Interview with Vernon Applegate

Vernon Applegate

Please join us for an interview with Vernon Applegate, the yin of the yin-yang creative genius behind the dynamic design firm Applegate Tran Interiors.  Vernon’s international upbringing, studies abroad, and his degree in architecture all influence a design vision that pushes conventional boundaries, often using materials in startling ways.  The unique results are a breath of fresh air in today’s world of mass-produced cookie cutter designs.  Read on and be inspired.

MN: First we’d just like to thank you very much for participating with us.  Let’s just start by talking about your early influences in your life that lead you toward design.

VA: I don’t know where to begin with that, because I think there’s so many influences that I had as a kid.  My parents appreciated the arts.  My father was an engineer for the phone company, and my mother was a nurse – both very educated people and they always appreciated the arts.  So whenever we had the chance as a kid they would take us to museums in Philadelphia or the museums in New York or Washington D.C. That always had an influence on me.  And the people that I grew up with and around, also my aunts and uncles had a big influence on me in that respect.

MN: Do you remember going to museums?

VA: Oh, I do.

MN: Did you have a favorite museum?

VA: I just remember just being small and remembering how big the Met was.


MN: How great, for a kid.

VA: And how incredible.  Then also as a small kid I was very fortunate because I got to travel quite a bit.  I traveled to Europe many times as a kid.

MN: Your parents took you?

VA: My parents took me, and then I also had some aunts that also traveled a lot, so I would travel with them.  So it was a good experience growing up.  I mean, we grew up in a very rural area in New Jersey, but my parents always loved the arts.  So I think that had a big influence on me in my early years.  And then I always liked to draw as a kid, I took different art classes, and then finally going to an art school really opened up my eyes quite a bit.

MN: You studied at the University of Arts in Philadelphia?

VA: I did.

MN: And what was that like there?

VA: It was a whole new chapter in my life.

MN: Was it a departure from what you had been doing before?

VA: Well, going from high school to college is always a departure.  I got to see new things, get challenged by teachers and professors and colleagues, as well as other students.  And it was really sort of the stepping stone for what I’m doing today.  If I hadn’t gone to school I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today.

MN: Were there things that you learned or principles that you learned studying at the university that you still use today?

VA: I think – again, I think it was sort of the stepping stone, but I think it was more about opening my eyes to the creative process.  It was  having people – professors and other artists – sort of push me in different directions, and enlighten me to other possibilities in the world that I hadn’t really seen before.  That was a huge stepping stone in having my own business and being a principal of a design firm.

MN: Were you studying art as an undergraduate?

Karol Table by Applegate Tran Furniture. All furniture photography by David Duncan Livingston

VA: I studied architecture, but it was at a fine arts school, so I also had to take drawing classes and painting classes.  I minored in photography.  One of the things it also taught me is that there are no limitations, and to always push yourself.  And I know you ask about how we push or come up with some of these designs – I’m always also using that in terms of pushing my clients and pushing the designs, because I like to have a variety of different types of projects.  We have traditional clients.  We are more known for our contemporary work, but we do have traditional clients. I enjoy those just as much as I enjoy my more contemporary and sort of modern projects, just because it takes me out of that element and I get to see something from a different view point.  And I have to sort of focus in on that, and then I can turn around and use some of those aspects in some more of my contemporary designs, bringing some classical elements into contemporary designs, proportions and color palates.  So that’s life- a combination of growing and learning and bringing my experience to our projects.

MN: Did you have a senior project?

VA: I did.  We had to take a painting, an artist.  I chose a Russian constructivist, just because I love Russian constructivism.  And we had to interpret that into almost a living type of monument that you can enter.  I took a Russian constructivist’s painting, El Lissitzky, and – I forget the name of the painting now that I used for it –


MN: It will come back to you.

VA: I remember designing something for the Philadelphia waterfront.  Obviously it was all in theory, but it was a lot of fun.  And back then CAD drawings weren’t really used yet, so we had to do everything by hand.

MN: What do you love about Russian constructivists?

VA: Well, just their play on forms.  The tension between the forms.  To me there’s sort of an abstract environment in most of them.  So that’s what I like about it, especially studying architecture and really being in love with architecture and interiors.  That’s what I love about it.


