Jonathan Rachman: a day in the life of a celeb interior designer

Jonathan Rachman

Jonathan Rachman is an interior designer to the stars. He has worked with Marc Jacobs and many other big American names. Here, he reveals what a typical day in his life involves.

Jonathan Rachman is one of the loveliest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of interviewing. He is warm and generous, open and honest, and talks with great enthusiasm about his fascinating world. We only have 20 minutes booked for the transatlantic call, but he kindly gives me over an hour of his time to discuss his illustrious career. So here is a day in his exciting life…

An interview with Jonathan Rachman

a portrait with flowers
A portrait of Jonathan by Jeffrey Fulgencio.

What time do you wake up in the morning?

I’m blessed to be able to get up or wake up whenever I want, so it depends on what I need to do. Before the pandemic, we all worked harder, but not necessarily wiser. So there were sort of work hours, but since we moved to the country – and, you know, I mostly work from home when I don’t travel – I wake up at the time that we need to wake up. So there will be days when I wake up at 7.30am and there will be days I wake up at 10.30am or 11am. Sometimes I need to get up and pick up somebody at the airport or I have to fly to Atlanta or New York at 7am. So then I’ll get up at 3am or 4am! So it changes every day.

An interview with Jonathan Rachman

So what’s your morning routine? Do you have a typical breakfast or coffee, maybe a ritual like yoga or meditation…?

The last time I did yoga was in Bali, three years ago before the pandemic. Whatever we do, my husband and I, we have a ritual. We wake up, and the first thing we do is kiss good morning. That’s important to us – it’s lovely. And we’ve been together for almost 30 years. I know! So if it’s what we call a workday, Stephen will make coffee in the morning. And I will prepare a little snack – it could be biscotti or a cookie. It could be pineapple cookies from my home country, Indonesia. Or we could share a slice of toast and bring it on a tray.

I’m sentimental, so I bring it on a tray that’s gifted to us from our fairy godson – it’s a beautiful handmade tray made from bamboo. We serve our coffee in coffee cups or mugs from my home country. Or Stephen’s late parents’ favourite coffee mugs, or coffee cups that my sister sent us, or a cup from Lufthansa, our favourite airline. These were all gifted to us. Then we’ll bring the food and drink to our living room or our primary bedroom.

An interview with Jonathan Rachman

We have a sitting area looking out at the valley. It’s beautiful, and if the day is clear, you can see the ocean. And we have about twenty California oak trees. So we hold hands or just read the newspaper or go through our plans for the day. And then we go into our second kiss. And he goes into his office. He’s a psychologist who does the majority of his therapy from home. So he sees his patients and I go to a different part of the house. I go through my day and what I need to do. That’s the ritual.

More about Jonathan’s idyllic life

On weekends, we sleep in on Saturday if we don’t have any guests. Then Stephen makes waffles or pancakes, the American fluffy pancakes, with a bigger pot of coffee. We read the newspaper. Sometimes we sit outside in the backyard when it’s nice and summer and not raining. On Sunday, we sleep in even later – we have a lazy day and then Stephen makes an English fry up.

We also have American breakfasts, either with bacon or hash browns, and eggs for sure. And sometimes he’ll make homemade biscuits. Not sweet biscuits – they’re like biscuits and gravy. The biscuits and gravy come from the south of the US, as he used to live in Mississippi. So we would have a huge breakfast. That’s what we do in the morning, Monday to Sunday.

a Jonathan Rachman design
A desk area designed by Jonathan Rachman.

An interview with Jonathan Rachman

So we’re sure every day is different. But what might a typical workday look like for you? What kind of things would you do?

The blessing in disguise about the pandemic, for me, has been to work wiser and more efficiently, not harder. I am extremely neurotic and organised. So before the end of the evening, the night before the day, I go through my mental checklist: what have I done today? Am I happy with myself and my day? What could I have done differently? And then: what do I have to do tomorrow?

So in the morning, after my goodbye kiss to my husband before he goes to his office, I go through a checklist: how do I prioritise the day? What projects do I need to do? I then make a phone call or have a group text with my design staff. And I go through what the priority of the day is. Is there anything that we didn’t finish yesterday? Then I go through the projects that need my attention. Or sometimes I look at the calendar and I have to be on site. So I have to drive to different projects and units during their installation or construction.

An interview with Jonathan Rachman

I rarely go into the office now. But if I do have to scheme a project in person, meaning I have to shop for the fabrics, find the tiles and do design work then I do go to the office, which is about two and a half hours’ drive from my home.

My husband works once a week in Palo Alto, which is where Stanford is. Every Monday, I drive there with him because that’s only an hour and a half from our home. I drop him off, then continue on to San Francisco. Then at six o’clock I pick him up. And then we’re home by 8.30pm. And sometimes I just do Zooms or conference calls. But yes, sometimes we play hooky, and try not to work!

a copper kitchen island with pendant lights
A design by Jonathan Rachman.

