Designers to Watch

A Subversive Streak Runs through This San Francisco Firm’s Moody Interiors

Portrait of Alexis Tompkins and Leann Conquer of interiors firm Chroma
Alexis Tompkins (left) and Leann Conquer, of interiors firm Chroma, show off their new digs in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood. The decor includes a Gilbert Rohde sectional from Almond & Co. and a Carlo Mollino Suora floor lamp (photo by Sam Frost). Top: In the living room of a Ross, California, home, a Chroma-designed sofa meets a striped Vladimir Kagan lounger from Modern on the Hudson and a leather chair by Terje Ekstrøm (photo by Stephen Kent Johnson).

Whether it’s the makeup looks on HBO’s Euphoria or surreal contemporary photography, all sources of inspiration are on the table at San Francisco design firm Chroma

Helmed by Alexis Tompkins and Leann Conquer, the company is known for its otherworldly aesthetic and ability to weave virtually any cultural reference into a space. Although they handle different parts of the business, the two are united in a mission to cultivate “emotional, corporeal experiences,” as Conquer puts it. 

Tompkins, the firm’s founder and creative partner, cites her upbringing as a major influence. “I grew up in a household where there was a lot of arts education and travel,” says the Los Angeles native, whose mother is an art historian and numismatist specializing in ancient Greek and Roman coinage. Tompkins put that background to use at the University of North Texas, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in art criticism and conservation and studio art.

Conquer, who hails from Pennsylvania, entered Mercyhurst University, in Erie, on an architecture track but ultimately earned a bachelor’s in interior design, finding that she was more drawn to creating the layers and soul inside the home. Once she started working in the industry, she had a second epiphany. “I fell in love with the operations side of the business,” Conquer says. Today, she acts as Chroma’s managing director.

Both women moved to San Francisco when their now husbands landed jobs at the same company. Introduced by the men more than 12 years ago, the duo instantly connected over their shared love of interiors. 

In 2014, Tompkins, who was working at the time for Steven Volpe, implored Conquer to leave her job with Nicole Hollis and join in the creation of a new firm. “She sent me a very long manifesto in the form of an email, saying, ‘Now is the time to join me! This is what we can do together!’ ” Conquer recalls. “It was really more of an ‘I’m informing you that this is what we’re doing.’ ” 

Study designed by Chroma
Chroma went for a ’70s vibe throughout the Ross house. In the study, Timothy Oulton’s tufted leather sofa and a pair of 1950s armchairs surround a Lucite coffee table. Holly Hunt’s Bar reading lamp provides light without detracting from the moody atmosphere. Photo by Stephen Kent Johnson

Eight years later, Chroma is known for its offbeat, imaginative interiors and for what Conquer describes as looking in places “you wouldn’t naturally go to find design inspiration.” 

As an example, Tompkins points to a current project. “We have clients who live in London, and their teenage kids are really into Russian constructivism right now,” she says. “We love those kinds of interesting references.”

The two spoke with Introspective about their embrace of pop culture, the female creatives they love and the excitement of launching their brand-new studio space. 

Where do you find inspiration?

Tompkins: Art, fashion, film, music, travel, contemporary culture, history, gardens — I think we’re always looking. For example, right now, my husband and I are watching Euphoria, and I’m like, “Look at that makeup — it’s amazing! I think we can make a textile out of that!” It’s whatever’s going on in the zeitgeist in different industries. 

Deck designed by Chroma
Turkish-born painter Hayal Pozanti’s 2017 work 70 (Million miles per hour that the Earth orbits around the sun) provides a colorful backdrop for outdoor meals at the Ross residence. Living Divani dining chairs and a pair of dramatic Cala armchairs by KETTAL are pulled up to ZEUS NOTO’s Big Irony dining table, designed by Maurizio Peregalli. The pendants were customized with climbing rope by Chroma and local artist Tanya Hollis. Photo by Stephen Kent Johnson

Who is your favorite furniture designer?

Conquer: We love Faye Toogood’s unique point of view, her emphasis on process and materiality and her interest in the unusual. We love Max Lamb for the same reasons. We also admire the nuance of Michael Anastassiades’s work and appreciate his rich references to things like nature and modernism.

And Aldo Bakker! Such seductive work. His rejection of convention really resonates with us.

Then there’s Lisa Johansson-Pape, whose work is understated, simple and beautiful. We also love the pioneering modernist women who paved the way in furniture design, like Lilly Reich, Eileen Gray and Maria Pergay.

And we’re always inspired by the expressive quality of the work and spirit of innovation of Gio Ponti, Osvaldo Borsani and Carlo Scarpa

Who is your favorite artist?

Tompkins: We love Alex Prager’s works, which are surreal and cinematic, definitive of that certain uncanniness we’re drawn to in our design work. There is something seductive about the voyeuristic quality of her photographs and how elaborately they’re constructed. There’s definitely an affinity, too, for the references she’s making and her influences — Hollywood cinema, experimental films, street photography — where we find so much inspiration as well.

Dining room of a San Francisco townhouse designed by Chroma
For the dining room of a townhouse in San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill neighborhood, the duo hung a 1970s chrome chandelier above a custom Chroma walnut table and 1960s Niels Otto Møller Model 77 teak chairs. Photo by M. K. Sadler

Who is your personal style icon?

Tompkins: Yasmin Sewell, who’s an energy worker and a total babe. She’s a vibe. 

Conquer: Fashion designer Phoebe Philo. I’m such a fan from her Céline days, of course, but with her range and the way she leads with such self-determination, I can’t wait to see what she’ll do with her new line. I naturally gravitate toward her understated personal style, as well. And suiting. I love a well-fitted suit. 

What is your favorite historic house?

Tompkins: There are so many gems throughout history, but I love the romance of an English country manor or the large panes of glass in an iconic mid-century structure. There’s something so eternal about the romance of old houses. I’m fascinated by their humanity and architectural intimacy. Contemporary design can so often lack pathos and vulnerability.

Bedroom designed by Chroma
Vintage Stilnovo sconces cast intricate shadows in the bedroom of a young couple in the city’s SoMa district. Custom Chroma burl-wood nightstands flank the bed, while a Martin Eisler x Timorous Beasties chair and a Chroma-designed floor lamp and stone table create a quiet reading corner. Photo by Chroma

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be?

Tompkins: I live in my favorite city — San Francisco! I also adore New York, and I have family there, so I’m very fortunate to be there often. My husband and I have also spent time in Amsterdam, and it’s such a rad city, especially for young families. I really prioritize creativity in my surroundings, too — art, fashion and fabulous food. I thrive on the excitement and diversity and action of cities.

Conquer: Growing up, I was always outdoors, a real explorer, so I feel a deep connection to California in that sort of pathfinding spirit. There is so much organic beauty here. A very, very close second would be Mexico. The food, the culture, the design, the architecture — it’s just intoxicating.

What would your dream project be?

Tompkins: One of our recent dream projects, and obviously one of our personal faves, is our new studio. We purchased a building in 2021 in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco, a budding arts district, where we’re in the process of setting up our very own atelier.

Conquer: The Institute of Contemporary Art is opening right around the corner from us, and I feel that resonates quite a bit with us. Just having this space so that we could cohost something with the ICA or bring in a local gallery or bring in someone who’s going to do a lesson is very exciting.
Tompkins: We kind of think of it as Andy Warhol’s Factory with way less drugs.

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