Jay Jeffers—Part I

Jay Jeffers has had an absolutely meteoric career arc in the world of interior design.  One glance at the “Editorial” section of his firm’s website says it all: close to 100 articles, quotations, mentions, and features, over just a twelve year period, revealing a well-deserved love-affair with the media. And what’s not to love?  His interiors are always fresh, using the entire range of colors and palates, from vibrant and bold to elegant and subdued.  In person he is warm, witty, and engaging, and has the ability to immediately connect with whomever he’s with.  Join Mueller Nicholls and Jay Jeffers for an in-depth conversation about everything design.  Enjoy!

JM: I’d like to just start by thanking you so much for joining us.

JJ: It is my pleasure.

JM: Let’s start by talking about what drove you to design.

JJ: Well, design is actually a second career for me.

San Francisco living room by Jeffers Design Group. Photography by Matthew Millman.

San Francisco living room by Jeffers Design Group. Photography by Matthew Millman.

JM: Right.

JJ: I have a degree in international business, but I’ve always been creative and done creative things.  So I thought that my path was going to be advertising.  I did work for a small advertising agency for a while, and I thought that I would eventually own my own ad agency.  I moved to San Francisco and worked for The Gap in their corporate headquarters.  I soon realized that the corporate world was not the place that I wanted to be.  It was a very finite group of people that worked in the creative field, and then everybody else supported them, including me.  I was more on the account management side of things.

At some point I decided to take a class just to get my creative juices flowing again.  There was an Introduction to Interior Design.  That was always something I had loved –I’ve always read all the magazines, I had started getting architectural digest when I was about 12, and I rearranged my room when I was a teenager

JM: Were you a serial re-arranger?

Living room by Jeffers Design Group. Architecture by House and House. Photography by Matthew Millman

Living room by Jeffers Design Group. Architecture by House and House. Photography by Matthew Millman

JM: Absolutely.  There were only four walls and about five pieces of furniture, but I explored every possible combination.  I painted it and I was always working on it.  So I took this class, and I just loved every aspect of it: the architecture, the history, the materials, everything.  We of course had a final project where we had to design a room, and I loved every minute of that.  So I started doing a little research.  I had a friend who was a designer and I worked for him for a while to see if it was something that I could actually make a living at.  I quickly realized that it probably was.  That was right at the beginning of the dot-com boom and I worked for him for four years before I went off on my own.

JM: Who was that?

JJ: Richard Witzel.

JM: Is he here in San Francisco?

JJ: He has since retired.  He has a furniture showroom.  He was a designer, opened up a retail store on Sacramento Street and had that for several years, and then opened up a showroom at the design center representing a couple of furniture lines.  And he still has that, but it’s run by a business partner.  He’s living in Palm Springs and doing a project here or there I think, but just enjoying life.

JM: Was he a mentor for you?

JJ: Oh, absolutely.  He took me completely under his wing. I started out working for him for free.  He knew nothing about marketing; he was just the creative kind of guy.  So I helped him in the marketing and public relations area, and he took me under his design wing.   He took me to client meetings, he took me to installations, he took me fabric shopping.  We would go oogle and oggle in the fabric rows because he loved fabric.  We would be going through the fabric and something that we both loved would pop up, and we would both be like, “Ooh!”  You could hear us in the showroom.  It was a lot of fun.  We had a great time doing it.

JM: And did he do mostly residential work?

JJ: It was all residential, yes.

JM: And is that mostly what you do too?

JJ: Yes.  I’ve done a little bit of restaurant work in the past.  I’ve two spas – Spa Radiance here in the city, and then I did a Spa actually in Florida, but that’s it.  I’m passionate about residential work.  I love getting into the clients’ heads, and I love creating wonderful things that are classic or contemporary, but great quality that will last forever.  And I love seeing a house, after I’ve done it, going back a year later and seeing it as a living, breathing, entity that people are living in and loving.

