Prince of the City — James Marzo
In a world full of sound and fury, and the excesses of bling juxtaposed with the equally dispiriting tyranny of "good taste" in which every self-promoting, self-affected decorator weighs in on indecorous cable television design shows — it's too easy for a gentleman decorator such as James Marzo to be overlooked in the weeds.

James Marzo

Fear not. For this gentleman's quietude is founded in confidence of purpose and preparedness, an adventurous curiosity nourishing connoisseurship, a knowledge of rules and when they should be flouted, and the conviction that these virtues and the interiors they create, speak to similarly quality-minded clients with a clarion's clarity.

A Stanford-educated aesthete originally from Wisconsin, the San Francisco-based designer's designer caught and incubated the design bug as a young man in a pre-law program at Oxford, where he was housed at Clivedon, one of Britain's greatest neo-classical homes, and which he used as his columned and pedimented base to visit other stately homes each weekend.

In the foyer of this dramatic San Francisco home, Marzo created the pair of unique demilune consoles from old industry laundry machinery parts to compliment a client's Rodin. Photo courtesy of James Marzo Design

His brush with Brideshead complete, the ever-pragmatic Midwesterner pressed forward with his bonafides. He landed the plum position of production manager at Randolph & Hein, San Francisco's premiere custom furniture manufacturer. "I learned everything about the creation of furniture, from its initial design throughout its final construction including hand tying springs, using horse-hair upholstery, the staining, French polishing, hand carving, water gilding, every step of the process, every layer and intricacy," Marzo says. Two years later, he expanded his purview as in-house head of interior design at Therien & Co., the well-regarded California-based antiques and custom furniture house, where he worked for several years before establishing his own firm in 1985.

Custom contemporary outdoor furnishings were selected and designed for this Big Island lanai including a custom coffee table made of bronze patinated metal and thick cast glass. Photo by David Livingston

His academic and hands-on training in the classical tradition complete, his fluency in its precepts confirmed, Marzo established his own design argot right out of the gate, bending, even breaking rules with precocity and confidence. Better than a billboard were public illustrations of his own eclectic approach, quite notably his use of 80-grit sandpaper as wallpaper in a San Francisco designer showcase house as the backdrop for a Sheraton sideboard, Régence mirror, rock crystal chandelier, 17th-century lacquered cabinet, and 18th-century Belgian tapestry. "I'm delighted by unexpected combinations — bringing together seemingly disparate objects to establish a harmonious yet exciting whole," says Marzo, adding that the style of his work varies from contemporary to period-style rooms to accommodate his clients' needs and preferences. "In a truly sophisticated room, there is not only a sense of harmony and practicality, but of exploration and discovery. A room should unravel slowly as new details or subtleties are revealed on each visit."

For the entrance to this Hawaiian home, James Marzo designed the Polynesian-inspired modern center table of koa wood, with a custom bronze light fixture made from illuminated mother-of-pearl sea shells.
Photo by David Livingston

The great, the good, and the deep-pocketed of the Bay Area agreed, taking note, scheduling meetings, and extending commissions. Marzo doesn't drop names, the shoulders of his Kiton jacket rise at the request, but an internet search reveals boldfaced connoisseurs with prominent surnames such as Getty. When pressed, he concedes that early in his career he was charged with the complete restoration of Ann and Gordon Getty's remarkable antiques collection.

Yet, when presented with a list of other billionaires coast-to-coast (banking, retail, real estate and tech), his mouth tightens in a Gary Cooperian manner and his Berlutis tap the floor impatiently. No dice. His only concession in terms of discussing clients is a simple description: "they are confident but private people who are secure in their tastes, and who appreciate exceptional original design and connoisseurship." Indeed, the only crowing Marzo indulges in centers on the exercise of his expertise on his client's behalf. "I'm passionate about vetting antiques and curating collections, and so far, I've never been wrong. Not once."

In this San Francisco Pacific Heights home, salvaged industrial objects are combined with Art Deco furnishings and important modern art. Photo by Mary Nichols

In terms of his métier, Marzo is far more forthcoming. He fits squarely in the great tradition of great West Coast designers for whom nature and scale are paramount and ever-present. As such, he falls under the umbrella of the late, great San Francisco-based designer Michael Taylor, who from the 1950s until his untimely death in 1986 put "California design," as defined by a playfulness of scale, especially large scale furniture, a penchant toward light, bright spaces and palettes, and a fusion of indoors and out, on the global map.

One of San Francisco's finest homes, this Julia Morgan-designed jewel box was gutted and fully restored for a dynamic family in the 21st century.
Photo by Tim Street-Porter
Well trained in classical architecture and design, James Marzo created this dramatic pavillion with classical details and fine 18th-century furnishings. Photo courtesy of James Marzo Design

Marzo has a similar love of the dramatic. "I'm committed not just to creating enduring, comfortable and beautiful interiors, but to the heart-skipping beat and the shortness of breath felt for a moment with the recognition of true, timeless beauty." He also is a keen proponent of playing with scale. But while Taylor's style was to go big, Marzo prefers to increase the artistic presence or quality of furnishings. "A great piece of art or furniture doesn't have to be large to hold a space," he says. Likewise, Marzo's approach to nature takes a different bent, both from Taylor and from his peers: "My inspiration is from the 17th-century Sukiya tradition in Japan, where the house and garden are looked at as one, an integrated and fluid whole."
Integrated. Fluid. Whole. The same words apply to a designer's designer as well as a consummate gentleman.