Designer Crush: Emily Kates Design


Being in the right place at the right time can be kismet. For designer Emily Kates, that moment happened at one of the San Francisco Design Center’s events when she met design icon Kendall Wilkinson who hired her soon after. After serving as her Design Director and learning the ropes, Kates embarked on her own solo journey launching her San Francisco-based firm that specializes in creating beautiful, functional interiors that are a true reflection of her clients. Here, she shares more about her heritage, who inspires her and how she likes to spend her Saturdays.

Photo by Roxanne McClure Photography

How did you get your start in design? Just weeks before design school graduation (in pursuit of a second career after working in the non-profit sector) I created a tablescape for a charity event at the San Francisco Design Center with three other students where Kendall Wilkinson was a guest.  She stopped by our installation, slipped me a card and told me to call her office to set up a meeting. I set up the meeting, not really knowing why I had been invited. We talked for ten minutes or so and on the way out she said “Oh, and here’s your new desk.” I was like “Excuse me, did I just get hired?!” It was amazing!  Fast forward—I worked my way up from being a novice design assistant to the firm’s design director. It set the entire foundation for this last decade of running my own firm. Kendall was my mentor and I will forever be grateful for the years I got to craft my trade under her guidance. 

Photo by Brad Knipstein

How do you describe your style and what makes it unique? I grew up in a very unique, unusual house. My dad essentially built it by hand out of a massive collection of historic buildings like Nevadan railway stations, one room schoolhouses and farmhouse water tanks that he had hand salvaged and reconstructed into our house. My mom adorned it with collections of treasures from her home in India, which included lots of porcelain, textiles and my grandfather’s art. It was anything but cookie cutter! Though my design style is considerably more restrained, the environment I grew up in influenced my ability to see design in a non-mainstreamed, more refined way, with a focus on history, tradition, form and color. 

Photo by Brad Knipstein

Who are some of the artisans and manufacturers you love to work with? I am a traditionalist at heart. For fabrics it’s Penny Morrison, Walter G, Holland & Sherry and for lighting I love The Urban Electric Co., and for furnishings I love antique restoration or reproduction whenever possible. I love richness and beauty and think we lose our way when we don’t somehow honor tradition and look to the past in some way for inspiration. 

Who are your biggest professional role models and why? What I wouldn’t give to design for a day with Dorothy Draper. I honor the way she took maximalism by the hand and subscribed to no particular rules.  Her work is so brave and iconic, with whimsy and elegance in equal measure. 

Photo by Vivian Johnson

Describe one particularly memorable project and what made it so special. The first project I landed after establishing my own business was an almost 8,000-square-foot gut remodel of a San Francisco Pacific Heights Victorian with Sutro Architects and Plath & Co. The home was a few doors down from the house where the movie Mrs. Doubtfire was set, so I’d be lugging giant plan rolls and crates of finishes through throngs of picture taking tourists at every visit. It always made me smile. It was a massive project- and I was a party-of-one with my business, so there was some definite boot-quaking and self doubt! But I found my confidence and footing and actually ended up having it published in a beautiful magazine! It was an amazing first stepping stone to lay on my solo professional journey. And I’ve never looked back!

Photo by Brad Knipstein

What’s your dream vacation destination and itinerary? My mom is from Bombay India, and though I’ve spent almost three years of my life there, I never had much opportunity to really travel the country. I’d love to go back with my husband and two sons to experience it with me. We’d get a deluxe car on the Palace on Wheels train and explore the breathtaking, national forests and incredible landmarks of Rajastahn. Of course I’d have to get a separate train car for the massive amount of textiles that I’d lug home from Jaipur. We’d end the journey at the Taj Mahal which has always been a dream architectural destination for me.

What’s your ideal Saturday (from a.m. to p.m.)? Assuming youth sports don’t yank me out of bed at 6:00am, I’d start the day with a homemade latte next to my husband, the dog snuggled between us. And I always love an old school greasy spoon breakfast where we can drench everything in syrup. Then, we head off for a beautiful local family hike, rest for a bit, and then wrap the day with late afternoon cocktails with friends which inevitably ends in takeout and staying up way later than we promised ourselves. 

Photo by Vivian Johnson

Favorite cocktail? Dry, extra dirty Ketel One Martini 
Most quotable movie or TV show? Sixteen Candles 
First concert? Janet Jackson Rhythm Nation 
Current celebrity crush? Stuck in the 90’s because it’s still Mark Paul Gosselar from Saved by the Bell
Favorite book? On the Road by Jack Keourac 

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