Natural Leaders

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At a time when empathy and interconnection—in every facet of civilization—is increasingly urgent, it seems fitting to celebrate when nice guys finish first. San Francisco interior designers Kelly Hohla, Eche Martinez, and Regan Baker have risen to the top of the industry not only for the quality of their work, but for the quality of their character. Each has founded their own successful firm, created superb residences across the Bay Area and beyond, and been honored with the SFDC’s Designer of Distinction Award, bestowed by a jury of peers. But it’s as much their support of the Bay Area design ecosystem, their collaborative spirit, and their commitment to giving back that have seen these three young designers emerge at the head of their class, with class.

Kelly Hohla in a Peninsula home designed by her firm. Holly Hunt chairs through Kneedler Fauchère; custom coffee table by Hohla in collaboration with Tuell
& Reynolds through De Sousa Hughes and Fox Marble.

The designer diva is the first stereotype this group has rendered obsolete. Balancing high design with humor, and craft with congeniality, all are recognized in the industry for their graciousness. Kelly Hohla, whose namesake firm has designed residences in San Francisco, New York, Tahoe, and Hawaii, is admired and appreciated by the trade for her professionalism and dedication to the community. “Kelly continually inspires us with her deep respect for our staff and our family of local makers, as well as with her exemplary working style and ability to adapt product in the most interesting ways,” observes Erik Hughes, founder of showroom De Sousa Hughes. Adds Rhonda Hirata, vice president of marketing at the SFDC, “When we launched our pro bono project to create the interiors for Ronald McDonald House at Stanford, Kelly signed on immediately to design not one, but four rooms. On a site visit one day, I found her painting walls while in her third trimester!”

A crisp master bedroom by Hohla in a Jackson Hole residence. Holly Hunt bed through
Kneedler Fauchère; custom floating nightstands by Tod Von Mertens through De Sousa Hughes; green velvet on chairs through Pindler.

Hohla, named a 2018 Next Wave designer by House Beautiful, notes, “When people hire us, we become part of each others’ lives for several years, and hopefully for the long term. So we want to be mutually respectful and appreciative.” Designer Regan Baker, whose elegantly relaxed interiors for a Pacific Heights home were recently featured on Elle Dé (the designer’s own website charmingly notes her “goal in life to be a nice person”) says, “My whole approach is service driven and intended to assure clients we have empathy for who they are.” Eche Martinez, known for creating urbane spaces with edge and a sophisticated use of color, practices a philosophy of “listening well and staying humble.” He points out, “Colleagues in other U.S. markets often tell me they’re shocked at the level of congeniality in the Bay Area design community, and that it actually seems genuine. I think it’s a defining trait of the local scene that comes from our regional mindset of acceptance and connection.”

Another factor behind each designer’s success is being attuned to—
and helping to evolve—a new, more collaborative designer-client
dynamic. Today, those relationships are characterized by greater
informality and a more equal footing than the old-school idea of
decorator dictating to homeowner. “Most of my clients don’t want to
see an inflexible presentation and be told, ‘This is your house,’” says
Hohla. “They want to be part of the team and be able to contribute.”
She notes of a recent client, “It was important to them to build a
‘future team’—their team moving forward—so that everyone worked
well together and could have open, honest conversations without ego
involved.” Hohla has clients who even like to involve their children
in the process as an opportunity for them to practice creativity and
critical thinking. “One client’s five-year-old had strong feelings about
color in her room—she wanted to create her own color scheme from
what we presented. So she selected the elements she liked best, and
we combined them.” Hohla says. Baker experiences a similar increase
in client engagement. “The younger they are, the more involved
homeowners want to be,” she explains. “We are very open to that
and find it fun.”

The fresh and color-forward 2019 Decorator Showcase dining room created by Eche Martinez, graced by a portrait of his mother. Window covering fabric by Theo and skirted console fabric by Old World Weavers both through Shears & Window; custom placemats by Dedar through Kneedler Fauchère.

It isn’t just great attitudes that have built these designers’ successes: Each of these rising stars trained with masters before launching their own firms. They gained early insight from mentors into craftsmanship, bespoke design, and best practices. Hohla began her career at iconic Architectural Digest 100 firm Wiseman Group, where she worked for four years. “Scale and proportion were the big lessons from my time there, and I know how fortunate I was to work at one of the most respected firms in the community,” she notes. “But I also learned the business side of things—they are so honest and loyal with their vendors and their artisans.” Hohla then went on to become a principal at Jay Jeffers’s esteemed interiors firm. “During my time at Jay’s, I was really given the opportunity to express my love of whimsy and color. Jay brings so much joy and playfulness to the design process, and, even while taking the work very seriously, always insists on having fun.”

Eche Martinez.

Martinez trained under artful Bay Area designer Martha Angus, known for her virtuosity with color. “Martha always said we had to see the world through our clients’ eyes and find beauty in the unexpected. Before working with her, I was a neutrals-only type of designer. Thanks to her, I learned that color can be part of a beautiful room that stands the test of time.”

Before moving to San Francisco, Baker worked at Chicago’s Gettys Group, where she gleaned the significance of quality craftsmanship. “Material choices are important, but the way the materials interact and the details of the installation are what really transform a space,” she notes.

Designer Regan Baker.

All three designers participate in the San Francisco Decorator Showcase,
the annual benefit for University High School. For the 2019 showhouse,
Hohla created a “Wo-Man Cave” celebrating strong women, from
punk rockers to writers. The idea, she shares, was inspired by many of
her female clients, one of whom “brought my whole team to a NARAL
luncheon, where she spoke about women’s rights.”

The living room of a Sea Cliff Victorian gets a moody, modern treatment by Baker.

In the end, a superb team, vibrant social-media presence, and great editorial coverage have all helped contribute to the rise of these young designers. But Martinez notes that lasting success always comes down
to mastering the human element. “It’s way more than having a great
eye,” he says. “When building teams, I ensure diverse backgrounds,
skills, and perspective, because it creates the dynamism our industry
needs. Hopefully, in some way, we are all here to help and inspire each
other, right?” | |


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