L ike a museum or an art gallery, the items on display at St. Helena's Martin Design Showroom change on a regular basis. Over Christmas, the massive tire from an 18-wheel truck lorded over the room, placed standing alone on an oversized antique wooden table. Industrial link chain was used to hang rough-hewn wooden planking from the ceiling as shelves. Nautical rope as thick as a man's fist tied paintings and other artifacts to the walls. Art books devoted to Dutch designers covered another table; white ceramic bottles were clustered artfully and antlers formed the inspiration for a set of candlesticks. In the center of it all, a "curtain" entirely composed from fresh-strung marigolds about five feet wide cascaded from the ceiling to the floor.
But unlike a museum or art gallery, there is no regular schedule to the changing look at Martin. That depends upon the fresh-faced whims of designer Erin Martin, the resident genius behind this contemporary space. Someone who Martin met on the street in L.A. was going to discard that tire, if that can be believed. She arranged to have it shipped up. Unaware that the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is currently showing a curtain entirely composed of strung fabric flowers that cascades from ceiling to floor, she and 12 friends sewed together their marigolds in honor of India's day of the dead celebration and to better meditate on a friend who had just passed away. (The showroom's cleaning lady didn't know what to make of it and tidily cut the bottom of the curtain straight off.) When a new shipment of artifacts Martin has collected arrives, the whole suite tumbles over again.
"The showroom is a mix of everything that we love; it changes all the time," Martin says by phone while driving through Marin to meet a client in the wealthy East Bay enclave of Atherton. "It could be super French, and then it could go industrial. Right now, it's big coffee tables and this great chaise that I've found that just makes me crazy with pleasure. We had a good shipment come in this past week, so we're really excited, including a whale bone from the rib of a whale, which really reminds you how small you are in this world and how amazing it is to experience all of this."
To say that Martin, 35, is aware of how amazing it is to experience all of this is an understatement. Raised in the Palm Desert area of Southern California by an architect father and interior designer mother, Martin skipped out on college, finding her education in four years of travel to such countries as Israel, Hungary, the bloc governments of Eastern Europe and to Morocco. With an eye and aesthetic trained by her parents from birth, Martin seems to have a fearless approach to the pleasures of both life and design. The showroom is for fun, and it certainly draws clients, but Martin's real meat is full-scale home interior design.
Juggling between eight and five clients at a time, Martin is careful to ensure that the results aren't too mannered. "I've really tried, but I can't create nostalgia," she says. "It doesn't come from me but from someone's life and the stories they can tell. At the end of the project, there's space for clients to put their own things. The things that make you laugh or remind you of your dad or make you cry—those are the things that are truly special and make a house a home. [Interior design is] not brain surgery, but it is creating a place where people have refuge and Thanksgiving dinner and wake up in their beds and find a peaceful place. Living's the good part."
With her work frequently featured in the gloss of House Beautiful, Home & Garden and even in the ultra-luxury pages of the Robb Report , which calls her "ubiquitous for her wine country interiors," Martin seems more self-styled Zen artist than snob. She gamely took on the Trading Spaces reality show that forced her to designer-up a room for under $1,000 in less than eight hours. She foraged in the neighborhood, finding an old church sign with the word "Jesus" on it that was refashioned into a door. And her use of ready-mades, such as plunking an 18-wheeler's tire in the middle of things, is inspired.
Yet one of Martin's most effective design tools is absence. She's not one to rush to fill up a room with stuff. "Sometimes you just have to leave the space alone and let it tell you what it's going to be," she says.
"All you can do is try and see how it works. It's OK that not everybody else gets it. If you get it and it gives you joy and makes you smile, then why the hell not?"
Martin Design Showroom
1350 Main St., St. Helena