Noe Valley Voice September 2004

Putting the Style in Life

It's Easier Than You Think, Says Noe Valley Designer Richard Robertson

By Rosie Ruley Atkins

Richard Robertson leans against my kitchen counter, sipping tea, listening intently to my stories about the little "nests" my son creates to draw and read in, the dinner parties we frequently throw, our ever-expanding CD collection. He admires the family snapshots we have on the wall and asks lots of questions as he follows me on a tour of our small, four-room apartment.

I explain to him that my husband and I have tried for years to do the adult thing and buy a house in the East Bay, but we love our apartment and Noe Valley too much to move. It is our fervent hope that he can somehow transform our apartment, making it cozy, yet roomy; personalized, yet uncluttered.

Robertson, an interior designer who works out of his Vicksburg Street home, appears undaunted. He has tackled hundreds of oddly shaped apartments, grand homes, tear-downs, and Victorian cottages over his 25 years in the local design business.

He steps into our long, narrow living room. Despite the fantastic view, fireplace, newly refinished wood floors, and original moldings, this room is a problem. It's missing something. Style? Cohesiveness? I can't say. All I know is, it's lacking.

Robertson takes a few minutes to survey the mishmash of furniture, artwork, and tchotchkes. Then he gets down to work.

He nudges the sofa toward the middle of the room and sets it at an angle I never would have considered. He sets an armchair at each end of the sofa and places an ottoman in the middle.

"You can find a tray for on top of the ottoman at a yard sale or junk shop," he tells me. "Then this is a coffee table and an ottoman. You can move the tray to the floor when you want to put your feet up."

A table I'd found on the street looks designer-perfect at the end of the sofa. A rocking chair that was rescued from a dumpster sits in a corner near the window, paired to great effect with a tray table from Target.

The traffic flow between the living room and the dining room/kitchen has been improved immensely. There's a special area where my son can spread out his art supplies without being underfoot. The rocker in the corner invites me to toss aside my work to sit and read.

In under an hour, Robertson has achieved what my husband and I have failed at for the seven years we've lived in this apartment. He's created a comfortable, stylish space that plays up the best qualities of the apartment and still serves the functions of our daily lives.

Speechless and close to tears, I feel like I'm in my own episode of Trading Spaces, only without the glue gun, the bad swagging, and the weird murals.

"How did you do this?" I ask.

"Listening is the most important thing a designer does," says Robertson, who began his professional life as a counselor. "In chatting over tea, I learned about your lifestyle. I have to understand how you live in order to help you create a space that will work for everyone in the household."

"Everyone" is a word that Robertson returns to frequently as he discusses his approach to home design.

"So often you'll find couples that need a lot of arbitration," he says. "One partner might hand 'permission' for decorating over to the other, thinking they don't care. But as they step into the process, they discover that they do care. And very often, couples discover that their tastes don't easily meld together. Bringing everyone who uses the space into the design process early on will help them avoid mistakes and disappointment."

Robertson roams through our apartment, "shopping" for objects to add a more personal touch to the now cozy living room. He pauses to admire my collection of antique cigarette lighters and lines them up on a shelf. He arranges a jar of seashells, a ceramic Balinese bowl, and a mottled sculpture of a torso on a corner of the mantle.

On the opposite corner, he places a funny Mexican whistle, a Dia de los Muertos altar our son made at school, and a jeweled votive candle. Every one of these objects has been with us for years, collecting dust on various shelves, unnoticed and unappreciated. When he finishes the two tableaux, they form a visually pleasing display that reflects our tastes and our lives.

"It's the rule of threes," Robertson explains. "You take three objects of different heights and shapes, and put them together. There's something magic about the odd numbers and the different heights."

Robertson rehangs most of the art that's on our walls, swapping positions of two pieces and vertically stacking another pair that had been side by side. I feel like I'm in a sort of dream world. Everything is familiar and yet a bit off--in a good way.

"A well-designed space gives the eye time to rest, almost sigh," says Robertson. "Visitors shouldn't notice a designer's touch. They should walk into your home and say, 'This is you.' When that happens, the designer has succeeded."

Robertson steps into the dining room/kitchen/home office area. I didn't dare ask for his help with this part of our apartment because I figured it was hopeless--a small space crowded with dozens of cookbooks, reference materials, my computer, compact disks, and a 20-gallon fish tank, in addition to all the normal accoutrements of a kitchen and dining room.

"So many rooms in our lives have dual purposes," Robertson says as he aligns my stained and dog-eared cookbooks along a shelf. He turns the half-dozen dictionaries piled on a lower shelf on their side, and uses a framed photo as a bookend. He moves a framed triptych of our son four inches to the left and six inches down. What had been a corner of shame is now stylish, well-defined.

He finds a pair of plastic bowls I got for a quarter apiece in the Mission District and stacks them on a shelf that has traditionally been the repository of unopened mail. "These colors work well here," he says. "Start with them."

He suggests that I swap the neon gravel in our fish tank for earthier tones, and then pulls a color wheel out of his toolbox to show me some colors that might work if I want to repaint.

