Friday, August 7, 2009


San Francisco interior designer Martha Angus creates chic and artful new decor with a modern attitude. A favorite of city art collectors, she’s also now the go-to designer for families in Silicon Valley and the wine country.

In a fast fifteen years, Martha Angus, founder of the San Francisco-based firm, Martha Angus Inc., has carved out a special niche in the decorating world. Angus, a lifelong art collector, has become a design favorite with art gallery owners and art connoisseurs. One of her design signatures is her fresh mix of major paintings with witty new works of art on paper, in pared-down interiors.

In Angus’s world, contemporary paintings and exceptional collections of English and continental antiques are showcased in crisp, pure rooms.

Martha has also become the design darling of young couples: think Google execs and their families.

One example of Angus’s work is her apartment on Nob Hill. It’s a welcoming mix of fine antiques from Therien & Co in San Francisco, and iconoclastic etchings by Chuck Close.

When Angus designed the interiors for Palladian-inspired house in the vineyards just north of St Helena, friends and admirers were curious to see how she would translate her polished city approach to country living.

“I wanted the architecture to have a timeless neoclassical feeling without the country clichés,” said Angus, who worked with her colleague, building designer Phillip King Parton, on the plans. “From the first sketches and conceptual drawings and early discussions with Phillip, we worked to pare down the interiors, to keep them plain and simple, and to give the rooms a restful, serene feeling.”

Come along as I have a chat with Martha Angus in her downtown studio:

DDS: When precisely did you commit yourself to a design career?
MA: When I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in painting, I had to figure out what in the world I was going to do. My mother suggested decorating.

DDS: Who has been a mentor to you?
MA: The late Naomi Leff of Naomi Leff & Associates, in New York City. She was an absolute genius. She did such a range of designs yet was not tied to any one specific style. She could – and did – do it all. The late, great Mrs. Estee Lauder (another former boss) always gave me tips on how Mark Hampton or the Duchess of Windsor would do things. The tales were such fun, very insider, and I learned a lot from them. She showed me how to use blue and white Fortuny everywhere and we even ruched it on lampshades with ruffles or pompoms. It was chic then.

DDS: Designer who has inspired you the most?
I love David Hicks with his pop art colors meets classicism decor. He deftly combined contemporary art, antiques, classic interiors and fabulous color.

Pauline de Rothschild inspired our green sitting room a recent San Francisco Decorator Showcase. It was an “indoor garden” with gorgeous jade green wallpaper by De Gournay. The paper, which has the look of antique French hand-painted wallpaper, is a device I use as often as possible. It is available from Sloan Miyasato, at the San Francisco Design Center.

DDS: Favorite rooms you’ve seen on your travels?
At Malmaison, in the Paris suburbs, I adore the Pavilion d’Ete. I love the hexagon shape and the simple banquettes, which are so elegant.

The Villa Kerylos, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat on the Cote d’Azur. It is a reproduction of a classic Greek residence, created around 1908. The architecture; furniture and painted walls are so original, such a statement, so spectacular.

DDS: You have a superb art collection. Art you treasure most?
I appreciate all of my art as I have a degree in painting. Thinking about which is a favorite is like considering which child one loves best. I’ve had great pleasure in the works of Roy Lichtenstein, Chuck Close, Christo, James Rosenquist and David Hockney.

DDS: Design book you would love to own?
MA: Modernist books come up for auction at Wright auction house in Chicago, especially books on Charles and Ray Eames.

DDS: Favorite source for design books?
In Paris, I love Taschen’s bookshop designed by Philippe Starck. It’s on the Left Bank at 2, Rue de Buci. In San Francisco, I buy books on interiors, gardens and architecture at William Stout Architectural Books at 804 Montgomery Street,

DDS: Your favorite restaurants?
I spend most weekends at our house in St Helena, and we often go to Cook in St. Helena (tiny and always hopping), and to Press just along Highway 29 in St. Helena, where we sit at the tables near the bar. Although I don’t like leaving my pool, we always stop at Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery in Yountville for sandwiches and their fantastic macaroons. Another favorite is the Garcia Taco Truck that parks on Salvador Ave at Highway 29 in Napa.

