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?
MA: 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?
MA: 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. www.chateau-malmaison.fr
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?
MA: 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,
DDS: Favorite source for design books?
MA: 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?
MA: 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?
MA: 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?
MA: 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?
MA: 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?
MA: 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?
MA: 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?
MA: 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?
MA: 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?
MA: The impulse to create. I think creativity is essential to growth.
DDS: What do you love most about being a designer?
MA: 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?
MA: 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.
DDS: More from Paris?
MA: 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.
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.