Design Legends

Commune Design

Daniella Ohad

Each week, design doyenne Daniella Ohad talks with an industry-defining legend of interior design

This fall, Daniella Ohad hosts Interior Design: The Legends, a weekly virtual program presented in partnership with AIA New York and ASID New York, comprising one-on-one interviews with the world’s leading, most admired interior designers. For the Design Miami/ Forum, Ohad recaps the highlights from each conversation.

Living Room in Los Feliz Spanish Colonial in LA by Commune Design, 2015. Photo © Richard Powers

“The work of the firm headed by Roman Alonso and Steven Johanknecht explores a refined universe that is infused with an unfussy California-chic perspective. Their finished projects convey comfort and intrigue. The interiors are simple yet intricate, classic yet alternative, never seen before. Commune is minimalism reimagined with warmth. The fabrics they use are sensuous to the touch; the materials are tactile; and the designs they employ in their schemes are nothing if not glamorous. Yet all the while the work of Commune is sensible, future forward, and sustainable. The secret is that they have always known what hip is, but they also have a keen sense of when hip is useless or silly.” —Michael Boyd, designer and collector

For last week’s Interior Design: The Legends program, I began my conversation with Roman Alonso and Steven Johanknecht, founders of Commune Design, by playing California Dreamin’ by the Mamas & the Papas. Not that the duo work exclusively in California—they create projects all over the world. The song was an acknowledgement that their interiors have become synonymous with California chic, filled with references to the West Coast’s landscapes and urbanscapes, its traditional crafts, and its architectural legacy, from cabins and bungalows to lofts and skyscrapers. Their work evokes what many think of as living the California dream.

Roman Alonso and Steven Johanknecht of Commune Design. Photo © Stephen Kent Johnson

Alonso and Johanknecht launched Commune Design in 2004, defining the studio as “a community of like-minded architects, interior designers, graphic designers, consultants, artisans, and builders” who create everything from residential, commercial and hospitality projects worldwide to a wide array of products and artisanal goods for the home, as well as branding concepts for the fashion, arts, and entertainment industries. Thanks to their brilliantly contemporary expressions, the studio has risen to the top of the interiors world; they’ve been honored with the Cooper Hewitt’s National Design Award and listed among the AD 100 every year since 2016.

The charismatic duo are relative newcomers to Los Angeles, having arrived two decades ago before the city became the influential hub of contemporary design that it is today. In fact, their practice emerged simultaneously with the evolution of LA’s design culture, as they played a vital role in this rapid transformation.

Restaurant in the American Trade Hotel in Panama City by Commune Design, 2013. Restaurant in the Durham Hotel in Durham by Commune Design, 2015. Photos © Spencer Lowell

Alonso and Johanknecht met while working at the legendary department store Barneys New York. Not the Barneys of the later years, owned by a holding company that took control of the name and brought it to bankruptcy last year, but the New York temple of fashion during the glorious 1980s. This flagship store founded by the Pressman family—operated according to the vision of its founder, Barney Pressman—was their school, Alonso and Johanknecht told me. It was there that they were professionally trained with a special focus on the personalization of design. Those lessons in cutting-edge luxury formed the foundations of the fabulous studio they’ve established in LA. Each of Commune’s projects begins with research and reflection aimed at results that are at once practical and chic, classic and innovative, always fully resolved in every detail and highly livable.

Santa Anita Cabin in the Angeles National Forest by Commune Design. Photo © Stephen Kent Johnson

In our conversation, we explored how Commune Design has come to successfully instill their polished interiors with the visual language of California. In a San Francisco townhouse we discussed, they highlighted the mid-century Scandinavian furniture paired with built-ins crafted in Northern Californian wood. For the interiors of a historic Craftsman house in Berkeley, they drew inspiration from the iconic Gamble House in Pasadena, which was built by historic architecture firm Greene and Greene in 1909. For a 1960s-era apartment in Santa Monica, they interconnected all the rooms with the magnificent view of the coastline while revisiting the color palette of Le Corbusier’s Maison La Roche from 1925. And for a Spanish Colonial Revival house in the Los Feliz district of LA, they devised a program that celebrates the stucco walls, the red tile roof, and the enclosed courtyard that are so typical to the California vernacular of the 1920s and ’30s. Each project is a jewel.

Santa Monica Apartment by Commune Design, 2018. Photo © Stephen Kent Johnson

I asked whether there is a specific segment of clientele that prefers mid-century over Spanish Colonial. To my surprise, they answered that there is no such designation. Young buyers are equally interested in both styles.

For the Surf House—the ultimate California beachfront house, located in Santa Cruz—Alonso and Johanknecht collaborated with San Francisco architect Jonathan Feldman. The program was composed around the materiality of Monterey Cypress, a native timber salvaged locally and noted for its rich color and warm feel. They explained that creating sustainable homes is important to them, so they only work with California trees that have been salvaged after they have naturally fallen. Those trees are then milled to spec for select clients to use as lumber and millwork. The Surf House is entirely clad in the wood, inside and out, providing a striking envelope for the interior appointed with vintage furniture and specially commissioned objects produced by local artisans. An ideal home for a professor who surfs.

“Roman,” Feldman once told me, “is a special kind of designer—one whose passion, skill, and open-mindedness infect every collaboration he touches and always leads to unexpected and delightful successes.” He went on to add: “Working with Commune is a rare treat for design professionals and clients alike.”

Kitchen in Santa Cruz Beach House by Commune Design, 2020. Photo © Stephen Kent Johnson

So, what did we learn from Roman Alonso and Steven Johanknecht? That interiors can be casual and polished at the same time; that modernism is alive and well, primed for fresh reinterpretation; that connecting to the place is central to the culture of interiors today. And most of all: that you can’t rush greatness; it takes time and careful consideration to create homes of California Dreamin’. ◆


Open to the public, Interior Design: The Legends runs once a week between October and December. Register here. The series offers 14 units of continuing education credits with the International Design Continuing Education Council (IDCEC).