Designer Spotlight

Ann Getty Believes Rooms Should Be Witty, Not Fussy

She might laugh at her socialite status, but the hands-on designer is serious about creating spaces that reflect her clients’ style.

Ann Getty in her work clothes at her San Francisco home. 18th-century Syro-Turkish, hand painted, gilded and semi-precious stone-ornamented panelled guest bedroom. Cut glass-crystal throne chair (circa 1894, Birmingham, England) from F & C Osler. Photo exclusive by Lisa Romerein. Top: In the romantic dining room of the Trainas' house, the folding dining chairs are from the Ann Getty House Collection. Custom-colored and printed velvet on the banquettes is by Venice-based Sabina Fay Braxton. The peacocks, from Deyrolle, were a gift from Danielle Steel.
Ann Getty in her work clothes at her San Francisco home. 18th-century Syro-Turkish, hand painted, gilded and semi-precious stone-ornamented panelled guest bedroom. Cut glass-crystal throne chair (circa 1894, Birmingham, England) from F & C Osler. Photo exclusive by Lisa Romerein. Top: In the romantic dining room of the Trainas’ house, the folding dining chairs are from the Ann Getty House Collection. Custom-colored and printed velvet on the banquettes is by Venice-based Sabina Fay Braxton. The peacocks, from Deyrolle, were a gift from Danielle Steel.

Wearing the simple chic white shirt and jeans she favors as workwear, Ann Getty is always the first to arrive each morning at her new atelier in the design district in San Francisco. Teams of textiles restoration specialists, artists, assistants and designers follow at a more sedate hour.

When clients arrive for consultations, the Titian-haired Getty is usually knee-deep in plans and arcane reference volumes. With her in-depth knowledge of design — balanced with a delicious sense of irony and contemporary designs — she has become the designer of choice for San Francisco’s cool young couples.

I’m totally hands-on,” says Ann Getty, who founded her design firm, Ann Getty Design, 16 years ago. Her furniture line Ann Getty House Collection was launched 10 years ago.

“I paint decorative finishes, stitch trim on pillows, repair antique embroideries and have the bleeding fingers to show for it,” said Getty. “I’ve been very practical since I was a girl growing up on a farm in the Sierra foothills, helping my father in the walnut orchards, driving tractors, fixing things.”

Getty’s roster of clients includes San Francisco social-register names, art-smart young couples, as well as style-conscious tech entrepreneurs with houses in California, New York and Hawaii. Getty’s work has always been ultra-private, but now she is in high demand. She recently completed the remodel and redesign of a landmark Victorian house for her son, Peter, a musician and blogger, as well at the blue-chip residence of Trevor and Alexis Traina.

Before she launched her design firm, Ann Getty spent decades devoted to international art and antiques studies. In the ’80s she studied anthropology at UC Berkeley, and later took working trips into dust-swept corners of Ethiopian rift valleys on digs to discover four-million-year-old fossils.

Getty Residence. In the hallway adjacent to the dining room, Ann Getty orchestrated a formal composition of an 18th-century English lacquered chest on stand, and a series of porcelain and cloisonne birds.
Getty Residence. In the hallway adjacent to the dining room, Ann Getty orchestrated a formal composition of an 18th-century English lacquered chest on stand, and a series of porcelain and cloisonne birds.

Passionate about ceramics and textiles, she voyaged into hidden corners of China, India and Egypt. Her first major project was her family residence in San Francisco.

Getty’s newest clients are attracted to her in-depth knowledge of design that can be kicked up with modern art. Trevor and Alexis Traina worked with her for two years to decorate their art-filled new Pacific Heights residence.

“Ann Getty is possessed and enraptured by her love of creation and has such a talent for fantasy, scale, color, texture and humor,” says Alexis Traina. “Ann knows what is correct and what isn’t, and how to make it all work.”

The couple was impressed that Getty was as involved in the minutia of kitchens and bathrooms as she was with rare textiles. For a tiny study/cocktail room, Getty covered the walls in peacock feathers. For the dining room banquettes she commissioned Venice-based textiles designer Sabrina Fay Braxton to create lime-green splashed fabrics illuminated with imprints of gold.

“Ann is a true student, lover and teacher of all things aesthetic,” says Alexis Traina. “Working with her is like taking advanced studies in textiles, every period of furniture, porcelain, china, silver, architecture, art, objects. There is not an obscure purveyor that she doesn’t know intimately or employ — from San Francisco’s Chinatown to a textiles atelier in Venice. If you dare to dream boldly, there is no limit to what she can create or replicate or execute, regardless of budget.” Trevor Traina noted that Getty is intensely involved with her work and she regularly answers her own phone.

