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Inspiring Stories, Inspiring People

Jonathan Rachman, designer

Jonathan Rachman, designer

Born in Sumatra and educated in Switzerland, Jonathan Rachman’s international story landed him in San Francisco, where his entrepreneurial spirit came alive. A designer who has fashioned all kinds of interiors—from city apartments and penthouses to wine country estates and urban hotels—Jonathan admits that saying goodbye to corporate America was the best risk he ever took. Check out his work at and browse a few of his favorite treasures at Second Shout Out.


PPF: When you were little, what did you tell people you wanted to be when you grew up?

JR: I wanted to be a pilot. The truth is, I loved the uniforms. I even loved the little pillbox hats the flight attendants wore. When I was little, people still dressed up to fly.


PPF: How long did the pilot dream last?

JR: Well, I learned very early on that I couldn’t be a pilot because I had to wear glasses. I’m basically blind. If you take out my contact lenses, I can’t see a thing.


PPF: So what was your first real job?

JR: I made $4.25 an hour working in the audiovisual department at USF. My office was in a basement with no window. I used to push carts full of VHS equipment all over campus, setting up slide show screens for lectures. It was 1989, and my English wasn’t great. But I had to work. I was the youngest person ever to work in my family.


PPF: It’s fair to say you grew up with a bit of privilege?

JF: My dad owned a coffee plantation in Sumatra, and he also provided spices to McCormick, the spice giant. I grew up with eight maids, drivers, gardeners. We had security guards at our house. We lived on a ranch. I remember peacocks roaming around our property. It was that kind of lifestyle. I moved to Switzerland and was going to school there when my parents went bankrupt. They were hiding it from me for a long time. Unbeknownst to me, my brother-in-law took out a loan from his company, so that I could finish school.


PPF: What kind of school?

JR: It was hotel school in Switzerland. It was the “it” hotel school in the world. I wanted to be a hotel manager. Over time, I realized I preferred traveling to hotels more than running them.


PF: You eventually came back to study in San Francisco, right?

JR: I came back to get my B.A. at USF. That’s when I worked in audiovisual. I was so broke. I would buy two pounds of Idaho potatoes per week, and that was my lunch every day. I can visualize myself right now, wrapping the potato with a brown paper towel, microwaving it for two and a half minutes on each side, and eating it with whatever condiments I could find in the break room. For the longest time after that, I couldn’t look at a potato. I said I’d never eat one again. But you do what you have to do when you have no money. Eventually I got a scholarship from strangers. My teacher and boss learned about my situation and nominated me. That saved me.


PPF: How did the kindness of strangers affect you?

JR: It’s made me so grateful—and it’s given me reason to support people who are in school there now.


PPF: You are a designer, and you’ve had a spectacular year full of great press and exciting projects. Tell me about your job.

JR: I live vicariously through clients designing fabulous spaces. It landed on my lap—I never studied for it.


PPF: So you weren’t formally trained to do what you do now?

JR: Not at all. After USF, I decided to take classes in fashion design at the Academy of Art with Gladys Perint Palmer. She’s an illustrator for Vogue. Fashion certainly informs what I’m doing now—it’s all about fabrics, color, pattern. I was truly passionate about it, but I got distracted by the trappings of a corporate job. I’d been working at Jamba Juice, making smoothies for people to pay for my art classes. I was recruited by a company called Just Desserts, and I took the job because it was great pay. Eight weeks of vacation, paid car, expenses, and I got to travel a lot. I was 26 and there was something alluring about all that. But soon, you realize that corporate America owns your soul. And in my heart, I knew that no amount of money or so-called security was worth not doing what I was passionate about, which was being creative.


PPF: So did you shift gears and go back to design work?

JR: Well, it’s funny how there are all these signs along the way—pointing you in the direction of your true passion. I had done flowers for hotels in Switzerland, and at Just Desserts, I did some events and got into the flowers. I loved making things beautiful. So I took a big leap of faith and opened a tiny flower shop on Sacramento Street. And everything took off. It was as if I put my foot in the door of where my passion was, and suddenly, there were all these rooms full of opportunities.


PPF: Tell me about one of those opportunities. I would love an example.

JR: A big moment was when the creative design team from Marc Jacobs stumbled upon my tiny little flower shop in Pacific Heights, and they hired me on the spot to do their flagship store parties. And then people started asking me to do their parties. Then, those people would hire me to do their room or their house or their shop. My interior design business grew rather organically out of my flower design business.


PPF: You made quite a name for yourself as one of the top floral designers in San Francisco. I used to walk past your shop and peek in the windows. I was such a huge fan that my husband secretly went to you when we were dating and hired you to help him carry out his whole engagement plan.

JR: Yes, he did. He wanted me to help him create a garden in his apartment to replicate your first date.


PPF: And you did. It was magical. But let me ask you this. Was it difficult to sell yourself as an interior designer—to make that transition?

