The Talent

The Perfect Fit

Katie Martinez launched her eponymous San Francisco design firm in 2013 (photo by Maria Del Rio). Top: In the enclosed porch of a house in Napa Valley’s St. Helena, a pair of Ax chairs by Peter Hvidt and Orla Molgaard-Nielsen sit atop a rug sourced at the Alameda Point Antiques Fair (photo by Drew Kelly).

Katie Martinez clearly remembers her first task as a design professional: to organize and catalog the extensive library of design and art books owned by hospitality magnate André Balazs, for whom she was interning fresh out of Parsons Design School. Like the man’s hotels, the titles were inspiring, unexpected and undeniably sexy. “It was hard to define what made his projects so electric — each one was highly personal and never followed a formula,” says Martinez, who, ten years later, is mastering her own brand of immersive, high-touch environments for clients who range from ambitious app creators to luxury wineries to boutique jewelry designers to young, aesthetically minded urban families.

In contrast to the time she once spent in buzzing New York City studios, where whole teams of designers tackled dozens of in-progress projects, Martinez now oversees a staff of just two from her petite office in the charming industrial-meets-residential San Francisco neighborhood of Potrero Hill. Her client list may not be long, but each of her exquisitely executed projects has been scooped up and celebrated by the press (including the Wall Street Journal and Domino) — leading many to predict that her small firm may be the next big thing.

Martinez launched Katie Martinez Design more than a decade after and 3,000 miles away from where her career began, and she credits both the distance and the time for preparing her to lead her own studio. “I’m not one of those gutsy people who graduated from school and just jumped right into doing their own thing,” she says. “It was only in the last few years that I felt creatively and professionally secure enough to do it, and to do it well, which mattered to me immensely.”

In a 150-year-old townhouse in New York’s Greenwich Village, Martinez’s first solo project, a serigraph by Ilya Bolotowsky sits atop the fireplace mantle next to a smaller work by an unknown artist. The Swedish rya rug is from Doris Leslie Blau. Photo by Aubrie Pick

Martinez grew up in Bedminster, New Jersey, in an old farmhouse decorated with plenty of chintz and painted with boldly colored walls. Her great grandmother was an abstract artist, and her works were constant set pieces of her youth. “I have art and design in my DNA.”

She headed to Dartmouth for college, where she majored in studio art and art history and took classes in architecture. It was there that she found her creative coterie: Unlike at many schools, the architecture classes were grouped with the studio arts, so she studied alongside painters, sculptors and photographers as opposed to engineers. “Dartmouth is where I got my abstract, creative education in design — I learned to think about the broad approach, “ says Martinez, who credits inspiring professors with cultivating her aesthetic sensibilities. “That said, I wouldn’t call the education I received there ‘practical.’ We never learned drafting or Photoshop, any of the things you actually can stick on a resume.” To refine her real-world design skills, she headed to Parsons for graduate school, where she not only learned the ropes but was taught to put this knowledge to practical use.

It was while completing her studies at Parsons that she landed that internship with Balazs, and then, almost immediately upon her graduation, she was brought on as a designer by the Rockwell Group, another major New York player in the hotel-and-restaurant industry. Over the next three years, she worked on projects ranging from the Andaz Wall Street hotel in New York to the Belvedere Hotel and its Matsuhisa restaurant in Mykonos, Greece. The work was fast-paced and high-concept, and the teams were massive.

In the living room of the Greenwich Village townhouse, which Martinez transformed for a young family, the Samarkand rug is from Doris Leslie Blau, the mid-century rattan chairs from Foley & Cox and the side table between the chairs from Balsamo. Photo by Aubrie Pick

Since the kitchen of the Greenwich Village townhouse opens into the living room, Martinez wanted to put at its center a piece of furniture that bridged the two spaces; she had this island custom made, designing a distressed-wood top and adding glossy black Thonet-inspired stools. The copper pendents are by the British design firm Original BTC. Photo by Aubrie Pick


One substantial change Martinez made to the Greenwich Village home (whose former occupants included Vogue‘s Grace Coddington and French model-actress Josephine de la Baume) was replacing industrial spiral steps with a grand yet modern staircase. The candlestick atop the piano comes from the South of France and the lamp from Balsamo. Photo by Aubrie Pick

