Boutique Design Events and Trade Fairs

When looking for a suitable subject for our second-ever Exit Interview, which profiles strong voices in the design community, I was immediately drawn to Sally Breer. Hitting the hotel interiors scene red-hot with Hotel Covell in LA’s Los Feliz neighborhood, this designer has all the ambition (and authenticity) to make her personal mark on the hospitality industry. (She will share more on Hotel Covell during the must-see “New in the West” panel at the BDwest trade fair/conference, March 31-April 1 in LA.)

Sally Breer

When she launched her Los Angeles-based design firm, CO-MINGLE, she didn’t reveal her age because she felt clients might not trust a 21 year old with a $250,000 budget. Now 27, Breer’s client roster includes celebrities and artists with projects ranging from residences and restaurants to office spaces and boutique hotels. She’s also designer/partner at SHOPCLASS, a 2,000-sq.-ft. vintage furniture shop in LA.

“My business previously was all word of mouth. So, quite frankly, I more or less bullied my way into hospitality,” the self-taught designer says. Breer nabbed her first hospitality project, The Anchor restaurant in Venice, California, by reaching out to the restauranteur and offering to do the work pro bono. From there, she went on to land her first hotel project, the buzzed-about Hotel Covell, which opened last year. “We’re now working on a 130-room hotel here in California, so I suppose there’s some method to my madness.” says Breer.

It’s rare to find a subject who is so willing to share so much of her personality with a writer. While some of Breer’s remarks you’ll see below were published in the March edition, most were not.

“My business previously was all word of mouth. So, quite frankly, I more or less bullied my way into hospitality,” the self-taught designer says. Breer nabbed her first hospitality project, The Anchor restaurant in Venice, California, by reaching out to the restauranteur and offering to do the work pro bono. From there, she went on to land her first hotel project, the buzzed-about Hotel Covell, which opened last year. “We’re now working on a 130-room hotel here in California, so I suppose there’s some method to my madness.” says Breer.

It’s rare to find a subject who is so willing to share so much of her personality with a writer. While some of Breer’s remarks you’ll see below were published in the March edition, most were not.

You were raised between New York and Paris by parents of the avant-garde art world. Tell us about your upbringing and how that experience has impacted your approach to interiors.

Having not formerly studied design in school, I think my parents and my upbringing are entirely responsible for my approach to interiors. I was aware of my surroundings ever since I can remember. My father’s art was abstract, but it stemmed from an interest in how we interact with colors and shapes. Being dragged to art openings and dinner parties where I was usually the only kid at (or under) the table forced me to either observe or take part in the dialogue. My mother has always had an interest in architecture, and would include me in the conversations about new buildings she dreamt of building for us; I have a ton of sketches that I drew as a kid of floor plans for dream houses. Most of my floor plans would include a room that had a fish tank in the floor.

I’m rambling—I always do this when this question comes up—I think because I’m still figuring out exactly how my upbringing has informed me. More than anything, the world that I was raised in was full of people who were conscious about space, color and form, but most importantly, lived authentically. For example, my dad’s best friend was a chef, and he would leave messages in small pebbles on his doorstep when he would go out for a walk or to the post office or wherever. And every Christmas, he would hang his telephone in the middle of the tree, so when it would ring, he’d reach through the tree branches to answer it. True originals.

Having not formerly studied design in school, I think my parents and my upbringing are entirely responsible for my approach to interiors. I was aware of my surroundings ever since I can remember. My father’s art was abstract, but it stemmed from an interest in how we interact with colors and shapes. Being dragged to art openings and dinner parties where I was usually the only kid at (or under) the table forced me to either observe or take part in the dialogue. My mother has always had an interest in architecture, and would include me in the conversations about new buildings she dreamt of building for us; I have a ton of sketches that I drew as a kid of floor plans for dream houses. Most of my floor plans would include a room that had a fish tank in the floor.

I’m rambling—I always do this when this question comes up—I think because I’m still figuring out exactly how my upbringing has informed me. More than anything, the world that I was raised in was full of people who were conscious about space, color and form, but most importantly, lived authentically. For example, my dad’s best friend was a chef, and he would leave messages in small pebbles on his doorstep when he would go out for a walk or to the post office or wherever. And every Christmas, he would hang his telephone in the middle of the tree, so when it would ring, he’d reach through the tree branches to answer it. True originals.

How did you get your start in interior design? What led to the launch of CO-MINGLE?

If I’m being honest, completely organically. I’ve always had an interest in designing spaces but I didn’t really think of it as a career. I did my place, and then did another friend’s place and that led to the realization that I really enjoyed doing it. So I put more energy into learning about it as a profession. Without sounding entirely crunchy, I’m a big believer in manifesting your own destiny. Of course, I’ve also been very lucky to have had the clients that I do, especially early on. Those folks took a chance on me, before I had a portfolio or a body of work to show for it. And they’re the ones I’ll forever be grateful to because the experience from those projects was invaluable.

If I’m being honest, completely organically. I’ve always had an interest in designing spaces but I didn’t really think of it as a career. I did my place, and then did another friend’s place and that led to the realization that I really enjoyed doing it. So I put more energy into learning about it as a profession. Without sounding entirely crunchy, I’m a big believer in manifesting your own destiny. Of course, I’ve also been very lucky to have had the clients that I do, especially early on. Those folks took a chance on me, before I had a portfolio or a body of work to show for it. And they’re the ones I’ll forever be grateful to because the experience from those projects was invaluable.

How would you describe your design ethos?

In my opinion the best spaces are ones that have layers and soul to them, which isn’t usually achieved from simply “decorating” because the layers are collected over time and the soul of a space is born from the unique person who lives in it. That said, we’re hired to create spaces for our clients, so our job is to be the translators. Essentially, we take inspiration from whom our clients are and what the intention of the space should be and then run it through our filter to create the end product.