JR: I used to feel so insecure about my career. The measure of success in this country and this culture is either you’re a lawyer or a doctor or a banker. I used to compare myself to those people and think, “I’m no one—I’m just a florist.” There is a certain expectation in school—from kindergarten through college and grad school—that there are definitive measures of success, certain degrees you must have to prove yourself. But I have thrown all that away. I’m my own measure of success. To me, success is enjoying what you’re doing, finding a fit for your true talents. There is a bit of bravery in being authentic and saying, “I’m going to do what I love to do—despite the risks or the cost.”


PPF: Was there a particular mentor, or a person who believed in you and gave you a chance when no one else would?

JR: Well, in the interior design world—that group from Marc Jacobs hiring me on the spot. That was a huge confidence booster. And then, The Four Seasons Group, which has remarkably high standards, hired me for various events. And from that came jobs from Oprah, Sarah Jessica Parker, Madonna, and Martha Stewart. And because of those projects, I got great clients.


PPF: Do you have a design mantra?

JR: I don’t care if I’m trendy. A house should reflect the aesthetic of the owner, not the designer. It is our job to design a space to reflect a personality, not a trend. I always ask clients how they dress, because to me their fashion says a lot about what they’d like their house to look like.


PPF: What has been the lowest point in your career?

JR: Not knowing what to do in my career. I never had a problem with finding a corporate job. But I never kept them because I was so unhappy. I kept wondering if there was something terribly wrong with me, that I couldn’t make a job last more than two years before I’d be running away from it.


PPF: What has been the highest point so far?

JR: Right now, I think. My design business is growing, and I’m busier than ever. It was an honor to be a part of the Showcase House this year in San Francisco. I was invited to be a part of One Kings Lane’s designer sale this year, which was wonderful. I pinch myself. I finally found my fit. I know it’s cliché, but I tell people all the time to do what you love and the rest will follow. The fact that I can say that now is my high moment.


PPF: What is essential to help you do your best work?

JR: Travel. And I try to fly first class so I can at least sit near the cockpit.


PPF: Describe your version of the perfect day.

JR: Being with my “tribe.” Family that I’ve created, family I’ve been given. People who love me for who I am and not for how successful I may or may not be.


PPF: Who most inspires you and why?

JR: My sister, who passed away. There was not a drop of hatefulness in her. I have never seen her angry with anyone in her whole life. Her heart was so pure. She was full of “cinta,” which means love in Indonesian.


PPF: What job could you never, ever, do, no matter how broke you were?

JR: I don’t think there’s any job I would not do if I were able to. I’m not afraid to work and provide. I’m not a lazy person. I know what it takes to survive now. But let’s be honest: Nobody would hire me as a bouncer. And I break electronics and computers, so no one is going to hire me in tech. But any job is honorable.


PPF: When have you been most daring in your life?

JR: Two things. Number one is moving to the United States. America truly is a land of dreams, and perhaps it takes moving here from another country to really realize how fortunate we are to get to live here. Even when it’s very hard, and there are challenges—and I’ve had my share—it’s still an honor to be here. The second thing would have to be leaving my corporate job to pursue a creative one. It’s a lot of work and pressure, owning your own business.


PPF: When have you been the most afraid?

JR: When my parents went bankrupt. In my opinion, it’s harder to be poor after you’re rich. I had lived a pampered life. I didn’t know how to do my own laundry.


PPF: What is the best advice you ever got?

JR: My father always said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That is something to live by. Imagine if everyone did.


PPF: I love that. My parents always reminded my brother and me of that rule, too. And I said those exact words to my daughter recently.

JR: Good for you.


PPF: So here are a few questions I’m asking everyone.

JR: Okay. Hit me.


PPF: What’s on your bedside table right now?

JR: Books. Stacks and stacks of books. A candle. My sister’s picture. And Steven’s childhood lamp that he refinished himself.


PPF: What’s the trip you keep talking about taking one day?

JR: I always say I’m going to Africa with Steven.


PPF: First concert you ever went to?

JR: Billy Joel.


PPF: Best concert you ever went to?

JR: Cowboy Junkies at the Fillmore.


PPF: Song that would be the title track to the soundtrack of your life?

JR: Out of Africa theme song. Easy.


PPF: Best meal you ever had?

JR: In Bali, sharing a meal with my tribe. It’s not about the food. It’s the company.


PPF: What are you really good at that would surprise a lot of people?

JR: I was an adult ballet dancer. I have good feet. I love ballet.


PPF: If you could interview someone and ask him/her these questions, who would it be?

JR: Doris Grumbach, who wrote Extra Innings, one of my favorite books.


  1. Wonderful interview. Both Paige and Jonathan are two of the most interesting and authentic people I know. The minute you meet either of them, you feel as if you’ve known them forever. A real gift.

  2. “Any job is honorable.” What a refreshing, grounding perspective. I ate this interview up. Love Jonathan!

  3. What an inspiration Jonathan is – and I am honored to be able to call him a friend and grateful to have his private collection in our store. He is a beautiful human with an impeccable taste for all that is lovely in this world.
    Thank you Jonathan !

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