Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Triumph of Beauty

San Francisco interior designer Stephen Shubel has crafted a superlative three-decade career, with beautiful, understated interiors of surpassing elegance. His uplifting rooms appear effortless but are the result of careful planning and consideration of every detail. Each interiors is a modern interpretation of classical ideals and harmony, bestowing pleasure and joy.

I’ve photographed and published most of Stephen Shubel’s interiors over the years—in magazines and in many of my books His chic dining room, with an antique French galleon chandelier, is on the cover of one of my books on San Francisco design.

Steve, who founded Stephen Shubel Design in the eighties, has always produced work that is fresh and unpretentious. He is a superb stylist, so his work has always been popular with design editors.

Shubel’s rooms are polished, but never ‘done’. In his miniscule Paris apartment shown below, for example, (linen-upholstered banquettes/beds and lots of gold-framed pictures) he demonstrates how to give small rooms oceans of chic. His use of color makes each room a tutorial in how to get color right.

Come with me for a visit to view Stephen Shubel’s recent design work. Then settle down to learn this expert’s design secrets. Take notes. He is very opinionated—and very generous with his design advice. There is much to learn.

Diane recently sat down for a chat with Stephen Shubel at his white-on-white Stephen Shubel Design studio in San Francisco:

DDS: Your interiors—no matter the style—always look comfortable and ‘real-life’ and natural. What is the secret of creating décor that is thought-out and planned, but looks and feels very comfortable and inviting.
SS: I always play down the idea of grandeur. We live in a time of drama and stress, and we need to be surrounded with subtle and meaningful things that look as if they simply drifted into our lives. We should incorporate new and vintage, expensive and inexpensive, classic and modern. and bold and quiet pieces, and make them part of the twenty-first century room.

Rooms that have a mix of different styles are modern and inviting. A combination of antique furniture and relaxed upholstered furniture sets a welcoming mood. If there is too much of one style or period the room will look very ‘worked on’.

I make rooms comfortable by planning furniture placement with great care. Sofas and chairs are relaxed, for formal. To finish, I use well-edited practical and everyday things such as books, magazines, flowers, firewood, throws, and personal pictures but I like to keep them neat and 'under control’. Fresh garden flowers always give soul to a room. My approach: never making rooms too designed or uptight or over-decorated. 

DDS: You design beautiful white rooms. Many of my favorite rooms you have designed have been almost entirely white. Your former apartment in Berkeley had white with butter yellow, and your house in Sausalito is mostly white—with dashes of color.
SS: With an all white room everything is on display, on view. Nothing is hidden or disguised.

White spaces—in California, at least—have a restful, calm, tranquil feeling and they also have a lightness that colorful rooms generally do not have. White has a wonderful flow that almost feels restful and dreamy to me. I’ve always loved to live in white rooms. I work with color all day, I need a break from it when I return home. 

I love change and white makes a quick change simple. Bring in some new throw pillows or add an antique rug or a caramel cashmere throw and you have changed the room. 

Black and white photography can add a graphic punch and contrast in white spaces.

DDS: What are your five favorite white paints?
SS: Benjamin Moore paints:
White Dove
Woodmont Cream
Cloud White
Ivory White
Decorator White

DDS: You also design glorious rooms with artful colors like rich sunny yellow (a striped headboard), and watermelon (dining room walls), and pumpkin (a living room in Sausalito) and chartreuse (silk pillows), or even orange silk curtains in a grand house overlooking the bay in San Francisco. You calm down these bright colors with white or cream or even walnut or black.
SS: “There are no bad colors, only bad color combinations.” I once heard that comment from a fabric designer and have never forgotten it. It is so true!

All colors look great with the right white or cream. For example, for a client, I softened the brightness of deep rich pink watermelon plaster walls with white paint that had a touch of pink on the trim and moldings. 

It’s like a creating an oil painting. You have to just keep stepping back and looking, adding more white where you need it. I sometimes take pictures in the process and look at what jumps out at me. 

There’s got to be a balance so that the room feels harmonious, never too harsh or intense.

DDS: You’ve always love French antiques. How are you using them now, in a modern way?
SS: Antiques combined with colorful walls or furnishings look modern and fresh. A beautiful vibrant fabric on an antique chair or settee can liven up a somber vintage piece. Clean simple rooms with modern art and with very few antiques that are carefully placed look modern. I love one or two pieces of elaborate antique furniture-a Louis XV-style chair or a gilded Biedermeier piece—in a minimal all-white room.

Stripes— on walls or on fabrics—can add a modern feeling to antiques that is clean and sharp. Using striped fabrics (black and white or gray and cream, for example) can zip up a tired-looking antique chair and help make it become tailored.

DDS: You often like bare wood floors for yourself (you have lovely dogs in the house). What is your favorite way to dress a bare floor?
SS: I like using very flat rugs or my all time favorites, cowhides. I just purchased three beautiful hides in different shades of tans and cognac. I put them on painted white glossy floors and they help the space become fluid and interesting. 