More about Jonathan’s typical day

No matter what, I always try to have a sit down. I don’t know what you’ve read about me, but I was born in Indonesia and I grew up in Switzerland and France and I have lived in the US for about 35 years. But there are certain things that I refuse to do, one of which is eat on the go! I hate that.

I’m old school – I still have to have a proper lunch and sit down either in our dining room or in one of our patios. We have so many – every room has a patio – so, usually in the backyard during summertime or in our dining room in winter, we would sit down and have coffee or lunch. Then, later, sometimes in the afternoon if he gets off work early, I make a point to have a cup of tea. We bring our tea sets and silver and biscuits or little mini sandwiches or peanuts – you know, just depending on what kind of tea we’re having. Sometimes we have the proper English tea with cream and clotted cream and we would call it scones here, or we would have espresso and chocolate, just a pick me up.

Reconnecting during the daytime

We always try to make sure we reconnect during the daytime. I have more flexibility in my hours than him – I don’t have a set schedule, whereas he has scheduled time with his patients. I would do errands for the household or have a meeting with our gardeners to focus on the certain areas of the front yard or backyard.

Otherwise, three times a week, we try our best to go to the gym. I hate the gym with a passion, but I do it because I know it’s good for us. We go to our club, the gym, or we try to work out in the garage. We have a little stationary bike and a little workout bench. Otherwise, I walk. I love to walk and I prefer it. So, that’s our day until the end of the day. Then we have an evening shower or bath time. Next we have cocktails. And we bicker sometimes – we’re not perfect!

Jonathan Rachman at home
A portrait of Jonathan by Aubrie Pick.

An interview with Jonathan Rachman

So your new book Currently Classic has just been published. Congratulations! How did the book come about? Was it suggested to you or did you have the inspiration for it?

Oh, it’s a funny story. So Dean Rhys Morgan, one of your fellow Englishmen, lives in Wales. Dean is a fashion editor. So he happened to have written a book called Jeremiah about Jeremiah Goodman, a famous interior illustrator in New York. He passed away but Dean wrote his biography and his design book. I met Dean, believe it or not, through social media. This is the magic of social media and Instagram.

And I invited Dean to to do a book signing in my store in San Francisco. So we flew across a shipment of his books, and he sent his original artwork and prints to my store all framed, and I displayed them gallery-style. And I threw him a party one evening, and had a book signing with magazine editors and friends and fun people of San Francisco. And when I met Dean, I picked him up at the airport and we instantly hit it off – our sense of humour was the same.

Meeting Dean Rhys Morgan

It was fantastic. And then I love the way he writes. I’m a self proclaimed romantic. But I just love the way he writes about Jeremiah and all the photographs and the layout of the book. And he suggested, “Why don’t we write a book of your 20th anniversary as a designer?” And I said, “Why not?” I mean, I have over 3,000 photographs of my body of work. Then he introduced me to Suzanne Tise Isoré, the director of Flammarion, the parent company, which is based in Paris. So we met in October. I flew into Paris in January of 2020, pre-pandemic in the year of the pandemic. I met Suzanne Tise Isoré, and the rest is history. So we were planning to publish the book in 2021. But obviously we all know what happened then!

But Flammarion is the perfect publisher for me because of its international nature. As you know, I’ve lived on three different continents. They’ve written beautiful books on design and fashion. And Dean and Suzanne have worked together in the past. So it was decided in January 2020 that Flammarion would publish my body of work, co-written by Dean Rhys Morgan.

flowers on a table
A setting styled by Jonathan Rachman.

An interview with Jonathan Rachman

Please tell us all about the book. What kinds of things will readers learn when they when they buy it?

Well, first of all, it’s a visual feast. The cover jacket is custom done by de Gournay. The wallpaper is shocking pink. It’s a collection of my favourite projects – what the publisher thinks is delicious enough to be in the book. My design is always timeless and classic and current. Nobody wants to live in a museum or theatre. So it’s a compilation of 20 years of my portfolio. However, it also talks about how I became a designer and I tell the story of my upbringing, where I came from, my inspiration and the people I admire. Also in this book, there are mood boards and my travel bulletin boards.

The introduction is by Denise Hale, who is an iconic human being. She lives in the US, is originally from Serbia and is sort of like the Empress of San Francisco. She was married to Prentis Hale, maybe the wealthiest man ever to live in the US. But she was also friends with Her Majesty the Queen [Elizabeth II]. There a who’s who of Hollywood and she’s a very direct person – either she loves you or doesn’t like you. She doesn’t give a damn – that’s literally what she wrote in the introduction.

