Member Profile: Guillaume Coutheillas

Guillaume Coutheillas Founder, frenchCALIFORNIA

Paris-born interior designer Guillaume Coutheillas is proud to call SF home. He founded his award-winning interior design and branding studio frenchCALIFORNIA here in 2016, partnering with the world’s top collectible design and art galleries, real estate developers, and collectors to curate distinctive, eclectic commercial and residential interiors — projects regularly featured in Architectural Digest, Robb Report, Modern Luxury, Wallpaper*, and Town & Country.

Dividing his time between the Bay and New York, Guillaume shares his influences and inspirations, and why yoga studios are the best place to discover a new city.

How did you get your start in the world of interior design?

I was working for a real estate developer producing show houses and artist collaborations and installations, and they suggested I start my own company and offered to support me. I wasn’t formally educated in design—I went to business school and then a political science school in Paris that had an exchange program with Columbia University, which is how my American adventure began—but I grew up in a house with parents who are very interested in design and architecture.

My dad’s an engineer and spent some of his career building infrastructure, bridges, and roads in various countries, and he likes very clean, minimalist lines. My mom is from the south of France and loves vintage credenzas and decorating with flowers and paintings everywhere. I realized later, after starting my company, that my personal style is a shaker of both elements.

Why did you choose SF as your home base?

I love San Francisco. It’s the most European city in America besides New York, so it was an effortless transition. The developer I worked for had four projects in Hayes Valley, and that’s how I was introduced to the city. I enjoy the weather, how people here are well-traveled and more open to culture, and the city’s history. My husband and I bought a 1918 house in Cole Valley on a street where all the houses date from the 1900s and have lots of character and charm.

Tell us about frenchCALIFORNIA, and how your work bridges interior design and branding.

We’re a team from all backgrounds and walks of life, so our projects embody a multicultural ethos and combine inspiration from many countries, cultures, and genres as part of our design aesthetic, which mixes vintage and contemporary pieces. Our interior design capabilities include turnkey residential renovations and interior furnishings, art curation, concept development, creative direction, model residence staging, and commercial, exhibition, and commercial design.

We also have a graphic design and branding studio specializing in residential, commercial, lifestyle, and architectural clients, providing services such as brand identity, digital development, floor plan design, wayfinding, and more.

What is your foundation for designing a space?

When we’re working on show houses, depending on the city, we always imagine who’s going to live in these homes—is it a family, a couple, or a single person? Do they have pets? What does their lifestyle look like: are they super active, are they readers, do they entertain? Our projects are always contextual because you want to do something that relates to the size of the space and the environment but also hints at travel.

When we design for residential owners, we have to satisfy all their requests and the way they live, pets, kids, and other pieces that they want to bring with them. These are two very different exercises, and they have their own exciting and challenging elements.

Where do you find inspiration?

Being from a different country, I know of magazines, publications, and niche outlets that maybe others aren’t familiar with — having access to other cultures is inspiring and incredibly helpful, especially on the vintage side. Instagram has also opened the door for us as designers to have access to amazing artists and creators who otherwise would not be able to showcase their work because they can’t travel to all the fairs and shops. Social media is an incredible tool.

Your projects feature eclectic pieces from different periods and different countries. How do you source items?

We’re always adding to our inventory. Clients want to buy vintage and antique items that are not necessarily extremely expensive, signed first editions by designers, but beautiful pieces with a story and visible signs of age and use.

Paris, generally, is very overpriced, but there are little shops called “vide grenier” which translates to “empty attic” that sell items from estate sales. The south of France is really good for antiques. Domestically, Michigan, specifically Detroit, is great. I avoid the obvious spots like upstate New York and wine country as those places are saturated with people who can pay high prices.

Tell us about a couple of your recent projects.

For a condo at 130 William, a building with amazing architecture in New York, we mixed contemporary pieces with vintage. We collaborated with Italian brand Capellini to feature many of its chairs, including Marc Newson’s Embryo, which is displayed at the MoMa. The wallpaper is by Brooklyn-based company Calico. We partnered with Swedish artisanal firm Kasthall on rugs and worked with Foscarini, an Italian lighting manufacturer, on light fixtures.

We’ve also created a capsule paint collection in collaboration with San Francisco-based company Color Atelier. For a recent project for Four Seasons here in San Francisco, we developed custom colors in all the rooms, including a limewash crosshatch and lots of earth tones.

Which tools are essential to your work?

