My “day job” is as Executive Director of C. Mariani Antiques in San Francisco. In that capacity, I’m lucky enough to interact with some of the country’s highest end interior designers.
During this recession, most of my designer clients have seen their businesses shrink dramatically and in some sad cases, just plain flat-line. Most have laid off staff, cut salaries and been forced to hunker down while they wait out this “economic nuclear winter.”
Because of this, most designers can no longer pick and choose projects or require a minimum budget like they once could. Now, most take new work wherever they can get it. However, there is a small handful of designers who have seemed to escape this recession unscathed, unaffected and unperturbed.
One of these designers is Douglas Durkin, principal of Douglas Durkin Design, San Francisco.I’ve known Douglas for many years and so our interview was easy, remarkably frank and quite revealing as to his success and style.
Buzz: How has your firm grown and prospered in a recession that has brought many design firms to their knees?
Well, we were quite fortunate in that we had a large number of very large scale and long term projects that were in the pipeline and that didn’t get cancelled when the economic crisis hit. Also, we have been incredibly blessed with a long term and extremely loyal clientele that has been keeping us busy with multiple projects. Lastly, our clients are geographically very spread out across the country and so we’ve avoided having all of our eggs in one location basket, so to speak.
Buzz: Do you feel you’ve created an aesthetic niche for yourself amongst the modernists in the business?
Funny enough I don’t view our work that way at all. We still work in so many different styles that reflect the projects’ architecture, the environment, and the client’s tastes. With that said, the trend has definitely been towards a more contemporary aesthetic for our clients, plus we’re working with so many contemporary art collectors, and so the aesthetics really are in service to that. I am still passionate about art and design from the past, and I live in a very traditional environment in San Francisco, though much of what we do is considered contemporary.
Buzz: Then is it fair to say that your contemporary jobs far out number your traditional ones?
It definitely seems to be the trend, though we still have projects that are traditional in nature. And the contemporary work really keeps us on our toes as you can’t rely on the marketplace for your answers if you are striving for unique space. I have always said it’s easier to create a unique traditional room than a unique contemporary one. Our contemporary projects are rendered in a completely custom way as we design most of the furnishings for them.
Buzz: I have a fun idea: let me throw out some random concepts and you give me the first word that comes to mind. Um, let’s start with the letter “S” just to show how random and meaningless some of my questions are.
BK: Silk Flowers
BK: Silver cups
DD: That’s doesn’t start with an S.
BK: Good point. I’m having low blood sugar, why don’t you name something that starts with “S”?
DD: Silk, which I Iove if used sparingly and appropriately
BK: Ok, now my turn. But I’m over this S stuff. How about words that start with “Over”? Like, Oversized Furniture?
BK: Oversized clients.
DD: No Comment
Side note from Buzz: I have found oversized clients to be just as tricky as oversized furniture).
BK: Over-decorated homes
BK: Over the Rainbow:
DD: Judy Garland?
BK: Huh, interesting. Ok, then…Judy Garland! (my answer to this one would have also been “Sad” but I’m not the one being interviewed)
DD: I don’t know what she has to do with design.
BK: Neither do I but what comes to mind for you?
DD: Uh, there’s a character based on her in Valley of the Dolls?
BK: Really? Huh. Which one? Neely O’Hara?? I’m sure it’s her—the Patty Duke character.
DD: No response.
BK: Ok, Twentieth century furniture vs. 18th century furniture
DD: Equally relevant
BK: Pairs of things versus the “everything in three’s” concept
DD: Not sure about that concept
DD: Overly and improperly used
BK: Would that be in homes or burlesque?
DD: Please tell me you’re kidding.
Buzz: Could you talk about some unexpected accessories that you like to use?
I absolutely LOVE ceramics, whether old or new, pristine or used and showing some wear. I think they show the hand of the artist, they are about form and often function, and the glazes can be otherworldly. I think they mix well in both contemporary and traditional settings and are usually curious to the eye, whether very simple or complex. I also love ancient objects in stone, particularly Egyptian alabaster and Bactrian pieces.
Aside from Buzz: Bactrian? I thought that could be cured with antibiotics. But I just Googled it and it refers to an ancient civilization (around 2500 BC and later) living in what is now Northern Afghanistan. The primitive marble and unusual totems and other objects created by the ancient culture are highly prized as art and accessories. Learn something new every day, huh?
Durkin continues: Objects in stone have such a clean, monolithic and often mysterious quality to them and can work very well in contemporary settings. I am pretty light on the idea of accessories for my projects, as I like to encourage my clients to fill their homes with objects that mean something to them, not just pretty things to dress up a table or their bookshelves. Happily, I work with a lot of real collectors, so not a problem here. Though when looking for accessories I am always drawn to simple forms and shapes.
