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Publication Date: 2018-05-01

Design Insights

Designers Deconstructed – Jon de la Cruz

In this interview excerpt from the San Francisco Design Center's blog, Designwire, interior designer Jon de la Cruz shares about his early years in the business, branching out on his own, and what to expect from his upcoming projects, including restaurants and new residential construction. 

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Currently residing on the cusp of design fame, this classically-trained designer is capturing attention for past projects as well as current accolades, including the 2017 House Beautiful “Kitchen of the Year” which was a major feature of the San Francisco Decorator Showcase. Focused to the extent of being devoid of interests other than his work, de la Cruz operates with an obsessiveness that applies in equal measure to his design aesthetic, business management and career path, and is destined to claim his rank as one of the California’s design luminaries in-the-making. With quiet determination and a steely resolve, he continues to accumulate clout and kudos from clients and colleagues as he journeys to the pinnacle of professional recognition.

On his grooming as a designer
My first experience in interior design was working for Joel Hendler as a receptionist. I moved quickly into a variety of roles—librarian, assistant and finally Junior Designer. The seniors did the serious architectural work. I got to do the frosting–and I loved it. I progressed to a Senior Designer role with Steven Volpe, an incredible mentor, who taught me the design basics and a keen eye for detail as well as how the industry works.

When I went to work for Pamela Babey at BAMO, it was a 180-degree turn in direction. Steven’s point of view is very honed and concise. At BAMO, because of its hospitality focus, I learned how to compromise—in a good way. When you’re working in a hospitality interior, you don’t have $10,000 for a sofa. You have $1,500. I learned flexibility at BAMO—in design and in dealing with clients. Instead of “My way, or the highway,” it was “Let’s see what we can do with your budget.”

I was introduced to Ken Fulk on Facebook. He was looking for someone to work on a hospitality project, which turned out to be The Battery. I worked on that assignment from start to finish–all the interior architecture, the finishes, the furniture. It was an illuminating and exhilarating experience because they did things differently and quickly. There was no CAD. No drafting. Everything was done through images and fabrics. They would be clipped to a board and then shown to the clients. They would promise to deliver full houses in three to five weeks. And it would happen because Ken had an amazing group of people who were intensely creative and committed.

On going out on his own
I never thought I wanted my name on the door. I just wanted to do good work and be well paid for it. But when I turned 40, I thought, “Maybe it’s time for me to start getting the recognition.” Ken was very good about giving me recognition–very generous, very appreciative, and always understanding. But as I looked at all the magazines, I found myself saying, “Hey, I did that. That was my work!”

I don’t want to become a huge design enterprise. I want to have high-quality projects and a great team, and develop a portfolio that I can be proud of. Right now, I’m busy, so my first priority is to make sure that I’m doing right by the clients I’ve got before I worry about tackling anything else. When you hire Jon de la Cruz, you get me. You don’t get an assistant. I work on every single project. And I still like to do the actual work. I want to be the one who designs the table or the counter. That’s why I fear getting bigger.

On his current focus
I’m currently concentrating on new residential construction and restaurants. I like designing restaurants. Not only do you get to work with food people, whom I like, but it’s a faster-paced environment where the work can be more “out there” and leave a more decorative mark. You also get to see the reactions from a wider audience, and that’s particularly gratifying.

Leo’s Oyster Bar was one of my first projects when I went out on my own. That was with Anna Weinberg, with whom I did Cavalier and Marlowe while at KFI. I’ve worked on the small Turner’s Kitchen in the Mission and the huge Carbone restaurant at the Aria in Las Vegas. Right now, I have a number of restaurants on the books—Che Fico, an Italian restaurant on Divisadero, and an adjoining pie shop called Theorita. I’m also working on a restaurant in Palo Alto called Protege, and Merriman’s on Oahu.

Interview conducted by Alf Nucifora, Chairman of the Luxury Marketing Council, sponsored by the San Francisco Design Center.

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