You’ve Never Seen a Stairway Quite Like This Before

Photo credit: Christopher Stark
From ELLE Decor
You would think that someone with as diverse an international background as designer Antonio Martins would need a blank canvas residence to accommodate the breadth of his many influences. After all, he is of Portuguese descent, grew up in Brazil, attended university in Switzerland, and lived in Hong Kong and Bangkok for a decade while working for the Hyatt hotel group before moving to Chicago and finally San Francisco.
And yet, when Martins fell in love with this San Francisco house around 1926, it was precisely because it had a rich history of its own, the complexity of which he wanted to honor. The house in the up and coming Bayview neighborhood was built by the Santinis - it was called Villa Santini - a family of Italian immigrants with a successful business that made architectural plaster moldings and stored their surplus on the floor or used them in their own home). Attracted by its quirks and legacy, Martins first applied for the spot in 2015, but lost it to a family who moved to the Bay Area from New York. When the family returned east two years later, he was able to buy the place. After renovating it in two phases - first restoring its structure and history (it hasn't been updated in 30 years), then converting Santini's former factory warehouse into a garage and gallery - Martins filled it with a mixture Chinese and Chinese European art, antiques bought at auction and some contemporary pieces as a contrast.
Photo credit: Christopher Stark
"You come into my house and you know who I am - I always say that one day I would like to throw everything away and start from scratch, but that's just a fantasy," explains Martins, who moved on to interior design, a childhood dream. in 2002 after a successful career in hotel management. "We have so much history behind us and that's how I like to do it."
Here Martins takes us through the myriad of influences in his home in San Francisco.
ELLE Decor: What drew you to the Bayview neighborhood?
Antonio Martins: I moved from Chicago to San Francisco in 2002 and lived in a neighborhood called Hayes Valley - it was a changing neighborhood at the time. And then Hayes Valley got really popular, and in 2008 I bought a house in an area called Dogpatch when nobody really knew what the Dogpatch was. And then the dog patch got very chic. So I thought, what's the closest neighborhood? Just 15 minutes from downtown, the Bayview is one of those transition areas - originally for people who worked at the shipyard around the turn of the century. Then as the shipyards went down it became an easier neighborhood. And now there are changes - artists are moving in and some warehouses are being built for designers and furniture makers - so this is slowly changing.

Photo credit: Christopher Stark
ED: Were you able to get a lot of historical information about the house when you restored and renovated it?
AM: Yeah. The agent who sold it specialized in the Bayview, so he had a few things. Then I went to the town hall and the library and started looking for information about the Santini family. I was able to gather a ton of information, including photos of the outside but nothing of the interiors. The family was well known for their plaster castings. If you look at the moldings in the living room and dining room, they are really oversized. They probably weren't the kind of moldings that would have been used in a simple house in this neighborhood. But because they might have made it for a much better house in Pacific Heights or Nob Hill, they probably said, "Oh, let me do some more linear footage and apply it here." So it was really interesting to see such a simple house with such exaggerated moldings.
ED: I love the oversized hand-painted tiles in the entryway. What was the idea behind it?
AM: We made these tiles for the 2014 San Francisco Decorators' Showcase. These were reproductions of blue and white tiles from the 17th and 18th centuries. But instead of being the little three by three inches, we made them 24 by 24 inches. I basically had it in my garage for four years. And I thought, it's my story, it's my story. It was exactly the amount of tiles we needed for this room - we probably had to do three more in white. There are 242 tiles. Everyone wants wallpaper everywhere these days, but I had all of these handcrafted pieces in my garage. So why not
Photo credit: Christopher Stark
ED: And those antique portraits in the living room - you must have been collecting them for years.
AM: I have one or two from my family. And I was helping a friend decorate his house and he had a lot. And I thought: Oh, this is so much fun. I've started collecting them from auctions over the past 10 years. And usually I just choose the portrait, the face. I always want something with a gold frame and a black background.
ED: You lived in Asia when you worked for Hyatt. There is a lot of Chinese art in your home. Are these all pieces that you picked up abroad?
