In the Mad House


One of designer Erin Martin’s latest projects didn’t involve wallpaper or sofa selection.

It was a warm Wine Country morning, and she and the other female members of her team were sweating inside heavy canvas straitjackets, negotiating their way around a 100-year-old space stripped nearly to the studs. Oh yeah, and they weren’t wearing pants. If you need further proof that Martin isn’t your typical designer, take a peek at her portfolio, which includes dining room tables modeled after four-foot-tall arachnids and bathroom walls inscribed with improv poetry written backward—the lyrics revealed only as they float behind you when you gaze in the mirror. This is the designer you are dealing with.

Martin took St. Helena by storm when she set up shop there in 1998. Her wholly unique farmpunk aesthetic was embraced by Wine Country royalty, and she was soon decking out the homes, hotels and restaurants of the Chappellets, Reddingtons and Mondavis (not to mention Robert Redford).

But despite her beloved status among Napa Valley matriarchs, she never stopped pushing buttons. The designer incited outrage when she hung a neon noose in the window of her retail shop, Martin Showroom. And dead things—rams, peacocks and even a whale vertebra or two—are another common window dressing. But undressing was at the heart of her latest stunt: Martin and her leggy design team stripped down to nothing but straitjackets, lacy skivvies and sky-high heels (denim had to do for the gents) and posed at an 1890s stagecoach stop in St. Helena.

The pictures will be the centerpiece of a redesign of the firm’s website, and undoubtedly will make a few country folks blush. “I’m ready for the backlash,” says Martin with a wink, “because anyone in this business knows it’s a wild, wild world.”

This article was published in California Home + Design’s Spring 2013 issue. Click here to subscribe.

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