I love using antique Moroccan wool rugs. I just completed a private spa and sitting area with river rock flooring and I selected a Beni Ourain in rich cream and caramel colors with long wooly yarns.

I sometimes work with fine Oushak rugs if the budget allows. They are very elegant in soft pale colors and can be in silk or wool. I like them in neutral rooms as well as colorful rooms. Oushaks are subtle and luminous, and give a modern feeling to bare floors that never looks suburban or dated. 

Sisal, seagrass, jute, and any rough textural rug can add so much to an environment. A border of leather or linen around the rug gives it a neat finish.

One of the biggest design errors is to use too many different floor surfaces from room to room. It breaks the flow and can make a big space look very small. In France grand chateaux usually have only one floor material—stone, parquet, oak planks—throughout. 

DDS: You are an expert at mixing simple and inexpensive fabrics—natural linen, cotton canvas, or raw silk—with a splash of rich velvet, a vivid cashmere throw, and antique textiles.
SS: Practical materials like washable canvas slipcovers help loosen up a room and take the stiffness out. For houses with children and animals it is important to create an environment that does not say, “keep out”. Many of my clients have young children and pets and they want rooms that are welcoming and enjoyable to all.

Overly stuffy rooms don’t fit into of lives now. People what a more pure and calming feeling to their homes. I keep it simple with natural canvas sofas (washable) or a natural linen-upholstered club chair. I’ll add a vintage or antique silk or a velvet throw or vintage Fortuny pillows. They instantly add luxury. I’ll contrast the plain off-white linen hopsacking on a sofa with a very sharp chartreuse silk pillow, or a black and white striped cotton pillow. This clean approach is where I add the wow factor. My favorite clients are those that tell me, ‘I want to be wowed’!

DDS: Steve, thank you. It is always a great pleasure to see your rooms.

All photographs of Stephen Shubel’s designs courtesy Stephen Shubel Design, used with permission.

Among the interiors above are Shubel’s downtown San Francisco loft (white plaster Juno bust); his Paris apartment with natural linen upholstery and gold-framed flea market find images; a chic French salon-style apartment in San Francisco’s Presidio Heights; a house overlooking San Francisco Bay.

Stephen Shubel shows his selection of antiques and accessories in collaboration with Gabriella Sarlo, at the Sarlo showroom, 295 Kansas Street, San Francisco.


Jennifer (Nina's mom) said...

Love the blog Diane! Wonderfully written and beautifully arranged.

The-Countrypolitan said...

I think Mr. Shubel's work is a great example of what represents good 21st. century design. Nothing is pretentious. And whether he uses a neutral palette or one saturated with color, they are fresh and livable.

Visual Vamp said...

Another insightful look into a designer's process, and a treasure trove compilation of his work.
xo xo

Denise said...

Hi Diane,

Stephen Shubel has had a major impact on my decorating style. I love using Louis XV and XVI-style pieces with furniture from Oly, modern art and objects from nature. I use reasonably-priced, hard-wearing fabrics for big upholstered pieces and splurge on luxury fabrics for my Louis chairs and pillows. And I just adore bare wood floors.

Thank you, Stephen, for all your design help! And thank you, Diane, for featuring him today!

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Friends-
Thank you so much for your swift and very enthusiastic comments. Much appreciated--and I would tell you that the story bought tears to Steve's eyes. He was most delighted.

Dear Jennifer-Thank you for your kind note. I so appreciate it. Stay in touch.

Hi Terri--I like your words of wisdom. I agree with you that though Steve's work is very carefully planned it does not look stiff or too-too- much. His use of red with black and white, and of yellow with orange, is quite dramatic. In the bright San Francisco light these rooms look cheerful and welcoming--and certainly a dramatic change from white.

Dear VV--Loved your message. These rooms demonstrate his range--and his variety of clients and houses. I look at the pictures, above, of his tiny tiny Paris apartment--crammed with pictures and gold frames and two banquettes/beds and a little Ikea kitchen with some nostalgia. It was so totally charming and free and enthusiastic in decor--and alas is no longer.

Dear Denise--This is wonderful to hear from you. I adore to hear from young designers who have been inspired by a seasoned and experienced designer. Best of all--you learned all the right things, and you studied and focused and got it all correct. I could not be more pleased. This is marvelous.

cheers to all, DIANE

Meroe said...

Hello Diane!
What a wonderful blog - very jealous to read about your private visit to Chateau de Haroué which would have been a wonderful experience.
And, your post on Stephen Shubel - magnificent. I share his love of French antiques, and adore the cream white room with Eiffel Tower figurine and devine Hermès rug. Swoon! I have def added you to my blog roll.
Meroe -x-

Allyson K Designs said...

Thank you for this inspirational post. I have been swooning over his rooms. What a great way to start the day.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Hi Meroe-

I love and highly recommend your blog, MOET. Cheers to you in Adelaide! I love Australia.
You'll find lots of Paris features and tips and notes and journals on THE STYLE SALONISTE...just right for you, a Francophile in extreme. Yes, Steve Shubel's style is very French-influenced...he has a country house in northern France.

