Interview with Gioi Tran

Gioi Tran

Mueller Nicholls is pleased to present an interview with the multi-talented and fierce Gioi Tran.  Trained as a fine artist, ballet dancer, and interior designer, Gioi is known for the stunning and edgy interiors that come out of the office that he heads up with his partner Vernon Applegate.  Even in this challenging economy, Gioi manages to run a nationally acclaimed design firm, perform, teach, paint, and relax.  Read on to find out how.

MN: So first I’d like to start by thanking you for participating in our interview.  It’s really an honor.

GT: It’s an honor for us as well.

MN: Let’s talk a little bit about your family’s experience leaving Vietnam to come to the U.S., what it’s like to have your family uprooted, and how that has impacted you and how you do design.

GT: I think at an early age it didn’t affect me – I wasn’t traumatized by the whole experience.  I certainly was very excited; it was a fun experience, because as a child, looking back, everything that happened was all kind of a fantasy.  As a child, America is this vision of a dream world, modern and rich and all that stuff.  Talking to my older siblings, they had a much different experience.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where Gioi grew up

MN: Were you the youngest?

GT: I was the youngest, and I had siblings that were in their 20s – early 20s and late 20s, and so their experience is much more dramatic, and they were somewhat traumatized by the whole experience, because they didn’t have a base, but for me as a nine year old child it was all fantasy.  We stayed in a camp for several months.  It wasn’t like we just took a plane and came here to stay in a condo.  We stayed in a camp, and the whole experience was a lot of fun for me.  All of a sudden I had this new-found freedom-  I can go to sleep late, I can get up late, because I wasn’t going to school.  So the whole experience was just fun.

MN: From a nine year old boy’s perspective, I can see how that would be really exciting.

GT: Yeah, and then coming to this country and everything is new and exciting.

MN:: Did you move to San Francisco?

GT: Virginia.

MN: Virginia?  Wow.

GT: Yeah, so I had to deal with the cold, and the humidity.  Well, we had the humidity in Vietnam.  So we lived there for five years, and then after that I moved to Egypt, so that experience –

MN: I did not know that.

Cairo, Egypt, where Gioi lived for four years

GT: Yes, I moved to Egypt when I was 14.

MN: Your whole family moved there?

GT: I had a sister whose husband worked for the state department, and so she was going there, and I said, “Can I come with you?”  And so I did, and I had a great experience there.

MN: Did you go to high school then, there in Egypt?

GT: Yes.

MN: Wow.

GT: I think I had first year eighth grade in elementary and then I went to high school there.

MN: Fantastic!

GT: Then after that I came back to the states, but after that, my whole family had moved to the West, to San Diego.  I didn’t like San Diego, so then I moved farther north and I went to L.A. and didn’t like L.A.  When I came here one day, one time for vacation, it just felt like home.

MN: Home sweet home.

Potrero Hill living room by Applegate Tran Interiors. Photography by David Duncan Livingston

GT: So I think all that experience obviously does influence my approach to not just design, but everything.

MN: Life in general?

GT: Yes, because I have one sister that’s next to me, we’re about a year apart, and we’re very different in our approach and how we deal with things.  She never traveled – once she came to the states, she went from Virginia to California, San Diego, and she never really traveled.

MN: Never traveled.

GT: So she and I have very different perspectives, and yet we’re very close.  We’re very similar in many ways, her personality and her viewpoint, you know, but I think that the experience of traveling and meeting different cultures makes you much more open.

MN: It really expands your horizons.

GT: Yes.  I think that it has also influenced where my career has taken me.  Interior design is not something I dreamt of as a child, because at that time in elementary or grade school, or high school, it was not a career choice.  I mean, architecture was probably the closest thing.  Interior design wasn’t really an established career in the 70s.  Maybe somebody working in antiques or growing up in the business might become a designer for furniture, or a designer, but it’s not like a career option.  My first influence or first career choice was a painter.

Beauty by Gioi Tran, 60” x 72”, acrylic on canvas

MN: Yes, I see your artwork which is really beautiful.

GT: And ballet, dance.

MN: Did you love to dance when you were a little boy?

GT: No.

MN: Not necessarily.

GT: Fine arts.

