Who to Know | A Storied Life

Interior Designer Antonio Martins


A classic Martins touch
This room at the 2014 San Francisco Showcase features hand-painted tiles by Linda Horning and Katherine Jacobus inspired by vintage tiles from the Museum of Tiles in Lisbon

Reflecting on his 10 years in design – from “breakout star” to one of San Francisco’s most respected interior designers – Antonio Martins contemplates what gives his projects their distinction. “I think it is because I try to incorporate my clients’ stories into what I design for them. It’s all about the story.”

Martins is known for his strong de novo design work in restaurants, commercial and corporate projects including Cevicheria Kiko, his brother’s restaurant in Lisbon, Portugal, Hyatt Ziva Rose hotel in Montego Bay, Jamaica, ad agency Pereira & O’Dell headquarters offices in San Francisco and New York, as well as for transforming homes in San Francisco into stylish, balanced and winningly livable spaces. When possible, Martins maintains the original details of older houses. He explains, “I like to keep them (details) because they allude to the home’s story.”

And he should know a good story, for if anyone has a vivid narrative, it is Martins.

Martins can trace his family tree to 13th-century Portugal when his family was granted a title and land in the Trazdos Montes region. From the 13th through the 17th centuries, Portugal laid claim to the first global empire, and as such, boasted of grand architechture and design, fine fabrics and tapestries, ceramics, and precious jewels and metals. It was the richness of these antiques and treasures that influenced the young Antonio and to this day can still be found in his projects.

In 1974, revolution forced the six-year old Martins and his family to flee to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where his grandfather had coffee processing plants.

By high school, Martins decided on becoming a diplomat and studied economics but during the summer job as a concierge at the luxurious Meridian Copacabana, the 17-year old Antonio fell in love with the romantic images of the world he gleaned from the hotel’s international guest list.

With degree in hand, Martins jetted to Switzerland for a three-year hotel management program that took him to the Hotel Danieli in Venice, the Hyatt Regency, Cologne, and later, as Manager of Catering and Guest Relations at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong where the hotel registry read like an amalgam of the Almanach de Gotha and TMZ. It was during this heady, financial super fluidity period of 1990s Asia that he recalls his encounter with the illustrious Imelda Marcos.

“Mrs. Marcos entered the empty Grissini Restaurant quite late. She wore a simple black dress on which she wore the most spectacular Burmese ruby brooch, the size of a china saucer!” (With both hands, Martins demonstrates the width of the brooch.) “The next day, the general manager phoned me saying, ‘Antonio, you were very nice to Mrs. Marcos but next time, please try to close your mouth when you look at her jewelry.'”

But despite his success in the hospitality world, Martins always longed to express his passion for design that began as a child (and was thwarted early on by family chiding of his inability to draw as well as cousin Manuel, a famous 20th-century Portuguese landscape painter). He moved to San Francisco and enrolled at the Academy of Art University earning a Masters Degree in Interior Architechture and Design.

It was in San Francisco that Martins renovated and designed his first Victorian in the city’s up-and-coming Hayes Valley district. Concurrently he landed an interview with venerated designer Paul Wiseman who, after studying Martin’s portfolio, advised him to take the leap and set up his own shop. Wiseman connected Martins with Sarah Lynch, editor of California Homeand Design magazine that ran a multi-page feature on the Victorian. Wiseman’s augury was spot on and Martin’s firm was born, if not already walking and running.

And since then he has made his mark on San Francisco and beyond with his signature style – clean lines, a bold touch and a sensitivity to space, light and balance that comes from his colorful upbringing, tenure in Asia and influences from his internationally lived life.