Martin Kobus Reaches to his Roots for San Francisco Decorator Showcase Inspiration


When designing his San Francisco Decorator Showcase room called the Bibliotheek (Dutch for “library”) Martin Kobus looked within, tapping memories of his home country, the Netherlands. The result is a room that mixes the old, the new, and the deeply personal. It’s not what he set out to do. “Before going to tour the house, I looked online and was sure I wanted to do the living room. I had it all planned in my head,” he says. “But when I went to see the spaces in person, it was the library that spoke to me.” The room caused him to upend his plans in favor of a room that’s filled with Dutch references and is nearly completely handcrafted.

The tone is set by three oversize, illuminated pieces of art. Two of the images are portraits of a woman; in one she sports a large, ruffled neckpiece and in the other she wears an outsize Dutch hat crafted from tulips. “The woman was an intern in my office,” says Kobus. “I saw her sitting at her computer, and I said ‘guess what, you are going to be our model.”

The images are silkscreened onto a piece of fabric and stretched across five-foot-tall light boxes ordered from the German company that more frequently makes the glowing surfaces you see in a Apple store. “The photographs are referencing the portraits Rembrandt and Vermeer painted back in the 1600s,” says Kobus. “This is my modern take on them. The light gives them a 3D effect.”


He gave another contemporary spin to an actual Rembrandt image in the third back-lit piece. Kobuschose a Rembrandt portrait he liked, one depicting a man in a black cape and a woman with white neck ruff. “I just liked the image, I had no idea about it’s history,” he says. But when his associates contacted the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston to inquire about rights to reprint the image, they discovered the painting itself had been stolen in 1990. (One of just 13 artworks that were taken in a heist where thieves posed as policemen before tying up the guards and cutting the paintings out of their frames and making off with them. The empty frames still hang in the institution.)
“They were happy to let me reprint it and bring attention to it,” Kobus says. “As soon as we put the light behind it, every little detail came to life. You can even see the scratches that were on the canvas.” (And look closely at those details, because there’s a $5 million dollar reward for information that leads to its recovery.) The backdrop for these works is a study in contrast: light and shadow. Kobus had the woodwork ebonized and painted the frieze and the ceiling a bright gallery white. But the upper parts of the room aren’t static; Kobus applied a plaster decoration to the light-colored planes—a modernized acanthus leaf motif. “I wanted a textured look there,” he says. “It lifts the whole room up.”
The center of the room speaks to another Dutch tradition: gezellig. “In English, it means ‘cozy,’” Kobussays. “It’s the concept of gathering with your friends, and hanging out in an inviting space.” To accomplish this, Kobus worked with his upholsterer to create a modular, movable leather sofa that can be reconfigured in many ways. The leather upholstery is applied with a loose pleat to provide another texture in the room. To achieve a state of gezellig, the Dutch might serve coffee or tea, so Kobus created a series of glass side tables that are back painted with traditional Dutch tile patterns. This all sits on a rug with a nap like no other. “My vision was of a rug that was pieced together, with different colors and piles,” says Kobus.
The sum total is a room that’s more of a personal expression than most. “Because of that, I felt very nervous about people seeing it; so much of it is me,” the designer says. “But it has made me happy to see that all kinds of people like it. The classic and modern elements appeal to a wide range of people.”

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