Known as a designer “mix master,” Benjamin Dhong knows a thing or two about working with antiques. He’s renowned throughout the San Francisco Bay Area — and up in Wine Country, of course — for devising spaces that joyously blend antiques from every era with pretty, polished new pieces. He’s all about developing homes that are welcoming, delightful, and never, ever pretentious.
Below, learn some of the secrets behind Dhong’s special skills with antiques, and have a gander at some of the photos from our exclusive shoot of his Healdsburg home. And be sure to shop his chic curation of Chairish favorites to bring some of his personally sourced finds home with you.
Your Design Work…
You work on projects across the country. What’s it like designing transcontinentally, and how does that impact your process?
Surprisingly, it’s been very smooth. Technology has given us so many tools to use, and our clients are also very tech savvy these days. For instance, we’re doing a large renovation of a house outside of Philadelphia, and it’s been completely virtual — yet it’s going to be one of our best projects.
What’s one of your favorite things about designing in the Bay Area and Napa Valley in particular?
We aren’t locked into a particular style or period, so our clients are more adventurous about pushing the design envelope. Making things personal is much more important. Napa gives us the opportunity to work on an entirely different vibe than urban projects — although it’s also wonderful introducing modern motifs into a rustic setting.
You’re known for mixing traditional and modern styles… What are some tips for doing that in a way that’s seamless?
You can’t just throw random pieces together. You need to see the relationship between pieces in the room. It’s the dialog between things that’s compelling, and not everything should shout “look at me.”
How do you work antiques and vintage pieces into your designs? How do you ensure that they live harmoniously with contemporary furnishings?
If there were no antiques, it’d feel all very polite… but like a hotel room. Antiques give gravitas and soul to the mix. They add a unique vibe to a room, especially if they’re a little quirky. I love the challenge of taking an antique and making it the star of the room. Sometimes antiques are handed to you and you’re stuck with Aunt Edna’s chair — but I love the challenge of taking an orphan and making it the star of the room.
Sometimes moving a piece of furniture that’s no longer loved or appreciated can give it a renewed sense of importance. We always start by moving existing furniture around to gain more insight. We love surprising clients by being able to save an old piece.
When you’re shopping vintage, do you search for exactly what you want or browse and come across things you may want to use eventually?
I tell all our designers to start off looking for a specific item, but to be completely open to something that we would never have thought of. I love when our clients tell us that they would never have selected something but somehow it works.
Are there any dream projects you’d love to work on, or places where you’d most like to design?
I would love to do a project in a crumbling old house in Charleson or New Orleans — faded grandeur that delivers the drama without being too pretentious.
On Chairish & Shopping Vintage…
What do you find most compelling about Chairish?
The variety of what you see is amazing and it’s so easy to search, bid, and order — and most importantly, you handle the shipping. One time I ordered nearly everything for a small second home on my phone before I even got out of bed! I’m definitely a value shopper as well, and I think the prices are very reasonable.
Are there any dream vintage/antique “gets” you wish you could have? What’s a dream piece for you?
This may sound odd, but I don’t have one “dream” piece. My biggest thrill is the serendipity of coming across a piece I never would have thought of but which works perfectly for a project. Part of great design is seizing luck when it comes your way.
Some Design Favorites…
Favorite way to create a statement-making moment in a room:
Furniture is like sculpture to me. If I can find something unique and quirky with some drama, I like what that does to a room. Scale is also terribly important. I would rather have fewer, larger things than lots of small items that make a room seem busy.
Favorite decorating “cheap thrill:”
Buying a flea market dog and transforming it with a paint finish. Victorian is probably my least favorite period, but when painted white or black… all that goopy design can look fresh and amazing!
Favorite iconic piece of vintage design:
We’ve used the Saarinen dining table in almost all of our projects… it’s a true classic that works in both modern and traditional rooms. Plus Grandma’s fine china suddenly looks so chic against it!
Favorite paint color:
Favorite piece of decor in your home:
Favorite designer or artist from the past you most often turn to for inspiration:
John Saladino is a master of space, materials, and form. And his love of antiquities with a modern sensibility is unparalleled.
Favorite style icon:
I’m reading a book on Bunny Mellon and I love her effortless elegance. She was able to mix garden elements indoors with fine furniture, all in a way that was comfortable and lacking pretense. She created stunning houses that were totally livable.
Design destination every creative should visit at least once:
Any travel can’t help but improve your design taste. For me, London, Paris, and Rome are absolute design meccas.
Best piece of career advice you’ve ever received:
When designing, it’s like shooting basketball: Aim for perfection, but then be happy where the ball lands. Don’t sweat that not everything is perfect. The overall design will invariably be gorgeous, and you should celebrate the beauty of imperfection.
Some Lifestyle Favorites…
Favorite vacation destination (the next time travel becomes an option):
I’m actually on the travel committee for the Institute of Classical Architecture. Almost all of my trips are amazing explorations of the great private homes of the US and Europe. Having the opportunity to visit and spend the night in these historic estates is such a thrill and an honor.
Favorite hotel that’s inspired your work while traveling:
All the hotels designed by David Collins (the great English designer) are pure modern luxe, full of sumptuous details that are still restrained and modern.
Any classic bistro, whether French or American classic. I don’t like fancy restaurants, but I love the casual elegance and service that bistros offer. And of course it has to have a great bar!
Favorite small museum:
The Sir John Soane Museum in London is my favorite house museum. Not only was he an amazing architect — of the Bank of London, and New Delhi government buildings — but his house is a fantastic resource for all his art and collections.
You mean other than The Chairish Podcast with the fabulous Michael Boodro? Lol. Mo Rocca from The Daily Show has a fascinating series called Mobituaries where he tells stories about seemingly mundane people that transform into the most compelling adventures. Would you ever think that Billy Carter — Jimmy Carter’s brother — or the original Siamese twins Chang and Eng would be that fascinating?
Favorite hostess (or thank you) gift:
It used to be scented candles, but now whenever I’m in a shop I always keep my eye open for great items at fantastic prices! Vases, tableware, entertaining accessories… anything that can elevate a home.
Oh, hands down the peony. I love how it starts small and tight and then explodes into unexpected fluffy clouds of color and fragrance. I also love flowering branches of all kinds… dogwood, cherry blossoms, magnolia. Nothing says drama in a house more than an arrangement of sculptural branches and flowers. It’s even more poignant that they’re oh so ephemeral.
Favorite adult beverage:
Classic cocktails of all kinds! A martini, a Negroni… it’s a ritual that marks the end of a long hard day better than anything else I can think of. I joke that my country place is in Wine Country but I should have moved to “Cocktail Country!”
Favorite way to unwind at home:
I like to work on projects, but not on the business side of things. Creating beautiful designs on a rainy day with the fire going is pure heaven.
Favorite entertaining essential:
Candles! All of my dinners are almost strictly candlelit. Even a simple, casual meal with friends is always better with candles — everything looks beautiful and magical.
All photos by John Merkl