MN: Fine arts?

GT: Or just painting.

MN: When you were a kid, you did a lot of painting?

GT: Yeah, even my family said,You have to be an artist,” because I sketched and drew and I just loved to draw.

MN: Yes, and still today, obviously.

Lastly by Gioi Tran, 30” x 48”, acrylic on canvas

GT: Yes.  And I think, it was not until I was 19 or 20 when I discovered dance, by accident.

MN: By accident?

GT: Yes, because as I was growing up I wasn’t exposed to dance.  One day I was in the community college and I signed up for a tennis class.  They were full, so I still had a two hour block of time before the next class.  So I walked back to my car and went through the gymnasium, and I saw this class and they were jumping up and down dancing, and I thought that looked like fun; it was aerobic, a jazzercise kind of thing.  So I asked the teacher if  I could sign up, and she said, “Sure, come on in.  We’d love to have men in this class.”  I would do jazzercise and aerobics in my gym, so I thought it was the same thing.  But after an hour, I thought, “This is technical.”  They were doing all these steps and choreography, and I told the teacher, “No thank you,” but, and she said, “No, you stay.  I’d love to have men in my class, so can you just stay, please, please?”  I said, “Okay.”  So I stayed.  And after that semester, my teacher said, “You know, you’re really talented.  You have a natural gift.”  I’m like, “Really?”  I mean, when I looked in the mirror I was just awkward to me, because all the girls would do a lot of steps and I’m like, I couldn’t follow the steps; they’d turn right, I’d turn left.

After that class at the community college, my teacher really encouraged me.  She said, “You should take classes – you have natural talent, you have a natural ability, you have natural build, you’re musical, you’re flexible.”  She advised me to take some classes at studios.  So I went to three different studios and all three different studios offered me a scholarship.  My first day of class they said, “You have natural ability.  You turn out, you’re this, you’re that.”  So I said, “Okay.”  So they gave me scholarship.  So I said, okay, so it’s free, doesn’t cost me anything, so I started training in ballet.

MN: And this is in San Diego?

GT: In San Diego.  And then I started dancing professionally a couple years later.

MN: What companies were you dancing with?

GT: I danced with San Diego Ballet.

MN: San Diego Ballet, impressive.

GT: I danced with Los Angeles Ballet.  I was a professional dancer.  But I was more like a guest dancer because I was still pursuing my fine arts, so I was not doing full time at this point.

MN: So you were doing dance and art at the same time?

GT: Yes.  And then when I moved to L.A. I danced with a modern contemporary ballet company called Lula Washington Contemporary Dance Company.  She was a touring company and she said, “If you’re going to dance with me, it has to be full time.”  I said, “That’s fine, I’ll just figure out a way to make money.”  Because you don’t get paid.

MN: That’s the truth.

San Francisco Loft Stripped Bath

GT: So we made it work, because most of the time when she tours like a four day weekend, so that kind of worked around my schedule.  I was working as a waiter which had more flexibility.  And I was doing fine arts, so interior design didn’t even come into play.  At some point I thought, “I need to have another career.”  Because I started dancing much later, I knew was never going to be at this level (raises hand above his head), it’s just not going to happen, know what I mean?

MN: Even for people that start young it’s very hard to get to the absolute top level.

GT: Very hard.  So I thought, “What’s another option as a career?”  By this time I had already moved to San Francisco, so I checked out the Academy of Art University.  At that time it was called Academy of Art College, and I thought, you know, maybe I’ll go into advertising, graphic design, fashion design…  They also had interior design.  I signed up for the orientation, and it happened that interior design was the first presentation, so I went into the orientation and at that time the director was just very excited and very passionate about the industry, and interior design.

San Francisco’s Academy of Art University

MN: Who was the director at that time?

GT: Martha Miller.

MN: Martha, okay.

GT: She has moved around, I think now she works at Cañada College, she was director down there for awhile.  And so she was really excited, and I was like, “Oh, I can do this.”  She’s said, “You can make a lot of money…”

MN: (Laughs)

GT: You can, but not everybody can.

MN: No, it’s a difficult field.

GT: She said, “It’s really glamorous,” and she got me really excited, so I signed up for the program.

