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Seeking Professional Help

When an amateur decorator got tired of working alone, she went out in search of a partner.


Designer Katie Martinez helped her client, Christine Chen, come up with an unexpected color palette for the living room.

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In the bedroom, Martinez created high-style custom storage solutions.

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The master bathroom was designed for Chen and her husband, but it attracts the whole family. “There are always four toothbrushes in here now,” Chen says.

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The traditional details of a Spanish-style home, such as built-in cabinets, were retained, although these cabinets received a modern update with a coat of black paint.

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Christine Chen has more interior design skills than your average homeowner. An advertising executive with two kids, Chen dove headfirst into the design process in 2012 when she and her husband, Rob Schoening, purchased a 1933 Spanish-style home in Upper Rockridge. In addition to the kitchen, she redid the floors throughout the ground floor and scoured her favorite shops for art and design pieces. Without a hint of panic or remorse, she talks about renovating her kitchen completely on her own. “We cooked out of the dining room in a tiny pot and a toaster oven for at least six months,” she says.

But making every decision solo began to wear on her. Schoening, supportive but nonpartisan, has a habit of offering the same answer anytime Chen asks him for his design opinion: “I don’t know, they’re both fine,” he might say.

“He’s sort of a neutral party, which is really why I think I needed Katie,” Chen says. Katie is interior designer Katie Martinez, whose work caught Chen’s eye while she was browsing Pinterest. Chen had so far avoided doing any work on the couple’s master bathroom, despite it being a 1980s showpiece complete with a step-up Jacuzzi tub and his-and-hers sinks molded into the shape of seashells. “I saw a bathroom she did in Oakland and thought, Oh, that is so my style,” Chen recalls. She decided to reach out to Martinez, but she still had some hesitations about adding a professional to her process. “I was thinking, I don’t want to create a thing where someone is trying to impose their style on me,” she says. But at the same time, her own limitations were becoming clear. “I’m really good at finding individual things that I love,” she says, “but not so great at putting it all together.” She asked Martinez to start with the master bathroom. The pair worked together designing a custom tile pattern for the floors and reconfiguring the space so there wouldn’t be as many odd angles. Martinez had a custom vanity built in bleached maple and sourced new lighting, including a room-defining pendant over the soaking tub, an asymmetrical glass lantern by L.A.’s Jason Koharik.

Martinez appreciated how Chen walked the line between respecting the historic elements of the home and updating them. A prime example was the dining room, where Chen had kept the extensive built-in woodwork but painted it Onyx by Benjamin Moore. “She wasn’t afraid. A lot of homeowners are scared to paint woodwork, but she had guts,” the designer says. The duo worked so well together on the bathroom that Chen decided to ask Martinez to lend a hand in the living room. Chen knew she wanted pops of color, but she had no idea where to start. Martinez presented a velvet sofa from Lawson-Fenning in a bold ocher hue. “I am generally much more on the neutral side,” Chen says, “so when she brought that color in, I was like, Whoa, that’s really, really cool.” But it was when Martinez suggested pairing it with royal-blue vintage club chairs and a dusty-pink ottoman that Chen got really excited.

“She has a bravery in just putting things together that are unexpected,” says Chen, who admits that she’s filed away many of the tips she’s learned watching Martinez and applied them to picking pieces on her own. “Now I think less about how things perfectly complement, and more about how the tension of something that is slightly different just creates more interest. I still don’t think I can do that, but I think I’m at least better at knowing it when I see it.”


Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco

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