MN: Can you talk about some of your mentors and what it was like to have mentors and then develop your own design vision?

Alexander Rodchenko ”Dance”, 1915 Russia

VA: I think again through time there were always different mentors for different periods in my life.  Obviously when I was young, my mentors were my parents and teachers, and then professors and architects and other artists.  Today, I mean, I would definitely say my partner is one of my biggest mentors.  We really bounce ideas off each other and he really pushes me a lot of times.

MN: Gioi?

VA: Gioi does.  So he’s one of my biggest mentors right now.  I don’t know if I have a prolific name that I can say is a mentor of mine.

MN: It doesn’t have to be.

VA: There are some colleagues—Gary Hutton is definitely somebody that I really admire and love his work.  Ron Woodson and Jaime Rummerfield from L.A.— I really love their work, and just their work ethic and their style.  So I think those are some other designers that are mentors to me.


MN: Do you remember your first paid designing engagement?

VA: My first paid on my own?

MN: First paid on your own.

VA: I don’t want to use names, but yes, I had just quit working for another designer and didn’t know what to do, and I got a phone call and someone wanted me to design their kitchen, so that’s actually how I started.  And then a few months later I met Gioi, and we formed our company together.

Family Room by Applegate Tran Interiors, currently under construction in Hillsborough

MN: So when did you guys form your company again?

VA: In June of ’99, and my first project was in ’98.

MN: And how did you meet Gioi?

VA: We met online actually.

MN: You did?

VA: Yeah, we did.

MN: Are you life partners as well?

VA: We are.  So yeah, we met and hit it off and he had his own projects and I had my own projects, and we thought, “This is kind of strange having our own projects, why don’t we just combine and see how that works.”  And it did.

MN: What has it been like to work with a partner instead of having your own business?

VA: Like I said, he’s one of my biggest mentors, and I don’t think I’d be able to do it without him.  We really bounce ideas off each other, and also we play off of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  There are certain things that he does extremely well that I don’t, and vice versa.  And within our company we usually divide up the projects, so he takes certain clients and I take certain other clients.  We always have the lead designer, so he’d be the lead designer for certain projects and I’ll be a lead designer for others.  And sometimes we’ll work on a project where he’s lead designer for part of it and I’m the lead designer for another part of it, like the Orinda kitchen.


MN: Yes, was he a lead designer on that one?

VA: He was lead designer on the kitchen part of it, and then the rest of the house I did.


MN: Well that’s great.  I was wondering about respective strengths and weaknesses.  Mueller Nicholls also has three partners, I don’t know if you knew that.

VA: No, actually I didn’t.

MN: You interact mostly with Eric Goetting, because he runs the shop.  But then we also have Steve Nicholls, who is the main ownership person, and Chris Vaughan who runs production.  So they definitely have strengths and weakness that play off each other, and it’s nice to have that partnership.

VA: It is.  It helps.  I mean, I couldn’t do it all.  Gioi obviously does most of the marketing, the networking.  I’m usually the quieter of the two.  So he – I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but he likes to do more of the space planning and that type of design and I love fabrics and color and materials and furnishings.  You know we have our own furniture line.

MN: Yes.

VA: And that’s because of my love for furniture, that’s where our furniture line sort of came from.

MN: Do you handle most of the design for the furniture line then?

VA: I do.  That’s about 99 percent me.


Nazari Bed by Applegate Tran Furniture

MN: That’s great!

VA: I always like to reinvent and re-energize ourselves, and that’s something that has brought new life into our company.  I always have to open a new page.

MN: Do you have other creative outlets?  Like, are you still doing photography?

VA: I’m not doing photography anymore, although I love it.  But technology today has changed so, and I’m not doing photography anymore.  At home we have almost an acre of land.

MN: Oh, really?

VA: We don’t live in the city – we live outside the city.

MN: Where do you live?

VA: We live in the East Bay.  We have a garden that I’m sort of transforming, so that’s sort of my other passion, gardening.  I’ve had people ask me will I do their gardens, and I say no, just because it’s really a love of mine, and I don’t want to do it for anyone else.  I just want to do it for myself.