DDS: Your favorite trips?
I keep returning to my favorite flea markets in Paris, Marche Paul Bert and Serpette. I always find some unusual and elegant things.

I recently found a gorgeous mahogany Directoire dining table. I beat out Bunny Williams on this one. And I was excited about stone sphinxes I saw, and a Napoleon III tabouret that I plan to reupholster in an electric color. A brown-lacquered walnut settee and 1970’s smoked mirror and chrome cocktail tables that are now in my living room were a Paul-Bert find. I also loved the fabulous metal lightning bolt my associate and flea market pal, Karen Wesson bought there. Everyone needs a lightning bolt! Karen also bought a canape that Catherine Deneuve tested earlier.

DDS: Your dream client?
Someone who loves art and modern furniture mixed with antiques. A client who is open minded enough to let us do our best and who pays their bill on time!

DDS: Favorite design period?
Gustavian. It’s late eighteenth-century, and feels like Louis XVI but not as grandiose. In addition, I love the painted finishes typical of the period, often in gray. Swedish design can offer a type of low-key opulence. During the Gustavian period, a light wash of paint in earth colors of light blue, gray, green and yellow was used instead of gilding. The prices of antiques vary, depending on the object. They’re now very collectible, so prices are rising fast. I’ve seen some fantastic examples at the Marche Paul-Bert at the Paris flea market, Clignancourt.

My favorite local source for Gustavian furniture is Therien & Company in Los Angeles (as well as the Therien & Co 20th-century collection at their gallery in San Francisco.)

DDS: Favorite piece of furniture?
Hands down it is the chair. It is functional and expressive. It can make a room. I love Gerrit Rietveld’s Zig Zag chair. It’s a simple zigzag, just one great idea and a new way to see the chair, no legs. The Dutch designer became a part of the De Stijl (the Style) group around 1919.

DDS: Favorite new photography or painting hanging on your wall?
MA: A photograph I just purchased from the Fraenkel Gallery by Diane Arbus, entitled “Girl in a Shiny Dress”. It is so very Peggy Moffett, so very New York City, 1967. Fraenkel Gallery, 49 Geary Street, San Francisco. 415 981-2661

DDS: Your most versatile paint color?
It’s Benjamin Moore and my special mix of half Decorator White mixed with half Linen. Works every time.

The finest paints are those designed by Donald Kaufman in New York. They are all elegant and multi-dimension and complex, so you could pick one with your eyes closed.

I’m a big fan of Farrow & Ball, colors: Parma Gray, Folly Green and Mouse’s Back are very individual and give rooms character.

DDS: Which fabric could you use over and over?
Heavy Belgian linen by Henry Calvin Fabrics, # 8793 “Mail Bag Linen” texture in natural. To the trade, Henry Calvin Fabrics, 151 Vermont Street, San Francisco, 415-565-1981. I often use antique textiles, tapestries, and pillows from Kathleen Taylor, The Lotus Collection, 445 Jackson Street, San Francisco, 415-398-8115.

DDS: Secret of traveling well?
Travel lightly. If you have to check it, don’t bring it. I used to be a fashion illustrator for Glamour magazine and we learned to pack minimally.

DDS: One thing you could not live without?
The impulse to create. I think creativity is essential to growth.

DDS: What do you love most about being a designer?
Installation days, when it all comes together. The furniture arrives, the art arrives. There is a heightened sense of focus, awareness and creativity. The installation is in part a self-actualizing process for both the client and myself. Client’s notes of thanks are always endearing.

