power 100 years from now.
Certain major league people like Picasso, Braque, de Kooning, Warhol who will hold their own. But think of the run-up of art prices in the 1980s – David Salle and Julian Schnabel come to mind – and they absolutely took a nose dive 10 years after that. Now they’ve been picking up again a little bit lately. So a lot of art is like the stock market. There may be rhymes and reasons to it, but it’s not so easy to understand.
MN: Do you see trends in the art world, like going to Art Basel and seeing new and upcoming artists? Are there themes?
MA: Oh, absolutely. One year everything is geometric. And last year I saw a lot of infinity mirrors. There are absolutely trends.
MN: Really? Infinity mirrors?
MA: Oh, yeah. Infinity mirrors.
MN: What would that reflect?
MA: I don’t know. All I know is you’d see one and then another and another and another.
MN: Do the artists know that everyone else is doing infinity mirrors? Or when they show up do they say, “What? That was my idea!”
MA: Well, you don’t know. Some of my friends are fine artists. Their assistants talk. It’s kind of like in fashion. Do you wonder why are there trends, and why is everyone on Seventh Avenue doing the same thing? Even though the designers may not be talking, their assistants are talking. That’s the undercurrent. The same thing happens in fine art. Right now, for probably the last 10-15 years in contemporary art, things freshly made, things fresh out of Chelsea, were the hottest things. And then that market tanked like crazy. So right now blue-chip is staying strong, which is what I’ve always liked anyway. So lucky for me my collection hasn’t tanked with the market.
MN: But you’re always going to love Lichtenstein, whether or not other people love him.
MN: There’s just this certain connection that you have with that art. That’s interesting to try and understand. One of my questions was more of an interior design thing, although it relates to fashion. Do colors ever go out of style?
MA: Oh, absolutely. Oh, my gosh.
MN: And why do some colors come up and then they go down? What governs that?
MA: I think some of it is also just people looking for something fresh and new. And sometimes I think it’s emotional. I remember when I started in business, in the showroom, purple and neutrals were the hottest thing. Then I remember brown was big, lime green was big, bright yellow. But I’ve been watching all these colors come and go and come and go. Basically, it’s boring but beige has been throughout. Even white comes into fashion then goes out of fashion.
MN: Well, Michael Taylor was really big with white.
MA: Yeah. And Michael Taylor, when you see homes that he’s done, they still look fresh and good, even from the ’70s.
MN: That’s because he was very talented.
MA: He was very talented. And very few people pull that off. Billy Baldwin could’ve done that. David Hicks could’ve done it.
MN: Who are some of your other design icons?
MA: Well, I like Mica Ertegun from MAC II. She did Bill Blass’ home. She’s in New York City –I’ve always loved her work. Sills and Huniford, when they were together – I also loved their work.
MN: How did you hook up with Naomi Leff?
MA: Through my partner in New York, Paula Caravelli. She was my assistant when When I first went to New York City after having left Philadelphia, I worked for Walker Grad, the architectural firm which later became Walker Group. They were the world’s largest store design firm. She was my assistant back then and we’ve stayed the best of friends ever since then.
MN: What a great relationship.
MA: Yes. When I left to go to Saks Fifth Avenue, she left to go to Naomi Leff. She was there for 12 years, which I think is the record there because it was a very difficult place to work. Paula actually hired me to work with her. I’ve always been very very good to assistants because time and time again they’ve gone on to big places and hired me. And that also happened to me at Estee Lauder. A woman had been my assistant, went to Estee Lauder, headed store design, and then hired me. That’s when I redid their offices, 1,000 offices in the General Motors building. I did Mrs. Lauder’s homes: She had over ten homes. I also did work for the rest of the family. So I did all of these incredible projects because I was nice to my assistant who made it big. Same thing with Paula.
MN: Was that a formative experience for you in terms of becoming an interior designer, working at Naomi Leff’s?
MA: Well, it was because that’s when she was asked by Ralph (Lauren) to do his home. That’s when I was really doing seriously high-end residential work.
MN: Did you stay in touch with Naomi?
MA: I did, but she died young.
MN: Yes, I read that.
MA: She was extremely intense and she just kind of burned out.
MN: Did she really?
MA: She did. She would work from 9:00 in the morning until 3:00 the next morning – staggeringly intense.
MN: Wow. Of course, you were doing that, too. You just had two separate jobs.
MA: Well, that’s right. But Naomi actually paid me very well, extremely well.
MN: So once you were working with Naomi Leff, you were not illustrating for Glamour anymore?
MA: No. I didn’t need to. Almost all of Naomi’s clients were billionaires so we just did truly high-end work. It made me realize that I had no idea how middle of the road all the work up until then was. But her clients had a couple of Gulf Stream V’s, Gulf Stream VI, which we did as well. So it was just so high-end. It was fabulous.
MN: What was it like to manage those clients?