MN: That’s so nice to have an acre of land, but still in the city.

VA: Yeah, we have a house, and then we bought the property next door, which was a vacant lot, so between the two, it became almost an acre.  We’re really thrilled about it.

MN: Oh, it’s very exciting!  And how did you decide to design the furniture?  Was that just a brainstorm, or did some clients already ask you to do furniture for them?

VA: Well, I always wanted to do custom furniture, but I didn’t think in terms of the magnitude of having my own production line.  Where it started was I would be looking for something for a client, and if the client had the means, I would design something custom for them.  Through the years I kept on designing custom pieces for clients, and then realized, “Well, I almost have a collection here with pieces I’ve designed for our clients.”  So most of the pieces are actually named after our clients, and hence we have the Vivienne Mirror, the Cara Mirror and the Karol Table; sometimes I use the first name, sometimes I use the last.  And then through our connection to Vietnam – Gioi is Vietnamese –we met a group of people and started producing our furniture there.  We have all the upholstery and certain other pieces made here.  I’m the kind of person that’s always looking for new resources no matter what I’m doing.


Karol Table by Applegate Tran Furniture

MN: You have that eye.

VA: I do, and I enjoy it.  And that’s definitely something that’s different between Gioi and me.  When he’s on vacation, he has other passions that he loves to do, and I’m always like, “Well, let’s go to this factory.”  He’s like, “Factory?  I don’t want to go there.”  So yeah, that’s sort of one of my passions, trying to find new great resources.

MN: Have you found a recent new great resource that you’re very excited about?

VA: I have.  We’re probably going to be coming out with – it’s in the very extremely preliminary stages – some lighting.  I have found a resource that I really like and we’ve done a couple of custom pieces for clients and really love the quality and working with this person.

MN: Well, that leads me to one of my other observations.  There’s that grouping of the six or twelve pendants in one of your projects called “The G House.”

VA: Yeah, I’m trying –

MN: It’s a clear conical glass pendant, and there’s a frosted section at the bottom –

VA: Oh, I know which one now.

MN: So they’re a very familiar pendant, and I’ve seen them a lot.


VA: I’m trying to remember who the manufacturer is, I might be wrong, I think it’s Artemide.

MN: It might be Artemide – I think it is Artemide.

VA: And you can buy them individually, or you can buy them as a grouping.  So we bought them – I forget how many there were, I think there were eight.

MN: I think there might be 12 on the table.

VA: 12, okay.  It was a home in the East Bay where we really opened up the space, but when you first walk into the house, you walk in on this catwalk, and then you walk down some stairs which go down into the living room/dining room area.  It’s two stories over their dining table, so we wanted something that had mass, but yet also didn’t block the view and even though it had mass, it had a lightness to it.  So those lights, I do just love them, and I think they worked really well in that space.

MN: Well, I’ve seen them used a lot, but I think that grouping with that many is just fantastic.  I just love that, and the way you described that space, it’s a perfect solution.

VA: Thank you.

MN: So that’s one of the things we love about remodeling, is just having these problems and being able to find solutions for them.  It’s fantastic, really fun.

VA: Yes, they are.

MN: We have enjoyed working with you a lot, and doing very unusual designs, and I was lucky because I got to see that makeup table that’s being built right now, which I love.

VA: That got installed about a week and a half ago; the client was really thrilled.  All the cabinetry that’s in the room turned out phenomenal, and I’m again very lucky I had a client that was open to having me push her limits, and sometimes she would push mine, and she also had the means.

MN: That’s a good combo.

VA: It is a great combo.  And also this was their third house that we’ve done for them, so each project became easier in terms of being able to push the limits, and this was going to be their final house for awhile, for a long time.  So it was a lot of fun.  The whole project’s been a lot of fun.

MN: It seems like you are able to kind of push the envelope, but how do you get your clients to do that?  Does it have to be a client who already wants that?


VA: I think anyone that sees our work and is going to hire us because that’s what they want.  They want something that’s different, that’s not like your next door neighbor’s home.  It’s also something that we talk about in the very beginning, telling them “We’re going to push your boundaries – that’s why you hired us.” They probably shouldn’t hire us if they don’t want their boundaries pushed, although at the very end, it’s always the client’s decision about what gets done and how things look.  We’re going to show them the top and what we think is the most exciting thing for the room, and then we go from there.  I know one of your other questions was about budget.

