Tom Collom

Tom Collom is a successful designer, architect, entrepreneur Tom Collomand developer here in San Francisco. You may be familiar with some of his work, Market on Market is the latest. He also has Small Foods, a new concept in convenience markets, on 2nd street. He came to 601 Brannan recently to share his real world experience with our students when trying to create a retail food space.

Tom discusses the process of inspiration
Tom discusses the process of inspiration

Recently our own Luna Sibai sat down with Tom after his presentation in the Atrium.
Tom and Luna
Tom and Luna

Luna: How are you feeling today?
Tom: I’m good…I always wanted someone like me, with experience to meet when I was a student. I didn’t get that at the University of California. I felt that when I went out into the real world to get a job, I really didn’t have a clue about how the real world worked. It was like sink or swim…I’ve accumulated 30 years experience doing this and I think to be able to pass that information on is a great benefit to the community, to fellow designers and budding architects. I think it’s great that the Academy of Art wants this and sees its importance.
L: Do you have a signature style?
T: At heart I’m a modernist, I love modern design although I appreciate all design. I see the validity of why people design in different styles and in different ways. It keeps things interesting. At my core, I love modern, clean, simple. I think it’s more a timeless approach and not so much a fashion statement as a way to think about design. We should be able to look back in 10, 20, 30 years and it still seems fresh. It hasn’t gone out of style or fashion like say post modernism which was all the rage when I was going to school. A lot of people’s projects were starting to get this postmodern look because they were trying to be in with the current fashion of architecture. I see those projects now and they don’t look so good.
L: Where do you draw inspiration from? Is there a specific area that either it be from the environment or a memory or something that you’ve read that does the trick?
T: I’m an extremely visual person so I’m most inspired visually rather than say reading, even though I love reading. I would say in an art museum looking at a sculpture or a painting. It might be a relationship between things that I’ve never noticed or observed and found exciting.
L: Does Small Foods or The Market have an art piece from which you drew inspiration?
Small Foods On 2nd St.
Small Foods On 2nd St.

T: Well to say for the Small Foods design… it was really about recognizing that the spimg_0470bace itself was beautiful. Why mess with it? Just take away the stuff that didn’t belong and expose the bones and structure of the building. It has great industrial sash windows and allows for great natural light. The key is making it work for what it’s intended to do. It’s not so much a design project but maybe making it more functional and bringing its soul forth. And the Market was again another building that used to be a furniture mart so when I was a young designer would go there and look at the tables and chairs. Later it moved near the design center. The building became vacant and sort of just sat there. When Shorenstein purchased the building and they started cleaning it up and bring it back to life, they sand blasted all the concrete and took floors out to let light in and the beauty was revealed. It was sort of like Small Foods in that we didn’t “over design” it but just let the natural beauty come out. It was important for us to let the windows be exposed as much as possible. In many grocery stores they cover all the windows because they want maximum display area for the merchandise on the perimeter. We have food stations around the perimeter to let in light and display the tall merchandise in the center.
One of the many Food Stations (this one is Sushi) at The Market on Market
One of the many Food Stations (this one is Sushi) at The Market on Market

L: So I see that your key way of designing is simple is better
T: Oh definitely and it’s less expensive. (Laughing) I’ve learned that there’s budgets.
L: What got you into design and what pushed you into that direction?
T: That’s a good question… I didn’t really have a good high school experience I didn’t really like it that much and my passion was skiing. I thought I wanted to be a skier in the Olympics so I moved to Lake Tahoe and skied a lot. My roommates where on the US ski team but I got bored with that so I thought I should do something with my mind. There was a little local college where I was living in Incline village and they focused on environmental design and alternative energy. I decided to enroll and many of the courses was taught by architects and engineers. I started to go to classes and found it absolutely fascinating. When they would hand out blue prints for us to analyze and do energy calculations and solar design I was hooked! That’s what triggered me to go towards architecture. Before that, we had no architects or designers in my family so I guess it was all just coming out naturally.
L: So nothing was pushed onto you?
T: Nope nothing. My dad’s a doctor and medicine was not an interest at all to me. He would take me to the hospital and I would think “No no I don’t like this” and “I hate this place.” I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I kind of “fell into” interior architecture.
L: Do any interior designers inspire you?
T: I don’t think I can name specifically only an interior designer that’s inspiring to me… I look at everything…I tend to look at architects who are doing exciting projects like Santiago Calatrava. He’s an engineer and an architect so just by virtue of creating these great buildings that are beautiful outside as well inside because they are so connected. The shell is one thing and the interior is another and these integrated spaces both parts of the work are inspiring.
L: I see that you mostly design in the SF area, where else would you like to design?
T: Well we kind of have done a lot of projects that were mostly stores so it doesn’t really let you stretch your wings. I would say potentially in some of the European countries where they seem to be pushing the envelope in terms of design. There are lot of exciting things going on in Germany and in the Netherlands and Paris and London. It seems there is more appreciation for good design. When I was in London not too long ago, I saw some of the new high rises that went up like The Shard or what they call the Gherkin pickle, the Norman Foster design. Those are great buildings. I think that’s a credit to London. I think San Francisco unfortunately doesn’t have that many particularly interesting high rise buildings. Chicago is another great city with a lot of great architecture. Don’t get me wrong, San Francisco has been wonderful to me but I would still love to do a project in another city.
L: This is to help the students a bit and that’s what do you look for when hiring an Intern?
T: Number one enthusiasm. People sometimes try to fake it but I can detect that pretty quickly. If a student comes to me and they show passion for what they’re doing and that they have found what they love, that means a lot to me. I know that they aren’t going to know everything and they will need some help and couching but as long as they have that core love then you can’t go wrong. I found it really frustrating when I was looking for a job after I graduated that I didn’t have any experience. I hoped in some firms I could just help around the office and let their knowledge rub off on me. But I felt a lot of resistance to that. I found it very frustrating so I never forgot that. Often a newly graduated student will come by and they exude this enthusiasm and their projects seem really interesting. I can see they thought a lot about them so I try to give them a chance. Yeah it may take a little bit more effort on my part but I feel it is worth it. I’d rather have that than someone who is burnt out and just doing a job. I find, yeah they may be good at auto cad but that’s about it.
L: Last questing is what is something you never thought you would be doing in your career?
The Market on Market
The Market on Market

T: Being in the food business! I never in a million years thought that! I’m also very entrepreneurial so after having a couple of jobs out of school for three or four years, I immediately wanted to have my own company. I also love lighting and lighting design so I started my own company. I guess food is just another entrepreneurial pursuit that maybe was back there in my mind somewhere and just kind of came out in this way. Surprisingly I do love the business side of say, a food store for example. It’s very interesting and a completely different world that lets me work different parts of my brain. Really, I’m now a client of myself so I’m also the operator yelling at myself “why did you do that” or “awe that’s terrible” so it’s been an interesting experience to see it full circle. Now when I think back on clients who were frustrated with me when I didn’t listen to them because I had a “vision” for what their space could look like I get it! Sometimes I would push so hard to implement my vision. I hope now I am a better listener to my clients because I appreciate that these places are hard to operate. They know what works and what doesn’t so I wouldn’t necessarily push a design so hard when a client pushes back.
L: Thank you so much for sitting here and sharing with me.
T: Thank YOU for listing.