DDS: New art passion?
The Neue Galerie, which takes its name from a Vienna gallery that showed avant-garde work in the 1920s. It is the dream of two great collectors: Ronald Lauder and art dealer Serge Sabarsky. They stocked it with their vast holdings of German and Austrian paintings, drawings, furniture and decorative arts. 86th St. New York City, 212-628-6200. I have lunch on the first floor, the paneled parlor called Cafe Sabarsky, an homage to the Viennese fin de siecle replete with bentwood chairs and a menu including chestnut soup, schnitzel and pastries. The Spätzle with asparagus is the best on a cold winter day.

DDS: More from Paris?
Alexandre Biaggi’s furniture gallery in the Left Bank. He has such a great eye for 20th-century furniture. He specializes in the period 1910-50 and also commissions new designs from Nicolas Aubagnac and Hervé van der Straeten. His clients include Tom Ford and Jon Bon Jovi but when I am scouring his boutique on Paris’s rue de Seine, he treats every customer well. 14 rue de Seine, Paris, 011-33-1- 44 07 34 73.

Photo Credits:
Nob Hill apartment with smoked glass French tables and striped carpet, photographed by Peter Medilek.

Metropolitan Home design showcase, San Francisco 2009: boy's room with striped walls, photographed by Peter Medilek.

House in the Napa Valley, in the style of Palladio, with superb swimming pool and urn: photographed by Matthew Millman.

San Francisco Decorator Showcase: study/'a room of one's own' with de Gournay wallpaper: photographed by Matthew Millman.

Photographs of the Martha Angus studio in downtown San Francisco by Christopher Flach.


George Brazil said...

Thanks again for another thoughtful and interesting post. THIS is what a design blog should be.

Much continued success,

George Brazil

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Hello George-

So happy to meet you on FACEBOOK!
DJS can be so astute about design and style--and in fact, they should be.
Looking forward to hearing from you often.

P.Gaye Tapp at Little Augury said...

Love Love Love this interview and the work Martha Angus has done. Her answers are so thoughtful and realistic. Her background in Art is obviously a real asset for her clients. I like everything about what she offers here- espousing many of her answers as a designer. Thank you for sharing all this information.I say design with a mind! la

Grant K. Gibson said...

Martha Angus is brillant-talented and just the nicest person around!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

So very interesting.
I can certainly see the influence of David Hicks in her work.

Brillante Interiors said...

Precise design, refined style and daring combinations, what a perfect mix. I admire everything she does. The interview also helped to know her better on a personal level thanks to your well calibrated questions.

(P.S. I find it difficult to leave a message and I always have to try more than once and scroll up and down to see if it did go through, is it just me or others have also problems? Thanks)

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Hello, George--Design- not DJ...please keep posting.
Grant--loved hearing from you and your observations. Here's to your fabulous design.
Pamela--Your observation is a wise one. I think David Hicks is almost always subliminal for designers when an updated traditional concept is in the air. David Hicks almost invented the perfect way (or ways) to freshen classical design with bold color, pattern, and shock tactics. Martha's influences are wide-ranging and her newest work, which is more contemporary, reflects new clients who are not looking for pedigreed antiques.
Anarosa-Thank you for your bright and insightful comments. Regarding leaving a comment: you are the first to note that the technology is a little haywire. After you click 'POST COMMENT' you should receive a message to say that the comment was sent. Blogger's templates vary from one blog site to another.Don't be too hard on yourself if the system is unnerving. And don't assume you are at fault. Sometimes, over time, it all works out. Good luck.
Have a superb weekend, DIANE

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


Wonderful to hear from you.
In preparing profiles on designers I always want to dig deeper so that readers--designers or not--take something practical, a lot inspiring, and a smidge of insight. It must go beyond 'I want world peace.' (Don't we all.)
I especially like to keep things practical and hear 'the voice of the expert' (most useful fabric, best paints).
Speaking of questions and answers: on my car radio this evening, I heard a fantastic interview of Bill Gates Snr (Bill Gates's father. He's a wise old buzzard and a great old guy...witty, kind, insightful, brisk, and enjoying life. He's 88 and he works for Bill and Melinda's foundation which is endowed with all the Gates' wealth and Warren Buffett's. Staggering amounts. One evening Senior called Junior to ask him for a little more funding for the foundation...and Bill responded 'Well, Melinda and I have been thinking about it and we've decided to give $28 billion." Senior said 'That's the kind of call that makes a father proud." the interview continued, they were talking about life, achievement etc, and the interviewer said, 'Many of us would like to know what you suggest for enjoying a great old age.' Senior responded brightly, 'Well, for starters, I suggest having a son who is a billionaire." (Laughter from audience.) Made my day.

ceecee said...