"Paint is the cheapest, most effective thing you can do to improve a room," he says. "And a good color consultant will help you get it right."

Robertson, 54, is a believer in long-lasting styles and warns against succumbing to trends.

"If you use the latest, most trendy shapes or colors, you'll grow tired of it quickly," he says. "Good design will incorporate the appealing elements of the trend to create a more timeless appeal--something that will last for years."

He disappears into the bedroom and returns carrying a pair of baskets my godmother wove for me when I was a child. I've always had them, but have rarely placed them in public places.

"Beautiful," he says, stacking them on top of a bookshelf that was a reject from my neighbor's yard sale.

It's the final detail in our living room's transformation. Robertson packs up his color wheel and exits.

I'm awhirl with plans to spruce up the dining room and kitchen area. Style seems possible even for a slightly sloppy family in a too-small space.

That evening, Miles is drawn to the rocking chair, where he becomes immersed in a comic book. My husband drops onto the sofa to watch the Giants on TV. I build a fire and settle into the armchair to chat with my sister on the phone. Instead of bumping into each other as we've been doing for the past seven years, we're living together with style and grace.

Richard Robertson's firm, Robertson Design, offers a full range of design services, from simple makeovers to full-blown interior design. Costs are quoted for each job, with a minimum two-hour consultation at $100 per hour. For more information, go to www.designby or call 596-7346.

Interior Design 101

Fall is a great time to reshuffle your furniture. After all, once the rains start, you'll be spending more time indoors, ensconced in that overstuffed chair. With that in mind, the Voice asked several local designers for their tips on spicing up a Noe Valley house or apartment's interior. Designers Grant Allen, Cheryl Parrott, Richard Robertson (see story above), and the team of Lisa Violetto and Judith Frangquist responded with some great suggestions. We narrowed them down to four apiece. Have fun with your makeover.

Lisa Violetto and
Judith Frangquist

Lisa Violetto San Francisco

1414 Castro Street


n Evaluate and purge: Let go of things that you've had for a long time and don't really use or like. If it's a sentimental piece and you just can't let it go, put it in storage. This lets you showcase the items you truly love.

n Rethink the room: Make a list of items a room needs. For example, living room basics are a couch, coffee table, and entertainment center. Empty the room of all decorations, lamps, and art. Examine the major pieces and decide if they are really right for the room. Try rearranging them for better use of space.

n Organize for use: Having the things you really need in a room in which those things are used is essential. Think about how much time is wasted in hunting around the kitchen for a pair of scissors only to find your one and only pair in the upstairs bedroom. Have designated spaces for essential items and take those spaces into account as you decorate.

n A minor remodel goes a long way:
A small investment can really freshen up a room. Add crown molding to give a room definition. Paint tired old kitchen cabinets or furniture. Replace carpet with wood flooring.

Richard Robertson

Robertson Design

18 Vicksburg Street


n Develop a point of view: Decide what kind of "look" you want for your home and stick to your theme. A similar style, as well as color scheme, throughout each room will create flow and can make a small place seem larger.

n Consider mood lighting: Next to color, lighting is the most significant decorating element in setting a room's atmosphere. Think about what kind of ambiance you want. Serene? Warm? Dramatic? Install dimmers on all of your lights, including lamps.

n Pay attention to scale: Choose furniture that is in proportion to the room's size. Oversized furniture won't leave space for anything else.

n Remember the "more than one" rule: While you don't want your place to look overdone or cluttered, certain accessories pack a greater punch when used in pairs or groups. For example: Arrange several shelves or bookcases together to make one wall unit. Hang a series of six or eight prints in paired rows for dramatic impact.

Cheryl Parrott

Interiors by Decorating Den


n Start with your public rooms: If you're taking on a full home redo, it can feel overwhelming, and you might say, "Forget the whole thing!" Start with the living room, bathroom, or kitchen, since these are the places in which guests spend most of their time. Save your private rooms--bedrooms, workshops, and studies--for later.

n Favorite pieces should become centerpieces: Build your redecorating project around a particular beloved work of art. Perhaps it's a painting, sculpture, or even an heirloom quilt. Consider the colors in this piece and use them when determining the color scheme of your walls, rugs, and furniture fabrics.

n Think green: Nothing adds as much to a room as plants and flowers do. Live plants cheer up a room and can also make a small space seem larger. For instance, placing an easy-care ficus or bamboo near a window will draw one's eye to the window's treatment, creating the illusion of a bigger space.

n Collect ideas: Keep a scrapbook of design ideas, color combinations, and room layouts that you find particularly pleasing. Thumb through magazines and cut out photos that particularly appeal to you.

Grant Allen

J. Allen

746 Diamond Street


n Enjoy the process: Make this a fun, ongoing project that doesn't have to be done all at once. Think of it as an exhilarating hobby rather than an arduous chore.

n Experiment: You don't have to get it right the first time. Try out different colors and fabrics for a look that really suits you.

n Ignore trends: You have to live with the choices you make, not the design editor of Better Homes and Gardens.

n Embrace eclecticism: If you live alone, your taste is the only taste that matters, but if you live with family or roommates, be sure to incorporate their thoughts and ideas.