A Conversation With Tom Collom

The architect, designer and entrepreneur shares his inspiration during a visit to the School of Interior Architecture & Design


Architect, designer and entrepreneur Tom Collom sits down for an interview with School of Interior Architecture & Design's Luna Sibai. Photo by Mark Miller.

Tom Collom, a successful designer, architect, entrepreneur and developer here in San Francisco, recently visited Academy of Art University’s School of Interior Architecture & Design (IAD) for a guest lecture. You might be familiar with some of his work; Market on Market is his latest. He also has Small Foods, a new concept in convenience markets, on 2nd Street. He came to 601 Brannan to share his real world experience with our students about the creation of a retail food space.

Recently IAD’s own Luna Sibai sat down with Collom after his presentation in the Atrium.

How are you feeling today?

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 of 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.

Do you have a signature style?

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 and simple. I think it’s a more 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.

Where do you draw inspiration from? Is there a specific environment, memory or something that you’ve read that does the trick?

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.

Does Small Foods or The Market have an art piece from which you drew inspiration?

Well to say for the Small Foods design, it was really about recognizing that the space 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, I 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 bringing 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.


During a recent guest lecture, Collom discussed his inspiration process. Photo by Mark Miller.

So your key way of designing is simple is better?

Oh definitely and it’s less expensive. [Laughing] I’ve learned that [there are] budgets.

How did you get into design and what pushed you into that direction?

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 were on the U.S. 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 were taught by architects and engineers. I started to go to classes and found it absolutely fascinating. When they would hand out blueprints 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.

So nothing was pushed onto you?

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.

Do any other interior designers inspire you?

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 [as] inside because they are so connected. The shell is one thing and the interior is another and [with] these integrated spaces, both parts of the work are inspiring.

I see that you mostly design in the San Francisco area, where else would you like to design?

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 lots 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.


Market on Market, designed by Tom Collom.

What do you look for when hiring an intern?

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 coaching 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 AutoCAD, but that’s about it.

Last question, what is something you never thought you would be doing in your career?

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 “aw, 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.