Soul Circle

Una Malan returns to San Francisco to launch her second showroom
Designer smiling for camera.

Above image: Showroom impresario and furniture designer Una Malan.

By Linda O’Keeffe

The designs represented by Una Malan are born of an extraordinarily diverse roster of creators and makers. There is luscious storage with leather, bronze, and walnut shelves by New York’s Aguirre Design, and furniture, lighting, and fabrics from British icon Rose Uniacke. There are industrial, brutalist fixtures by LA’s Neptune Glassworks, and sculptural planters by South African studio Indigenus. These cosmopolitan collections are unified by Malan’s refined, sophisticated vision; her curation reflects an elevated sensibility expressed in her own chicly understated personal style.

This month, Malan arrives at the SFDC to launch her second showroom, bringing her directional roster to the Bay Area. She’s kicking things off with a pop-up showroom at the Galleria showcasing fabrics, lighting, and a small selection of furnishings, and in September will open the doors of a 3,500-square-foot space just down the hall featuring her full portfolio of collections.

Pendant lamp with brass holder and cutaway glass globe.

A UK native, Malan began her interior design career in London before relocating to the West Coast in 2007. After honing her skills in the Los Angeles and San Francisco design communities, she opened her namesake showroom in LA in 2016, launching first in a petite, 300-square-foot space, then moving to her current location in an elegant John Elgin Woolf courtyard bungalow in La Cienega Design Quarter. Here, she shares the creative journey that’s bringing her back to San Francisco.

Your professional path has meandered wonderfully.

Very true! In my first career, I was an agent at ICM, a talent agency, representing artists from a variety of creative fields. But I always loved interior design and was giddy about fabrics. When I left ICM, I was at a bit of a loss as to what my next step should be, when a friend said, “Well, you’re always redecorating and talking about interiors—why don’t you do something with that?”

What was your first step into the field?

I attended the KLC School of Design in London. After graduating, I developed my style—one that mixed contemporary furniture with antiques—and acquired a number of really great clients.

What brought you from London to the U.S.?

I had always wanted to live on the West Coast, ever since I was a little girl, and I moved to LA at the end of 2007. Unfortunately, the struggling economy in 2008 waylaid my plans to continue as an interior designer. It was a challenging time for the profession as a whole, so imagine how dire it was for a newbie on the scene. Instead, I took a job with the Rug Company and eventually became their West Coast director. At first I thought of it as a temporary measure, but it’s such a well-respected brand and such a happy, spirited place to work that I stayed for six years. Collaborating with a host of people—from makers to magazine editors—opened so many doors; I absolutely thrived. However, I missed playing with all the other beautiful things you get to work with when designing an interiors project. So one day, while sitting at my dining table and cooing over a selection of new Loro Piana fabrics, I turned to my husband and said, “I have to do this. I have to open my own showroom.” Cut to four months later—in January 2016, I opened our first, tiny showroom in West Hollywood.

What’s inspiring you to open the second location in San Francisco?

From the beginning, I always knew that I wanted to open a showroom in San Francisco, because over the years I’ve developed deep ties to, and a great affection for, the design community here. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that all my different work experiences provided me with the training and experience to do exactly what I’m doing now. Life is like that, isn’t it? I’m not only surrounded by beauty, which makes me so happy, but I’m also nurturing talent. So it’s full circle back to where I started at ICM.

“From the beginning, I always knew that I wanted to open a showroom in san francisco, because over the years I’ve developed deep ties to, and a great affection for, the design community here.”

You refer to yourself as process oriented.

When I was a child, my father, who was an artist and photographer, often asked me to help him with the color balance—using trays and chemicals, not Photoshop—in his darkroom, where I’d watch him print and develop film. It was magical. Witnessing things come to life and grow still fascinates me. It’s why I spend so much time in the workroom when pieces from my own furniture collection are being crafted. I’m obviously gratified by the end product, but I’m even more interested in the framing, the pre-upholstery stages, the wood staining, the metal finishes.