It is thrilling to find such an interesting and comprehensive interview on a blog. I look forward to more and more and more.
Thank you, Diane, for the encouraging words. I feel that I learn something each time I try my hand at a different sort of was part of the reason I began blogging in the first place. I very much appreciate your thoughts.
A happy weekend to you,

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


Checking to see if there is a tech glitch with sending comments.
Looking into it.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


Looks like my comment might come up before yours...

I sent you a message--you asked if you should write shorter--to WRITE LONG.

If a subject warrants it, write long. I am a long-form writer--I write books and magazine features--so clearly that is what I love.

Here is another way to look at short blogs: are they muscular, are they rich, do they give back, do they inspire. Yes, sometimes a very brief blog can be memorable.

Either way--you will find what it right for you. Trust your instincts. You have lots of fans, and they will follow you. xx

vicki archer said...

Diane this is a wonderful post and your profile on Martha Angus is just fabulous. What a very talented designer she is....Have a happy weekend, xv.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


Thank you for taking the time to comment. I appreciate your kind note.

Martha is indeed talented and energetic. I love her studio which is on Grant Avenue in downtown San Francisco, directly above the John Berggruen Gallery. Sometimes people wander into her studio thinking it is part of the gallery. They walk around, look at her art, then thank the receptionist, and depart happy.

cotedetexas said...

What a beautiful portfolio she has! I esp. love her use of Swedish chairs. She seems delightful too. Lovely interview.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Hello, Joni

Wonderful to hear from you.
Yes, she does have an affinity for Swedish chairs--from Gustavian to modern. I've always liked her very modern use of antiques--many of which she acquires from Therien & Co in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Happy days, DIANE

Michael Hampton said...


I tried sending this to you a few days ago but I was having some technical difficulties so I hope you receive this…..

What a fantastic post on Martha Angus! Her work is always such a delight for the eye. Such wit. Her work has always been very inspiring to me.

Thank you so much for your kind words and encouragement. It means so much coming from you.

And also I wanted to thank you for contributing your gift for writing your and eye for the extraordinary to the world of blogging! It makes the world a more beautiful place!

Kindest regards,

Michael Hampton

Topsy Turvy said...

Diane - great interview! She sounds like my kind of designer – I also love great art, and a mix of modern and antique furnishings. Fine art adds another dimension to a home interior, I think, by giving a broader perspective and insight into the world view of the owners.


Empire Design said...

Dear Diane

Thank you for making these wonderful posts, you are very much appreciated down here in the antipodes. Being very new to the world of blogging, I now find myself waiting in anticipation for what you are going to come up with next and I must say I am inevitably suprised and delighted!
kind regards
Becca Madden

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Hello, Empire-

Where are you in the antipodes--and which antipodes are you in?

Your website and blog site do not give away your location at all. I would love to know.

In the meantime--I hope you will stay in touch. Wonderful that you are with us. kindest regards, DIANE

katiedid said...

Hi Diane!
I am so happy to get to learn more about Ms. Angus. Her style is exactly what I love. The mix of modern and antique, and we clearly have a taste in art in common. Great to see more of her work. Thank you for the wonderful post!

Anonymous said...

I loved this post on Martha who is as charming as she seems to be and also just as talented.
Thanks, Diane.

Unknown said...

I really liked the factor behind to decor all these as we all want to give a traditional look to our homes and offices. Eagerly waiting for your next post.

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