“She’s not at all an ivory tower. When we arrived for meetings, she was usually sitting with a reference book, researching a very specific period detail or taking apart a vintage light fixture,” he says. “My fondest memories were of her sprawled on the floor of our construction site surrounded by drawings. We were so inspired, every day. She was able to design for young clients with little children, light-sensitive photography, sophisticated home office requirements, etc. She never batted an eye. She gets it.” Getty is also designing the new residence for Todd and Katie Traina.

With decor created by Getty herself, the rooms of her residence glow with museum-quality collections, baroque splendor and the accumulation of a life spent exploring design.

Birds and butterflies painted on antique silk panels glimmer on the walls of a bedroom. An antique tortoiseshell box and Syrian/Turkish painted wall panels seduce in a guest room. A Sèvres porcelain table made for Napoleon (its mate is installed in Buckingham Palace), elaborate gilded benches and tables from Spencer House and Badminton and a silk-upholstered glass Anglo-Indian chair with the look of carved crystal offer delight.

In the living room, spectacular Impressionist paintings beg for closer inspection. Massive Georgian chairs upholstered with 18th-century Lyon silks gleam with gilded carvings and velvet pillows.

“I love the heft and boldness and guts of English antiques,” says Getty. “I especially like the pieces that are a bit eccentric, boldly carved and sculptural. Fussy doesn’t appeal to me.”

The design studio is bustling with new chair prototypes, textile samples, and projects demanding attention. Anne’s assistant makes final preparations for client meetings and prototype presentations the following week.

“I have to laugh when I’m described as a socialite,” Getty says, taking a stack of silk fabrics in her hands. “I’m so involved in my work. Nowadays, I go out once a month, barely, just to maintain my so-called socialite status.”

Getty recently moved her design studio from a former army barracks in the Presidio to an atelier in the design district in San Francisco.

In-between clients, she continues to work on her own residence, changing the decor in the music room, adjusting decor in the entry hall and updating bedrooms.

From the drawing rooms of the great houses of England, Getty gathered George II gilded chairs, and in London and Paris flea markets she scooped up 17th-century brocades. She scooped up patched shimmering 18th-century hand-woven silks, and ormolu-mounted porcelain figures of the rarest order. Her rooms, with antique fabrics and carved panels patterning the walls, Coromandel screen-inspired moldings, and a multitude of small-scale portraits (she’s particularly fond of Mary Cassatt) and gilded console tables. Her dining room is an opulent setting for an afternoon tete-a-tete overlooking the Palace of Fine Arts and a theatrical stage for a whirl of parties and balls.

The Gettys’ Pacific Heights house was built in 1906 to a classic design by architect Willis Polk, and it gracefully offers an enfilade of a grand foyer and entry hall, an interior courtyard, and gracious, hospitable rooms where the Gettys, generous philanthropists, entertain.

“This is the ornate look I love for myself, but I don’t impose it on my clients,” she notes. “My work is not all over-the-top design. For clients, I want rooms that reflect their style.”

Her gracious rooms, with tufted sofas and chairs covered in plum-colored velvets and golden silks, are at once exotic, dazzling and comfortable. Party guests can often be found sprawled on silken sofas, and friends curl up to sip Champagne on chairs covered with luscious Venetian hand-woven silk velvets.

“I learned many of the finer points of decorating and making rooms comfortable from Albert Hadley and Sister Parish, as well as from John Stefanidis, who decorated guest rooms,” says Getty.

It’s already late afternoon. Ann Getty heads out, rolls of drawings under her arm, for a site inspection. Her joy – and the spring in her step – are evident.

A Chat with Ann Getty

One of your early passions was paleoanthropology. How has this influenced your design work?

I was involved in a dig in a remote desert in Ethiopia. We discovered the bones of a 4.4-million-year-old creature, the earliest stage of human evolution. Studying fossils in detail has given me a keen sense of color and shape. Our survey area is located in Ethiopia and it is quite vast, about the size of Kansas. I learned to observe the smallest design details and fine variations in color.

You worked with Sister Parish and Albert Hadley to decorate your San Francisco residence. What did you learn from them?

Sister Parish created environments to be enjoyed. Working with her gave me a finer understanding of elegance and comfort. Formal rooms don’t have to be stiff and starchy.

