That One Thing

Photos by Matthew Millman

words by Sheri Baer

On any given design project, Kristi Will hears and directs notes being played from every direction—whether it’s the architect, the builder, stone workers, cabinet makers, furniture designers, lighting experts or artisans. “I think of us like the conductor of the orchestra,” says Kristi. “We know the tempo and we know the people who make all of these beautiful things, and our job is to fluidly put them together so that everything has its place and is purposeful.” 

The founder of eponymous Kristi Will Interior Design, Kristi always knew she would walk a creative path. Born and raised in San Mateo, she grew up on job sites, courtesy of a construction company run by her mother and stepfather. Close family friend Marguerite Casey was in real estate, and Kristi jumped at the chance to tag along from “home to home to home.” And, in Marguerite’s living room, Kristi discovered a treasure trove of inspiration: stacks of Architectural Digest magazines. “I had pin boards before there were pin boards,” she recounts. “I used to take the AD magazines and tear out all my favorites—all these influencers in the ’70s like Michael Taylor and Donghia. I would plaster my walls with them. I was always inspired by design and how people set up rooms.” 

Throughout her childhood, whether she was rearranging furniture at a friend’s house or sketching and drawing floor plans, Kristi’s aspirations never wavered. After earning a degree in interior design, she launched her career with a firm in Mill Valley. When her husband, now a San Mateo fire captain, was stationed in Half Moon Bay, the couple moved coastside. “His job brought us here,” Kristi says, “but then we just fell in love with it.” 

In 2009, she opened her own firm, which is now situated in an historic Queen Anne home in the heart of downtown. With a team of five, Kristi tackles projects ranging from kitchen renovations to full-scale remodels—primarily on the Peninsula but extending to vacation homes in Aspen, Hawaii and even a GulfStream jet. “I think of us as a small firm that can do really large projects,” she says.

No matter the assignment, Kristi makes a point of catering to two clients: the homeowner and the home itself. “The homeowner is obviously the most important—how they’re going to live in the house and how they envision their lifestyle in the space—but for me, it’s also really about the house,” Kristi explains. “What does the house want to be?”

In the case of a San Mateo County coastal retreat, Kristi worked closely with the owners to fully understand their vision for the project. They emphasized their desire to have the home fit seamlessly into the local landscape—while still being a very personalized haven. Here’s how she summarizes their guidance: “From the outside, we want the home to feel like it was always here and part of our community, but we also want to experience the ‘Wow, this is so beautiful!’ every time we walk through the door.” 

To achieve that goal, Kristi drew on a philosophy that’s always influenced her design ethos—emphasizing meaningful elements in a space. For the homeowners, Kristi notes, that translated into “things that were unique and specific to their needs and how they see the world.” As an example, for the master bedroom, the desire for soothing colors and textures led to the commissioning of a carved leather headboard evoking the California coastline. “It’s very specific to the home,” shares Kristi. “We said, ‘Here’s our interpretation of what we think this room can be for you and how you’ll feel when you go into the space.’” 

Kristi acknowledges that achieving an authentic, personal connection can be challenging, especially when it’s so easy to get swayed off course. “I’ll say, ‘Tell me about this space and why do you have all these things here?’ and they’ll say, ‘Oh, so and so gave us this,’ but they don’t really carry any meaning for the client. And that’s when I have to say, ‘Okay, why is it here? Is it here just because it landed here when your aunt gave it to you?’ If it doesn’t really do anything for them or the room, it’s got to go.” 

At the end of the day, the old adage “less is more” invariably proves true. “I always talk about editing and pulling back,” Kristi says. “Sometimes when you have too much stuff in a space, you don’t really appreciate that one beautiful pillow or that gorgeous light fixture or that exceptional table. Sometimes you have to take a few things away to really appreciate that one great piece.”

For a modern home remodel in Palo Alto, Kristi encountered a common scenario—the homeowners actually represented not one but two clients in that they had differing tastes and perspectives. “The husband just kept saying, ‘I love neutrals and taupe,’ and the wife said, ‘Please let me have some color,’” Kristi recalls. “The project really became a balancing act—taking the husband’s love of modern and clean lines and bridging the gap with the wife’s love of a little bit of fun and pattern.”

An Hermes couch capturing the same quality and detailing of a beloved purse. Modern artwork and pops of color. A whimsical animal sculpture unexpectedly holding court on a staircase. By purposely not overdoing, the end result is that each carefully selected piece imparts greater impact and meaning. “It can be one thing and that’s what your eyes are going to go to,” Kristi points out. “When you walk into a room that you love, it will create that feeling inside where you just want to sing because it feels so good.”

For the coastal retreat, Kristi accomplished that effect through the selection of signature pieces, including two works created by the late renowned Iraqi architect, artist and designer Zaha Hadid. Hadid’s UltraStellar coffee table is a mesmerizing focal point in the living room and in the dining room, recessed lighting illuminates Hadid’s Liquid Glacial table to magically transform the space. “If you look into the table, it looks like water is melting through the legs,” describes Kristi. “And in the evening, you can see this beautiful water reflection on the floor.” 

Although Kristi’s client roster consistently keeps her busy—she estimates that 90% are repeat customers—she is feeling particularly inspired by the prospect of safely entertaining again. “For the last two years, everybody’s had to live sort of isolated and not able to share their homes with their friends and extended family,” she reflects. “That’s not how the homes were meant to be, that’s not how we were designing them. Our homes should be full of life and laughter.”