Buzz: Describe the perfect Douglas Durkin Design client.
My perfect client is the one who I feel partnered with in the process, who has a point of view that I help interpret, and who is polite. It’s not about being given latitude to do what I want. It’s about feeling that we are aligned in spirit and on the same path with mutual understandings and appreciations.
Note from Buzz: Is this guy evolved or what? My perfect client is really cute, a size zero, kinda Chanel stylish, addicted to The Real Housewives of New York, Atlanta, etc., and invites me to fun lunches where I drink wine and don’t do any work.
Buzz: When you were in high school, what were your hobbies and extracurricular activities?
Drama Club (of course! I was passionate about the theater, opera, music of all kinds) art classes, and a lot of daydreaming and fantasy. Probably no big surprises here!
Buzz aside: I’m surprised he wasn’t also in Glee Club and Marching Band. I certainly was and both were highlights of my junior high school career. But I almost didn’t make it into Glee Club (we called it “Choir” then at James Madison Jr. High) because the song you had to sing was The National Anthem, accompanied on the piano by the very skinny, smelly and bitter Choirmaster, Mr. Shipkey. This is not a lie. So on Shipkey’s cue, I started the National Anthem, no doubt off-key but with lots of gusto: “My country tis of thee…” and Shipkey screams “Well that’s just lovely but I asked for the National Anthem! You know it, right??”
And all the other kids were now staring so I said “Sure, sorry.” So I started again, this time with tons of verve, upbeat enthusiasm and lots of volume (called “projecting”): “From the mountains to the prairies, to the oceans, white with F-O-A-M!!! (I was really belting it out)—and Shipkey slams his fist on the keyboard, scaring the Shipkey out of me-and hissing, why don’t you try Mary had a Little Lamb?” Ugh. So I very quietly and on the verge of a crying fit of major proportions, whimper “Mary had a little” and he says “Fine, you’re in.” I only found out later that everyone who auditioned for Choir had to be admitted because they needed enough students to justify some stupid budget. I think in today’s world I could sue Mr. Shipkey for verbal abuse and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Not to mention cigarette breath if that’s a crime. But back to our interview….
Buzz: Sticking with your high school, how would you describe yourself then? Were you in-crowd, out-crowd, bad boy, geek, jock, brainiac, class clown or what?
Definitely not “in crowd”, and not so athletic…like most creative kids, I always felt distant from the status quo. It was college where I finally felt free to be myself. College was a very happy time for me. Athleticism became a part of my life during college and remains with me till today.
Buzz: When and how did you first discover that you had a talent for interior design?
Probably when I was a kid (although not articulated as such….). I used to draw all the time when I was young, a lot of architectural things like theater sets and buildings. My folks used to let me decorate my room with my own holiday decorations, as their taste was a little restrained and mine was a little more flamboyant, so to speak! Funny to think back on that…we’re not so difficult to figure out, as it turns out!
Buzz aside: Yes, we are. When I decorated my room with Christmas decorations my parents told me that I could no longer be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Not sure if that’s true or not but I’ve got an interview to do here.
Buzz: How long have you been a professional designer?
I had my first job in interior design at the age of 20 in 1982……so 28 years….
Buzz rumination to himself: Why am I not as successful as Douglas Durkin? I mean, I’m practically 40 and what do I have to show for it? Just a brilliant ability to lie about my age.
Buzz: Early in your career, where you mentored by anyone?
I was. He was my first boss in NY: Frank Sierra, who was the President of Ellen Lehman McCluskey & Associates, a top hospitality and residential design firm there. Happily, though he is officially retired, Frank helps me now with my New York projects. He gave me my very first job in the business when I was in college, and really kind of took me under his wing. Frank taught me how to think like a designer and how to draw. Drawing by hand has become so undervalued in our culture….I continue to hand draw every day I am in the office. It is my process and I really owe a great debt to Frank for believing in me at such a young age and showing interest in my abilities.
Buzz: Describe how your design career unfolded. Did you start by getting a degree in design?
I had gone to Cornell and studied Hotel Administration (which I had been advised to pursue by my high school guidance counselor since I never tested well on my SATs and was advised that I wouldn’t have gotten into a good architecture school, which was my original plan). I wasn’t so happy with my choice when I got to Cornell and come my sophomore year, I took a class in Hospitality Design and Planning and loved it. So then I started taking elective classes in the Architecture and Design Schools there. In essence, I received an incredible education in the business of service and aesthetics (what the hospitality industry is all about) with a concentration in design and planning.
