Advice From Levi Strauss Exec-Turned-Interior-Designer

Last month the San Francisco Chronicle's Ann-Minh Le interviewed interior designer Angela Free, who left her career as an executive with Levi Strauss & Co. to work with individual clients on their homes.

In the story, Free offered a "cheat sheet" of short tips on how to get the most out of an interior design project. One tip, for example, involved layering and contrast:
Rooms with depth and interest are often the result of a multitude of contrasting visual and textural layers - rough and soft, rustic and sophisticated, shiny and matte, dark and light," Free said. "Layering in a multitude of subtle details will create a far more visually interesting room than relying on any one dominant design element which one can tire of over time - quite often sooner rather than later."
She also talked about fabrics, particularly technological advances that have transformed the look and feel of traditional outdoor fabrics from raspy to soft and even sleek.

Recently I spoke with Free to seek out specific advice for those who rent their homes and are limited by what changes are allowed.
RS: What's the easiest way to make a change in an apartment or rental home without spending a lot of money?
AF: If the landlord allows flexibility with paint, probably the most dramatic and inexpensive way to make it more personalized is to use color. Sometimes I know that isn't even allowed, but if it is, that's kind of opening the door to really transformative kinds of effects. Color can be used in so many ways. Worst case, you can paint it back to white when you leave.

I live in a rental apartment and have wondered about changing the white walls, but I like how light shades help distribute natural light.
There's white and the 10,000 shades of white. There's so much breadth even within a neutral color. The same pale can go very warm or very gray or even be cool with a gray cast to it. Even subtle shifts like that can do something. You can stay within a range of neutrals and still have a diff feeling in the space. The whites they use for rentals can often be a colder white tone.

You lived in Jakarta and Manilla for six years before studying interior design at the University of California-Berkeley. What drew you to those Asian cities and is there something about the style and culture present there that has affected your sensibility as a designer?
I went with my husband's job and we lived there as a family. I was still working for Levis on the sourcing side. I'd say all the places I've lived have been woven into the fabric of my taste and preferences. For example, I grew up in Japan and lived in England. So I had the Asian influence early on, then European continental exposure in my teenage years, and came to America in my last year of high school. Then going to Southeast Asia, to Jakarta and Manila, was a very different experience. All of them have influenced me in some small way or big way. I think you hear a lot of designers say it's travel that is really the ultimate creative feed, a way to clear your mind and see things differently.

Are there certain basic principles about proportion, colors or other visual aspects of a space people should keep in mind as guiding principles?
There are definitely specific rules about proportion, but it's a subjective thing and tough to articulate. Maybe one good message would be about not overloading furniture into a small space. Sometimes you have to be a ruthless editor and keep the scale of the furniture proportionate to the size of the room. If you're in a space and it feels like there's maybe too much everywhere, maybe there is. Keeping things streamlines will be a more successful result.

I don't know if there are any rules on color. We all have the things that we do like. Does a dark space make it smaller or a light space make it larger? I don't know, but when you use darker colors there can be a more dramatic result. If you're in a small space, a dark tone can go along with that rather than fight limitations. But I'm not big on rules. The only thing I avide completely is a period room. It's dated.

In the
Chronicle article you come out very much against creating designs devoted to any one particular period, instead emphasizing the superiority of a mix. Many designers feel this way now, but a generation or two ago, creating a period look was the norm. How or why has the approach to period changed?
It's a very interesting question, actually, I suspect it's rooted in wanting spaces to reflect who people are and have a more personalized result. In a period room you can't get that. The intention is to look like something else. It's about individuality and comfort. Functionality is more of a requirement. In our grandparents old sitting room, it wasn't that comfortable. Bringing in all these influence can be a terrible hodgepodge or something really successful. It's not just about throwing in a little bit of this and that. You have to have a plan. Designers' overriding principles with regard to color and proportion also need to be observed to make sure it's successful. When it's well done, I think it can be very successful.

You mentioned in the
Chronicle interview that you appreciate the chance to take your time without being subject to the timelines of a retail cycle. Then later you talk about the importance of the house reflecting the people who live there and having a soul. Is there a link there between one's home and having the opportunity to decorate and design it over a longer period of time? Can one's home really look its best when someone has just moved in?
I never really thought about it that way. It's interesting with the economy having tanked how it has, I think people are being more thoughtful and less about filling the 20 thousand square foot house with everything new and creating something in six months. The background that I came from, this retail cycle, was absolutely brutal in terms of allowing the creative process to unfold in the way that it does. It had to be that way. But I guess I've discovered that without that rigidiy it's amazing how much more room there is for creativity to flow.

I once visited a Levis store in Tokyo that used the brand's signature denim and circular metal rivets as a basis for the entire interior design. Have you ever incorporated Levis into a project?
Interesting. I can't say that I have. It's an interesting visual merchandising approach to the brand. Levis actually is more of a manufacturer and less of a retailer. They do have a few freestanding stores, but generally they're a supplier to retail.
I think it pairs very well with the Japanese approach to apparel and design. I think they take more risks. We have such a cookie cutter philosophy in our retail environments.
What does your own home look like?

It is a blend of classic and modern – not easily defined – definitely reads modern and fresh but with lots of classical references and architecture happily alongside modern furniture shapes. Palette is light and airy – primarily pale but with some nice dark features

What is a home that you really love but didn't design?
I love the work of interior designer Orlando Diaz Azcuy – and his home is stunning!! Beautifully rendered – pale, spare, beautiful proportions, very clean, great art and furniture shapes.

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