Spa Radiance designed by Jeffers Design Group. Photography by Matthew Millman

Spa Radiance designed by Jeffers Design Group. Photography by Matthew Millman

It’s immensely satisfying to see it like that because when you’re working on it, it’s a project.  It’s a job and you’ve gotta get it done, it has to be great, and you have to make the clients happy.  After a house is finished and you come back and see it, it’s like, “Oh wow, my work is done.  This is now a living, breathing sort of thing.”

JM: Do people call you back for follow-up touches here and there?

JJ: Oh, yes.  Our clients are clients for life, that’s for sure.

JM: How do you manage that?

JJ: We do whatever they want.

JM: That’s pretty good service.

JJ: We figure it out.  I have clients that move and want to reuse furniture and do things differently, or they buy second homes or other things come up.  Unfortunate things in life happen.  I have clients that have gotten divorced and lost half their furniture and moved, and we’ve had to deal with that.  We just make it all work.  We figure out how to make it all work.

JM: I’ve noticed that in the high-end interior design, there’s a very high level of service.  It’s a service industry –

JJ: Totally.

JM: It’s almost like a concierge level of service.

JJ: Yes.

JM: Why is that do you think?

JJ: Well, I think interior designers are looked at as taste makers.  We have clients that have very good taste, but oftentimes we also have clients who have very busy lives and they know what they like, but they don’t want to pick it themselves.  They will look to us to create style, to take their sensibility and their personality and make it stylish.  So it’s just natural for us to be the ones that they call on for a great florist, or a fabulous restaurant that they need or a caterer for entertaining or that sort of thing.  It doesn’t surprise me.  It is a very personal, emotional relationship.

When we’re working on projects where there’s an architect and a landscape architect and a contractor and a structural engineer and all that, clients tend to end up looking toward the designer for answers because that’s the relationship that gets developed the most.  With other professional it’s sort of black and white, cut and dry.  But with designers it’s a little bit more organic.

JM: I’ve also noticed that the world of interior design and the world of fashion seem to overlap quite a bit, pretty directly.  Has it always been that way?

Sketch from Peter Som’s fall collection, showing persimmon orange, one of Pantone’s Fall 2011 colors

Sketch from Peter Som’s fall collection, showing persimmon orange, one of Pantone’s Fall 2011 colors

JJ: I think it probably has.  I’ve never really studied it, but take color trends as an example.  Either interior design follows fashion or the other way around, especially today where everything is so at your fingertips and right around the corner.  Everybody gets inspiration from everywhere.  It’s not just what you see locally anymore, it’s what you see everywhere you go, it’s what you see online.  Designers might go to a runway show and suddenly there’s a color or a texture or something that’s been used in the show that’s now in their line.

JM: Maybe because you’re providing services that are very holistic in nature, fashion is just part of the whole shebang.

JJ: Yes, absolutely.

JM: Do you think that interiors are becoming more of a fashion statement?

JJ: Yes and no.  Trends are so quick to change, which can make it very easy for someone to do

Living room by Jay Jeffers. Photography by Joe Fletcher.

Living room by Jay Jeffers. Photography by Joe Fletcher.

their house and then decide in two years that they don’t like it and they want to do it over again.  We try not to engage in that.  We certainly look at trends and will infuse that into our design, but we try to do things that are a little more classic.  Maybe there are elements of it that might need to change over time because it might feel dated.  But we strive for design that does not need to be redone in two years.  We try to create furniture pieces and things that could be reupholstered, for example, but we try not to succumb too much to what’s trendy today.

JM: Can you give an example of something that is trendy right now that maybe you’re not using but that you’re getting asked for?

JJ: Well, the whole industrial look is really hot right now, and –

JM: I was wondering about that.  The light bulbs, right?

