I was first introduced to the work of Jonathan Rachman while attending the San Francisco Decorator Showcase in May 2019. The sitting room that Jonathan designed for the showcase included stunning blue wallpaper from De Gournay and dark pink velvet furniture, inspired by a visit to Houghton Hall in Norfolk, England. It was a maximalist’s dream!
Born in Sumatra, Indonesia, Jonathan attended boarding school in Switzerland before immigrating to the US. After corporate desk jobs left him wildly uninspired, he opened a flower shop in the Pacific Heights neighborhood in San Francisco, and then gradually became a celebrity interior designer. He was recently named one of America’s Top Designers, and his work has been published in ELLE Decor, Vogue, The English Home, Travel + Leisure, Harper’s Bazaar, Dolce, House Beautiful and Luxe among others.
In this inadvertent profile piece of Jonathan Rachman, I was so honored to have a heart to heart conversation with him about his origins as an interior designer and experiences as a gay Asian man. For the full recording of his episode on Secondhand Roadshow, check it out on my IGTV series.
Your personal memoir The Garlic Peanut Story was released in November, and is truly an inspiring read. Could you tell us more about your immigrant story?
I have a lifestyle magazine called “Di Sini Di Sana” which I publish. It means “Here” and “There” in Indonesian because I feel torn as an immigrant. I love it here, but my heart is sometimes pulled East.
I was born on the island of Sumatra. I’m basically a mutt, and I’m proud to say that. Until about two or three years ago, if people asked me if I were Vietnamese or Thai, I would say “no.” But my husband had our DNA tested, and I’m about 50% Chinese, 20% Vietnamese, and the rest is split between Indonesian, Russian, French, Kazakhstan as well as Hawaiian.
I went to school in Switzerland, and from there, I came to San Jose, California during my senior year in high school. The US has been the longest place I’ve lived for over 32 years. For me, this has always been home.
Being who I am, I feel like there’s certain expectations where people want me to be a certain way. For my Indonesian family and relatives who are really religious, they feel I’m not Indonesian enough. In the greater Asian community, I’m not Asian enough, I’m too Westernized. For Westerners, I’m not American enough or too Asian.
When I was in Switzerland, I was considered exotic. It used to drive me nuts when they wanted to touch my hair or tell me my skin was so soft. But now I just embrace it and I take it as a compliment.
I did try to move to Switzerland or France but I always came back because it just feels like home here.
That’s the beauty of living along the coast of California. There are a lot of Asian immigrants here, especially in San Francisco.
As a young person, sometimes I forgot that I was Asian. I just don’t classify myself one way or another. I like to say that I’m a citizen of the world. As pompous as that sounds, I’ve lived on three different continents and I speak five different languages.
There were 60 different nationalities at my school. Wherever I went, I had someone to visit or someone to stay with and show me around. Until I looked in the mirror, I didn’t think of myself as “Asian.” And then I might be reminded, unfortunately, in an unkind way.
A lot of things have happened in the three decades I’ve lived in the US, little jabs here and there, jokes. But this past year and a half has been the most grueling of my unpleasant experiences being an Asian American.
There’s definitely a paradox being an Asian American. I used to get those questions here, “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” Then, like you said, I go to Asia and they want to know where I’m from because I’m not Asian enough.
The opposite happens in Asia for me. I could go to any country in Asia and they would simply think I’m from there, with the exception of my home country, interesting enough. They would guess I was from Singapore or Thailand or China. I would tell them I’m Indonesian, and they wouldn’t believe me based on my mannerisms or how I was dressed.
I think our paths might have crossed in San Jose. I spent most of my elementary school years there in the 80s.
I remember my first week in high school, I barely spoke English. Teachers would do roll call and I was the last person they expected me to be. They would ask if that were my real name and if I was really Jonathan Rachman.
Do you remember that movie Sixteen Candles with the Asian character Long Duk Dong? That’s what they used to call me in high school.
Kids can be so cruel!
On a bright note, I’m living the American dream. I’m so proud, and I feel so blessed and lucky to be here. I have survivor guilt. Where I come from, the road wasn’t even paved, it was all rocks and mud. Our house was the only one on the whole block with a black and white TV. 10 to 20 kids would come over and watch TV with us.
Indonesia was a third world country when I was born, and I always wonder how I got so fortunate and blessed and lucky to be here.
You’re now this celebrity interior designer. But you started out as a floral designer. How did that play out?
In the span of 10 years, between college and the time I opened the flower shop, I had about 30 to 40 jobs. I kid you not. There were jobs where I would walk in, if I didn’t like it, I would walk out. There were jobs where the boss would deny my request for vacation or a long weekend. There was a boss who called me a derogatory name because of how I looked.
I was so unhappy in corporate America. The longest job I ever held was maybe two years. Just Desserts kidnapped me from Jamba Juice. I was their operations manager and then they promoted me within a few months to director and then vice president. I was in my mid-20s and they lured me with such a nice package, but the hours were grueling.
I left all that behind and I opened a flower shop in Pacific Heights. I rented a space in front of a hair salon. My husband quit his job as a psychologist to help me. We went to the market at 3am then worked until 6pm, six to seven days a week. It was the hardest job but it was so much fun.
My husband eventually went back to work so we could have health insurance. One day I was crammed in this 100 square foot space with seven to eight other people. I was doing flowers, and these people were chatting and intensely watching me for 40 minutes.
Finally one of the guys told me, “I’m going to hire you.” He and his entourage left, and someone stayed and said, “Congratulations.”
