In the early days of starting his own design firm, San Francisco–based designer Eche Martinez took on a steady stream of smaller projects, always with the hope of breaking through with something large-scale. That moment came just as Martinez was putting the finishing touches on a client’s pool house project. He began to hear about their master plan for redeveloping the entirety of their main property—a 10,000-square-foot, five-bedroom home with a theater, recreation room and bar. (“A dream project,” he says.) Before he had a chance to pitch himself, he realized he had actually spent the last few months successfully interviewing to land the job.
“Luckily for me, that six-month pool house was a very long job interview, which was the intention of that small project,” he tells host Kaitlin Petersen on the latest episode of Business of Home’s new podcast, Trade Tales. The hands-on client was obsessed with options, which put Martinez’s pragmatic approach to the test—but ultimately taught him to adjust his process to address his client’s needs. “I think building that synergy, that client-designer dynamic, was my key learning point for that six-month interview,” he says.
Martinez has since completed projects ranging from historic restorations to designing cabins aboard the largest privately owned residential yacht, building a reputation along the way for spaces that resist any one style or trend. A native of Buenos Aires, the designer completed his studies in Paris and allows his background in architecture and luxury branding to influence much of his firm’s work. In this episode, he shares a few stories from his early design experiences, offers advice to the next generation of emerging designers looking for their big break, and explains why valuing the “human factor” has been a hallmark of his success.
Listen to the episode and check out some of the takeaways below. If you like what you hear, subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify—new episodes will debut every other Wednesday. This episode was sponsored by The Shade Store and SideDoor.
Bridging the Personality Divide
Martinez describes himself as process-oriented, but admits that every client’s unique sensibility requires a fresh approach. “The human factor has always been the big question mark,” he says. “We know how to run a project, we know how to run a business, but the human component is something where you need to make sure you’re listening to the other side.”
Working on that first large project, the designer had to adjust to his client’s desire to bring her own ideas and research to the table. “At first, I would be so frustrated,” he admits. “You’re hiring a team of professionals to put in all this work, and we’re clearly hitting some note, because she liked our ideas—but you also need to understand people’s perspective and where they’re coming from.” He realized that his focus on setting a clear goal and achieving it didn’t exactly match up with his client’s fear of making an uninformed decision, so he pivoted in his approach to meet her where she was. Or rather, he allowed her to meet him where he was—whether at the marble yard or picking out wood finishes, he invited her on otherwise behind-the-scenes trips to create a design process on par with her personality.
Getting from A to B
On the other end of the spectrum, Martinez recalls a client whose decisive, hands-off approach meant she wouldn’t be looking over his shoulder—in fact, she would almost never be physically present during the design process. The client’s forthcoming move to the Bay Area left limited time to design her 5,000-square-foot home, and the work was completed while she was still out of state—largely via text message. Throughout the nine-month project, Martinez would send two options, and the client would select either A or B. “I always say each project is its own little universe,” he says. “Of course, we have checks and balances and procedures and ways we run a project, but people come from different backgrounds, and the way they process information and the way they relate to the project is very different.”
When it comes to issuing advice to early-career designers, Martinez stresses the importance of documenting your work as soon as a project is complete, and while it still holds true to your vision. “Life happens, and you maybe have been working on a project for one or two years, and then the clients only end up living there for one year, and before you know it, everything’s dismantled,” he says. These photos should showcase your point of view as closely as possible, the designer says, even if it means moving the family’s cherished art collection or personal touches out of the frame to get the shot—down the road, a well-documented portfolio could springboard you into that next big project.
Homepage image: Eche Martinez | Christopher Stark