MA: They’re very demanding. But as long as you give them what they want, they would be happy. We also did work for Hilary and Galen Westin, who are I think are just about the wealthiest people in Canada. We did their homes. We did their stores. We did their offices. Again, as long as you gave… I always thought to myself, “I’d love to be one of Naomi’s clients.” She gave everything to those clients.
MN: What does that look like? So it means that they’re returning phone calls at 2:00 a.m. in the morning?
MN: Or they call and say, “I’m out of towels,” or something like that?
MA: Yes. And if it means you have to have 20 people draw all night to give them ideas by morning, that’s exactly what you do. I worked hard every place in New York. But I really worked unspeakably hard there. It was very good training. Because I took those work habits and brought them to a place like San Francisco, and it’s been very good for me. I have a New York work ethic.
MN: Perhaps not everyone in San Francisco has the same work ethic?
MA: That’s right. But it can also be generational. I’m not sure if it’s a geographic thing or a generational thing. Or maybe it’s a little bit of both.
MN: Well, that’s interesting: Just think about a person in her 20s, living in New York and having a job that doesn’t pay enough. So a person has to have a second job, which is also pretty demanding. You can’t eat lunch and can’t eat dinner, and you probably just have a sandwich or something on the go.
MA: Well –
MN: You did that for four years. That must have been very grueling.
MA: It was. It was very intense.
MN: What is it like to then scale down a little bit and work with people who are not billionaires? Is it different or do you just kind of have the same output?
MA: Well, it’s different because the people we were working for in New York – like Bunny Mellon, Ralph Lauren, Armani – all of these people were older and wealthier. Here I find my clients in Silicon Valley are young. I’ve gone from the average age of 60 for a client to 30, and it is different. But I love it! I love helping them get their homes together. And they’re just getting married or just starting to have children. I love working with families.
MN: Do you ever feel like a part of you must know how to do marriage counseling?
MA: All the time. All the time.
MN: We joke about that a lot.
MA: I’m sure you do in construction, too.
MN: Yes. People don’t realize when they’re starting out, if they haven’t done construction, how intrusive and difficult it is and how emotional it is to have your house torn apart.
MN: When we get it torn apart, people don’t necessarily know that we can put it back together. It’s very hard emotionally to have your house torn apart!
MA: It’s true. When someone’s doing a renovation, and when I recommend a contractor, I think about how good the work is. But also I ask myself how well can they get along with the client and their family and their children. It has to be both.
MN: Right. You have also remodeled. You built a home in Napa?
MN: And you have an apartment here in San Francisco, a flat?
MA: Yes. I renovated that but now I’ve just moved to a high-rise where I don’t have to renovate anything.
MN: So you have been your own client.
MA: Yes. Boy is that hard!
MN: What can you tell us about that?
MA: What’s hard about it is I’m used to doing all these wonderful things for our clients which I cannot afford. So then I have to think about, “Well, what’s good enough and will still give me a great result?”
MN: Yes. People might not realize about this business, is that you do all these things for your clients but it’s not economically feasible for a lot of us.
MA: You must experience the same thing.
MN: Yes, because there’s not really that much money in construction. It’s hard for there to be any money at all in design!
MN: People don’t realize how much effort you put into design.
MA: Oh, completely. Absolutely.
MN: They don’t understand.
MA: It just looks easy.
MN: Well, it looks easy because you’re so good at it.
MA: Well, no. I think people just don’t know – even I’m surprised at how much goes into it and I should know better.
MN: It’s always surprising! In some ways that good because it means we’re not totally burned out and cynical. But people don’t understand the depth of your knowledge, and they don’t understand how difficult construction is. So there’s this constant process of education that goes on.
MA: But the thing is, for me to be able to do a good job I need a good architect and I need a good builder. If I don’t have good bones, it doesn’t matter what I put into the room. It’s just never going to look good. So I’ve got to have a good shell, good materials, good bones, and then my work can look spectacular. If I don’t have those, I don’t have anything.
MN: Are there things that you wish contractors wouldn’t do when they’re building?
MA: Well, I’ve worked with some contractors who have dreadful taste and they’re actually trying to drive the design because they think they know better. I’ll give you an example. I remember I worked with a contractor once who said, “Well, what’s wrong with brown vinyl base?” Well that’s just –
MN: That question can’t even be answered.
MA: Exactly. When I hear something like that I think, “Oh, so this is what this person’s instincts are for the whole house? I’m going to have to monitor him all the time.” I really don’t want to have to do that. What I want is a contractor who will actually come to me with better ideas than even I have. Like, “Martha, have you thought about doing it this way?” And it’s some fabulous detail and I say, “Oh, this is so fabulous. What else do you have in mind?”
MN: Probably some contractors have design sense. But most of us just need to follow your lead.
MA: If you’ve done many beautiful homes in the past, then you have the experience to make some fabulous suggestions.
MA: Or even if you don’t have suggestions, just build it beautifully, build it on time, and build it on budget. That’s all I want. Not too much to ask for!
MN: No, I don’t think so. Now how did you meet Phillip? (Phillip Parton is an architectural designer that works often on Martha’s projects.)
