Designers to Watch

This Dutch-Born Designer Got His Start Pursuing an American Pastime: Flipping Houses

Martin Kobus living room
Portrait of Martin Kobus
Martin Kobus, pictured here in his 2019 San Francisco Decorators Showcase space, started out flipping houses in California’s Marin County, pivoting to a career in interior design when his decorated homes attracted the attention of potential clients. Top: The living room of a Tiburon, California, home includes a custom sofa upholstered in three different fabrics as well as a bespoke floating Swarovski Buddha. Portrait and photo by Christopher Stark

You might say there’s a storm within the calm of Martin Kobus’s interiors. Undeniably serene but with just the perfect shot of drama, they somehow relax and wake you up at the same time. It’s an effect the Dutch native, who is the principal designer and CEO of the Sausalito-based design firm Kobus Interiors, has cultivated over a long and fruitful career.

Having studied design, architecture and languages in Italy and the Netherlands, Kobus left Amsterdam about 30 years ago for Belvedere, in California’s Marin County. There, he got his start in design by participating in that great American pastime: house flipping. Kobus put his own spin on the trade, not only renovating his purchases but also furnishing them from top to bottom. Acting as a sort of three-dimensional portfolio, the decorated homes caught the eye of potential clients, thus launching his interior design career. 

In the twenty years since opening his firm, Kobus has become known for his eclectic style, the custom pieces he creates for clients and his unique approach to positioning furniture in a room. In addition to his interiors work, he has also designed housewares for Tokyo’s Isetan department store and, in 2017, purchased a vineyard, where he will soon open a showroom of his work. We spoke with him about design, wine and the rewards of pushing the envelope. 

Where do you find inspiration?

I find most of my inspiration in travel and fashion. I just got back from St. Barths, where I’m doing a project. I love St. Barths! It makes you feel young again.

As for fashion, I love any designers doing crazy stuff. That’s what I’m after! I love Alexander McQueen, both vintage and current, Thom Browne, Tom Ford and Balmain, which Olivier Rousteing designs — he’s so creative. I dress in their clothes myself.

Bedroom designed by Kobus
De Gournay plum-blossom paper covers the back wall of this bedroom in the Tiburon home. The custom leather-upholstered headboard includes built-in whitewashed-ash floating side tables. The rock-crystal pendants are by Swarovski; the throw blanket is made of Holly Hunt ombré alpaca. Photo by Christopher Stark

Who is your favorite furniture designer and why?

I love Vincenzo De Cotiis. He’s an architect, but he also does beautiful furniture pieces, and I like his choice of unusual materials. He uses a lot of stone and resins. And he’s very futuristic, which I think is great. 

Who is your favorite artist and why?

Jean-Michel Basquiat — his neo-Expressionism, graffiti and street art. What he was really good at is the interplay between the material world and the intellect. 

What are your favorite periods/styles?

brutalism and Cubism. And I find the nineteen thirties and forties to be a time of creation and innovation and the sixties and seventies to be wild and crazy. Which leaves the fifties, which was kind of boring and in-between. I take a lot of elements out of those styles (except the fifties) for my designs. 

Who is your personal style icon?

Thom Browne is really pushing the envelope in a classical way. 

Rancho Mirage, California, home
Kobus designed this Rancho Mirage, California, home with indoor-outdoor living in mind, outfitting it with furniture by Dedon and McGuire. Photo by George Gutenberg

What is your favorite historic house?

The Glass House by Philip Johnson. I love the transparency — that the walls disappear and you’re in nature.

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

St. Barths!

What is your dream project?

I would love to do a spa hotel and resort, maybe in St. Barths, but it could be anywhere. I’d design everything, from the music played to the smell to the tactile sensations. A place where someone would walk in and say, “Wow, that’s Martin Kobus!”

Living room designed by Kobus
Kobus transformed a “soulless” San Francisco spec house into a warm, vibrant, functional space for a young family. The living room includes a Moroso wing chair that Kobus found on 1stDibs along with a couple of glass Bell tables by Sebastian Herkner. Photo by Douglas Friedman

What is the most underappreciated design idea?

In Scandinavia, they have houses with black exterior wood siding. It’s starting to come here a little — that shou sugi ban, burnt-wood look, which I’ve actually done in a few projects.  

What’s one thing you’ve done that shouldn’t have worked but did?

I designed some “glass” chairs that are 3D printed. I created the style, and we did everything on the computer, and we had to make a mold. Then, we had to pour the resin in the mold to give the chairs a glass feeling. I put a smokey tint in some of the chairs so that half the chair was smokey and half was clear. That was a challenge, because I didn’t know if that would come to life. I was like, “Oh, God, I hope this works, because it’s a major investment!” But it came out beautifully, and the clients loved it. 

Kobus Interiors 2019 San Francisco Decorators Showcase
In the space he designed for the 2019 San Francisco Decorators Showcase, Kobus covered the ceiling with De Gournay‘s Symphony wallpaper and hung a sculpted brass light fixture that he created in collaboration with Tazi Designs. The custom curved corner banquettes and center settee are upholstered in rich metallic velvets. Photo by Christopher Stark

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

I have a vineyard in Healdsburg, California, and I created a black steel house there that is my showroom. It’s like a Martin Kobus showcase house, and I created everything — all the carpets, the flooring, the furniture.

Also, I just came out with Kobus Estate Wines! I have a Kobus rosé and a Kobus pinot noir.  

What sets you apart? What do you do differently/better than anyone else?

I try to create unique, custom pieces that really set the mood of a room. I also like to create multiple gathering areas in large rooms, which I call rooms within rooms. Meaning I don’t say, “OK, here’s a sofa and two chairs by the fireplace!” I never do that. I like to create interesting movement in rooms. For example, I put the sofa right in the middle of the room. 

I also like to push the people in my workroom to do things we’ve never done before, like the chairs. Sometimes, they’ll say, “I don’t know if we can do it!” But I’ll say, “Yes, you can do it, it’s going to be amazing!” And then, it becomes something very unique, and the workroom is so excited about getting it done.

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