JJ: Steel and light bulbs and all that, which we have used, absolutely.  But we call it our industrial chic look, and we’ll use light fixtures or maybe a lamp or two.  But it’s not an entire interior.  Five or ten years from now, it can be changed pretty easily.  It won’t be a matter of redesigning an entire home where the rooms are covered in steel that’s rusting.

JM: Do you feel that other interior designers respond more to trends?

JJ: Some do.  There are some designers in the industry that are very trendy.  That’s their look, and they don’t really stray from that look.  There are other designers that have been in this industry forever that do wonderfully beautiful and classic interiors that will stand the test of time, and that’s what they’ve always done.  I was just talking to somebody the other day about this topic.  I think it’s easier probably for someone to get business and maintain business that’s really known for one look.  I think that we’re not really known for one specific look.  If you ask somebody on the street that knows design, they probably would say that we’re crazy color and pattern mixture and that sort of thing, and if you look at our recent work, that’s not really correct anymore.

JM: Right.

JJ: As a designer myself, I always want to evolve and change with the times to some extent.  That keeps it fresh for me too.

JM: Of course.  Have you ever seen an idea that

Master bedroom at 2010 Elle Décor Showcase House by Jeffers Design Group. Photography by Matthew Millman

Master bedroom at 2010 Elle Décor Showcase House by Jeffers Design Group. Photography by Matthew Millman

generated from your office and then started a whole trend somewhere else?  For example, have any of your ideas ended up in Restoration Hardware catalogs?

JJ: I haven’t seen specific things, but I do think that I was probably on the cutting edge of using mid-century design and mixing the old with the new.  I was doing it quite a while ago when mid-century design was really, really inexpensive because nobody wanted it.  I was taking it and reupholstering it in fresh, new fabrics.  I wasn’t the only one doing it, but it certainly caught on a lot more over the next five to ten years to what it is now.

JM: Do you think that 50 years from now a 1950’s chair that’s upholstered in twenty-first century fabric will look like it comes from 2010?  Do you ever look at it in that way?

JJ: Yes.  I think that there will be things that reference the 2000s or the early 2000s or something like that, which will be mid-century references with updated fabrics and looks and that sort of thing.  Maybe they will be coming around a second time, or maybe by then people will be stripping all that off and making it look exactly the way it did in the 1950s.  Who knows?

JM: Very interesting.  So you grew up in Dallas, right?

JJ: Yes.

JM: Do you feel that Texas or the South had a big influence on you in terms of how you look at lifestyles?

2005 SF Decorator Showcase House by JDG. Photography by Matthew Millman.

2005 SF Decorator Showcase House by JDG. Photography by Matthew Millman.

JJ: Honestly?  Not really. I grew up in a very conservative household in a suburb of Dallas where I was exposed to everything Texan, and nothing else.  I had a stroke of luck when my mother changed careers from teaching to working for a software company.  Part of her job was traveling all over the world.  Every time she would come back, she would show pictures, and she would bring things that she had bought, and she was always very encouraging my brother and me to travel the world.  In fact, when I was in high school I came to San Francisco for the first time because she was here on a business trip.  When I was in college my freshman year I went to New York for the first time.  After being exposed to those cities, I knew that there was more our in the world than Texas.

JM: And I won’t be in Dallas forever!

JJ: Exactly!  Growing up in Texas, I was taught Texas history before American history, and that’s no joke.  Until I was 16 I thought that Texas was the only place in the world, and that everyone else was crazy.  The “yankees” in New York were nuts and all the Californians were on drugs.  That’s really what you’re taught, it’s sad to say.  I think Texas is different today.  I will say that Texans are the nicest people in the world.

JM: Oh, absolutely.

JJ: I can say that about Texans, but I do not need to live there.

JM: Yes.

JJ: It’s a nice place to visit.

JM: Do you remember coming to San Francisco and how different it was?