MA: I met Phillip through a friend. As Phillip’s always reminding me, I I’ve known him for over ten years.
MN: He’s been here the whole time?
MA: Yes. Well, he actually has a separate practice.
MN: That’s right. So he has a separate practice, but he does a lot of work with you?
MA: He does. He does a lot of custom cabinetry. He’s fabulous at furniture plans and custom furniture. We use him a lot.
MN: Sometimes it seems like there can be tension between architects and interior designers.
MN: Why is that?
MA: I think sometimes you have some ego battles going on. But because I started out in an architectural firm in New York, doing color, materials, and furniture for architects, I feel as if I have a really sympathetic and cohesive relationship with architects. I fully realize that we’ve got to be able to do it as a team. It doesn’t work to have one person thinking they’re going to bully the rest of the team around. The contractor, the interior designer, the architect, the landscape architect – they absolutely have to play nice. They have to.
MN: Have you found that it’s become more difficult to play nice as the economy has tanked?
MA: No. Maybe that’s coming more from the client and budgets, but not from the team members.
MN: Stress affects us all and everybody is worried about their business. Even the most successful firms are downsizing and it’s more difficult to find work. Are you experiencing any of that?
MA: Right. Well, for us, that was last year’s story. The year before, even into the beginning of last year, I still had a lot of installations. So I had a fabulous spring. Then around May or so it was like dropping off a cliff. Then it picked again this past January. I finally feel as if I’m ramping back up. And I fully expect to be doing a good business.
MN: Congratulations, that’s fantastic.
MA: Yes. I’ve got to stay positive.
MN: It is good to be positive. Did you choose this location specifically to be near the Berggruen Gallery?
MA: Yes. I used to come here looking through this space, which actually was just one of their galleries. And when we rented the space, I said, “Just leave the art up. I’ll put my furniture in the middle.” People still come in here and think it’s a gallery. We just let them walk through. When they look at the art, they probably think we’re some kind of conceptual installation art in the middle. They might think we’re a bunch of artists retaining their designers. “That’s a wonderful piece, what does that cost?”
MN: Too funny.
MA: But I love just being in an artistic environment.
MN: And do you do a lot of work with them?
MA: Well, we march our clients downstairs to check and out the exhibitions. Plus we all go to the openings. We just walk down one floor and get a glass of wine and see the new show.
MN: Very nice.
MA: It’s fabulous.
MN: And what’s the show right there now?
MA: Well, they’ve had a young artist – I can’t remember his name. He has his work done in India. It’s really fantastic. That, I think, is coming down. I think a new show is going up. And then there’s a group show on the second floor with quite a few different artists. They do have a big Helen Frankenthaler and a Joan Shapiro sculpture, and I think a David Parks painting as a group show.
MN: Do you ever get over to the East Bay to see the art over there?
MA: Do you really want to know?
MN: I do want to know. Actually, I’m very curious about it.
MA: I’ve been thinking that it’s kind of like New York and Brooklyn.
MN: Brooklyn! That’s exactly what it’s like.
MA: Do you think it’s the same? Because in New York people will say, “You live in Brooklyn? Oh, I feel sorry for you.” Now all of a sudden the hippest people live in Brooklyn. The newest art scene is in Brooklyn. So I think the same could happen here, because this is such an expensive city. Where are people going to go? They’ve already started Emeryville, right? And it’ll just continue.
MN: I’m pretty excited to be in Oakland.
MA: Well, I spend a lot of time over there. And it’s great how nice it is as well.
MN: Yes, there are a lot of nice neighborhoods to walk through. Still, there’s a lot of construction and a lot to be done. We’ll see.
MA: I told you more than you ever wanted to hear.
MN: No, this is all wonderful. I’m very appreciative of you speaking with us.
MA: Oh, no. Thank you.
MN: And just to close, why don’t you just say three things you’re looking forward to in the close of the year?
MA: The end of the year?
MN: Yes. Because we’re at the last quarter, right?
MA: Yes. Well, I think profitability and working on fabulous projects with fabulous clients, which isn’t always about the budget. It’s about creating a wonderful result, which is very important to me.
MN: And you’re going to France in September.
MA: Yes. But I’m also watching my son go to college.
MN: Where’s he going?
MA: Boston University.
MN: Back east. Far away!
MA: Exactly. It will give me a reason to keep going out there, to visit him. So that’s my big project to get launched.
MN: Yes, that’s huge. You have the one child?
MA: Just one, yes.
MN: Now the nest is empty.
MA: Exactly. And it happens faster than you think, Jill. You’ll see.
MN: Well, on that note I think we’ll close. Thank you so much.
MA: You’re welcome, Jill.
Jill Moran is a construction professional with 20 years of varied experience in high-end residential remodeling. Her recent entry into motherhood, timed precisely with the downturn in the local construction industry, has resulted in a slight re-engineering of her career. She currently works closely with the management team at Mueller Nicholls, with an emphasis on communicating to the world at large about residential remodeling.