MN: Were you still dancing at that time, or had you already –

GT: Yes.

MN: Were you dancing with the San Francisco Ballet at that time?

GT: No.  I’m not good enough to dance with the San Francisco Ballet.

MN: That’s pretty high end.

GT: By that time I wasn’t really doing ballet, I was doing ballroom, contemporary dance, and modern.  I stopped dancing right when we started our business years ago.  So I was just taking some classes.  But six months ago I was contacted, and this was my performance (hands interviewer photo).

Photo of Gioi (second from right) dancing at The Spring Dance

MN: Six months ago?

GT: Six months ago I started dancing again.

MN: That’s awesome.

GT: This performance was in April.

MN: What is this performance?  Tell me about it.

GT: There’s a dance that happens once a year called The Spring Dance, and it was started by UCSF to raise money for pediatric cancer patients.  So annually they do this performance and this collage of different dances.  Companies have to audition to get into the program and the director of has her own pieces.  So then she asked me to volunteer my time to perform in this.  This is my first performance in eleven years!

MN: Congratulations, that’s terrific!

GT: It took me six months to get back in shape.

MN: Well, of course.  I mean, dancing is very intense activity.  So is this is a kind of a modern ballet?

GT: This is actually more classical ballet piece.

MN: More classical ballet?  So it was choreographed by the director of the fundraising event?

GT: Yes, actually she hired a choreographer to come in and choreograph this piece with her general direction.

MN: So what was it like to fit in learning this piece while you’re still running a business?

GT: It was great, because it comes around full circle. That’s what I tell my students, because I also teach at the Academy of Art University, I’m an instructor there.

MN: That’s great.

GT: Crazy.  Crazy schedule.

MN: You have a lot on your plate.

GT: So I always tell them: “In life, it’s good to have some idea of what you want to do, but be open to what’s out there, and everything that you do in your life is going to come around full circle, everything you learn!” I’ve had many experiences – I worked for a law firm, I’ve worked for a German manufacturer, Miele-

Miele dishwasher

MN: Oh, really?

GT: Yeah, I worked for Miele for about eight years.

MN: What were you doing with Miele?

GT: I started out running the showroom, and then I started helping with marketing; I used to do cooking demonstrations for their products and then I started doing product training.  I wore a lot of hats working for them.  But all that experience – being a waiter, being a bartender, dancing, doing fine arts – they all encompass what I do today.  I draw from all of it – sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, sometimes subconsciously – it all comes together.  My whole approach to our business practice and how we work with clients are all influenced by the attractions I’ve had in dance and living for the arts.  You have to be very disciplined.  Especially in ballet, because in ballet, it’s all about progression of steps.  It’s like learning your ABC’s.  You can’t write a paragraph unless you know your ABC’s – you learn your vowels and your consonants.  In ballet, you can’t just come in overnight and start dancing.

MN: Right.

GT: You have to learn all this vocabulary and you have to do these exercises over and over, three hours a day, tendus, tendus, dégagé, tendus, pliés.  And then you connect all of these pieces and eventually it all becomes a beautiful dance, but all this training has to happen first.  So you can’t go out there and just improvise, it’s all very mechanical components.  You take those mechanical components and create this beautiful choreography that inspires somebody.  So all of that has to do with all the things I do today.  You have to be disciplined, you have to be organized.  I think everything in life effects how you are today.  All of your experiences.  Everything you do does come back later.

Photography by Sheila Price

MN: Do you feel like you kind of have the same internal creative process, whether it’s dance or painting or interior design for a client, or are there different avenues that you go down internally?

GT: I think that they’re not different that way, because your past experience obviously has a big input, but also your makeup, and who you are as a person.  Like for me – I’m not patient, even though I’ve had to have all this training, but I do it quicker.  So for somebody who it would take five years, I’m going to do it in two years, because I don’t have the patience.  I process a lot very quickly: I think quick, I throw quick, and I get it out there.  Vernon [Gioi’s partner] on the other hand is very methodical.  Like you ask Vernon, give me an opinion about that (points to keys on table), he’ll just absorb it, he’ll take it and then walk away, and then come back.  He’s not going to give you an opinion.  He’s going to say, “I need to think about it, I need to find out more.”  You ask me, I’m like, “Oh, okay, well I think this has a really cool texture, but these should be MWB and not BMW.”   I would do it like this (snaps his fingers really quickly) and I think fast.  But that’s my nature.

