What It’s Like to Be an Interior Designer for the Ultra-Wealthy


Table of Contents Gioi Tran, 54, is an interior designer and cofounder of firm Applegate Tran with his partner Vernon. He’s designed homes for execs at PayPal and Zappos and often gets repeat customers. Here’s what his job is like, including throwing lavish client parties, as told to Emma Reynolds. […]

Table of Contents

  • Gioi Tran, 54, is an interior designer and cofounder of firm Applegate Tran with his partner Vernon.
  • He’s designed homes for execs at PayPal and Zappos and often gets repeat customers.
  • Here’s what his job is like, including throwing lavish client parties, as told to Emma Reynolds.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Since 1999, my husband and business partner, Vernon Applegate, and I have run our firm, Applegate Tran Interiors, where we design homes for wealthy clients in the Bay Area and around the country.

We work on about a dozen projects per year and run a showroom called Poliform, an Italian contemporary furniture company that we purchased six years ago.

I dropped out of high school at 17 to pursue fine arts and dance. 

two men near a bookshelf in their workshop

Tran and his design partner and husband Vernon Applegate in their atelier in The Mission, San Francisco.

Gioi Tran.

I was a starving artist and needed more financial security, so I got my GED and went to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco to study interior design. I began dating my husband, Vernon, and after a year of being together, we started our business. 

15 years ago, when our first high-end client hired us, the project won many awards and was in publications, which led to more leads.

My partner and I have different design styles and prefer to work on separate projects, but we always initially consult with each other. Vernon uses more wild colors, patterns, and textures, while I have a more minimalist, modern, and clean style.

If we get clients who are more demanding with higher expectations, I usually take them because I could take calls all day long. Vernon sets boundaries and stresses a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule.

I’ve designed homes for one of the founders of Zappos, the president of PayPal, and the founder of BlackBerry.

interior design living room

Applegate Tran Interiors.

Christopher Stark

I like working with tech executives because they’re creative in other ways and respect my expertise. They’re also very involved in the technical aspect of the homes. They’ll ask, “Gioi, is that a quarter inch or a half inch?”

But when it comes to decorating, they trust me as the expert. Tech clients are methodical but know their limitations. They also make design decisions quickly and don’t second-guess themselves. 

We have a lot of repeat business from people who’re downsizing when the kids leave or purchasing their third, fourth, or fifth homes.

We have a client right now in Telegraph Hill building their fourth home. The minute they hired us, we didn’t even need a contract. We came in, measured, and got to work. They trust us to handle their personal stuff and their furniture and when they arrive, it’s a turnkey home. Sometimes, we even stock their refrigerators with Champagne, milk, butter, soda, and water.

I try to only take interior-design projects that have a budget of $500,000 and above.

luxury apartment in San Francisco with a window view of the water

A completed project in Pacific Heights, San Francisco.

Christopher Stark

Sometimes I take on smaller projects for repeat clients whose children just bought a starter home and need it designed. I do have my guidelines, but of course I break them when it feels right. 

Our largest project to date was a combined budget of $40 million, comprising the land, architecture, construction, and interior design. I’ve had maybe a dozen projects where I can’t photograph the homes for privacy reasons.

Sometimes budgets aren’t set in stone and they rely on my expertise. Instead of asking for a budget, I might ask what they like. A client might like a pair of $150,000 speakers, and that gives me an idea of what they’re willing to spend. 

I also ask about their travels, former homes, or where they shop. Even looking at what shoes they wear and finding out if they grew up with money or are self-starters can give me an idea of what they want. 

Culture is also important. It comes into play in how we talk about money and present things.

Our Indian clients are very value-oriented, meaning that if I can show them why something costs so much, maybe because it’s handmade, woven, how it’s engineered, or where it’s from, they’ll be more receptive.

Our Chinese clients are the same way. They’ll spend money, but you have to back it up and show them why something is valuable.

I have a one particularly difficult client who doesn’t respond to my emails for months at a time, then all of a sudden wants something the next day.

interior design living room with bookshelves

Applegate Tran Interiors.