I have a MUJI pen and a notebook, which I use a little like a journal on the day I’m on site. I create something, assign all the tasks, and tear out the page. Otherwise, I use the Notes app, especially when developing personas. Incredible pieces of literature and music have been written on the Notes app!

We use Adobe Suite software, and we’re starting to integrate AI into our process, although we don’t use it for design or mood boards: every team member uses AI every day to streamline their writing, generate formal invoices, and things like that. We’re still in a very old-school business, but there are so many ways technology can help things move faster. This was especially useful during the pandemic when we could work entirely remotely without seeing the clients.

How do you define sustainability as a person and in your business?

We use a lot of vintage, which to me is the best way to be sustainable. It’s always a conversation we have with clients: depending on where people are from or how they grew up, they might think vintage is old and dirty; we try to show how dropping that one antique chair in their living room can transform the space. Beautiful pieces with a history will make your home feel even more full of life and soul.

All the paint we use in our projects is sustainable because they’re non-toxic stone- and water-based pigments. As much as possible, we shop with companies with sustainable practices. Smaller firms that can’t afford to develop a sustainable arm of the company can still spend money on sustainable products; most of the big manufacturers have lines or collections that are more sustainable within their entire catalog.

As an individual, I want to stay away from fast fashion and I cannot convince myself to spend what luxury brands are asking for shoes and jackets, so I buy items second-hand through vintage stores and places like The RealReal. I tend to stick to timeless pieces that will last in blacks, creams, and neutrals, so whatever I have in my suitcase or closet always works together. Light colors are great because they don’t show dust when you’re installing a project!

Tell us how your CANOPY membership supports you in your work.

I’m an ambassador for CANOPY and I have a Nomad membership, which allows me to move between locations depending on my meetings and whether I’m doing yoga or going to the gym afterward. It also depends on the energy I want to receive. Some days, I go to Pacific Heights because it’s much more intimate. Jackson Square is great when I need the energy of being around other people: it has two floors and lots of outdoor space. I wish there were another word for “coworking” because these spaces are so beautifully designed it doesn’t do them justice.

Do you have any favorite design features or moments at CANOPY?

I love the lightwells at Jackson Square, some of which are real, and others contain lights that mimic natural light and trick your brain into thinking there are skylights everywhere, which is really smart. I really like the Public Office Landscape furniture—you can create little pods with chairs and desks that are flexible for both independent deep-focus work and collaboration with other people.

Do you have a favorite podcast?

I often listen to Le Masque et La Plume, a French podcast that’s been running for 50 or 60 years—it started as a radio show long before I was born, and I used to listen to it as a kid, driving with my parents in a car. Every week, four or five critics review literature, theater, cinema, or TV. Hearing sophisticated, very well-read people discuss topics and having informed opinions about media and culture is incredible. I’ll never see the plays they discuss, but I love hearing about them.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

It’s not advice, per se, but I see how my parents live their lives: they’ve traveled the world and lived in different countries and find everything interesting. High culture, low culture, no culture — they take time to smell the roses, and applying this day to day is incredibly inspiring and can even be shocking. Looking at things through that lens is life-changing.

What’s a skill everyone should master?

Yoga. Before I moved to San Francisco, I’d never done yoga before. Eight or nine years later, yoga has changed my life. I discover different cities in the world through their studios — one year I was in Milan for a furniture exhibition, and although I don’t speak Italian, I went to a yoga studio. You get a feel for the community and the city’s design aesthetic by talking to people, whether they play music or not, and whether they’re very serious or a little more loose. I don’t want to preach about yoga, but whenever I land in a city I’ve never been to where I’m doing a project, I’ll learn about it by finding local yoga studios.

Do you have a place you love to visit?

Todos Santos on the Baja California peninsula. It’s very close and an easy flight from San Francisco. I’m not a resort person and don’t love staying in hotels, so I usually stay in a rental house. When I travel, I have to have flowers and candles: I go to the local flower market, and I make an arrangement for the week. Todos Santos is a place that I love.

What’s your favorite thing to do in San Francisco?

Happy hour yoga flow on Union Street on Friday, followed by drinks at either Wild Seed or Flores. I live 10 to 12 minutes from the Sunset District and I try to go there with my dog at least once every week — walking along Sunset Beach honestly got me through the pandemic. I don’t need to cross the Golden Gate Bridge to go to Mill Valley, although I know it’s incredible because I have a beach so close to my house.

Follow frenchCALIFORNIA on Instagram @french.ca. Follow Guillaume on Instagram @gcoutheillas.