“I love California for its innovation,” says designer Nicole Hollis, who recently devised the dramatic interiors of a family’s Pacific Heights co-op apartment that spans an entire floor in a classic 1920s building. “I came from New York, and my clients moved from Hong Kong. I feel like people who end up here are risk-takers.”
The clients, a husband and wife who work in business and have a teenage son, relocated to Northern California to be closer to family. They had a tight schedule and called on Hollis to reimagine their new residence. “The building is a prewar structure that overlooks the Bay,” says the wife, noting that the city’s proximity to the water reminds them of their Hong Kong roots. “You can see Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.”
Architect Brooks Walker helped Hollis perfect the apartment’s interior shell. “There wasn’t a lot of structural work that needed to be done,” Walker says, “but the kitchen and the master bath did get a down-to-the-studs makeover.” The architect remedied the kitchen’s choppy layout by removing an angled wall and reorganizing the placement of some of the appliances so that the space had better flow. Hollis then designed new cabinetry and created a cozy banquette area, which features a view of Coit Tower. “In the master bath, we moved the tub beneath a bay window and added square footage to accommodate symmetrically opposed vanities,” explains Walker, who also made a stronger connection between the living room and study by creating a large opening complete with pocket doors.
Glen Sherman, senior project manager and general manager of Van Acker Construction Associates, and project manager Yun-Ju Cho were the master builders who collaborated closely with Hollis to carry out the makeover, which included maintaining and restoring the structure’s original millwork and trim. “We breathed life into the place and honored what was once there,” Sherman says.
Hollis, working with her firm’s residential studio director, Adele Dalby, outfitted the interior with the same complex layering of stark white tones, moody grays and rich shades of black and bronze you’d find in an iconic black-and-white photograph. “I like to work with high contrast and a more neutral palette because you get so much color from the art, accessories and landscape,” Hollis says. “With the wide views of the Bay, the light has many moods throughout the day.” The designer chose a creamy white paint for the walls of practically the entire apartment and offset them by staining the wood floors a deep chocolate brown. To create a dramatic counterpoint, she coated the study with Farrow & Ball’s Pitch Black. “My work is not founded in decoration or tradition,” says Hollis. “I like things that are riskier and edgier.”
Hollis also prefers to layer as much texture as possible and add sculptural light fixtures. “It’s like buying a classic suit and just adding a great watch or a great pair of shoes,” she says. In the dining room, a large bronze chandelier with a sea urchin-like form is suspended above a massive custom oak table with a bronze base. “I used chunky linen draperies and placed a soft, shaggy Moroccan rug in the living room,” says the designer, who also covered an ottoman with hair-on-hide and chose a sofa upholstered with a shimmery velvet. Hand-blown glass sconces by John Pomp Studios appear as idiosyncratic globes that give the room an understated glow. “I never want to do sconces with shades just because that’s the default or traditional answer,” she says. “I prefer to seek out artists who create something thoughtful and one-of-a-kind.”
The designer created a personal layer by expertly weaving in a selection of the clients’ own items—pieces they had picked up on travels or had lived with for years. “Each existing furnishing they brought with them meant something and was so different,” Hollis says of pieces such as woven baskets the couple purchased while traveling in Bhutan and a painted stool that the wife’s sister brought back from Morocco. “I worked them in, and they ended up adding so much warmth.” Perhaps the most sentimental item Hollis integrated is the rocker in the master bedroom. “We commissioned an artist in Virginia to carve the chair when my son was born,” the wife says. “There’s an inscription on the bottom.”
Hollis’ preference for neutrals, texture and form over color and pattern and the way that predilection thoughtfully accommodates the couple’s enviable art collection might be the pinnacle of the project. “They take calculated risks in terms of art,” the designer says. “They’re intellectual about their choices and have renowned artists, but also a lot of contemporary and emerging names. Each work tells a story.” A photographic work by Robert Rauschenberg looks almost like a third window in the dining room, while a large metallic sculpture by Zhan Wang has a stately, unencumbered appearance in the living room. A work by artist Xu Bing, a poem by Robert Frost drawn to look like Chinese characters, hangs in the minimalist entry. “It speaks to our Asian heritage,” the wife says. “Our home is very calm. The art is showcased, but it doesn’t float in rooms as if it’s the only focal point. Everything here is in great harmony.”