Inside the challenges of designing in the tech capital of the world.
The biggest difference between designing a home in Silicon Valley and anywhere else in America is not what you might think. Despite living in the shadow of Google, most clients in towns like Palo Alto and Menlo Park aren’t interested in living like the Jetsons, surrounded by the latest smart home technologies. Instead, because their budgets are often stretched by the exorbitant real estate market and cost of living, their focus when it comes to interiors trends toward no-fuss design.
Thanks to soaring regional property prices, gut renovations are most common. “People spend so much money buying the property that it’s unlikely they’ll tear down an existing house and start over,” says Christine Lin, principal at Bay Area design firm Form + Field. “A new house—that’s a rare opportunity.” How much a designer is legally allowed to renovate depends on where a project is located. Within San Francisco’s city limits, there are strict regulations that preserve historic properties, which, according to the California Environmental Quality Act, include all buildings constructed more than 50 years ago that possess architectural or historical significance.
While the city has an abundance of historical homes worth the time and effort to restore, Silicon Valley also has a lot of properties that local designer Eche Martinez says are often not worth salvaging. “We see a lot of houses that need to be completely redeveloped and modernized,” the San Francisco–based designer explains. “But it depends—if it’s a ranch house from the 1960s that’s sitting on a half acre of land, there’s a lot of potential. It’s interesting how different parts of the Bay Area give you a different template for what you can achieve as a designer.”
Construction costs—also higher in the Bay Area than in other parts of the country—can chip away at design budgets, too. “I get plenty of calls where budgets don’t line up with reality,” says Melinda Mandell, a designer based in Palo Alto. Financial limitations lead to a different set of priorities: “I’ve seen more of an emphasis on value and practicality,” says Lin. “In New York and Los Angeles, you might see more beauty for beauty’s sake. Here, most people want to get the best value, the biggest bang for their buck.”
There’s a perception of Silicon Valley as bursting with young billionaires who cheap out on Ikea furniture—something Lin says is not entirely inaccurate. “I think a lot of people who enter the tech world haven’t had a ton of exposure to art and design,” she says. “It’s not top of mind for them, because the education isn’t there, so it’s hard to understand the value. But I also think 20-something millionaire startup founders don’t want to spend anything because they were literally eating ramen and barely surviving a couple of years ago. The wealth is new to them and it takes them time to adjust to it.”
Mandell sees more similarities than differences between the design scene in Silicon Valley and the rest of the country. “What I’m doing as a designer here is for real people who need connection and community,” she says. “Like any area, the people here work hard and need balance. They want an environment that nurtures them, and a place to share meals around a table.”
Homepage image: A Bay Area living room designed by Melinda Mandell | Michelle Drewes