A stunning Parisian sitting room by Jonathan Rachman.

How Jonathan became friends with Denise Hale

So she happened to fall in love with me as her friend and adopted me. Denise wrote the introduction because she has been a muse of mine for almost a decade now. Also, we both have a similar love of the old world and the old school classic nature of the world. We love travelling all over the world, we love the same hotels. Now I sound like a brat, but the only place we stay in London is the hotel Claridge’s! It has to have the living room and the bedroom suites so we can have our privacy and it’s quiet. We know the same concierge, Mr. Martin at Claridge’s, who has taken care of me since I was five or 10 years old.

So, by the way, Denise was one of the very first few people to be invited by the first president of Indonesia. And my parents also knew the president so it was all a big coincidence. When we met decades later, we just hit it off as friends, but truly, she’s a dear friend. So she wrote the introduction. And Marc-Antoine Coulon, a fashion illustrator who works for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in Paris, did our beautiful fashion and interiors illustrations.

An interview with Jonathan Rachman

Claud Cecil Gurney, the founder of de Gournay, did the foreword. Then his gorgeous daughter Hannah Cecil Gurney did the afterword. So it’s it’s a collaboration featuring all the people I love, who have supported me and helped me along the way to be where I am in my career. It features beautiful illustrations, pictures I’ve taken in Bali, Java, Paris, London, and my best portfolio over 20 years.

A gorgeous living area design by Jonathan Rachman.

An interview with Jonathan Rachman

So at what age did you realise you wanted to be an interior designer? Had you always wanted to work in interiors or did you initially want to do something else?

[Laughs] I still haven’t realised I want to be a designer! I never planned to be a designer. You see, I had an unplanned life. I studied Hospitality Management and Hotel and Restaurant Management in Switzerland. My graduate study was in fashion. I declined an internship from Alexander McQueen, bless his soul, because I didn’t want to be separated from my husband (who at that point was my boyfriend).

I worked in corporate America after my college graduation for about 10 years. [Sarcastically]: I love corporate America because they give you one week’s vacation. We have four to five weeks vacation, that’s only humane. Corporate America was all about the nine to five, the routine, the politics, the kissing everybody’s behind. It just didn’t sit well with my lifestyle and my philosophy of life. I wanted to be happy and I wasn’t.

An interview with Jonathan Rachman

So I was in the corporate world, as well as the nonprofit world. At some point, I was the CEO of a nonprofit. And that was just as bad. After 10 years of having – I kid you not – 30 or more corporate jobs that I was so unhappy with. The longest job I’ve ever held was two years, simply because I negotiated a five-to-six week vacation. They pushed me to be vice president of a corporation at the age of 26 or 27. Lo and behold, I said I do not want to work in corporate America anymore.

flowers on a table styled by Jonathan Rachman
A living area designed by Jonathan Rachman.

How Jonathan opened a flower shop

And so I opened a flower shop in a posh neighbourhood of San Francisco, in a hair salon. I used to laugh, and I couldn’t stand it when people thought I was one of the hairdressers. So I opened 100 square feet – 10 square metres – a really small flower shop. I worked so hard from Monday through Saturday or Sunday, sometimes from 2am or 3am until 6pm or 7pm. My husband quit his job as a psychologist to help me – that’s so much love. However, I treated him so poorly as my help. At some point, he went back to work so we could have health insurance. So I hired an employee instead, and this one particular afternoon my employee was delivering flowers. I was buried knee deep in branches and leaves and petals.

And about seven, eight people walked in and crammed me in. And at the end of about half an hour, a guy was like, “I’m going to hire you.” I’m like, “Thank you very much. But what am I supposed to do?” And he was like, “Don’t worry.” He said, “One of my business staff will tell you what to do.” Most of them left and this lady said, “Congrats. Do you know who that was?” I said,”‘I’m so sorry, I have no idea. I’m too busy doing flower arrangements.” And she said, “That was Marc Jacobs.” And I said, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry!” This was 20 years ago. So he looks very different now than he did.

How working for Marc Jacobs turned Jonathan into an interior designer

I used to do his flowers for his flagship store. A beautiful store in San Francisco, which I would visit twice a week with pretty much an unlimited budget. He connected me to his people, his PR people, just like I have my PR people now. People connected me to Sarah Jessica Parker and Madonna and Oprah. And I did flowers and parties for them at MTV.

And at some point I was flying back to Paris through Frankfurt, Lufthansa. If your clients send you on the right airline, in the right class, you sit next to the ambassador’s wife of Austria.