A custom pine reception desk greets visitors at the downtown San Francisco offices of the start-up company Liftopia (which Martinez describes as an “Orbitz for lift tickets”). She commissioned an artist to render the company’s logo in blue and white ski-pole baskets for the installation behind the desk. Photo by Aubrie Pick

In each of Liftopia’s conference room, Martinez had a wall painted to depict the profile of a different ski-mountain resort with which the company works. Here, vintage theater seats and wooden stools offer varied sitting options. For the overall scheme, Martinez sought to channel “a laid-back, skier vibe overlaid with industrial and Scandinavian style.” Photo by Aubrie Pick


“I had fun on this bathroom because the client was willing to take risks and was looking for drama and style,” says the designer of an Oakland project. An Apparatus lighting fixing hangs over a vintage mirror and a custom concrete sink. Photo by Aubrie Pick

Desiring a change of both pace and scale, Martinez set off for San Francisco with her then-boyfriend, now-husband, Michael, the founder of JuiceBox Games, a mobile gaming venture. The young couple barely knew a soul in their new city when they arrived, but they would quickly make it home, marrying and having a daughter, Amelia, over the next few years. “Something about the West Coast had always been calling to me,” says Martinez. In San Francisco, she worked with two well-known Bay Area firms — the Wiseman Group and Nicole Hollis Interior Design — before striking out on her own in 2013. “I felt that I was following a path of going smaller and smaller, until it was just me,” says Martinez. “That was always a direction that just felt right.”

Martinez’s first solo project was a remodel of a Greenwich Village townhouse — formerly inhabited by Vogue’s flame-haired creative director, Grace Coddington. There, Martinez drew on her interior-architecture skills and big-picture thinking to make substantive changes, such as replacing industrial spiral steps with a grand, modern-yet-elegant formal staircase. At the same time, her knowledge of vintage furnishings and the emerging art scene allowed her to master all the finer details, from the vintage Swedish rya rug in the master bedroom to the hand-hammered copper sconces in the kitchen to the black-and-white photograph, installed above the fireplace, of a hawk mid-strike, by Geoffrey Knott. The project, completed for a young family, lit up the Internet: Images of the rooms were shared on Pinterest thousands of times, and the proverbial phone started ringing.

In the Liftopia office, Martinez installed custom wood shelves made from pilings salvaged from San Francisco Bay. Photo by Aubrie Pick

Next up, Martinez created a Nordic-industrial wonderland of an office for the ski-loving entrepreneurs behind Liftopia, a digital platform connecting skiers with discounted lift tickets. That downtown San Francisco workspace meets all the requirements for a cheeky start-up — Martinez commissioned an artist to render the company logo in reclaimed blue and white ski-pole baskets and installed a well-stocked bar — while also elevating tech-company chic to a level rarely seen: no bean bags here. In their stead, vintage bentwood chairs slung with caramel-colored leather offer places to lounge, while a rough-hewn floor-to-ceiling shelf expertly styled with books, games and company iconography makes for a sophisticated meeting-room backdrop.

Her design for the combined New York showroom, offices and workshop of jewelry designer Lulu Frost walks the same fine line between residential coziness and professional functionality. A living wall brings a shock of green to a lofty, centuries-old building in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, while also creatively dividing the public and private spaces. Instead of bulky (and potentially unwelcoming) jewelry cases, Martinez opted for delicate tables with svelte gold legs and a display wall framed in raw wood. An antique lounge is reupholstered in a shibori-dyed textile, and bare bulbs at varying heights dangle from the high ceiling, echoing the boho-inspired baubles that fill the shop.

Martinez’s ability to weave residential details and the warmth they provide into commercial settings has struck a chord, and her list of on-the-board projects ranges from a handful of residential remodels in San Francisco to an ambitious new winery in Napa Valley’s St. Helena, for which Martinez is designing everything from the tasting rooms to the terraces. Regardless of the space, each square foot will undoubtedly benefit from Martinez’s hands-on, bespoke process. For her (and her lucky clients), small is the next big thing.

In the St. Helena house, an antique pine bench sits beneath a print by Los Angeles–based photographer Torbjørn Rødland. Photo by Drew Kelly


Bedminster, New Jersey

Early Influences:

Growing up, I was lucky enough to spend a few weeks of every summer on Martha’s Vineyard. The house was originally my great-grandmother’s art studio. It was rustic and filled with art, books and furniture collected through the years. We  showered only outside and walked the grass driveway to the beach. I am always inspired by memories of its wildness, simplicity and sense of place.

