This creative wunderkind, an ELLE DECOR Designer A-List honoree, has migrated from youthful career indecision to industry luminary status in relatively short time. As he adroitly grows his design “empire,” he relies upon the sound business strategies that he has acquired as an accomplished marketer, all the while maintaining the creativity, enthusiasm, and authority that one expects from a design legend-in-the-making. As a result, this son of modest, middle-class beginnings has built the Jay Jeffers brand to prominence, popularity, and profitability, and shows no sign of letting up as he plots a pathway to additional design fame and business fortune.
I was born in Dallas and lived in Plano, Texas, a town of 100,000 people at the time. My mother was a teacher at the time; my father was in the insurance industry. I grew up a gay kid. Initially, I wanted to be the normal guy who played football and married the homecoming queen. That was probably the biggest struggle in my life as a teen — trying to be who I was. But I didn’t want to be who I was. Amazingly, given my very conservative home environment, both of my parents were incredibly accepting.
I initially enrolled at the University of Texas for an architectural engineering degree but I realized I didn’t want to be an engineer. I took a marketing class and fell in love with all the creative aspects of advertising, marketing, and promotion. I switched disciplines, and when I graduated with a degree in International Business and Marketing, I took an entry-level job with a small advertising agency in Austin at $16,000 a year. I was the receptionist, office manager, and chief bottle washer.
I fell in love with San Francisco the moment I first saw it. I was on a Super Shuttle from the airport and I remember that a fellow passenger exited the shuttle and went into a Victorian apartment on a hill. I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, that’s a real person who actually lives and works there.” A lightbulb went on in my head: “People do function in this city. It’s not just a fantasy place that you go to visit– and I can do the same thing.” I packed my car, said goodbye to my friends, gave two-weeks’ notice at my job, and drove to San Francisco.
Initially, I took a day job at Zuni Café and a night job at Structure, a men’s clothing store. I also worked a part-time job at a small advertising agency before being hired at the Gap, where I worked in Advertising for the Gap, Gap Kids, and Old Navy brands. But I was craving a greater outlet for creative expression, and took an evening course at Berkeley Extension on the “Introduction to Interior Design.” Loved every minute of it! I balanced evening and weekend classes and studies with a reduced, part-time role at the Gap, gopher work for designer Richard Witzel and a job at Susan Chastain’s drapery and bedding showroom working on installations for Tucker & Marks, The Wiseman Group, and Gary Hutton.
In 1999, Diane Dorrans Saeks wrote about seven designers to watch, when she was writing for the San Francisco Chronicle. I was one of the seven. At the time, I was still working for Richard Witzel at his store on Sacramento Street and I had gotten a couple of small projects from clients who came in from the Presidio. I don’t really remember why, but that was the moment when I decided I was ready to go out on my own.
The Jay Jeffers business incorporates interior design, interior architecture, and furniture design which is marketed through Arteriors, the company that licenses my name and my designs. Our first Arteriors collection in 2015 emphasized entertaining—trays, ice buckets, light fixtures, small cocktail tables, etc. The new 2017 collection expanded into upholstered pieces, more lighting, and case goods. We also consult on art, antiques, acquisitions, and decorations for private clients through our design firm, and feature antiques, vintage pieces, as well as emerging companies and designers in fields such as lighting and furniture, through our retail store.
My husband Michael and I joined forces when I decided I wanted to get into the retail business. I had bought a building in the Tenderloin where I had moved my offices and didn’t need all the space for the studio. Coincidentally, many of my favorite stores — like Swallow Tail and Alabaster — had gone out of business. I had a continuing need for accessories that appealed to me but I was finding myself going to L.A. and New York to source what I needed—not searching online, as we do now. My retail store would be a place where I could shop for my projects without traveling all over the country. It’s been a major success, with our biggest customers being other Bay Area designers.
I don’t really want a 50-person design firm. We may grow more, but being able to carefully pick and choose the right projects is more important. What with paying the bills and meeting employee salary needs, I haven’t always had complete financial freedom. But we’re at that place right now. And I’m really enjoying the product design side of the business, so I would like to expand in that arena by licensing more lines with Arteriors, including fabrics and additional furniture collections.
It’s only in recent years that I’ve considered myself as successful, but I still regard myself as an aspiring novice when compared to the likes of Paul Wiseman, Suzanne Tucker, and Gary Hutton, who has been an idol of mine forever. Having said that, I’m definitely confident in who I am and what I do as a designer.
I always want better projects and the budgets that come with those projects. But more importantly, I want to feel comfortable in my life. I’ve always carried some degree of fear that everything is going to disappear, and even today, there’s still a nagging thought in the back of my mind that says it could happen. I need to be careful of that.
I don’t design with a Jay Jeffers look. I prefer not to repeat designs and I don’t have a look that I impose on my clients. Ten years ago, people may have said, “He is the king of color and pattern,” but my style has evolved since then. I want a home to feel like it’s been collected over time. I don’t want everything to feel as if it’s brand new, nor do want it to feel like it’s pulled from Grandma’s attic. It’s very current–how we look at things today. And it’s definitely a mix of the curated and the edited—but absolutely not minimalist. I want it to feel like someone lives there, and I want people to feel like they can sit on the furniture and not get upset if the dogs jump on the couch. But it should also be very chic.
I place an emphasis on artist-made decorative objects, hand work with textiles and lighting that is thoughtfully produced in limited editions. I want my clients to live with fine paintings and one-of-a-kind lighting and custom-designed furniture that will give them a lifetime of use and pleasure. I want every home to feel special. I am not the kind of person who walks into a showroom, sees it, puts it in somebody’s home and it’s done.
I subscribe to “high-low” philosophy with respect to accessories. I just did a significant purchase at West Elm for client accessories. That’s low. But we’re also bringing in some beautiful, unique items from our store. When you mix them together, the items that feel like they’re a bit too precious become “humbled”, while the $20 West Elm vase is equally elevated by the company it keeps.
We just finished a project at The St. Regis, a luxury high-rise, two apartments that the client bought and joined together. We gutted it. Took it down to the studs. My client has a Bohemian spirit, so she likes color and bright things. She wants her friends to be comfortable, but yet it’s so incredibly chic. She likes everything to be perfect and in its place, so it’s lots of paneled walls, gorgeous views, and open windows. The entire floor in the library is one big cushion. We call it the “Cuddle Puddle Room” where everybody can hang out, smoke a hookah, and listen to music–just feel comfortable. In the media room, we designed a custom built-in sectional where the two ottomans basically create a huge bed. She’s a gamer, and if her friends are all playing video games in the media room, you can pull the two ottomans out and it becomes a beautiful place for seating a gaming party.
David Hicks would be high on my list. He was innovative, forward-thinking, outside-of-the-box, different. I love the fact that he would decorate a castle with purple walls and create fabrics out of torn paper–that sort of thing. If somebody was designing my house, I’d hire Yabu Pushelberg. They’re hospitality designers, but everything that they do is innovative. It’s different. It’s outside-of-the-box. It’s unique. It’s incredibly chic. I’d choose Gary Hutton for the same reason.
Interview conducted by Alf Nucifora, Chairman of the Luxury Marketing Council; sponsored by the San Francisco Design Center.