Firebird by Gioi Tran, 36” x 60”, acrylic on canvas

MN: Does that show up in your painting?  Do you feel like you paint really fast?

GT: I paint that way too, and that’s why when you see my painting it’s broad strokes, it’s big, it’s textural.  It’s not delicate.  When I see paintings that are delicate with a wash, with a lightness and transparent qualities I love it, because that’s not something I can do.  I need to hit it, I need to make it bold.  I can’t do watercolor.  I took training in Chinese painting, and it’s dip, dip, dip, stroke (mimics painting a single curved brush stroke on pretend paper),  done.  For me it’s like, I need to like (mimics dipping brush into paint, and then scribbling over the first brush stroke) – you know what I mean?  Because it’s one stroke and you have to plan ahead.  And for me a lot of time I don’t plan ahead; it’s not my makeup.  I like to experiment.

MN: Take things as they come?

GT: I take risks.  I throw it and if it doesn’t work, who cares; it doesn’t matter.  It’s only a canvas.

MN: And that’s also really good when you’re dealing with clients, because if you have an idea and they don’t like that idea, then you have another idea right away.

GT: But saying that – that’s why when we have a project Vernon and I assess who should do this project, based on time availability, our schedule, and personality.  Because I think that’s really important. But even if I have a client that needs to be organized and all that stuff, I then have to train myself and with that project be more structured, be more timely, be more – slow it down, not go so quick.  So I think our makeup is also another factor in how we approach the design process.  But then at some point you know your strengths and weaknesses.

Ocean Front living room by Applegate Tran Interiors. Photography by David Duncan Livingston

MN: That’s one of the good things about having more years on the planet.

GT: Maturity.  Yeah, so that’s okay.  I’ll do this when it’s needed, but I know that’s not my strength.  I’ll take on this client knowing that probably we’re not the most compatible, but then I have to adjust, because they’re the client.  So this is a business, I want to make sure that they’re happy, and I’ve adjusted to them.

MN: Do you find that having things like instant messaging, instant communication, and the internet availability have worked really well for you?  Do you have constant communication with clients so you can get instant answers?

GT: I don’t know any difference I guess, because when we started business, I think that technology was already there.  I mean, now it’s even more so, before it was just maybe faxes and email, but now it’s texting, it’s more of that.

MN: Do you do a lot of texting with your clients?

GT: Yeah.  There are a couple.  Again, certain clients operate in certain ways.  With this client, they’re best at communication through email; with this one you’ve got to make a phone call.  Or face to face.  I had this client in Hawaii, and, we had all these issues, endless emails back and forth, and it just became complicated.  The minute we got face to face, we came to agreement within ten minutes, done.  With two months of this back and forth email, nothing got accomplished.

Can you hear me now?

MN: Email can go either way, because it can be very useful and convenient, but it can also get into this morass of no decisions being made, especially when you have a lot of parties participating.

GT: Well, there were issues that came up and I think then he became emotional about it, I became emotional about the emails just escalated it.

MN: Escalated, yes.

GT: With the face to face meeting I said, “Frank, I’m here to do this for you.”  And he said, “Yeah, I’m sorry I sent that email, I’m sorry I pushed you.”  But overall we like technology.  Technology is good.

MN: We’ve been using technology a lot to communicate information electronically.

GT: We have to have paperwork just because there are things that we physically have to have – drawings, sketches – but I personally like using the emails, because I’m much more organized and able to see things for clients, because on paper I lose things.

MN: Do you have some clients that will come to you specifically because you are an artist and you have a fine arts background, and so they want to be able to have that influence in their interior design?

