LuxeSF regularly profiles members of The Luxury Marketing Council. On this occasion, we chat with Rhonda Hirata, Vice President of Marketing for the San Francisco Design Center. Sitting at the heart of the San Francisco’s Design District, the SFDC is comprised of two buildings, the Showplace and Galleria, which together house over 100 beautifully curated showrooms representing over 2,000 manufacturers whose product lines are sourced locally and internationally.

LuxeSF: Let’s start with an understanding of the history and background of the San Francisco Design Center

RH200x250Hirata: Back in the 1970s, the South of Market area was relatively desolate. It took the vision of Henry Adams to look at an old industrial section of San Francisco and envision a design district.  He purchased two buildings – the current Galleria and Showplace buildings, and that became the advent of a design district in the South of Market area. Henry Adams brought in multi-line showrooms, manufacturers, and dedicated all of that to the interior design trade.  In 1983, the properties were further developed by Bill Poland and Tim Treadway, and they continued developing the area, keeping Adams’ vision alive.  Today, the design center is comprised of about 500,000 square feet representing 100 showrooms. The Design Center works collaboratively with a number of industry-related organizations including ASID (American Society of Interior Designers) and the IFDA (International Furnishings and Design Association) and others as we partner to bring educational programs to the interior design trade.

LuxeSF: What lines do the showrooms carry?

Hirata: Our larger, multi-lined showrooms have furniture, accessories, lighting, rugs, as well as fabrics.  Approximately 40% of our showrooms also carry fabrics.  The remaining showrooms specialize in furniture, lighting, accessories, rugs, wall coverings, window coverings. The list goes on.

LuxeSF: Let’s talk about your background.  Give us a quick snapshot.

Hirata: I actually graduated a Poli-Sci major from UC Berkeley, but initially went into radio working in what was called the Traffic Department where we handled all the commercials for placement. After that, I joined the ad agency McCann-Erickson and got a taste of advertising and marketing.  I spent a many of my younger years in advertising agencies in San Francisco working on Fortune 500 company accounts.

I took a hiatus from the advertising business and went to work for a candidate who was running for Oakland City Council. That got me into the political world in Oakland where I ended up serving on the staff of then-Senate Member Pro-Tem, Don Perata. I ended up in politics for about eight years.

Then I got lured back into marketing with the entitlement of the Jack London Square project in Oakland where I worked with the developer for about five years entitling the Jack London Square Waterfront for private use.

I was totally happy at Jack London Square, but I kept getting a call from this head hunter saying, “We’d like you to interview for this job at the Design Center.” I wasn’t interested at all.  I was happy living in Oakland, working in Oakland, not having to commute. But I interviewed with Martha Thompson and Tim Treadway and liked them immediately. The rest is history. I’ve now been at the Design Center for seven years.

LuxeSF: Let’s discuss the interior design industry.  What’s it like today?  How did it survive the recession?

Hirata: Pre-recession it was very robust.  When the recession hit, the people who still had money did not want to appear conspicuously consumptive.  And so rather than remodeling whole homes or second homes, they would refresh a room, reupholster, put in some new paint color.  It was very low-key.

We’ve been out of the recession now for a couple of years and business has come back with strength but not for every showroom.  I think it’s related to what the clients are looking for.  For example, our large multi-line showrooms weathered the recession and continue to do extremely well, because of the type of products they carry. With respect to designers, the more established continued to maintain business during the recession, whereas for the majority, business dropped off.

LuxeSF: To what extent has the recession altered the traditional business model where the client hires an interior designer who shops the Design Center?

Hirata: It did to a certain extent.  During the recession people were always looking for a deal.  I think the end user client would continually ask for deals.  I don’t see that as much today. I think clients are more selective.  The recession jolted everyone into asking (of themselves and their designer) “What is really important to me?”

LuxeSF: Who are the customers coming through those buildings? End user clients or interior designers?

Hirata: I would say 99% are interior designers.

LuxeSF: But you are also welcoming the regular retail customer, are you not?

Hirata: We welcome the retail customer, the end user, to browse, but we request that they use a designer to purchase.

