With a truly global background—a childhood in Sumatra, an education in Europe, and a professional life in San Francisco—Jonathan Rachman brings a truly diverse, international point of view to everything he does. His design work is known for blending elements of East and West, with a sense of classicism that always incorporates one or two unexpected, delightful nods, often in the form of chic, charming antiques (and we wouldn’t have it any other way). And with a new book of his work called Currently Classic hot off the presses, it’s a major moment for the designer.
We spoke with Jonathan about this new monograph, his client-first approach to his design style, and some of his favorite all-time projects. See what he had to say, and be sure to shop his curation of vintage favorites right here on Chairish. To purchase Currently Classic, click here, or buy one of 200 limited special edition versions of the book.
Congratulations on Currently Classic! How did the book come together, and how did you choose what to include?
I never planned to have a monograph, although I have a set of photographs for each design project, as well as my floral arrangements and travels. I met Dean Rhys Morgan when I invited him to come to San Francisco to host his book signing party at my store, J. Rachman. We hit it off as if we have known each other for decades, and he appreciates my aesthetics. He suggested that we collaborate to create my monograph and introduced me to “the perfect publisher” in Paris, Flammarion, and I flew in to meet the director, Suzanne Tise-Isoré, and the rest is history!
Honestly, I have never done this before—yes, I wrote my memoir, The Garlic Peanut Story—but this design book is something completely different. While I am neurotic about what to present, I rely on my co-author Dean and my publisher to guide me on what to include. The process is a total collaboration that I fully enjoyed.
I know it’s impossible to choose, but do you have a favorite project or a particular space out of everything that’s included in the book?
Oh my gosh… every project in the book is my favorite—that’s why they are in the book! It was so hard to edit over 3,000 pictures down to about 250, but, here we go:
My first San Francisco Decorator Showcase: The Collector’s Library put my name on the map, thanks to Diane Dorrans Saeks writing about it. This project became my launchpad. The same can be said about what’s known as my “Green Room” with the San Francisco Decorator Showcase titled “A Muse’ing in Paris.” This is possibly my most well-known and well-edited room—which I call the room that keeps on giving—using de Gournay bespoke handpainted embroidered wallpaper. This room has traveled around the globe a few times and is still being published since it debuted in 2017.
The Loro Blonyo custom wallpaper I designed for the Fall Antique Show with de Gournay is extremely personal and intimate; it was inspired by my parents as an inseparable couple (that’s what Loro Blonyo means in Javanese). Their love is so inspiring, and I turned them into Balinese monkeys—literally—and you can see baby Jonathan as a monkey too!
Last but not least, there are two favorite projects for clients in San Francisco who fully trusted me with their homes—both were full renovations of period architecture. They not only trusted my firm with every aspect of the renovation, but they allowed me to have full freedom in designing their homes to completely be theirs. To this day, I am still completely in awe of these two projects and I still “self kiss” myself when I visit them!
You were born in Sumatra, were trained in Europe, and currently work out of San Francisco. How does this global upbringing influence your work?
The fact that I was born in Indonesia but have been educated and have lived in Switzerland, France, and the U.S. has taught me how to be hospitable and to be personal with people from all around the world. My two worlds always collide but harmoniously: the East and the West, the bold and bright vs. the neutral and calm. How this translates into my design aesthetics is how I have managed to combine what’s appropriate for each project: when more is truly more, more is less, less is more—or when more is never enough. I know when to use patterns on patterns with daring colors or when to pull back, edit, and calm a space.
What I learned from Sumatra is that houses were not simply designed to be cool, but were designed according to the climate, the culture, and the needs of the household. It also taught me the hierarchy of a house, from the formal areas to the more casual ones, as well as the use of patterns on patterns and combining rich bold colors with confidence.
What San Francisco has taught me is the opposite: there, houses are livable without any need for formality. I also learned how some San Franciscans are allergic to bright, bold colors as well as patterns; they love neutral and calm palettes but are open to my suggestions as to where to bring in color and pattern.