MN: Right.  Well, that’s kind of the flip side, because you have to have the clients who are willing to take risks, but some of the more risky designs are more difficult to execute and therefore can be more expensive.

VA: They usually are.  I always let our clients know that it’s a luxury to hire an interior designer, that 90 percent of the people in the world cannot hire interior designers.  It is a luxury.  It’s not a cheap process.  But again, we give them something that is hopefully really thrilling to them, so every time they come home they are in love with their home and they really enjoy being there.  We talk about the budget right up front, and sometimes clients are very open with us to let us know what a budget is going to be; other clients are not as open, but we keep on pushing that envelope too.  Sometimes we have clients that want us to do a design first, and then they’ll talk about budget.  So when I have a client that’s like that, then I do a couple of different things.  I try to show them some things first depending on the type of project.  We have two types of projects – our decorating projects, and our architectural projects.  So when it’s a decorating project I’ll just show them some furniture and sort of try to see what they like and what their expectations are in terms of price point, and then I can sort of build on that and realize, “Okay, if they’re willing to spend $3,000, $5,000, $20,000, $30,000, $70,000 for a sofa, then I can generalize.  I get an idea.


Moon Bench by Applegate Tran Furniture

MN: An idea of what the overall budget might be.

VA: What the budget might be.  So it really depends.

MN: Have you found that it’s more difficult in this economy to talk about budget, or are people more interested in finding out up front?

VA: No, we still talk about it.  It’s something that just part of the process – we are just real up front with it.  “What is your budget, what do you have to spend?”  If they give us a number that we feel is unrealistic, then we’ll tell them; we’ll say, “You know, this is an unrealistic budget for what you’re wanting to spend and what your expectations are.”  So it’s based on expectations and the budget.

MN: So do you have a sense of construction costs versus interior decorating costs, and do you try to talk about both, or if it’s an architectural job do you try to get contractors involved to discuss the budget?

VA: Again, it depends on what the scope of the project is.  If it’s just a kitchen, say a remodel or an addition, we’ve done enough so we have a general idea of cost, so we give them a very generic range.  We can come up with some concepts and then we can start pulling together all the other people that need to be involved in the process.  Or if we’re working with an architect (sometimes we’re brought on secondary), the architect has already specified budgets, and then the client has a good idea of what the project is going to cost.  So we work many different ways.

MN: Well, it seems as though there can be a tension between architects and interior designers, and I was wondering if you can comment on that, if you feel that’s somehow inherent.


VA: I think it’s really about communication and egos.  Gioi and I don’t have huge massive egos, so we’re pretty open to working with architects.  I’d say with 90 percent or more of the architects that we’ve worked with we’ve enjoyed the process, they’ve enjoyed the process; it’s been a real collaboration, and that’s where we see it.  And again it depends, for us, what the process is.  Because sometimes we’re brought on secondary, we know that the architect then already has the vision.  We take the cues from the architect and try to build and enhance that in working with them.  If we’re brought on first and then the client asks us to bring an architect on, it’s a little bit of…

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

MN: Dynamic?

VA: Yeah, a different dynamic.  So it really depends.

MN: Do you have architects that you have really good collaborative work with?  Are there architects that you can weigh in on some architectural themes as well as more interior design themes?

VA: Oh, most definitely.  We did a project down in Palo Alto with the architect John Barton, and it was a real joy working with him.  He definitely had his vision on the project; he was on the project first.  It was about an 8,000 square foot home – new construction – but we also got to have our input in talking about the layout, making sure how things flowed inside the house would work in terms of space planning and relationship to furniture and how you live in the home.  It was a great relationship working with him.

MN: If you’re talking about how furniture is laid out, are you already choosing furniture pieces in the planning stage, or are you just saying, “This is going to be a sofa and coffee table over here.”

VA: In the very beginning it’s just exactly that.  It’s just sort of a generalization, and then as the process continues and gets more refined, then we start figuring out what those pieces are going to be and making sure that that works with the client’s lifestyle.  On that project the client was very involved.  We had many, many meetings with John, myself, and the home owner, and we would be sitting there for many, many hours.