Who hired me on the spot at 30,000 feet high to help them design the United Nations’ 60th anniversary. Oh my goodness. That was in 2005. The party was in 2006. So the ladies who lunch who attended all these different parties and shopping and knew Marc Jacobs tracked me down and found me, and said, “I heard you did the party for the United Nations” or “the MTV party for Goo Goo Dolls”, or whatever it was. And one of the ladies said, “Would you decorate my home?” I said, “Well, I’ve never gone to school as an interior designer.” But I went to her house every week. She paid cash and life is easier if you are honest and put everything in the bank.

An interview with Jonathan Rachman

And 40 weeks later, the house was finally completed. And then she asked me to do her summer home and the rest is history, because then it just became a word of mouth thing. I became an interior designer, literally unplanned and I just seized the opportunity. Carpe diem: I was in the right place at the right time, like a parking spot. Remember in Forrest Gump, when he said, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get”? I say life is like a parking spot, being at the right place at the right time. But you have to deliver -you have to have good taste, you have to have the talent, but you must have the integrity to deliver what your clients request you to do.

So I literally opened my first business when I was 31 years old. I just gave away my age! Now it’s 20 years later, so I truly never planned to be an interior designer. It just sort of landed in my lap.

An interview with Jonathan Rachman

Do you have three rules that you live by for design?

Yes, yes and yes. First and foremost, always always be yourself. Embrace yourself. Don’t try to copy other people, and don’t try to be someone else that you’re not. You know, some people like to look like Audrey. Don’t be Audrey, let her inspire you. Don’t be Kim Kardashian. She’s taken. You know, take elements but really create your own style. Be yourself.

Number two: put your soul into your design. Please design with passion. Put your heart into it. Love what you do. If you’re designing, be passionate about what you’re doing. And the results will follow.

Lastly, as you know, and I’ve said it many times, I’ve never gone to design school. Don’t worry so much about the rules. In fact, I break all the rules. I don’t even know what the rules are. So go for it. Have fun. It’s for your pleasure. When I decided start designing I didn’t know what the rules were. I still don’t know. But I just did it because I follow my gut instinct.

More about Jonathan’s design rules to live by

I do what looks good, and I believe if it looks good to me, I believe in the Venn diagram. There will be other humans who appreciate it by aesthetics. And clearly naturally enough I gained a lot of clients simply because I love what I do. I don’t try to be like other designers. I follow my heart and I do it properly. Of course, I consult with experts like structural engineers and electricians and architects. I do it safely.

But in the end I follow my gut as to what looks good. I guide my clients as to what good style is and what they should do. I make it happen for them. So these are my three golden rules.

A dreamy cottage interior designed by Jonathan Rachman, featuring a bubble chandelier.

So do you have a favourite room of your house? I’m guessing it’s not the gym, but I could be wrong!

You know what? I am asked this question all the time by many editors at many magazines and my answer is always the same. Every room is my favourite room of the house. I like the room that has a soul, as it goes back to what I believe in. I love a room that’s lived in, a room that shows realness, and I don’t like pretentious realms.

So if you have a house that has 30 rooms, or a studio or an apartment that has only one room, live in it, make it your own. Use the room. Don’t go to the room to show it off on holidays or Christmas or Thanksgiving or when you have a tea party or cocktails with friends or boyfriends, but live in it. Every room should be a favourite room for heaven’s sake, it’s your house!

So I try to go into every room every day, and if that’s not possible, every week. I always move things around, I’ll move furniture and add accessories. So to answer your question, I love them all. But because I’m sentimental and romantic, I love the room where my husband is most, so I can cuddle with him.

Aww. So lastly, what’s your bedtime routine? What time do you sleep and how do you wind down?

After we have a bath or shower, cocktails are always important for us. A cocktail opens up the evening and closes the day. When it’s nice, we always sip cocktails outdoor watching the sunset. And when it’s cold in the winter, we drink them by the fireplace. Then Stephen cooks and I set the table with the right flowers, the right cutlery and a proper tablecloth or placemats.

Then we sit down. Dinner is very very slow and lingering. We don’t start dinner until 7.30pm or 8pm, and we finish dinner at 9pm or 10pm at the earliest. Then either we read or watch TV, or we watch a movie or a show, usually old movies. He likes scifi and I limit his scifi movies!

After that, we either have a nightcap or tea, like herbal tea. And we just have quiet time together. Quietly, I go through my mental list of ‘how was the day today’ and ‘what do I need to do tomorrow’?

The first thing I do is turn my phone and computer off at least an hour before bedtime. We put our phone and computer in a different room. Our bedroom has no TV and no phones but it does have a CD player so we can put on some music or if we feel like it.

We brush our teeth and we always, always kiss goodnight before bed. Then we just go into our quiet time – we open the window. We like to have our window open when we sleep, and when it’s really nice outside, we open the curtains and just watch the stars and cuddle and fall asleep.

a living room by Jonathan Rachman

Want to read another Day in the Life? Then check out our interview with Linda Barker.

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