In 1982 I worked at the reception desk of the Mayfair Regent Hotel on Park Avenue. The hotel was so beautifully designed: classic, old world and comfortable…So I went to see the designers at the end of the summer to see if I could intern with them (Ellen Lehman McCluskey and Associates) and Frank Sierra hired me for the following summer. It was an amazing few years of experience! Mrs. McCluskey was in the later part of her career so I never worked directly with her. But she was kind and formidable and it was an amazing start for my career to be there at her firm.
When I graduated Cornel in 1984, I worked as the assistant manager of the Barclay Intercontinental Hotel in New York for a year, hoping to move into the corporate design division of Intercontinental. They decided I was doing well in operations so that became the plan and I was miserable. And within days of getting a promotion with Intercontinental, I got a call from Frank Sierra who had heard through the grapevine that I wasn’t happy at Intercon and wanted to find a way to pursue a design career. He called and invited me back to work with their firm…it was weird, almost too good to be true, and wonderful!
I worked there for three years, mostly on hospitality related projects, and then had an opportunity to work as a designer in the office of Robert Metzger, who was one of the most renowned 1980’s decorators in NY. It was an unbelievable opportunity and learning experience and I also spent three years there. I learned so much from Robert about antiques, the best in materials, finishes, and quality. He also taught me about taking risks in design, and about being bold with materials. He also encouraged me to be a little bit outrageous and unafraid from a design standpoint. It was the eighties after all, and Robert had a top client list with very extravagant tastes.
Buzz: What’s the most fun part of your job?
Working with people, including clients, vendors, and my staff. I am a relationship-oriented person so every aspect of the work gives me great pleasure. I also absolutely love traveling the world in pursuit of objects and furnishings for my projects. I attend a great many antique and art fairs annually, and I really do love “the hunt”.
Buzz: You’ve been so busy for so long, do you ever feel in danger of “burning out” or just leaving design and joining a kibbutz in Israel?
I would love to go to Israel, but a kibbutz is probably not for me. I have gotten much better at time management and taking care of myself regarding travel. For instance I got an apartment in New York this year as the constant back and forth travel and staying in hotels became really unsatisfying for me. When in New York, I usually try to stay on California time and keep my mornings open for myself. The days of red eye flights and 9 am meetings in New York don’t work so well for me anymore, or at least not for the first few days I’m there. I also usually stay at least three nights when traveling to the East Coast or to Hawaii. Lastly I have an amazing General Manager Sharon Oosterman and equally amazing Design Director Greg Elich and as we are all working closely together but focused on different things, I feel so well supported that burn out doesn’t really seem on the table for me. Kudos also goes to my amazing staff in general. People work really hard in my firm and care about making sure I am managed well. I absolutely love the people in my firm and feel blessed on a daily basis for their support. I am not one to complain about this aspect of my business as it really does work so well.
Buzz: What inspires you?
Integrity, honesty, kindness, culture, music, the arts.
Buzz: What drives you nuts about running a top design firm?
Nothing really drives me nuts.
Buzz aside: that’s funny, just about everything drives me nuts recently. He probably drinks herbal teas instead of double shot lattes.
Buzz: When a prospective client approaches you, how do you decide if the job is right for you?
That is sometimes very difficult. It truly is an energetic feeling you have. It is crucial that you feel an alignment or it cannot work well.
Buzz: Do you have a minimum budget that is essential for you to consider a project?
Not really. I think because we’re a firm of 20+ that offers full service, a job should be of a certain scale and intensity for that full service to be worth it to the client. That is probably a better way of answering the budget question rather than thinking about budget numbers. For our existing clients, we will do any scale project large or small.
Buzz: Are the best interior designers born or trained; in other words, do you think great design comes from nature or nurture?
I am more of the philosophy of nature. In all fields, people with a knack for what they do seem to do the best. Of course exposure to aesthetics and passion along the way are helpful.
Buzz rumination: I knew it! I’m a naturally gifted designer but I stink because I haven’t had enough exposure to aesthetics and passion. That’s a relief.
Buzz: What are the most common decorating mistakes made by non-professionals?
I would rather see something too large than too small in a room. Also using materials in rooms that do not have the architecture or quality to support its use (think spec homes with silk damask curtains: horrible). Another common error relates to poor choices in linings for window treatments. Just drive around San Francisco and look at white linings on curtains. Glass always reads dark and the light linings, especially with balloon shades, it looks like someone’s underwear is hanging out to dry.
Buzz comment: That was funny. And NOTE TO SELF: Gotta change my balloon shades and underwear more frequently.