MN: Marathon meetings.


VA: Yes, marathon meetings of how furniture was going to be laid out and how big the corridor in the front of the house was going to be; all kinds of things.  Because the home owner had certain criteria that he wanted to see in the house and that criteria, during the process, changed.  And that’s just one project.  There have been other projects where we’ve brought architects on board because either A, the project started out as we’re going to do this one little thing, and then all of a sudden –

MN: All we want is a new sink, now we need a second story addition; we’re going to move the master suite upstairs.

VA: So we’ve done that.

MN: That’s what we call scope creep.

VA: So yeah, we’ve done that.  We had a project in San Mateo that was like that.  We were just going in to do the kitchen and all of a sudden it became kitchen, family room, new master suite, second floor, bathroom, laundry room, power room, wine cellar.

MN: A perfect example of scope creep.


VA: Then we brought an architect on board to help us with all the architectural details.  So we really did it up, but then he sort of drew up and designed all the architectural details for us.

MN: Interesting.  So it seems like you can have a very nice collaborative process with architects and –

VA: We do.

MN: I think that Eric has felt the same way, that you are very collaborative when we’re working with you.

VA: I feel the same way with anyone that we’re working with, whether it be a contractor, a furniture maker, cabinet maker, tile person; whatever.  We’re always very open to the dialog, because something might look great on paper, but when you go to actually construct it, it is a whole different ballpark.  The people that are building it are usually the ones that would tell us, “Hey Vernon, you need blocking in the back of this cabinet otherwise it’s going to wobble.”  Sometimes I’ll design something and then the fabricator will come back to us and say, “Well, if you just change this one little detail, it’s going to be a 20 percent reduction in cost,” So we listen.


MN: Is there a new product or material that you’re just starting to use that you think has a lot of possibilities that you’re very excited about?

VA: Well, I do like acrylics.  I think they’re very hot right now.  They’re not very green.

MN: Probably not.

VA: And that’s something else that I’m sort of wanting to explore more, but I also find the word “green” is thrown out there too much.

MN: It’s used quite a bit these days.

VA: I just went to a new restaurant – I won’t mention the name – but the owner of the restaurant said, “Oh, and our tables are all green.”  Because they’re recycled wood, but then they’re coated with a really thick – some type of epoxy.

MN: Undoubtedly some hideous chemical.

VA: In my mind, that’s not green.  The tables are gorgeous, they were phenomenal, but they weren’t green.

MN: It seems like there are a lot of people that are very concerned about our planet, and a lot of the drive towards sustainability is driven by that, but there’s a whole other aspect to it which we sometimes call green-washing, where anything can be called green.

VA: Yes.

MN: Vinyl windows can be called green, and there’s nothing green about vinyl in my opinion.


VA: I was just talking to a colleague the other day that sometimes the materials that are in the item are green, but the process to produce them is not.

MN: Once you start looking into it, it’s kind of like there’s not a black and white – a lot of it is very grey.  Bamboo is a good example; it’s considered to be green.

VA: But it takes a lot of water.


MN: And a big mono-culture like that, taking over a natural forest – you really have to question that.

VA: Actually, that was the example that we were talking about just the other day, because we were talking about flooring, and people are saying, “Well, bamboo flooring is green,” and we’re like, “Yes, in one extent it is because it reproduces so quickly, but then it’s not because it takes so much water to grow.”

MN: I didn’t know about the water aspect of it.  Monocultures compared to sustainably harvested forests have a very different impact on the environment and on ecology in general.

VA: It is something that I’m excited to learn more about.

Goldstein Side Table by Applegate Tran Furniture

MN: Well, I think one of the things that’s most important for sustainable building is to build spaces that are going to look good and function well and flexibly, so that people aren’t compelled to remodel them every five years.

VA: I hate tearing things out of people’s homes that haven’t seen their day yet.  Now people are more conscientious about trying to recycle, not just throwing away the cabinets; but reusing them or selling them, so they aren’t just thrown into a landfill.

San Francisco living room by Applegate Tran Interiors. Photography by Dean Birinyi.