AM: There's a place in Hong Kong called Hollywood Road, this street with all these antiques. I would basically go to Hollywood Road every Saturday and shop and buy.
Photo credit: Christopher Stark
ED: The kitchen doesn't have a lot of culinary equipment.
AM: I can hardly fry an egg.
ED: Hasn't that changed a bit in the past few months?
AM: Oh my god - I made the best veal ragout last week. And then I made a lasagna for the first time this week. And I thought: what is happening to me? We took cooking lessons at the hotel school and my brother is a very famous cook in Lisbon. I come from a family obsessed with cooking, but I've never been able to cook anything.
ED: I love that you have art on the shelves in the kitchen. Could you do this because you knew you wouldn't have the normal culinary tchotchkes there?
AM: Yeah, and I also think we all have as much stuff in the kitchen as appliances that we use once a year. So I have less of it and then decoration and art and sculpture in the mix. I don't have a refrigerator in the kitchen - I have a small mini-bar, like in a hotel, and all in it is yogurt, champagne, and diet soda. I have a large fridge in the garage below, but not in the kitchen.
Photo credit: Christopher Stark
ED: You put your family heirloom bed in the guest room - why not in your own bedroom?
AM: It was a family bed that was with a cousin and then she died and I inherited it. For me personally, I love small bedrooms. The other bedroom I sleep in, the one with the tapestry, is maybe half the size of the guest room. And in reality, these beds aren't the most practical thing. I move a lot when I sleep so the whole thing moves.
ED: Why do you like smaller bedrooms?
AM: I think they're cozier. I made the master bedroom in a dark blue grass fabric. I love bedrooms that get totally dark. In that other bedroom I sleep in every night, close the windows and window treatments and it will be dark for as long as you want to sleep.
ED: So you essentially prefer to sleep in a cave.
AM: Basically yes. A small dungeon, a dark cave.
ED: You have this tapestry of various figures over your bed in addition to the portraits in the living room. Are you a superstitious person?
AM: No. And they all come to my house and say, "Oh my god, there are so many people staring at you in the living room. Aren't you scared?" And I say, "No, I love it!" But this 17th century tapestry was meant to be. The only problem is I set it up and went to bed the first night. And it smelled like ... hell. Because it hasn't been cleaned in 200 years. It was cheaper to have it restored in Paris by a company called Chevalier, who are the best restorers, than in the United States. The challenge today is that nobody wants this stuff so I'm so happy that I can buy all of this now.
ED: It is beneficial to have an aesthetic taste that may not be for the masses.
AM: And when you look at the craftsmanship, the paintings in the living room or the tapestry, it's amazing. You are 300 years old and survived. We're currently doing a project where customers don't want anything old. So we go to Paris, London, Milan to buy great things. You're buying a new rug that costs more than a 17th century tapestry, but as you say it's a taste difference. We made a very modern house in Pacific Heights, all white, everything very clean, everything very modern. But I was able to sell them on a large tapestry, and they loved it. At first she thought: It's so weird. But then they put it up and they loved it. It turned out to be a cool contrast.
Photo credit: Christopher Stark
ED: The commode chair in the master bedroom seems pretty old too. I am assuming this is the original upholstery.
AM: I also found this at an auction. I've always been in love with Rose Tarlow - she has a couple of chairs like this in her LA house. And I remember looking at Rose Tarlow's house since the 1990s and thinking I was going to get this. It has so much character. The leather is original and it is cracked and you can see the horsehair underneath.
ED: I like how you left the railings in the gallery unfinished. During the historic renovation, how did you decide what to keep in its original state instead of updating it?
AM: This is a back staircase - there is also a front staircase. And the back handrail was full of different colors. I just loved the texture and layering there. When you get an old house I love finding the personality and keeping it. I'm just so sad these days - it feels like people are buying these old houses and ripping them down and building a beautiful Carrara mausoleum. But I always ask myself: what will we say to each other in 20 or 30 years when we've torn up all these houses? They look great but I don't want to live in a very modern place even though I do that for my clients all the time. I always try to find out what is interesting from the past. It makes a difference to me.
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