In my opinion the best spaces are ones that have layers and soul to them, which isn’t usually achieved from simply “decorating” because the layers are collected over time and the soul of a space is born from the unique person who lives in it. That said, we’re hired to create spaces for our clients, so our job is to be the translators. Essentially, we take inspiration from whom our clients are and what the intention of the space should be and then run it through our filter to create the end product.

Who are some of your high-profile clients?

I wish there was a way to answer this without sounding like a braggy name dropper. My firm has been fortunate to have some really creative and talented clients. We’ve done (and are currently working on two more) creative offices for director Justin Lin. Some of our other clients include celebrities Shannon Woodward, Martha Plimpton, Zooey Deschanel, Hilary and Haylie Duff and Justin Long, as well as screenwriters Alan Yang and Jamie Linden, to name a few.

I wish there was a way to answer this without sounding like a braggy name dropper. My firm has been fortunate to have some really creative and talented clients. We’ve done (and are currently working on two more) creative offices for director Justin Lin. Some of our other clients include celebrities Shannon Woodward, Martha Plimpton, Zooey Deschanel, Hilary and Haylie Duff and Justin Long, as well as screenwriters Alan Yang and Jamie Linden, to name a few.

What was your first hotel project, and what drove you to expand into the hospitality design scene?

Hotel Covell was my first hotel project. I had approached Dustin Lancaster [the hospitality entrepreneur/owner behind the property] about collaborating with me on opening a hotel on the Eastside of LA. As I pitched him my dream, he stopped me to say that he was in escrow on a building in Los Feliz for that purpose. I was devastated that it was already in the works, but also enchanted that it was going to happen. He started inviting me to the space to do walk-throughs during the demo phase—but he had formerly designed all of his restaurants himself, so I had assumed he planned to do the same with Hotel Covell. After the third walk-through, I finally said, “OK now you’re just teasing me. I get it. You’re making the dream of a boutique hotel happen. But what am I doing here?” He laughed and said, “Well, obviously I want you to design it.”

Dustin and I had the same vision from the get-go about what it needed to be and what it should be. I had zero hospitality design experience, and anyone else wouldn’t have hired me, but there was a level of trust and respect between Dustin and I that made the project possible. He took a big risk on me, though he probably wouldn’t say as much, and I’ll be forever grateful for that.

Hotel Covell was my first hotel project. I had approached Dustin Lancaster [the hospitality entrepreneur/owner behind the property] about collaborating with me on opening a hotel on the Eastside of LA. As I pitched him my dream, he stopped me to say that he was in escrow on a building in Los Feliz for that purpose. I was devastated that it was already in the works, but also enchanted that it was going to happen. He started inviting me to the space to do walk-throughs during the demo phase—but he had formerly designed all of his restaurants himself, so I had assumed he planned to do the same with Hotel Covell. After the third walk-through, I finally said, “OK now you’re just teasing me. I get it. You’re making the dream of a boutique hotel happen. But what am I doing here?” He laughed and said, “Well, obviously I want you to design it.”

From where did you draw your inspiration for Hotel Covell? What types of challenges did you face fitting your vision into the existing bones of the property?

For this project, creating a narrative was a necessity. The bulk of my previous work has been on residential projects, so the homeowners inform my narrative because they come to the table with their own stories and preferences. It then becomes my job to understand their story and translate it to a design for their home, but I’m not usually starting from scratch like I did on Hotel Covell.

Sally Breer

It was a completely new challenge to be given five blank rooms, and total creative freedom. That’s why I say that the story was born out of necessity, because I had to give myself limitations and parameters to design within. Once I knew the story so intimately and where we were in the narrative, each room became a “WWCD?” (what would Claudine do?) or in the case of Chapter 5, “WWID?” (what would Isabel do?). [Editor’s note: The chapters Breer refers to tell a visual story of fictional character George Covell’s life, from a young boy in Oklahoma to an accomplished author in New York.]

Thinking about what decade and setting each character was in gave parameters and limitations to the design. Who they were in that chapter of their lives dictated the mood, giving another filter for the colors and the materials we chose. (I suppose it’s worth mentioning that I didn’t go to school for design. In fact, I studied sociology-education and social change. So my approach to design isn’t academic, it’s far more intuitive.)

Hotel Covell is a 1930s brick building that formerly housed five apartment units. The apartments were poorly maintained, so we more or less had to take the space down to its studs, adjusting a few walls here and there. But fortunately, we were able to preserve the bulk of the original hardwood floors, because they has been blanketed with some terrible carpet.

Tell us about SHOPCLASS and your role in that venture.

SHOPCLASS is a 2,000-sq.-ft. shop in LA filled to the brim with vintage furniture. I have two other partners: Jeff Garbs is essentially the face of the shop and Ellen LeComte (of Amsterdam Modern, a warehouse for mid-century modern furniture in LA) and I work behind the scenes. We all have an affinity and appreciation for vintage furniture and wanted to create a space that was curated with the best of it, but still at an affordable and attainable price.

What are some of your favorite current interior design trends? What trends would you like to see disappear, and which would you love to see re-emerge?

I have a bit of a confession, I’m basically a Luddite when it comes to technology, so I’m not terribly immersed with what the trends are. I mentioned this earlier, but in my family we have a term that we use a lot, “true original,” and I think that’s how I appreciate and approach design. I like objects and spaces that transcend time and have an authenticity to them. Of course, I do notice repetition and trends in the spaces that I experience, but it’s pretty much just limited to that. I know this is probably the worst answer for you, but I’d be lying if I told you anything different.

[Editor’s note: Every answer was great.]