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Past Meets Present

Anh-Minh Le | November 29, 2017 | Style & Beauty Story Style

The moment her client walked into the restaurant for their maiden meeting, interior designer Emily Kates’ creative wheels began turning. “Every time I meet a new client, I always take note of what they’re wearing,” Kates explains. “Because, I’m telling you, 95 percent of the time, it has some sort of influence on what we do. This client showed up for lunch wearing a navy-and-white printed blazer and she had this fabulous camel-colored leather tote bag. And lo and behold, that ended up being the color palette we kept returning to.” Indeed, the 7,260-square-foot residence—which was the first project undertaken by Kates’ 3-year-old San Carlos practice (—is “clean and classic,” she says. “Then we added these fun jolts of color and interesting textures with the fabrics.”

The occupants of the 1900 Victorian, in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood, are a couple and their two children. “From the facade, it had maintained its original look,” says Kates, “but on the inside, it had been subjected to many years and many layers of very dated revisions and decisions.” The last remodel had likely been done in the 1980s, she estimates, and was visually heavy—think dark marble and ornate pagoda-shaped newel caps on the staircase posts. “I really struggle with remodels and renovations that are obviously remodels and renovations,” she adds. “To me, it’s important to have that seamlessness, where people could walk in and think, ‘This has been like this for a hundred years.’” To that end, Kates teamed up with architects Stephen Sutro and Karen Moy (, as well as general contractor Plath & Company, to achieve the homeowners’ objective of “a transitional look with more open space and a good flow throughout the house,” says the husband. “We also wanted a combination of comfortable and kid-friendly spaces for the whole family, and some fancier spots for entertaining.”

In most rooms, white paint and oak flooring provide a quiet backdrop, with shades of gray, blue and pink making frequent cameos and providing visual punch. “The kitchen is light and bright and airy,” says Kates, noting that the soft gray on the cabinetry—which is picked up in the veining of the Carrara marble slab backsplash—injects warmth. The nearby breakfast nook may be the most utilized spot in the house, she observes, functioning as a place for the family to eat as well as the adults to work on their laptops and the kids to work on their artist endeavors. The banquette is wrapped in a textured white vinyl that can easily be wiped clean, and its base offers much-appreciated storage.

Kates imbued the living room with more formality, envisioning it as a grown-up zone. A sinuous blue velvet sofa is prominently situated in front of the bay window. In addition to varying silhouettes—“We already had the curves [of the sofa], so I designed this hexagonal, embossed leather ottoman,” says Kates—texture and pattern abound, in subtle and bold ways. A pair of occasional chairs combines a cut-velvet tonal Kravet fabric with solid platinum velvet cushions. For the stools, Kates purchased the chrome bases from a vendor in Turkey and married them with Schumacher’s Iconic Leopard in a vibrant blue. Splashes of bright pink come courtesy of accent pillows, and a carpet from The Rug Company lends another graphic note. Even the smallest of spaces were carefully considered. In a corner of the living room, for example, Kates carved out a “tête-à-tête area,” she says. Appointed with high-backed warm-white upholstered seating, it is ideally suited for conversations and cocktails. Sublime color and pattern choices transformed a powder room that was “blah,” as Kates put it, into a beauty. “I had been toting this wallpaper around to every meeting,” she says of Peter Fasano’s Dotty. “We all loved it. It was just a question of where did we want to put it. The powder room was the perfect opportunity, and it works so beautifully with the navy custom vanity.”

As for the outfit that the client wore when she first met Kates? While its aesthetic—timeless with what Kates describes as a “preppy-chic” sensibility—permeates the home, it’s most emphatically expressed in the dining room, where Benjamin Moore’s Symphony Blue in high gloss envelops the walls, including the baseboards and moldings. “We wanted this to be a special jewel box,” says Kates. A custom table by Troscan is surrounded by tufted chairs upholstered in sumptuous camel leather and armchairs in a black-and-white geometric (La Fiorentina by David Hicks). Much like jewelry completes an ensemble, among Kates’ finishing touches in the dining room are a sputnik chandelier and brass sconces, both by Arteriors.

“As we worked with Emily throughout our project,” recalls the husband, “it became clear that she has great attention to detail, that she runs her business with honesty and integrity, and, most importantly, that Emily is a lot of fun to work with!” Not surprisingly, Kates and the clients have forged a friendship. “I’ve gone there and had drinks in the library and dinner in the dining room,” says the interior designer. (The room dubbed the library was originally conceived as such, and although the space evolved into a cocktail lounge, the moniker stuck.) “There’s a genuine happiness that I get when I see them in the home,” she continues. “They use it and they love it. It’s totally working the way that we intended.”

Originally published in the November/December issue of Silicon Valley

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