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Fall/Winter 2010

Napa Wow

Designer Erin Martin has brought a new look to Wine Country.

by Joan Chatfield-Taylor

Napa Valley has been described in a million ways: Beautiful. Rural. Sophisticated. Romantic.

However, words such as “cool,” “edgy,” and “industrial chic” never crossed anyone’s lips until a tall blonde from Seattle named Erin Martin set up shop just off Main Street in St. Helena. She brought a powerful new aesthetic to a valley best known for pseudo-Tuscan and pseudo-Victorian architecture.

She likes raw-looking materials such as iron and rough-hewn, unfinished wood; this is a woman who created her bathroom door out of layers of raw steel softened only by a rope handle. She enjoys recycling both materials and objects in unexpected ways; red buoys from one of her favorite sources, Seattle’s Washington Chain & Supply, were turned into light fixtures. She also insists that things should be bold in scale.

Anyone wondering how all these ideas fit into a normal—well, good-sized—house may be surprised at how livable she has made many residential interiors in the Bay Area. She manages an alchemy of modern and comfortable, classic and personal.

It starts with a neutral color scheme, most often tones of white, cream, beige, and brown. She keeps these neutrals interesting by layering on textures. An all-white interior might have surfaces painted in glossy, matte, and milky finishes; fabrics both smooth and rough; objects ranging from gnarly to sleek. Pattern, when she uses it, tends to be tone-on-tone in a creamy palette.

The design continues with that thing most often missing from modern design: a comfortable place to sit and stretch out. Classic, simple sofas, often covered in something as familiar as white canvas, are placed to encourage conversation. Adjustable pharmacy lamps invite reading.

This may sound pretty basic, but Martin, daughter of an architect and a designer, is a master of scale and flow. Her rooms work, whether it’s a vast barn transformed into a magical space for parties, or a modest guestroom under a sloping roof.

Once the essentials are in place, the fun begins, both for the client and designer. This is the moment to cull Martin’s showrooms and storerooms for the accessories that will embolden each room with something unique and unexpected. It might be a pair of sleek glass and metal lanterns suspended on either side of a bed, or a floor-to-ceiling mirrored headboard. The dining room might become home to a chandelier made of branches. An unusual chair may be used as a perfect perch in a bathroom or as a bold sculpture in a living room.

Martin’s eponymous showroom, now in spacious quarters on Main Street, has become a site of pilgrimage for design aficionados who flock to ooh, ahh, and blog about one-of-a-kind items, such as a Nigerian chief’s beaded chair, chandeliers made of nautical rope and iron, or a screen assembled from pristine wine bottles. Some of these are her own designs while others have been found around the world by the peripatetic Martin, who skipped college in favor of several years of travel that included Africa and the Middle East.

Prospective clients be warned: Martin has a thing for animal heads, to the extent that she squared up nine water buffalo heads on one wall. One can only wonder where she found them all. And don’t be surprised if she takes your grandmother’s Chippendale cabinet and transforms it with a coat of shiny white enamel.

If she doesn’t have what she wants, she’ll have it made, thanks to her longtime relationships with local craftspeople who understand her ideas and have the skills to turn out extraordinary objects, often from ordinary materials. One more warning: The chandelier may be made of rope and iron, but the price tag might be $15,000.

It’s a tribute to Erin Martin’s talents that even in this fragile economic environment, she seems to be the busiest person in the valley, turning her hand to restaurants, charity benefits, and shops, in addition to residences.

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