10 Questions With… Gioi Tran of Applegate Tran
It’s been a long, winding, and inspiring road that has led Gioi Tran—co-founder of San Francisco-based
—to his current state of success. Tran and his partner, Vernon Applegate, provide a wide spectrum of design services to residential and commercial projects across the globe from offices in San Francisco, New York, and San Diego. They also produce an enthusiastically received line of modern furniture and lighting. Here, Tran offers his take on strong partnerships, branching out, and giving back.
Interior Design: You and your partner, Vernon Applegate, have built a really solid business that continues to grow. How has your partnership influenced the company’s potential?
Gioi Tran: Starting the business as partners allowed us to be more aggressive and diverse. We implemented an aggressive business plan 16 years ago—to build an internationally established design business that was innovative and had the breadth to project ideas of a product line, textiles, furnishings, and lighting, in addition to the spectrum of design services. Because we’ve been together, the potential for growth has been greater all along. He and I have our own very clear visions. He’s more avant garde in his approach and is brilliant at combining color, pattern and style. His ability to layer these elements is incredible. My aesthetic is perhaps more streamlined and tailored. It’s clear from the outset, when we meet a new client, who should handle the project based on our personalities and styles.
ID: What are some of the most challenging and exciting design projects on your plate?
GT: We’re very interested in the architecture component of design at this firm, and a great client has hired us to design from the ground-up in a beach town in Panama. We’ve been working effectively for the past year and a half to design every aspect of the home—from layout to furniture to art to home accessories. There’s another ground-up project in Palo Alto, as well. We have a number of projects in New York and Hawaii, as well as some prominent projects in Vietnam. I’m currently working on a modern villa in the center of the city, as well as a famous bar in Saigon called the Q Bar, which had to shut down two years ago due to politics. It’s now reopening in Saigon’s famous opera house, and they asked me to design it.
ID: Applegate Tran is part owner of the Poliform showroom in San Francisco—the Italian furnishings and wall systems brand. What does that do for your business?
GT: Poliform is a very viable business; as designers we consider the brand to be very exciting. The projection is pretty strong. We’ve never owned a showroom, so we decided to partner with a colleague about seven months ago. We saw a lot of opportunity for growth within the industry, and a unique way to elevate our design business.
ID: Following the economic downturn, many U.S. firms have noticed a marked uptick in business. Have you experienced something similar?
GT: It’s true that with the downturn of the economy, every day was a matter of staying afloat and keeping momentum going. In the last year, however, things have grown quite a bit. We’ve noticed our clientele coming back in a strong way. Additionally, we have our furniture and lighting line—which has proven quite interesting. We learned a lot from that “dip,” and I feel it streamlined our business. A designer has to focus on the business aspect, beyond being an “innovator.”
ID: What does that efficient, intelligent approach entail?
GT: With every decision, we weigh the pros and cons and pay great attention to the clients’ needs, ultimately providing a better service to the client. We are also very aware of vendors and suppliers that don’t meet our standards. After the downtown many of them are no longer around, in fact. Everything happens for a reason.
ID: What are the qualities you look for in new staffers?
GT: In the beginning, we hired people with a certain level of technical skills and organizational abilities. Now, I look for the right attitude, and consider technical skills to be secondary. It’s more about a personality. We’ve had interns and because of their energy and presentation, they’ll be hired. It’s key to identify individuals who can blend with the rest of the team. I go for open, honest, excited, friendly individuals, and know that I can teach the technical skills over time. Over the past two years, as we’ve grown back our business, we’ve looked to young designers who are fresh from school. They are open enough to be trained. We have a great team, individuals who come from diverse backgrounds, with different areas of expertise. There’s really good energy in the office.
ID: How do you make sure that your creative message is clear to all those who work for you?
GT: This happens most effectively through having weekly meetings, and maintaining a high level of communication. I travel a lot and have clients all over the globe, so it’s necessary that I stay connected constantly. My partner and I give a lot of leeway to the staff; there’s lots of opportunity to come up with a vision. By listening to others’ ideas I get to step out of my comfort zone, since I’ve been doing this a long time. It’s crucial that we push clients because we’re not going to duplicate the same design.
ID: What would you say is your firm’s primary appeal to clients?
GT: We’re not designers with a signature look, which is ultimately a great thing. In terms of marketing, a signature look can be a great approach since oftentimes clients can’t visualize—so it’s an easy sell. We don’t, however, find that creatively fulfilling. We’ve created an environment in which a client can convey their ideas and be pleasantly surprised by the results. We love when clients come with ideas and do their own research. As long as they’re open to our interpretation and expertise, we welcome all of that inspiration. At this point, we’ve positioned ourselves to only work clients who work with our energy.
ID: On a personal note, you’re involved with an organization called
Pacific Links in Vietnam
. How did you come to be involved with your philanthropic efforts there?
GT: Two years ago, a friend of mine asked me to help with the organization Pacific Links, which provides shelters for girls who have been rescued or escaped from the human trafficking trade in Vietnam. Initially I hosted some fundraising events, and got to know the organization’s founder. This year I traveled with her to see the shelters and understand where the money that is raised goes. My goal is to do much more with them in the future. Part of why I want to continue to achieve success in business and financial gain is to have the freedom to do more volunteer work.
ID: As a young man, could you have predicted your current state of success?
GT: I come from a refugee family and watched my family struggle yet eventually become successful business people. I wanted to pursue my life as an artist, yet my family’s values were on education, and I was encouraged to go into law, medicine, or engineering. I actually dropped out of school at 16 and became a professional dancer. I eventually went back to school, got my GED, and looked into the creative fields. I found interior design interesting, I worked my way into it, and somehow it worked out. I hold onto this story, and communicate it to young designers, to hopefully inspire people to be creative in getting what they want out of life. The artist mindset came in handy during the economic downturn, because I wasn’t afraid to fail or start over. I knew we’d get through it.