MN: Right.

VA: But yeah, it’s not an area that I know that much about yet.

MN: Well, that’s one of the good things about our industry — there is life-long learning.

MN: How does travel influence your design aesthetic?  Are you still traveling a lot?

VA: We do.  We go to Vietnam quite a bit, and when we go to Vietnam, we always take another trip somewhere else for the fun of it or to see new things.  We just came back from three weeks in Spain.

MN: Nice.

VA: And Portugal.  We love to travel, and we try to go somewhere at least once a year other than Vietnam, because I go there probably three times a year.  It’s a huge influence.  Going to Spain and getting to see Gaudi’s work in person was incredible.  The details and learning more about his thought process, it’s something you don’t think about.  And just seeing other cultures and other ways of life.  I mean, the Spaniards, they’re so relaxed.


MN: A little bit different than us.

VA: Very different than our culture.  And food to them is so important.  And the way of life is so important.  And here it’s the – the words are slipping from me – what is important is very different; priorities are very different here, for most people.

MN: Do you think that you will try to incorporate more of that gracious lifestyle into your design somehow?

VA: We always do; I think we always do, even if it’s conscious or subconscious.  It’s something that we always incorporate.

We have traveled all over Asia and Europe.  A little bit of South America and Central America.  I was also an exchange student in high school, so I think that’s what also gave me the travel bug.

MN: Where did you go in high school?

VA: I was an exchange student to Sri Lanka, which again it was a very different – extremely different culture.

MN: How did you pick Sri Lanka?

Chapel at Trinity College, Kandy, Sri Lanka, where Vernon studied abroad.  Photograph by Isuru Senevi.

VA: I didn’t; it picked me.  I just applied for a year abroad program, and was accepted and I really wanted a French speaking country but I didn’t get it.

Ah, to be in Paris. Photography Copyright Roy Tenant

MN: Do you speak French?

VA: I don’t now, no.  I was learning French in high school.  I now speak Spanish, because afterwards I also lived in Honduras, and that’s where I learned my Spanish.  It comes in handy.

MN: Yes, definitely in this industry, because I took French in high school, and in some ways it seems that I should have taken Spanish, ending up in construction.

VA: Well, I would love to be able to speak French too.  Gioi and I would love to eventually one day have a place in Paris.

MN: Yes, that would be very nice.

VA: So that’s one of our goals.

MN: Good, I support you in that goal!

VA: And that’s something else that we do, we have several offices.  We have an office in Sacramento.  We opened that up mainly because we met someone that came to us and wanted to work for us, but she said, “I live in Sacramento.” She interned with us for awhile and we just really loved her so much that we opened up an office there to keep her.

MN: That’s great.

VA: And it just has really taken off, even in these economic times.  That office there for awhile was actually doing even much better than this office.

VA: We also have an office in Honolulu, and again we had known this person for a long time and always thought, “If we ever open an office there, this is the person that we would want to have run it.”  And so we worked with them there, and we always wanted to travel to Hawaii more, so this gave us the opportunity, plus now we have quite a few projects there.


MN: That’s great.

VA: So maybe we will open an office one day in Paris.

MN: Oh, I think you should.  Don’t delay.  I’ll intern for you.  And you have an office in New York too, is that right?

VA: We have a small office in New York; we don’t have anyone that mans it.  But we have projects in New York right now.

MN: That’s very exciting.

VA: Yeah, we’re very excited about that. That has also helped us through these tough economic times.  It’s sort of diversifying and opening up other new markets for us, and doing it in an economic way also.  We didn’t have to put out a huge investment to open those offices, and it was about the relationships and finding the key people that we want to work with.

MN: Well, so much of this business is just the relationships and the key people.

VA: It is!  One of the people that we get a lot of our stone from came in the other day and we realized that I’ve known her for longer than I’ve known Gioi, and she’s known Gioi longer than he knows me.  We like building a certain set of people that we work well with where the communication, understanding, trust, knowledge and integrity are all there.

MN: Absolutely crucial.

VA: It is extremely crucial, especially when you’re dealing with clients of a certain caliber.  They expect that, because the client doesn’t really care if your window treatment person flakes on you; it’s all your name.  So I know that when they say they’re going to do something, it actually is going to be done.

