Uncommon Pied-A-Terre

“I suppose I had no option but to become an interior designer,” Ian Stallings says from his new apartment in San Francisco’s tony Bently Nob Hill, a 1920s Spanish revival high-rise by architect William E. Schirmer.

“When I was in second grade in Wabash, Indiana, my mother, whose parents were antiques dealers, gave me a subscription to Architectural Digest magazine because she thought I just might be interested,” he says.

Barely a decade later, Stallings left for San Francisco to study painting, filmmaking and design, and in 1999 he set off for New York, where, among other things, he was hired as a film production and set assistant to produce commercials for House Beautiful magazine.

“One day as we arrived on location, I immediately recognized Mario Buatta’s home from an AD article I had read,” Stallings says. Excited by the prospect of meeting the rockstar interior designer personally, Stallings, a self-described “expat from the Midwest,” had an epiphany. He wanted to be an interior designer too.

His childhood in Wabash had prepared him well. The tiny town of roughly 11,000 is not only the world’s first electrically lighted city, predating the prototypal electrified White City created for Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair, it was also the birthplace of Mark Honeywell’s iconic thermostat and the home, since 1911, of Edwin Ford’s indispensible water meter. It was these distinctions in the middle of nowhere, along with the financial largesse of the Honeywell Foundation and later the thriving Ford Meter Box Company, that together gave Stallings’ hometown a world-class $68 million arts center and exposed him to the world of arts and music. The country music star “Crystal Gayle graduated from my high school,” he says proudly.

While most Midwest towns are devoid of variety, in Stallings’ town, life at home was also “like being in a Ralph Lauren ad,” he says. “My mother had impeccable taste that veered between Hollywood glam and preppy looks. Paintings were stacked salon-style up the walls in our home; the fabrics were luxurious and the upholstery fantastic.”

He promptly returned from New York to the Bay Area in 2003 to practice interior design. After short stints at a couple of San Francisco interior design ateliers, he was ready to take on clients in 2008 — just when the economy tanked. He survived with a handful of loyal clients in the city and, since then, has progressed to large projects in Marin, the wine country, New York, London and Shanghai; an apartment at the upscale Yellowstone Club in Montana is among his best work.

Thanks to such clients, Stallings is always on the move, so when he does come home, his 1,400-square-foot enclave “feels like a pied-à-terre,” he says, where eclectic design notions can take wing.

“I used to own a Victorian in Hayes Valley where I lived for a decade, and I needed to shake it up in this new place,” Stallings says. “Victorians can be really dark and I definitely needed to have more light.”

So, in what used to be an all-beige space — albeit with Schirmer’s signature arched doorways — Stallings’ current perfectly smooth walls are now painted a pale shade of coffee to complement San Francisco’s pinkish hues. “The paint has a semigloss sheen and the walls shimmer in the ever-changing light by day and night. The bay water is always in motion and that reflection also alters the interior in inspiring ways,” he says.

After dark, downtown views become a mesh of lines and textures just before the city lights come on. “I am obsessed with such grids and layering, perhaps because of my fine art work and interior architecture training,” he says.

Even though the apartment is a rental, he focuses on every detail and surface. For instance, Stallings loathed the fake bronze hardware and inexpensive lighting fixtures that came with the place, so he promptly replaced them with heavy Baldwin brass knobs, Ralph Lauren brass sconces in the foyer and sculptural chandeliers that are more in keeping with the building’s history.

Golden refinished oak floors are layered with lighter carpets featuring gridded patterns and textures that complement art on the walls.

In the living room, a mixed-media canvas above the fireplace by Colleen Flaherty, whom Stallings represents, “incorporates shed snakeskin fragments she collected at her family’s almond orchard, so I found a natural woven grass rug that resembles snakeskin,” he says.

A black-and-white Zak+Fox ombre fabric for roomy club chairs and a Brutalist Belgian wood console from the 1960s or 1970s from Coup D’Etat add more textural notes.

“I like to contrast delicate materials like paper with hard surfaces,” Stallings notes. A male torso made of paper rests atop a polished rosewood pedestal from Robollo. It is one of the last remaining pieces of art that Stallings created for a Wabash County art fair when he was 17. He literally made the paper by hand and, before it had quite dried, molded it against a colossal stone statue of a famous boxer.

Another example of his innovation is in the dining room, where, lacking a view, “I created my own skyline,” Stallings says. On a vintage library table in front of the window, his grouping of tall glass vases, each with stenciled line drawings of famous high-rises like the Transamerica Pyramid, seems like a real cityscape when seen through double sheer linen curtains pulled in front of them.

“I love fabric and nothing transforms architecture better than drapery,” Stallings asserts. “Drapes also make windows seem taller and wider and soften the edges.”

Nearly everything is geared to enhance the light. In his simple bathroom, where he admits he perhaps also needed “a bit of drama,” a translucent linen shade lets daylight in, and instead of a single fixed light above the sink, he added several bulbs in vintage sockets, linked by Dogfork Lighting. Their flexible champagne-colored wires are looped over surreal plaster robe hooks cast in the shape of hands.

To promote sleep, Stallings opted for less light in the bedroom; there, dark gray Holly Hunt wool drapes around the bed can be pulled together to form a darkened cocoon.

The bedside lamps by Tradesmen are made from molds of original Palladian balusters from Michael Taylor’s estate. They are among the few distinctly classical shapes Stallings uses.

“I have definitely left my dark Victorian and its furniture behind,” he says, happier with the modern collage he has devised with eclectic custom pieces and art, including an interactive ever-changing canvas in the dining room on which guests — especially children — are encouraged to scribble and draw.

And yet none of the fireplaces in his apartment are for use. “They are ornamental. For centuries, people had central hearths that anchored rooms, and that’s why, even in high-rises with modern heating systems, designers simply mimicked the old styles,” he observes.

Ever the resourceful Midwesterner, the designer has turned his functionless living room fireplace into a cubbyhole for prized design books, and the built-in shelves around it fittingly enshrine — what else —neat stacks of his cherished Architectural Digest magazines.

View the gallery below for more photos.

Zahid Sardar

Zahid Sardar brings an extensive range of design interests and keen knowledge of Bay Area design culture to SPACES magazine. He is a San Francisco editor, curator and author specializing in global architecture, interiors, landscape and industrial design. His work has appeared in numerous design publications as well as the San Francisco Chronicle for which he served as an influential design editor for 22 years. Sardar serves on the San Francisco Decorator Showcase design advisory board.