This month dozens of designers and landscape architects unveil their Pacific Heights mansion makeover—a 40th birthday milestone for the San Francisco Decorator Showcase, with proceeds providing financial aid for University High School students. Here’s a sneak peek at the preparations.

By Jordan Kushins

Every year for the past four decades, the San Francisco Decorator Showcase has taken up temporary residence at a stately home in the city and set a series of top designers loose inside. The concept is consistent—participating industry pros are each responsible for completely redesigning a single room, from floor to ceiling—yet the results are anything but: expect bold, swanky and ever-so-slightly overwhelming. Crossing the threshold as a visitor is like entering some kind of ultra-fashionable fever dream come to fully realized life, where styles and decor shift dramatically from kitchen to closet, from bathroom to patio, and everywhere in between.

But the monthlong event is about more than aesthetic decadence. All proceeds raised by sponsorship, ads and guests benefit the financial aid program at San Francisco University High School; the academy’s annual festivities have raised over $15 million to date, offering tuition assistance to hundreds of teens.

“We all knew that San Franciscans are very house-proud, but we hadn’t ever done anything like this here,” says Nan Rosenblatt. The interior designer and parent of two early SFUHS students launched the ambitious endeavor in 1977, two years after the college prep opened its doors to students. “I was inspired by the Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club in the Bronx, which had done a very successful showcase in New York just prior. Ours is now known as the most important of its kind in the country—second only, perhaps, to Kips Bay.”

In order to secure a place in the Showcase, interested designers are given a floorplan and asked to submit pro-bono proposals for up to two rooms, which are then culled down and curated as a collection of final selections. The 11,000-square-foot Pacific Heights estate at 2698 Pacific Avenue, chosen as this year’s venue, will welcome almost 30 designers in to work their magic over its four floors of Classical Revival style. “The location has been on our radar for years, but the construction was never quite far enough along for our timeline,” says SFUHS Senior Associate Director of Development Kate Gorrissen. “This year it finally worked out—just in time to celebrate our 40th anniversary!”

It will be Jonathan Rachman’s third time taking part. The Sumatra-born bon vivant is a self-taught designer who got his start with a small flower shop in SF, and he credits much of his current creative growth and success to his role in the Showcase. “In 2012—the first time I did it—I had only one employee,” he says. “People saw my work there; they liked it; they wrote about it; and that really put my name out there.” Now he boasts a regular roster of high-profile clients, and 10 employees helping him take care of business at his dedicated studio and showroom on Market Street.

This year, Rachman went big and composed a mood board for the living room—generally one of the most prominent opportunities offered, in terms of sheer size and scope. “I really wanted to demonstrate how far I’ve come,” he says. His vision featured a multi-medium mashup with nods to a wide variety of cultural touch-points, including: a green, gray and yellow keepsake plate from a cafe in Verona that he and his husband adore; a black-and-white photograph of Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn walking together along the Seine; and an Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong duet of “April in Paris.” “I always create a story with every one of my projects, and it’s often focused on travel in some way,” Rachman says. “Travel is how I’ve educated myself, and it’s often how I’m able to connect with my clients. It’s very important to me.”

Rachman depended upon an incredible network to transfer mood board to IRL manse: de Gournay is providing hand-embroidered wallpaper; Ironies is supplying custom furniture; and he’s sponsored by local boutique Cout d’Etat, Lee Jofa fabrics and more. These kinds of connections are central to making the Showcase a reality, and many furnishings are sold on-site to design-lovers taking a tour.

University High School students are also exposed to the efforts. “As part as our Community Engagement program, each ninth-grader is required to volunteer as a guide in the house one weekend during the month that we are open to the public,” Gorrissen says. “Additionally, junior and senior students are invited to volunteer at one or both of our opening night events.”

Bringing this fancy celebration full circle, around to the kids, is what keeps Rachman returning. “I never forget why I’m doing this. It’s about giving back,” he says. “I’m just an island boy. I came from a very humble country—my street wasn’t even paved—and now I’m living the American Dream, period. The Showcase really builds a sense of community, and the fact that it’s for a scholarship affirms the notion that it takes a village—it takes a whole world—to make things happen.” 

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