MN: We have a similar relationship with subcontractors in our company.  We have our precious subcontractors that have worked with us over the years, they know what to expect from us, we know what to expect from them, they stand behind their work, and we stand behind ours.  We’re obviously a subcontractor for a lot of other general contractors as well.  We’re doing both.

VA: I have to say I’ve really enjoyed working with Mueller-Nicholls, I mean, in terms of the kitchen that we did in Orinda.

MN: Which is so beautiful.


VA: It turned out really phenomenal, I have to say.  I know there were many revisions back and forth with the drawings.  That’s something that I really respected and was really thrilled with: You guys took the time to do all the planning and making sure that it was right.  That client was very particular and very demanding (he had every right to be), and he got a product that he can be very happy with.

MN: It was a beautiful job.  That design is fantastic.

VA: And the same with the project that we did in Pacific Heights with you guys.  Again, pushing the envelope; playing with new materials.

Pacific Heights bathroom by Applegate Tran Interiors. Cabinets by Mueller Nicholls. Photography by Rory Earnshaw

VA: And then the project where we worked in conjunction with you and Sozo to do the closets and –

MN: The makeup table.

VA: The makeup table, yeah.

MN: Which I love.

VA: Yeah, that was a really nice piece.

MN: What is one piece of advice that you would give to a general contractor working closely with an interior designer?  How do you make that relationship a success?

VA: It’s all about the communications, and the expectations.  Whenever I have to work with somebody new, especially the general contractor that I’ve never worked with before, I will set some boundaries with the home owner letting them know that there are certain meetings I have to have before the project starts.  We need to establish the protocol of how to deal with the good things and the bad things, so when issues come up – and they always do in a project – we know what paths to take to resolve it.   My goal, even if it’s the most difficult and horrendous issue, is to try to make it seem like it’s a piece of cake.

MN: Piece of cake, yes.  Effortless.

VA: Effortless.  Those are the people that I really enjoy working with -the ones where we can come up with solutions even if we have to deliver bad news to the client.   That’s why I set those meetings in the very beginning, just to talk to the contractor and make sure that we’re all on the same page.  Then there are generally no miscommunications.

MN: Right.  So a lot of this in our industry is just managing expectations from our clients.

VA: Gioi teaches and we always tell young aspiring designers that it’s really just ten percent design.  I only get to do design ten percent of the time, and 90 percent of the time it is administrative and logistics.  You also have to love that.  I love doing design, that’s my real passion, but I do like figuring things out and making sure that things are going to work, whether it’s in design or whether it’s in how we organize ourselves.  Each project is very different.


Piacenza coffee table by Applegate Tran Furniture

MN: Isn’t that amazing?

VA: Yes, and each client is very different, so you have to have a degree in psychology, and business, and you have to be very creative.  You have to be multifaceted.

MN: Absolutely.  Well, we joke a lot about having to be able to act like marriage counselors sometimes.

VA: Yes, and also you have to be a good sales person, and that’s something that is…

MN: A different skill.

VA: And knowing when to really extremely push.  I will tell a client you should get this, and then I’ll show it to them three times.  If they every time knock it down, then the third time I either drop it or I’ll sort of emphasize it that last time and then if they say no, then I will drop it.  Ultimately it’s their home.  You have to respect that it’s about your clients, it’s not about you.

MN: Right, and then also hopefully you do find clients who trust your intuition, your judgment and your depth of knowledge.

VA: There’s always going to be an aspect of every single project, even with clients that give us an open book where they’re going to say, “No.”  We had a client where we wanted to do these concrete floors in a sort of burnt aubergine, and when we showed the wife, she loved it.  The husband looked at it and said, “That reminds me of liver, and I hate liver, and there’s no way we’re doing that in our house.”  So we didn’t do the concrete floors.  I had to back off and figure out a new solution.  That’s the fun part in design.  There’s always many ways you can go about creating a great design for a client.  There’s not just one path.  There’s many different ways.

MN: Good to have that flexibility.

VA: Yes, it is.

MN: That’s a good note to end on.

VA: I think so.

MN: Thank you so much.

2008 Showcase home 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.