Current Playlist:

Lately, we’ve been listening to a lot of Leon Bridges, Jorge Ben Jor and Rubblebucket. My husband finds all the good music in our house. Our two-year-old daughter is really into ’50s classics — we listen to Alley Oop on repeat.

Favorite Artists:

Lucian Freud, Louise Nevelson and Marta Johansen

Designers You Most Admire:

Annabelle Selldorf, Commune, Rose Uniacke, Dimore Studio, Edwina Von Gal

Martinez stepped up to help her friend Lisa Salzer decorate the multifunctional office of her jewelry company, Lulu Frost, in Manhattan’s Flatiron neighborhood. Together the two friends carved the loft space into a wholesale showroom, a production space and a retail store, seen here. Photo by Trent Bailey

Left: Martinez and Salzer, posing at Lulu Frost’s remodeled offices, met at Dartmouth, where they were roommates. Right: Another vignette at Lulu Frost reveals the designer’s intention to “keep the palette for the project minimal and sophisticated, mostly black and white, to allow for the jewelry, decorative accessories and textiles to pop.” The office is full of DIY touches, such as the wall graphics, which are inspired by artist Donald Robertson and made from cut strips of gaffer tape. Photos by Brittany Ambridge, courtesy of Domino

“Since the room is almost square, with two wide entries and windows that reach nearly to the floor, finding the right sofa was a challenge,” Martinez says of the St. Helena house’s living room. “The curved Oasis sofa by Coup D’Etat works perfectly.” Elsewhere in the room, vintage pieces dominate, including a pair of Arne Jacobsen Swan​ chairs, a Serge Mouille floor lamp and, from San Francisco’s Black & Gold, a Philip and Kelvin LaVerne bronze Chan table and a Paul McCobb brass side table. Photo by Drew Kelly

In a sitting room of the St. Helena house, the Moroccan Beni Ourain rug is from Madeline Weinrib and the 1950s armchair is by Danish designer Nanna Ditzel. Photo by Drew Kelly


“We kept the bedroom very simple,” says Martinez of the Greenwich Village project, where she opted for a duvet, drapery and upholstered headboard all in white linen, adding a Japanese shibori textile to the bed for a pop of color. Photo by Aubrie Pick

Drink of Choice:

Red wine

Favorite Watering Hole:

Lone Palm, in San Francisco’s Mission District

Go-To Dining Spot

Pizzeria Delfina

On Your Nightstand:

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy

Favorite Vacation Destination:

Point Reyes, California, and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts

Always in Your Bag:

A tape measure


Katie Martinez’s Quick Picks on 1stdibs

Wall-Mounted Sconces in the Style of Paavo Tynell, 1950s, offered by WYETH
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Wall-Mounted Sconces in the Style of Paavo Tynell, 1950s, offered by WYETH

These sconces look like my favorite kind of gold jewelry: simple, sculptural and able to go with any outfit.

Console Table by Kueng Caputo, 2014, offered by Salon 94
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Console Table by Kueng Caputo, 2014, offered by Salon 94

Understated and strikingly beautiful

Moroccan Pile Carpet, mid-20th century, offered by Wright Now
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Moroccan Pile Carpet, mid-20th century, offered by Wright Now

Antique rugs are my preferred way to introduce color and pattern into a room. This one is especially gorgeous.

<i>Four Bunnies</i>, 2014, by Kim McCarty, offered by Morgan Lehman Gallery
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Four Bunnies, 2014, by Kim McCarty, offered by Morgan Lehman Gallery

I’ve always loved Kim McCarty and my daughter loves bunnies. This would hang in her room.

Pair of Ib Kofod-Larsen Model U-56 Elisabeth Chairs and Ottomans, 1950s, offered by MORENTZ
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Pair of Ib Kofod-Larsen Model U-56 Elisabeth Chairs and Ottomans, 1950s, offered by MORENTZ

I’m a big fan of vintage cognac leather, perfect for adding warmth and character to any room.

Pierre Chapo sidetable, 1960s, offered by Bloomberry
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Pierre Chapo sidetable, 1960s, offered by Bloomberry

Pierre Chapo is one of my all time favorites. This table is unreal.

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