Potrero Hill dining room with paintings by Gioi Tran. Photography by David Duncan Livingston

MN: No, and also it’s not known – I mean, people don’t know I used to be a dancer.  A lot of people don’t know I’m an artist.  I have clients that say, “I saw this painting, who’s the artist?”  I’ll say, “Oh, it’s me.”  Then they say, “Oh, I didn’t know you’re an artist.”  We don’t really promote it here.  I promote it separately.  I have two galleries that represent my work, ArtHaus is one of them, and the other one is Paige Gallery.  So I promote it separately.  But it’s not on our main website.  I think eventually I should, because we had one client that hired us four years ago and she contacted us because she did a Google search and found out that I was Vietnamese, and that appealed to her.  So obviously it’s a good idea for my art, too, since it does draw people in.  I think it’s good to let people know who we are as people outside of our interior design business.

Gioi in the Delta near Ho Chi Minh City, near his childhood home

MN: Well, I think that it really helps clients.  They may not know that it helps them, but just the fact that you have all these different backgrounds, living in three different countries when you were growing up and having the world-wide perspective –

GT: And traveling a lot.

MN: And the traveling that you have done, and the fact that you have the dance experience and the fine art experience – I think when you’re trying to create a home for somebody, drawing on all of those experiences gives somebody a better home.

GT: But also, outside from the design, for me personally, being a dancer and a struggling artist for many years, I kind of have a different approach when it comes to designing space.  It’s not life or death.  Obviously I take it seriously from the sense of making sure that we provide excellent service to our clients, but I just kind of have a laid back approach in terms of saying, “It’s okay.”

MN: It’s just a kitchen.

GT: It’s just a kitchen.  I don’t take myself so seriously.

Orinda kitchen by Applegate-Tran Interiors. Photography by David Duncan Livingston

MN: Well, it sounds like you have less ego involvement with it.

GT: Look: We work in beautiful spaces, certain days that it’s very glamorous, travel here, doing that, shopping – but for the most part you’re working for somebody.  You’re schlepping stuff.  It’s like, you know, it’s not a big deal.

MN: Vernon mentioned that the job of an interior designer involves ten percent design, and then –

GT: 95 percent organization.

MN: 90 or maybe 95 percent other things that you’re doing, like schlepping or making phone calls or ordering things, managing an office –

GT: Yeah, I picked this fabric but now when we call it’s discontinued.

MN: No longer available, yes.

GT: Or it’s 20 percent silk, we can’t use that, or I showed it to the client and she loved it but, oh, the price, it’s 120 dollars a yard.

MN: There’s a lot of back and forth.

Cinnabar fabric by Highland Court

GT: For one piece of fabric!  Twenty hours later…

MN: Yeah, there’s a lot of research involved, and people don’t realize how much time it takes to choose a fabric for three pillows or something like that.  Probably at this point you don’t experience difficulty invoicing for those kind of things and explaining to clients what you’re doing, but I’m sure people starting out –

GT: It depends on the client.

MN: Yes.

GT: If we find out that they’ve never gone through this process, then we explain the process, we go through the process; this is how it’s going to work.  We tell them that the first phase it’s going to be X amount of hours or X amount of time.  So we educate them, in the beginning or along the way.  We show them boards and examples of other projects, and we explain that the whole process took about two and a half months.

MN: Well, there’s a lot of education in our field, and you teach as well?

GT: Yes.

MN: And I also noticed that there’s a book that you’re involved with called Starting Your Career as an Interior Designer.  I read a lot of the book actually – it’s a really good book.  But how did those guys find you, and what was it like to participate in that project?

GT: You know, people just call – I constantly get emails because we’re everywhere.  I just got an email today from Academy of Art University.  They’re putting out a catalog and each department chose one instructor that has some kind of a voice, so they interviewed me.  I also just got an email from somebody who’s moving here from the East Coast and they want to go to school and they want to ask me about my career and the industry.  The word is just out there.

MN: Right.  Well, the Academy of Art University named you as alumni of the year in 2007 – that was a very nice honor.

GT: They had their commencement and I was there with my cap and they showed pictures of my projects and my accomplishments – it was really cool.

San Francisco Loft by Applegate-Tran Interiors. Photography by David Duncan Livingston

MN: I kind of assumed when I saw that and saw you in the book that you must get calls all the time from aspiring designers.  When you are teaching, do you teach actual design and also how to handle the business end of it?

