Founder & Principal Designer
In the highly-populated world of Bay Area interior design, where most thrive on the morsels that fall from the table of the region’s real estate feast, a small group of influential designers dines on the feast itself. Add to that list, Sabra Ballon, a San Francisco-based designer who is gradually, but effectively, developing a client roster and an impressive portfolio that reveals the talent and escalating promise of a designer at her prime. LuxeSF goes inside the mind of this rising designer-star and trained architect whose work represents the quintessence of the California design aesthetic – a design philosophy rooted in an understanding and appreciation of classical architecture, yet fluid in its ability to capture the zeitgeist of the times.
The Score Card
- Attended Palo Alto High School
- BA in Design, UCLA; Masters in Architecture, UC Berkeley
- Founder and Principal Designer, ballonSTUDIO, a Bay Area interior design firm, specializing in single family homes in Northern California
- Carries a select portfolio of projects at any one time, averaging $5 million in remodeling cost, plus an additional million dollars in new furnishings and accessories
- Commenced career as a designer at Karin Payson architecture + design in San Francisco
- Mentored by Joe Esherick, founder of EHDD Architects, where she was engaged as a designer on commercial and hospitality projects
- Has provided interior design services in partnership with Butler Armsden Architects for more than two decades
- Has designed and managed luxury residential, boutique hospitality and commercial projects in San Francisco, California, Hawaii and Las Vegas. Projects included Hotel Nikko, Hilton Hotels, Hawaii Prince and Del Webb properties
- Former adjunct faculty member of USF’s Department of Art and Architecture
- Has studied extensively around the world including Africa, Asia and Europe, with a special interest in ancient Roman architecture, design and decoration
On the early years
Both of my parents are scientists. My dad was a physician in nuclear medicine and was the former head of nuclear medicine at UCSF in San Francisco. My mom has a Master’s in Public Health from UC Berkeley and worked at Stanford Hospital. As an only child, and the “Princess” of the family, I graduated to the status of a single parent of a college-age daughter and a teen-age son who represent my very best work – ever.
On her vision and practice as a designer
I decided to go to architecture school because, as a designer, I saw the limits of what I could accomplish. I really wanted to know more about building and construction. I was always concerned that architects would bring us in too late in the process. They would design the shell and then want us to decorate it. I always had a vision of something that was more integrated, where the interior was aligned with the architecture, right from the very beginning.
Going to architecture school made me a better designer, because I became very aware of the human experience. Design is not just about the shell or silhouette of the building and what it looks like from the outside. You’re actually thinking carefully about what it’s like to occupy the inside of that building. Where are you going to sit in the lobby? Where’s the furniture going to go? Where are you going to sit when you’re enjoying that view? So, it becomes a much more human-centered design challenge. You’re thinking about what the hand is touching and how the body is moving through, sitting and using the space.
Usually, the architect is the project leader for the design and construction. Then the client brings in their designer and the conflict begins. As a result, the architect and designer end up butting heads – a classic case of clashing egos. I don’t have a big ego. I love architecture and I speak the language of architects. Hence, no butting of heads. Also, because I know so much about construction, I often hire the architect in consultation with the client.
We would be at these job site meetings in Las Vegas, creating golf course properties. The whole trailer would start shaking because they were sculpting the golf course and creating the landscape with dynamite. It was so antithetical to what I had experienced at architecture school. I quickly learned what it was like to make compromises in what you believed in or were taught in design school. That’s Vegas, of course. Unfortunately, life is made up of a number of Vegas moments.
I’m LEED certified because Green design is much more important to architecture than it is to interiors. It’s not something that clients demand. It’s an interesting irony that when we send out questionnaires to clients or interview them at the beginning of a project, the most important needs they list include time, cost, security, style elements, etc. Green design is always at the bottom of the list.
My aesthetic was formed by my background. I grew up in a Birge Clark house, built in the 20s, so I have a fondness for the traditional California 1920s design style – elegant, stucco, red tile roof – the classic Palo Alto mansion. I also lived in an Eichler, a very modern house. And then I worked in the movie business while I was at UCLA, where I was influenced by the relaxed elegance of coastal style and the glamor of LA and the movie business. And then back to the crunchy granola of Berkeley and the Bay Area regional style. Today, I’d classify my style as warm, modern, classic, with a touch of glamour — a very quintessential California perspective that works all over the region – from San Francisco to Carmel, Lake Tahoe, Santa Barbara, Montecito, Malibu, Napa, etc.