Christopher Stark

We’ll make it happen, but it’s a scramble. For that level of client in particular, it’s always a yes because it’s a level of service that I provide.

Many clients fly me out to work on certain projects. In the past, I’ve been picked up in the helicopter because they don’t want to deal with driving and flown directly to the home I’m designing. 

I’ve worked with clients in Guatemala who flew me from downtown to their oceanfront beach house via helicopter. It was a very old money and very formal family.

We were there for three weeks working on a home for the third generation of an important family. We never were sure what they did, but we never asked. 

Rich people in America are very different from rich people in other countries. There’s a lot of wealth here, but often without the formalities you see in other countries. 

One of the craziest requests I had was when the client wanted to install a dinosaur in a home with actual dinosaur fossils. This client dug underground to create a circular parking lot with 25-foot ceilings and wanted a dinosaur in the middle. 

It actually wasn’t possible — they would have to make an offer to the Museum of Natural History. Over the years, clients have also asked for panic rooms, bunkers, and bank vaults, which we’ve installed.

I get up before 7 a.m. to check emails. 

three men working at desks in an interior design studio

The Applegate Tran design team hard at work.

Gioi Tran

I typically spend an hour on my laptop in bed checking emails from clients in NYC or Italy for our Poliform business with Luigi, our pup and head of security for Applegate Tran. 

When I’m in San Francisco, a typical day involves heading to a job site to meet with the contractors and going to the office for a staff meeting. But it doesn’t always work out that way because if a client calls asking us to meet that day, we’ll go. 

We have our own chef and event planner, Danny, who helps Vernon and me at our home in the Mission. In the morning, if we’re hosting dinner that night, we review the recipes and guest list and ensure the specialty seafood will be delivered on time to have everything in place for when I return home.

By 10:30 a.m., my car is packed with presentation boards and rug and fabric samples for site visits. 

a kitchen construction site with installations going in

Site visits and installations.

Gioi Tran

I’m working on a residential project in the Alamo neighborhood in the East Bay for one of my favorite repeat clients, and I recently went to her home to help her make some decisions.

At around noon, we had a lovely lunch on her newly installed, built-in breakfast table in her kitchen. It’s super chic. I used a beautiful counter stone to create a T-shaped extension that serves as their breakfast and casual dining table.

It’s not atypical for me to get an email from a client with an immediate request. 

For example, I recently completed a house in Miami for a client, and they emailed saying they need their 30-year-old penthouse in New York updated and wanted me to fly out within the week. You never know when an opportunity will come up, but that’s what makes it exciting.

I typically head to the showroom every afternoon to check in on the installation of new pieces that arrive from Italy and have a quick meeting with the sales team.

Around 5:45 p.m., I arrive home.

I love to entertain, and we often host beautiful dinners for our friends, clients, and members of the community. It started out as me hosting these events to support the community, but now it leads to a lot of opportunities. I sell my paintings to people that come through, and I get design clients. 

A client might be going to the ballet or a gala and ask to come back to my place the night before. Or a client might say they can’t get a reservation and want to come to my house for dinner instead.

We live in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in the Mission. Our entire downstairs is my art studio and entertainment area, which includes a lounge bar, chef’s kitchen, and two dining areas.

Although I have a full-time chef, I do a lot of cooking myself. I do the flowers, come up with the concept and the menu, set the ambience with candles, and more. I treat every event as if I’m entertaining my friends.

By 7:30 p.m., our guests start to arrive.

We recently had a casual dinner for a local designer, an editor of one of our favorite local magazines, Vernon, and me. 

Dinner always starts with a tour of our space, especially for first-time visitors, as they’re always so fascinated with our place, and then cocktail time. In the summer, I like to serve my favorite summertime cocktail, the Greyhound, with fresh-squeezed grapefruit. 

Dinner that night was only three courses with a wine pairing. Once seated, Danny typically serves, allowing me to be with my guests the entire night.

After our guests leave, I always have a bowl of my favorite comfort food, pho or something Vietnamese. I head into the studio to paint a little more, and Vernon takes Luigi for his last walk of the day. Finally, Danny cleans up, and we start to decompress and prepare ourselves to do it all again tomorrow.

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