Two images, one is a four poster canopy bed and the other is a small round upholstered ottoman.

The Belsize bed and Pepper stool, both by Una Malan.

Will you share more about your namesake collection, which features pieces that are so sculptural and have such strong silhouettes?

My father sculpted, and he loved Jean Arp. The one piece of sculpture I have of my father’s has those same sinuous lines. Perhaps that’s also one of the reasons I love horses—their movement is so fluid and graceful. My collection includes sofas, beds, dressers, chairs, stools, fabrics, and throws. The best way to describe them is timeless yet current.

Modern graphic.

What’s the methodology behind presenting your roster of individualistic designers so cohesively?

I’m not sure I can answer that, because I do it all by intuition, by feeling. I evaluate each piece according to the overall atmosphere I envision for the showroom. That vibe is difficult to put into words. Everything has to be expertly crafted from beautiful materials and needs to have a reason to be there. That’s when I borrow a quote from William Morris, whom we happen to represent at the showroom as well: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

I’m also a believer in the harmony of contrasts. So, for example, I like clean-lined, sartorially upholstered furniture with, say, Zoffany’s beautiful archival fabrics and wallpapers, because they tap into my affection for tradition and heritage. I guess you can take the girl out of England but you can’t take England out of the girl.

“Everything has to be expertly crafted from beautiful materials and needs to have a reason to be there. That’s when I borrow a quote from William Morris, whom we happen to represent at the showroom as well: ‘have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’”

Where do you find new talent to represent?

It’s ironic because when I first had an inkling to open on La Cienega, I wondered whether there would be enough talent out there. Now I’m surrounded by an endless pool of wonderful makers and manufacturers. Fortunately, I’m also in a position where people seek me out. Whenever we consider taking on a new vendor, it’s always in relation to what we have, if it enhances and expands the existing vendors. It harks back to my days at ICM—I want to make sure we have enough time to devote to each individual talent and collection. Having said that, I always have an eye out for fresh and interesting work.

Three images. Top left is a modern living room with curved windows and upholstered furniture. Second one is a closeup of a cone-shaped pendant lamp next to a staircase. Third is a variety of swatches of drape fabrics.

Clockwise from Top: A rendering of an interior design by Una Malan featuring her Olive sofa and Soho swivel chair; Castilleja’s Plinth table; the Malagana side table by Aguirre Design; and Gabrielle Demilune console by Atelier Delalain. The Plaster Cone pendant light by Rose Uniacke, and her vibrant array of fabrics.

Which collections are you most excited to debut in San Francisco?

We were the first showroom in the U.S. to represent Rose Uniacke, and we have the West Coast exclusive, so I want to make sure we get to show her properly in San Francisco. Castilleja is a smaller collection by a very talented furniture maker, Matt Castilleja, and we’re the first showroom to represent him as well. His Plinth dining table with green Antique Verte marble is just heavenly. There’s also a fabulous collection of planters by Indigenus from South Africa, where my dad was from. They have partnered with some of the best architects and artists in the country to create sculptural planters that are really different from anything else out there—stunning and special.

Ultimately, though, no matter the space we’re in, and no matter how many collections we’re representing, I’ll continue to maintain breathing room and a sense of spaciousness in the showroom. That’s very important to me.

A stylish garden with small trees in white stone planters and sculptured bushes.

Artisan-made Soma stone planters by Indigenus.

Outside of design, where do your passions lie?

I love animals of all kinds. My husband and I have cats, dogs, and horses, and if and when we eventually move to the country, we’ll have even more. These days, our house is tidy for about an hour after the house is cleaned, then, well, I was about to say that it devolves into pure chaos, but it’s actually pure joy!

Designer nose-to-nose with her horse.

Malan with her bay thoroughbred, Apollo.

Two Henry Adams Street, Suite 2M-33
San Francisco, CA 94103