SF Stylist Benny Aguilar’s Story-Studded 650-Square-Foot Studio


Design afficionado and collector Benny Aguilar sees a story in every piece of furniture that he brings into his 650-square-foot home. Looking at his midcentury headboard—a masculine, grain-rich piece with cerused wood slats and the original owner’s shoe horn hanging from a hook on one side—Aguilar muses aloud, “I wonder what the workers were talking about when they were building this.” It’s as if, by bringing this item into his home, he has also invited the ghosts of all who have touched it, including the man who sat on the edge of the bed each morning and slid his feet into his stiff leather shoes. “I think it was one of the Proctors,” Aguilar guesses, mentioning that the bed may have come from the auctioned-off Proctor family estate.

For an apartment that houses the spirits of dozens, Aguilar’s 650-square-foot Nob Hill studio doesn’t provide much room for mingling. At the time the studio became available, Aguilar—who in addition to working in sales, visuals and product selection at San Francisco home furnishings boutique Wynne Alex, is also a prop-stylist—wasn’t looking to move out of his two-bedroom apartment. But like so many of the pieces that fill his home, “It just spoke to me, and I knew it would be perfect,” he says. More surprising is that a man who has spent the past two decades shopping (he helps designers accessorize their interiors with pieces from local flea markets and secondhand shops, and has worked for Chanel, Sue Fisher King, Kendall Wilkinson and Will Wick, among others) would voluntarily—and enthusiastically—downsize so dramatically. But one just needs to watch him in action to understand his secret: Although each item he selects at his favorite flea markets seems to call to him, most of the time they end up going home with someone else. Aguilar is constantly on the lookout on behalf of his clients, and he is more likely to buy a piece for someone else than for himself. “I love shopping on a dime and bringing things back to life for others to enjoy and appreciate,” he says. And the things he can’t stand to give away? They add a chapter to the storybook’s-worth already inside his apartment. “My home is a collection of things that I’ve coveted and could never let go of,” he says.

The story begins at the front door, which is on the second floor of a 1920s building on a tree-lined alley. About 80 percent of the apartment is visible from the entryway, which opens directly into the main room, a 320-square-foot space that doubles as the living room and bedroom. A bank of windows on the far wall looks out to the city, a sight that Aguilar fell in love with as a child when he would travel up the coast from Southern California with his parents. “I remember sitting in the backseat as they drove up the 101, and seeing the skyline come into view,” he says. In front of the windows, a perfectly aged Chesterfield sofa in eggplant-colored leather holds court and epitomizes Aguilar’s shopping style. He found it at the San Francisco Antique and Design Mall, where it had been reduced from thousands of dollars to a mere $600. It was love at first sight, and in this case, Aguilar didn’t wait for the sofa to make the first move. “I looked at it and instantly said, this is my sofa,” he remembers.

To the right of the piece, an Asian commode tells of another century in a far-flung part of the world. To the sofa’s left, a mint-condition Art Deco glass-and-wood étagère looks like an uncharacteristic splurge from one of the city’s high-priced vintage shops, but Aguilar insists he found it at the local Salvation Army, where its beauty was disguised under a nicked finish and grime-covered glass. Aguilar refinished the wood and went at the glass shelves with a bottle of Windex, and now the piece is an appropriate display space for dozens of other prized rescues, such as a collection of interior design and art books and a pair of petrified sea fans.

But more than having an eye for picking out the perfect piece among junk-clogged market aisles, Aguilar has an uncanny ability to create what he calls “collections” from his discoveries. By weaving together the varied stories, styles and histories of the items he finds, he creates rooms that seem to sing in a chorus of different but harmonious voices. “When you put a collection together, it gives people a better understanding and appreciation of the individual pieces,” he says. To that end, paintings and photographs hung salon-style on the wall in the main room don’t share a movement or a medium, but under Aguilar’s curatorial vision, they instantly share an aesthetic. “The mix is a reflection of my personality. It’s eclectic and inspired by designers, like Tony Duquette, who created rooms with the same feeling of whimsy and history.”

Unlike other small-space dwellers, Aguilar doesn’t depend on miniature or multifunctional furniture, but forges ahead with full-size pieces from every era, such as a bright orange armchair from Matt Murphy Studio, a thigh-high African basket and a wide lacquered-fabric coffee table. “I was able to use almost all of the pieces from my old place,” says Aguilar, who was tempted on a daily basis with beautiful items from Wynne Alex and the handful of markets he attends each week, but is fiercely loyal to the possessions that made the cut. “The things I have now, I don’t think I’ll ever let them go,” he muses. When asked if he ever rotates pieces with others he may have stashed away in the oddly spacious two-car garage that came with his new place, he reveals another piece of information that is shocking to hear from a small-space dweller and self-confessed collector: “I don’t believe in storage. All that I have is right here.”

“Here” also includes an eat-in kitchen located at the end of a short hallway and decked out in the same colorful, multigenerational spirit as the rest of the house. A collection of Le Creuset cookware in juicy citrus hues and a candy-apple-red KitchenAid mixer aren’t hidden away, but are integrated into the kitchen’s early-20th-century design. “I wanted this space to look just like what it is—a working kitchen,” says Aguilar, who doesn’t deny that the room, just like the others, reveals something about its owner: “I’m actually a pretty good cook.”

It could be expected that the process of creating a home whose design spans the centuries and unites the souls of a long-departed Chinese woodworker with a midcentury business mogul would take a considerable length of time, but Aguilar has yet another unexpected explanation. “I moved in on a Wednesday, and the place was completed by Sunday,” he says with a laugh. “When my landlord came by and said, ‘Wow, it looks as if you’ve lived here forever,’ I thought, ‘Good, that means I’ve done my job.’”

Published in the March 2011 issue of California Home+Design. Subscribe for free here

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