Switzerland and Europe made me fall in love with the classics: I was surrounded by them! It was as if I was simmered and pickled in the classic style of architecture and design.
Tell us a bit about your love of antique and vintage pieces. Have you always been drawn to them?
I am known for my self proclaimed Romanticism—I am a Romantic and am sentimental as a person. I have always been drawn to antiques from all over the world… besides their classic beauty and timeless nature, the pieces I am attracted to are usually the ones that remind me of the places I have lived and the places where my husband and I have made our memories. As far as I can remember, I have always been drawn to them, even as a child: an object, a piece of furniture, or a plate that reminded me of my Grandma, or the vintage Gucci bag my father used to carry.
How do you incorporate vintage items into your designs and keep them feeling fresh? How do you work them into spaces with modern elements as well?
I love to mix periods—I always say that we don’t want to live in a museum or a stuffy, dusty manor. Instead, I love to create a classic living space that’s current, practical, livable, and inviting. So I always gauge the space I design by asking myself: is this relevant in 2022? I constantly edit and review my own design decisions to make sure that every element elevates the overall feel—and it must be cohesive. I have never implemented a design that’s purely modern. I love creating the tension between vintage items in a modern setting or using modern settings in classic, old-school backdrops. I find this juxtaposition not only attractive and fresh, but it’s also Romantic, which reflects my aesthetics.
In terms of antiques and vintage finds, is there a dream piece you’d love to own for yourself?
I think my husband is about to divorce me on the ground of my inability to stop collecting and acquiring vintage and antique finds! Kidding aside, it is almost an addiction: Between my store, my 10,000-square-foot warehouse, and our homes, I should have everything I love, but there is always more. For instance, while I got a few things from Givenchy’s collection, I missed an opportunity to buy an antique gilded mirror from Hubert de Givenchy’s collection during his auction at Christie’s while I tended to my father’s needs. But I don’t mind it: I know, M. Givenchy would agree that I should have focused on my father’s well-being vs. winning a bid of his collection at Christie’s!
Who are some of your favorite design icons? Who are the legends who inspire you?
Easy! Hubert de Givenchy for his timeless, classic, and Romantic design. Christian Dior for his simplicity, which evokes elegance. And last but not least, Oliver Messel for his versatility, many talents, and adaptability.
You’re a Chairish seller, and have your own brick-and-mortar store as well. How do you source your pieces? Any trends in terms of what’s moving these days?
Haha, how much time do I have? The short answer: I source from everywhere, from local dealers to everywhere I travel in the world. I love getting lost in a neighborhood and finding antique stores, flea markets, or local auction houses. I also love going to estate sales all over the country and the world. But there are times I also find items from my clients—I once shipped Louis XVI chairs from my friend’s apartment in Paris because they now wanted a modern Italian sectional in their Hausmann-style apartment.
You’ve designed a lot of different types of spaces, from downtown apartments to large houses to wine country estates. Do you have a favorite type of residence to design?
This answer might not be what you’re looking for, but here is my gut answer: the type whose owners not only fully trust me with their residence, but those with homes that have a soul that represents the owners. I can design any type of residence, but when it is soulless, the end result will show: cold and uninviting. However, when the owners of the house passionately commission me with a purpose and are into it, that’s when I get excited!
What’s next for you?
I am so blessed to have an amazing life that’s unplanned thus far. I never even planned to be an interior designer. At this point in my career, however, I have to plan a bit more. I was recently invited to design a furniture collection for a fine furniture showroom and maker, BIKA Living, in Asia. My design collection for Ellis Dunn fabrics is growing. I am also in the process of developing a perfume, candle and home accessory line inspired by my favorite places in the East and in the West. Meanwhile, I must stay focused on my design projects in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.
Right before the pandemic, my husband and I were planning to have a house in Bali and now that the world is reopening, we are restarting the process to split our time between the U.S. and Bali. When that happens, I’d love to have a small design studio and also a store there. Last but not least, my longtime dream is to produce a movie based on my memoir; I’ve started the process, and I hope to complete this goal before the end of my life.
Lead article photo: Douglas Friedman