GT: I always throw that in, because I think that’s important.  I teach a kitchen and bath class, that’s the name of the course.  But I want to come into class the first five minutes and I tell them what’s going on with my world, so they can see it’s not always glamorous.  Issues can come up that are beyond your control.  One day I showed up and I just had an awful phone call from a client in New York City, he was so upset because four pieces of furniture arrived and three were damaged.  Usually when it happens here we don’t let the client see it.   We see it damaged, we don’t sign, the guys take it back to the warehouse, and we figure out how to make it work. In New York City we’re not there, so the delivery people left it and dropped it and left it in the condo.

MN: You try to protect your client.

GT: Yes.

MN: We do that a lot too.

GT: In that case, that happened on the way to class, so of course when I came to class, I let the students know what’s going on in my world.  I think that’s important.

MN: I appreciated this book because it’s a nuts and bolts kind of approach for someone who’s trying to start out in the design profession, geared toward interior designers, and it’s a lot of very practical advice.  Your field has a reputation for being glamorous, and they (the authors) say, “No, it’s not glamorous.”

Audrey Hepburn

GT: It’s not glamorous.

MN: Maybe one day out of the year it will be glamorous.

GT: Well, you don’t go into the field thinking that your ultimate goal to be a celebrity.  Out of 100 students, only five will be working as a designer, and out of five, only .01 percent will have a name in the industry, or will have the clientele that really make them shine and let them do whatever you want.

MN: Right.

GT: But most of the case it’s day in, day out, you’re problem solving.

MN: It’s a job.

GT: It’s a job.  You’re problem solving.  They don’t have enough storage; you have to provide enough storage.  There’s not enough lighting.  They hire you to coordinate so they don’t have to worry about it.  Like today I went to the job site because the client’s going to go out of the country for three weeks.  All these things need to be done, and guess who’s going to have to get them done?

MN: You.

GT: Who’s going to have to be the bad guy to go in and say, “This is not on time”?  That’s not glamorous.

MN: Was that surprising when you found that out?

MN: I have to say yes, and that’s why I tell the students, “You know, you see me now and I have an office here, I have an office in Hawaii, I do these projects, but there’s a lot behind the scenes, but it took me a long time to get here.”

Living room by Applegate Tran Interiors. Photography by David Duncan Livingston

MN: Right.

GT: After I graduated from design school, I didn’t go to work right away because after my internship, I thought, “This sucks!  It doesn’t pay very much, it’s all this paperwork, working the library, doing production work; I don’t get to see the big picture…”  So then I went to work for a law firm for two years, because I needed to make money.  Then, after two years of working in a law firm, I said, “Okay, I’ve got to do something with interior design because that’s what I went to school for.”  I have to say even at that time it wasn’t a passion, because I’d really never experienced what the industry is about.  I just thought for practical purposes I should give design another chance.  So I went to work for a design firm, but I couldn’t make enough money working full time, so I worked for them part time and also for Miele.

MN: Oh, okay.

GT: Then I worked for Miele full time, but I went to them and said, “You know what? I need flexibility.  That’s the only way I can take this job.”  I came in at ten or eleven o’clock, worked ‘til five or sometimes four, and had one day off a week during the week to go my design firm.   Design is what I wanted to do, but I couldn’t afford to work full time in interior design, it was not paying enough.  I made it work.  I tell my students you’ve got to be creative.  If this is what you want to do, you can make it, but it’s not going to be easy.  You’re going to make ten dollars and hour, and you’ve got to work your way up.  Because interior design is a big deal! I’m not going to have you design something, because it’s going to cost me money – I mean, you might design something that’s going to fall or doesn’t fit –it’s a big liability.  When you’re a designer, you’re not going to get a job where you just start designing and installing, it’s just not going to happen.  You’re going to get bits and pieces until you can connect all these bits and pieces, and then you can get to do the whole thing.  So for years, I didn’t get the whole thing; I got bits and pieces.  So for many years I still didn’t know what interior design was really about, because I working for a designer I didn’t get to see the whole picture.  It was just, “Okay, you can sketch some ideas for this,” “Oh, go out and find other fabric that coordinates with the orange and green for me, I want some stripes,” “Okay, take this and go.”  I was doing all these bits and pieces.

“I want stripes!”

MN: Little research kind of things.