Hi Allyson--Thank you so much for your comment. Yes, Steve is very informative and does not believe in designer 'secrets'. He loves giving tips and advice to all. Note how varied his rooms are--from all white, to red and black and white. He is very versatile and his clients love him.

cheers to all, DIANE

Unknown said...

Wonderful post. His work is exquisite.

Victoria Bellow said...

Oh my gosh,Bedrooms are great,the draperies,furnitures,designs...well that's just about everything!they are all looks so elegant,airy feeling and understated peaceful rooms and I think Mr. Shubel's work is a great example because everything he takes, whether it be old or new ends up looking amazing!!!thanks, its a Nice Blog indeed. xoxo Victoria

Unknown said...

Stephen's work certainly WOWs me!!! Thank you for this wonderful interview.


Claudia Juestel said...

Great post on one of our most talented and nicest designers. I have always loved Stephen's style, and I wholeheartedly agree with his comment about bad color combinations.



Square with Flair said...

I like the fact that the designer uses a lot of classic elements in his rooms and that the rooms are comfortable, light, and airy.

I've grown weary of the designer statement that says more about the decorator's taste than that of the client.

I am especially intrigued by the personal interiors of designers. Are any of these rooms his own? I find that inevitably designers choose neutral colours, the simplest of window coverings (if any at all), and often simple beige slipcovers for themselves.

He said, "I always play down the idea of grandeur." This is most important in thse casual, less formal times. Elaborate and formal things can look pretentious, especially in many modern settings.

Enjoyed the post very much.

Love Your Homes said...

Hi Diane,

I believe Shubel's design works very well here Scandinavia....white shades mixed with antique French and Swedish design is very popular.

Further I had a huge delivery from Amazon.fr and uk delivered te other day including two of your books.
I'm looking forward exploring them deeper.


P.s. Our son made it into AAU's bachelors program in San Fransisco. He just had the news....

pve design said...

Loving all that white and then the profusion of all that color. I feel like a kid in a candy store.
Off to look at Stephen's site.

Oh ague was mispelled - I meant to say "argue" -
You had asked me what that meant. (who could argue)

helen tilston said...

Diane - thought provoking interview with Stephen. He is a true artist.
Many thanks for your time and writing.
Helen Tilston

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Friends-Just back from a weekend in the Napa Valley (glorious, sunny, lots of friends and parties, fresh peaches from the orchard, lovely).
So happy to hear from you!

Dear Carla- Thank you so much for your insight and lovely comments. I am delighted to have many many readers in Texas. I love Texas. As you most likely know, I am a contributing editor with PAPERCITY magazine, with the great editor in chief, Holly Moore, one of the most brilliant editors on the planet. Please stay in touch--I am always happy to hear from you.

Dear Elizabeth--yes, as you noted, Steve's decor is naturally easy and calm and chic and comfortable. It might surprise everyone to know that Steve does not have a design degree, and as far as I recall did not attend any design school. He apprenticed with several top, classic, old-school 'lady' designers and learned a lot from them--and then embarked on his own around 30 years approx ago. He has had a great career because he is a natural designer...loves decorating and likes the whole process. He has done several houses, sequentially, for several clients. I always think that says everything about a designer.

Hi Claudia--thank you so much for your comment. Yes, Steve is rather a genius with color. I've always though my favorites of all his rooms are those that are white with a jab of color, or all neutral...and then he does red or taupe or a bold color or orange--and it is great.
By the way--the first images on the story are his loft--all white, natural linen, white plaster.

Hi Ingela--You must know--I love Sweden and especially Stockholm in the summer. I love getting on the ferry and going out into the archipelago. I love walking around the city, and then taking the ferry to Drottningholm in the late afternoon, eating cloudberries and icecream on the ferry, and then going to the opera...walking to the Chinese Pavilion during intermission. It is divine.
I love your blog...so great. Thank you so much for your charming comments. Do stay in touch.

Hi Square with Flair--your blog is terrific and I will add it to my favorites. Now you must work to get more readers for your wonderful text. All the best with this great enterprise.

Hi PVE--I love seeing your work on all the top blogs...so witty and fresh and bright and full of charm and chic. Thank you for your lovely comments (I thought ague was an arcane color you knew about)...and thank you for your great art. I am going to add your blog to my favorites list. I hope to be on yours...would be honored.

Thank you everyone--have a delightful august and do stay tuned.
cheers, DIANE

Boxwood Terrace said...

Hi Diane - Thanks for introducing us to the work of Stepen Schubel whom I knew so little about. The only example of his work I'd become aware of was his San Francisco terrace (as you know!). I thoroughly enjoyed this inspiring post and interview.


TSL said...

Such greatness. Once again I am in awe and blown away.

Brooke said...

Beautiful post. I love the bathroom.