On her first visit, Mrs. Parish arrived with Bunny Williams. I was a bit intimidated, but Mrs. Parish had tremendous patience. She quickly put me at ease. She also brought her own painting crew from New York, but once she discovered what wonderful specialty painters we had in San Francisco, she sent her New York team home. Our painters worked to create the wonderful blue color in our entry library, a hue called Hadley Blue. The deep, intense blue was achieved by applying layers and layers of color. It’s still there today.

Sister Parish always believed that there should be a piece of blue and white porcelain and some trace of chintz in every room. I always keep this in the back of my mind when I am designing.

Artists you have your eye on?

In China for the 2008 Olympics, I first discovered works by Zhang Xiaogang. His art was in the collection of one of the private residences we visited. I hung his works in our recent showcase room at the Millennium Tower in San Francisco. The art has such a haunting quality.

I have also always liked the German artist Sigmar Polke. His work is so layered, witty, playful and yet sophisticated.

Fashion designers you love?

I wear Oscar de la Renta for a classic look. I’ve always admired his use of color and couture details. I’m inspired by his embroidery and beading and his tactile embellishments such as complex knits and lace. Another of my favorites is Carolina Herrera, who brings elegance and femininity to her designs. I love to wear the Hermès collections by Jean Paul Gaultier. I admire the luxurious fabrics, the incredible workmanship and sophisticated design.

Textiles you’re passionate about now?

My favorite textiles are 17th- and 18th-century silk brocades, especially “bizarre” silks. These complex “bizarre” silks incorporated abstract designs and oriental motifs on a large scale. I love the exuberance and fantastical imagery of these silks. I’ve used them to upholster Georgian armchairs.

Some of the textiles require restoration at times and my design studio includes restoration experts on staff.

Over the years, you have generously and lavishly entertained heads of state, Nobel prize-winning scientists, Russian musicians, cultural icons, friends from near and far. Your favorite way to entertain informally?

On Sunday evenings, I like cooking with friends and sitting around the large table in our kitchen, dining family style. I get involved with the preparation, especially the baking. Everyone wants to take the cookies home.

Recent travels for design research?

All travel is inspirational. When I’m out of my familiar environment, I look at everything with a fresh eye. Venice is one of my favorite trips. I can’t get enough of the luxurious silk velvets at Bevilacqua when I am in Venice, and I have secret sources of Murano glass. However, I am also inspired by the arts in China, Burma and Vietnam.

Colors that captivate you?

Butter yellow is my favorite color. I like it because it is uplifting and joyful. I am definitely not shy about color and believe that bold use of color can make a room.

What are you collecting now?

I am passionate about all things Chinoiserie. I love the Asian aesthetic when it was interpreted by and for the European market. Chinese export porcelain is captivating and energizing. It has a cross-cultural look – like bizarre 18th-century French woven silks – and offers a compelling combination of East meets West in a room.

Where do you find inspiration?

Everywhere. It is sometimes where you least expect it. On a recent research trip to India, I was captivated by the vivid, color-saturated colors of saris worn by women working in the fields near Jaipur. The intense light in India combined with the green fields and the bright saris was just breathtaking. Even Jaipur itself, a center of craftsmen, textiles and jewelry, was inspirational. Buildings and the maharajah’s palace were painted pink in 1853 to welcome the Prince of Wales. Pure fantasy. It’s still known for that dusty pink color today.

Design motto?

I always take my lead from the existing architecture. “Respect the architecture,” and “listen closely to the client” are my working mottos.

Museum?

In Paris I walk to the Musee d’Orsay to take a closer look at the Impressionist and Postimpressionist collections. The colors are ravishing. The Victoria & Albert has the best decorative arts collection. They have a pair of 18th-century Oriental chairs from Badminton House, which match a pair in my collection. I could spend days at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s a feast. In St. Petersburg, I head straight to the Hermitage to immerse myself in Matisse paintings, malachite urns, and the Gold Room, with its diamond-encrusted saddles. At the Museo del Prado I spend happy hours studying Velasquez and Goya collections. Sometimes I’ll go to a museum just to look at one painting of interest. That’s often as satisfying as seeing a whole show.

Style icon?

I have always loved Elsie de Wolfe’s lighthearted yet dramatic approach to design. She was classic but playful, always chic. I have great appreciation for Sister Parish because her decor was very refined but never stiff and never overdone. Tony Duquette was a great inspiration for his lavish whimsy. Rooms should have a sense of wit and life. Tony’s decor was over-the-top. I loved his rooms.

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