GT: To answer your question, even three, four years into the business working for someone else I still didn’t know; not until we had our own business.  Then it’s like, “Oh, that’s a lot of paperwork, that’s a lot of follow-up!”  You know?  Right?

MN: When did you start your own business then?

GT: Eleven years ago.

MN: Did you go straight from working for the other designer, or –

GT: When I met Vernon, he was an interior designer, and right away I said, “Okay, if we’re going to start dating and living together, we have to have our own design business.”  At that time, I was working juggling both jobs.  Vernon was ready to start his own business, but he was just barely started.  He had one client.  He said, “Why don’t we start our own business, Applegate Tran Interiors?”  So I stayed and kept my full-time job with Miele, so instead of working with somebody else, I went to work with Vernon on the side, and then I actually stayed and worked with Miele for another six years before I came full-time here.

MN: That’s a more realistic trajectory for a student to expect, to have another job – it’s kind of like trying to be an artist or trying to be a dancer.  Our society doesn’t really support the arts in any way.  Some interior designers can be successful, but in general I think it’s very hard for an interior designer.

GT: It’s very hard.  You have to figure out other ways to get through that first five, six years. You have to figure it out because it’s hard to graduate from school and say, “Okay, I’m going to go out and get a full-time job and have a career right away,” Some can, maybe by working for a big architecture firm or big interior design firm like Gensler and Associates, but again, even at a bigger firm they only have 30, 40 employees.  And how many firms are there?

MN: Not a lot.

GT: Right.  Out of the country, maybe 100.  So there’s not –

MN: There aren’t not a lot of job openings.

GT: There are a lot of designers out there, but even the successful ones can’t have a big staff of 20 people; it doesn’t happen.

MN: No.  Definitely not.

GT: We’re a big firm for an interior design firm.

MN: How many people do you have?

GT: I think we have six.

San Francisco Loft by Applegate Tran Interiors. Photography by Dean Birinyi.

MN: Does that include all your different offices?

GT: Yes.  Each office only has one person, and then I have assistants, and interns, and sometimes a designer on a project basis.  It’s a lot to juggle.

MN: It is a lot.  But now that you have your own business and you’re working here full time, are you getting to experience more of the passion for interior design?

GT: I love what we do.  I just have to step back because I think day to day it gets overwhelming, so I always step back and say, “You know, I’m pretty lucky.”

MN: Yes.

GT: The other day I took a client to an event, and after we went out for dinner, she said, “Gioi, people just love you guys!  Everyone has respect for you and you’re just out there and you have such a great reputation,” and I was like, “Yeah!”  I have to step back and say not all designers are able to have what we have, having clients that allow us to do wonderful spaces, or having the ability to travel.  A lot of what we do is going to different places, like having clients in New York.  Also, I went shopping four months ago to China with a client, things like that.  The hard part is having projects that go south or clients sometimes just not being reasonable.

MN: Well, there’s always that in any business.

GT: But you know what, I’ve gone through three really hard clients in the last two years, and learned so much from it!  In the beginning I was panicked.  But now when these things happen, I just assess the situation, know my rights, and if I didn’t cover it in my contract, I have to eat it.  If it’s in the contract, I’m going to stick by it.  I’m not going to get upset.  I am going to get sleep over the weekend.  I realize, going through what I went through with other tough clients, somehow it’s going to work out.  You know?  It’s just furniture, right?


MN: Exactly.

GT: So when you deal with all these stressful situations, when it happens, I just step back and say, “Hey, assess it.  Come up with solutions one, two and three.  At some point you’ll have only one option, and that will be your only option, this is it.”  I think going through all that experience really helped me, so when things happen I step back, say, “Give me a minute, we do this, we do that.  Done.”  So we can’t avoid – it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in business.  You can’t avoid it – you can’t control somebody else.

MN: No, you can’t.  That’s one of the interesting things about our industry is that you have all this responsibility, but very little control.

GT: Yes, true.

MN: So it can be very thrilling, can’t it?

GT: Well, I’ve got to go.  Do you mind?

MN: No, not at all.  So thank you very much for participating, it’s really been an honor.

Kitchen by Applegate Tran Interiors. Photography by Chris Stark

Interviewer: Jill Moran

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.