JJ: I remember flying in here and taking a Super Shuttle to my mother’s hotel.  I can remember these people getting dropped off, and we were on a picturesque street.  We were on a steep hill – I was not used to hills because in Texas there are none – but they got off and they went into this Victorian and it was a real house.  I had been looking at San Francisco as if it was a drawing.  When they walked in the house I was said to myself, “Oh my gosh, people actually live here!  And if other people live here, I could live here too.”

JM: Did that plant the seed of moving to San Francisco then?

JJ: It did.  I knew in college that I was not going stay in Texas.  I just didn’t know if it would be New York or LA or San Francisco.  But I was in advertising, and San Francisco was a hotbed for advertising back then.  All the big agencies and all the great campaigns were coming out of San Francisco.  I also knew people that lived here, so those two factors outweighed the other cities.

JM: You may have said this already –you went to school in Texas.

JJ: In Austin, yes.

JM: Which is a really nice town.

JJ: Austin is a great place.  I love Austin.

JM: So then you moved to San Francisco?

JJ: Yes.

JM: Do you have any memorable ad campaigns that you were part of?

JJ: Well, I worked for a small agency when I moved here, and then I went to work for The Gap.  I started with The Gap is when the khaki campaign – the “Who wore khakis” –was just starting.

JM: When was that?

Gap ad from early 1990’s featuring Steve McQueen.

Gap ad from early 1990’s featuring Steve McQueen.

JJ: That was 1994 I think.  Then I went to work for the Old Navy division.  Old Navy didn’t exist when I started there, but it formed shortly thereafter.  I worked in PR and marketing.

JM: Is it a big shift to go from advertising to marketing?

JJ: It was.   We were the “advertising department” because we were the agency as well.  They didn’t have an outside agency.  I did a lot of the media relations and worked with the PR team on all of the store openings because we did grand openings for every store.  It was a fun time.  It was very energetic and exciting and there were fun people working in our department.  It was a huge company, but there were only about four people in the advertising department for Old Navy, so it felt like this tiny little startup.

JM: I’ve heard good things the Gap: good work ethic, not a ton of politics.

JJ: It was definitely political, but I think any corporation is political.  I was in my 20s when I worked there, my boss was maybe in her early 30s, and I think the VP was maybe in his mid 30s.  So it was a very young group.

JM: A youthful company.

JJ: We all worked really hard, and we all had a lot of fun too.  It was a great place to work.  Just walking into the lobby of The Gap and seeing the Fisher Collection that was there at the time, walking by Warhol’s James Dean every day when I got to work – that was a pretty incredible thing.  No matter how bad the day wasit was a fantastic place to work.

“Rebel Without a Cause” by Andy Warhol, 1985, Portfolio Screenprint on Lenox Museum Board.

“Rebel Without a Cause” by Andy Warhol, 1985, Portfolio Screenprint on Lenox Museum Board.

JM: Have you always had a really strong emotional response to art?

JJ: Definitely.  I’ve always been attracted to it in one way or another, whether it’s painting myself, which I haven’t done in a long time…

JM: Did you paint when you were growing up?

JJ: When I was younger, yes.  I grew up taking art lessons and painting and drawing, but I kind of got out of it in high school and college.  I was into music and singing and that sort of thing, so that’s where I concentrated my creative endeavors.

JM: What kind of music were you singing?

JJ: I was in a jazz choir when I was in high school.

JM: Nice!

JJ: I sang a lot of jazz tunes and show choir.  We were very – we were not Glee, but we wanted to be Glee.

JM: Excellent.  That’s very nice.

JJ: And I did the same thing in college.  I was in a much larger show jay-Jeffers15choir in college and we did a few shows and it was fun.  It was a lot of fun.

JM: Do you sing at all now?

JJ: No, only in the shower.

JM: What about painting?

JJ: Not at all, but I don’t miss it.  I feel like I have a creative outlet and it’s design.

Please stay tuned for part two – where we find out what it’s like for Jay to run his own business, where he sources his fabulous furnishings, and what Jay has in store for future projects.