My preferred client is someone with whom I’ve developed a body of work over time, because what you learn on the first project versus project number four is completely different. My long-term clients are very low key. If you Google them, you’ll barely find anything. They’re not profiled in the Nob Hill Gazette. They’re not splashy or famous, but they appreciate great design and what it can add to their lives.
Our ultimate goal is to stay focused on the Bay Area and sell to an influential architecture firm that needs the specific, high-end design services that we provide. That makes the most sense, because I love the collaboration with architecture, where we can deliver integrated interiors, and they can profit from doing interiors, as well.
On industry macro trends
I’m now seeing architecture firms that are trying to design their own interiors because they see how much money interior designers make with their markups. I worry about social media and how it drives questionable design trends. Essentially, it’s not really design in the pure sense of the term, just a kind of “style collage” based on what is popular on Instagram. In the case of my wealthy clients, I’m seeing the growing popularity of health pavilions. They’re also commissioning art that’s specific to their own specific taste and desire, rather than buying off-the-rack. We’re also seeing a long-term trend in ADUs (accessory dwelling units) — building smaller units in existing homes, or on large properties. As housing continues to get more expensive in California, children are moving back with their parents or building ADUs in their backyards.
On Sabra, the person
I don’t have any ego, but I’m exceptionally rigorous. If the project is not executed to perfection, I’m still going to know the difference and I’ll work to fix it, even if the client is willing to accept less. I care about whether it’s good or not. It’s the purist and the micromanager in me.
I’ve served as an advisory board member of the Bay Area Women’s and Children’s Center for 18 years, because I worked on the Tenderloin Elementary School with Joe Escherick. They didn’t have a school in the Tenderloin because the residents lived in hotels. There were seven or eight people living in a single room hotel. It was insanity. Kids were being bused all over San Francisco in order to go to school. We were connected with the Center, located in a little storefront in the neighborhood. They went to Willie Brown and the school district and got the school built on Turk Street, right in the thick of the detritus that is the Tenderloin today.
If I was fabulously rich, and even though I’m neither a boat person nor flashy, I would buy one of those super yachts, the type of design candy that you see on TikTok and Instagram. They’re just so beautiful, so elegant and meticulous in design. It’s probably because I’m a product of 1980s Miami Vice — the theme music, the clothes, the cars, and Sonny riding in his cigarette boat. It’s ingrained in me.
I’m okay with not being in the industry headlines. My ambition is not tied to fame, but to the work itself. I was involved in the home design for a highly-prominent tech luminary. It never got photographed. We had to destroy all of the files and drawings, everything. It’s like it doesn’t exist. I have several of those. Nobody ever gets to see them, and I don’t care. I just love the process and the hunt for the perfect pieces.
The mentor-mentee relationship that I had with Lewis Butler still serves me today because Lewis was so well loved in the industry. Anybody I meet who knew him remarks, “I knew Lewis and worked with him and I’ll do anything for you. If you were a mentee of his, you’re a mentee of mine”.
Blair Spangler. She was a childhood friend of Penny Pritzker of the prominent Chicago family that owns the Hyatt hotel corporation. She and Penny did the design work for all the Hyatt hotels. Blair sold her interior design firm and now owns and runs “The Collection” — a portfolio of luxury estate vacation rental properties in Wine Country. I met Blair when I was working in a furniture store. It really was like a Lana Turner/Schwab’s Drugstore discovery scenario. I had just moved from Los Angeles and was working at the Shabby Chic Furniture Store on Sacramento Street where I had done the store displays and photo styling. She came in to buy a sofa and asked, “What are you doing here? You’re so much more talented than this”. She offered me an interim job with her interior design firm and that’s when I met Joe Esherick, who in turn, wrote a recommendation that got me into architecture school at Berkeley. The rest is history. I’ll never get over the serendipity of the amazing opportunity that she provided to me. She changed my life.
Connect with Sabra on Instagram @sabraballon
Designers Deconstructed is an in-depth interview series featuring interior design luminaries who are redefining the business.The interviews are conducted by Alf Nucifora, Chairman of The Luxury Marketing Council of San Francisco and brought to you in partnership with…