LuxeSF: So, they can come in and browse, but they need to go back to their interior designer to actually purchase from the showroom?

Hirata: Correct.  And if they don’t have an interior designer, we have four buying services on the premises, so they can go to those buying services and have those interior designers purchase for them.

Let’s discuss current design trends.  What are you seeing?

Hirata: Interior designers will all say that they don’t follow trends.  I actually believe that.  I don’t see a lot of things trending right now.  But what’s happening architecturally is that the kitchen spills out to the Great Room, which spills out to the patio.  It’s that type of living.  It’s more casual.  It’s more familial.  The kitchen still continues to be the heart of the home.

LuxeSF: Is there any part of the home or any furniture item or accessory that is “hot” right now?

Hirata: Kitchens are always very popular.  One thing I notice is that people will do a lot with fabric particularly as it applies to upholstery, wall coverings and window treatments. Managing home functions with “command and control” mobile apps is also becoming popular, whether it’s opening a gate, turning on the lights, rolling up your shades, rolling down your shades, turning down the temperature.

LuxeSF: Digital services. To what extent have they impacted the interior design industry?

Hirata: Well, Pinterest and Houzz have affected the design industry significantly. These online services allow consumers to look and find things they like that they can show to their designer. Designers also use them as tools when they work with their clients. They’ll put up a Pinterest board for a room or a house for the client to review. It used to be that designers would come in with boards and swatches and wood samples.  Some designers still do that, but the industry has really gone digital.  It’s fast, it’s crisp and the colors are right.

We’re also finding that a lot of designers get projects from Houzz, and many of those projects are from out-of-state. Consumers will look through Houzz and they’ll say, “Oh, I really love this room and the designer who did it!”  One designer we know has generated five projects from Houzz.

LuxeSF: Is the digital domain a detriment of the Design Center, or do you find that even if designers and clients are working on line, ultimately they still have to come into the showroom?

Hirata: Absolutely.  I think digital services have made the industry more efficient because designers will source online and they’ll correspond with a showroom online.  They’ll get samples sent via online.  But they still have to come to the showroom with their clients to touch and feel the fabric, to sit in the chair because so many of the products that our showrooms sell are customized.  For example, you and I would not sit comfortably in the same chair.  My chair would have to be configured more for my height rather than for your height.

LuxeSF: There’s so much information now on the internet. Why do you need a designer?

Hirata: Not to make expensive mistakes.

LuxeSF: How?

Hirata: For example, I see a sofa.  I love the sofa.  I think it’s going to be perfect for my living room.  I can’t get it up the stairs.  It won’t fit in the elevator.  They have an eye for dimension and space that is learned. Color and fabric and texture; the way the light plays in the room; the placement of art and paintings; the whole ambience of the room. I don’t have that innate sense.

LuxeSF: How do you find a good designer?

Hirata: You interview them. But first, you might search on Pinterest and Houzz. You visit websites.  Any good designer will adapt to your style.  It’s not like they have a specific style and they’re going to force that style on you.  Any good designer will also listen to you.  That’s the most important thing a designer can do is listen to you and really understand what your likes and dislikes are, what your needs are, what your family is like, if you have children, if you have pets, if you’re an empty-nester.  They listen and create and environment that is right for you.

A lot of designers get their jobs through referrals so if you see something you like, don’t be afraid to ask “Who did your work?”  Ultimately it’s about doing some homework, and then interviewing.  It’s an engaging and intimate process.

LuxeSF: Any concluding thoughts?

Hirata: I think interior design is approachable for everyone, and now interior design services are being delivered in a variety of consumer-friendly ways. For example, Leslie Bamberg of Lab Experiment does projects online if that’s how you prefer to do business  She’ll show samples at the appropriate time, but the process is really streamlined for those people who prefer working via the computer.

LuxeSF: The designer doesn’t have to operate in the same market to make it work?

Hirata: Well, I think it does, but you can do it remotely.  Remember, you still need to meet, go shopping together and visit the showrooms. But bottom line, there are now various ways that someone can access interior design – through the traditional method or the newer online methods.

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