Healdsburg designer taps local artisans for singular touches

Stewart Allen taps into a rich well of favorite artists and craftspeople to help bring his ideas to life.|

Stewart Allen’s Favorite Sonoma County Artisans

Gregory Hay Designs, maker of custom fine furniture. 707-235-0781; info@gregoryhaydesigns.com

Bronze Plus Art Foundry: Jim Pollare: 707-829-0716

Scott Tal of Tauro Design (leather): 415-513-8584

Source: Stewart Edward Allen Designs: stewart.sead@gmail.com; 707-291-3075

With almost any project, interior designer Stewart Allen likes to incorporate extraordinary surprises. Think of it as artistic Easter eggs tucked within a home, but of the Faberge quality.

A table with a base carved to look like driftwood. Chairs meticulously crafted for the express comfort of the client. A bronze sink inset into a floating countertop so the bronze pedestal can be seen like the work of art it is.

Not everything needs to be preciously bespoke. But a few carefully planned pieces created only for you and your space, Allen maintains, can elevate an interior from attractive to transcendent. Allen taps into a rich well of favorite local artists, artisans and craftspeople to help bring his sketches to life.

“As an interior designer, we are expected to come forth with some really unique items and furniture pieces to create a beautiful environment for people,” he said.

But there are limitations to what can be found in design showrooms, he added.

Allen may start with clay, paper or Styrofoam — “whatever I can get my hands on” — to play with the shapes and forms he is envisioning. Then he takes his concept to the right artist or artisan to fabricate it. The process inevitably involves a lot of creative collaboration to get it just right.

“They always have these amazing skills and ideas,” Allen said of the creative people he works with. “I always try to add a little bit of Sonoma County to my projects, whether it’s a painting, a sculpture or a piece of furniture. There are a lot of creative, amazing people in this county, and I’ve been here long enough to figure out who these people are.”

He’s learned to let go and trust that they are going to bring into fruition his ideas in a way that is “unique and beautiful.”

Making the world more beautiful

From a very young age, Allen was influenced by exceptional, even over-the-top design.

He grew up in a midcentury-modern home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr., and set on a 6-acre ranch in the pastoral Pauma Valley in San Diego County.

“It was life-changing, living in this incredibly detailed architecture and space that captivated me, with a built-in sofa and built-in planters and flat roofs and double-height ceilings with clerestories,” Allen said. “There was a cabana and a pool. It was absolutely fantastic, and it caught my imagination for interior design.”

He was also inspired by his maternal grandmother, the flamboyant Thareen Auroraa , a burlesque dancer who lived with her lover, Mimi Reed, in a colorful, swanky home in Studio City.

“They had taken such pride in that house. They had a bar that had been a bedroom. They literally put in a green avocado Naugahyde bar. It was garish and fantastic. And their little powder room was the most wild gold baroque, kind of crazy with a crystal chandelier hanging in there. It was over-the-top and delicious. I used to love to go into their space. It was so opulent,” he recalled.

Today, Allen pays homage to Thareen and Mimi with their glamorous black-and-white studio portraits hanging in the foyer of his Healdsburg home. It’s a 1920s cabin on Fitch Mountain that has been enlarged and remodeled over many years into multilevel living spaces. He and his husband, Thomas Pope, a psychotherapist, have filled it with intriguing pieces gathered over time.

Although he was exposed to high-quality design at an early age, it took many years before Allen found his way to design as a profession.

After completing a liberal arts degree at Sonoma State University, Allen tried out several different occupations.

“I was trying to make furniture, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I made Adirondack-style pieces out of redwood. I had a little company called Twigs and Digs,” he said, laughing. He toyed for a time with becoming a psychotherapist but dropped that idea.

“I floated around. I did landscaping and the furniture. I did housecleaning. I was just miserable, not knowing what to do,” he said. That changed when he came to know a man named Marshall, who was dying of AIDS.

“He was a lovely guy with a real aesthetic. Whatever he touched was golden. He could stop on the side of the road and grab a bunch of grasses and wildflowers and make the most exquisite bouquets you have ever seen,” he said.

On his deathbed, Marshall expressed one regret — that he had not created enough beauty in the world.

“It literally rocked my core and just resonated as so true,” Allen said. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. I have to pivot here.’”

So Allen went back to school, commuting by bus from Sebastopol to San Francisco to earn a second degree in architecture and design from the Academy of Art College.

Allen worked for eight years with Jacques St. Dizier, whose Healdsburg studio was twice named one of the world’s top 100 design firms by Architectural Digest.

Then he struck out on his own. A signature of his work is that he creates one or more one-of-a-kind pieces for each project, if the budget allows.

He was inspired in part by the late interior designer John Wheatman, who advocated for surrounding ourselves with the things that are most important to us. “To hell with vogue. Style is what you want to do,” Wheatman once said.

“His concept of taking the things that are personal to you and living around them, I just think, is some of the best advice to really create a home — to bring in aspects of your life and display it. It’s just — love what you live around. Bring it into your space and adore it. Give it a moment.”

For his clients, Allen doesn’t just show to best advantage the things they already have, he creates something new, just for them and their space.

It could be something fairly simple, yet playful and meaningful. For a client in Los Angeles who is a dedicated home chef, Allen incorporated several design surprises. One was a 7-foot-tall display of vintage rolling pins mounted on a board in the kitchen.

“I turned it into a beautiful contemporary piece, but it was actually old rolling pins,” he said. “That was a home run for her.”

Because this client loved cooking, Allen knew she also needed a fabulous dining table and chairs. He turned to Gregory Hay, a fine furniture maker who works out of a former pencil factory outside Sebastopol.

Working with a fine craftsman to execute a design is a dance. Allen spends a lot of time hanging out with makers in their studios or shops, solving problems or just watching in amazement as a piece of raw material transforms into art.

For his home chef client, he envisioned a table base that looked like bleached driftwood. But it also needed to be engineered to be stable.

The three-legged leather upholstered chairs for the table took a year alone to create and perfect. Allen said he wanted to make sure the chairs would fit under the table and allow a short-statured person like his client to get close to her plate. He painstakingly worked with Hay and leather worker Scott Tal of Tauro Design to get the leather padding perfectly wrapped.

“Scott Tal of Tauro came in early to fine-tune the structure of the seat and back leg that needed to accommodate the leather application,” Allen said. ”We added the baseball stitch to accent the joining of the leather without trying to hide the seam. Tal’s and Hays’ artistry added so much to our design. I’m proud of our collaboration.”

A love of bronze

One of Allen’s favorite materials is bronze, which has a “certain luster” he loves. He likes to incorporate bronze screens to conceal a toilet in a powder room, for example. He also likes to add drama to a bathroom with a bronze sink, setting it in a floating counter so the artistry and form of the tapered base is displayed.

“There is something about the element of bronze that I find substantial and beautiful and earthy, that offers up a unique element for an interior,” he said.

He has a deep respect for the artistry and skill of local craftsmen who can create with their hands what he only can envision with his mind.

“What I’ve found in my years working in Sonoma County is that there are so many talented people who can add to an idea I have,” he said. “And this idea of collaborating with people has produced some really beautiful pieces.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com. OnTwitter @megmcconahey.

Stewart Allen’s Favorite Sonoma County Artisans

Gregory Hay Designs, maker of custom fine furniture. 707-235-0781; info@gregoryhaydesigns.com

Bronze Plus Art Foundry: Jim Pollare: 707-829-0716

Scott Tal of Tauro Design (leather): 415-513-8584

Source: Stewart Edward Allen Designs: stewart.sead@gmail.com; 707-291-3075

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