I said, “Thank you, but I still don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”
He said, “You don’t know who that is?” I had no idea, but it turned out to be Marc Jacobs and he wanted me to do his flower arrangements for his flagship store.
Because of Marc Jacobs and his company, they connected me to Madonna, Sarah Jessica Parker and Oprah. Slowly, I started doing their flowers and their parties. Other people hired me to do their events, including MTV and VH1.
So the ladies who lunch saw my flowers at these events and they asked if I could decorate their homes. I never went to school for interior design, so I learned from my mistakes. I broke every rule in interior design.
One time I was flying back from Paris through Frankfurt to shop for a client. I was on the top deck of a 747 sitting next to the Austrian ambassador’s wife. She happened to know my “adopted mom” in San Francisco who was my landlady. They’re friends. Simply because of that connection, she hired me to design the United Nations’ 60th Anniversary.
It was such a big deal, it was a three-day event that took a year and a half to plan. That was the beginning of my design career.
You never got formal training in interior design?
It was a self-taught process. There was trial and error, I made a lot of mistakes. In the end, it comes down to either you have it or you don’t.
Traditionally, Asians don’t go into creative professions. I’m curious what your parents thought about this? Were you always a creative person?
As a child, I arranged flowers for church with my mom and sister. We grew up on a ranch and we would provide the florals for the altar. It was the best thing that could have happened to me as a child. I went through a lot of horrendous and unfortunate things, and that was a good outlet to channel my energy.
I loved to play with dolls, fabric, hair and makeup. That’s what I wanted to do: become a fashion designer. My formal education is in hospitality management. I went to the best hotel school in Switzerland. But I learned quickly that I prefer being a guest than to work in hospitality.
Bottom line: my parents are extremely loving and kind human beings. They were so supportive of me becoming a florist. On the flipside of that, in your late teens and early 20s, there’s so much pressure not only from your parents, but from your culture and peers. I felt so horrible for opening a flower shop in my 30s. My friends were either CPAs, lawyers or doctors.
My relatives would say to my parents, “Your son is in the US, but he’s not a software engineer or a scientist. What does he do?” I don’t know how my parents responded, but I wonder how it felt for them to admit that their son was a florist.
It was so liberating. I was never that happy in my life until I became a florist, and slowly I became an event designer and then an interior designer.
I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I want to say how blessed and amazing and lucky and happy I am. Not only in my professional life, but to have a loving husband, family, parents and clients who really believe in me and support me.
I call a group of people my “ohana,” these are my staff and family, people who have been with me for 15 years. I would not be here without all these people. I just want to cry being so grateful for them.
I love hearing that. There’s a lot of us here who are so proud of you, especially from someone who overcame a lot of adversity in his youth. You have an amazing energy and it’s apparent that you’re able to maintain such positivity from curating a team of great people.
I wouldn’t be here without these amazing humans. As a child, I was not only physically, mentally and sexually abused, I was also bullied. In my late teens, I contemplated taking my own life. I’m here because of the love from my parents as well as from the sister I wrote about in my memoir.
This specific sister was adopted. She was essentially my second mom and my angel on earth. She would literally protect me and cover me during some horrendous incidents in my life. There are other women in my life, I was raised truly by women. I always say I’m a feminist trapped in a gay body. I wouldn’t be here without all these women, even now.
I was 24 when I came out to my extremely religious and conservative parents. I was so nervous, I didn’t know if they would disown me or stop speaking to me. I didn’t know if they would send me back home, but life as a gay man in Indonesia would have been so unbearable decades ago.
When I told them that Stephen was actually my lover and my partner, my dad asked Stephen to read a verse from the Bible: 1 Corinthians 13. All it says is: there’s faith, hope and love. And the biggest thing is love. As long as we both loved each other, that is all he cared about.
That has been the foundation for my life ever since. Although I’m no longer a Christian, my religion is just love. I want to continue the legacy of my sister who had such unconditional love for me and so many people. I always think: what would she do? I always refer back to her.
Let’s shift gears and start talking about secondhand finds. You’re so gifted in combining old with new. What is that process like?
I’m basically a hoarder, literally. I have a 10,000 square feet warehouse. I’m a self-proclaimed romantic and a melancholy designer. I’m sentimental. I always buy things, not to sell or if my client would like them, but what they remind me of. What stories can I concoct in my head?
If I pick an object, old or new, I have to love it. I don’t compromise.
That’s a common theme with other collectors or borderline hoarders. Most people who bring secondhand pieces into their homes love everything. What is the craziest thing you’ve done to bring something into your home?
I wish I could walk you a few hundred feet away right now, I just had a delivery. My husband doesn’t know it yet, today might be the day he divorces me.
I got a life-sized statue of a Hindu god that’s 1,200 years old and weighs about 400 to 500 pounds. It was found near my dad’s village. It made its way through California before my time, and was owned by a famous sculptor in Big Sur who passed away.
His estate asked his friend who designs Indonesian furniture in Monterey County to resell it. This is the second time this guy in Monterey has reacquired it because he was originally the one who found the statue and sold it to the guy who died.
By chance, I went to his warehouse and he told me the story. It was buried on a farmer’s land not too far from my dad’s village. When I looked at it, I said there’s nobody else that must have or needs (or deserves) it. Clearly, the Indonesian god has found me and has invited me to take her/him/they.
I’m in communication with the curator of the Asian Art Museum to get all of its history and the provenance. Right now, it’s propped against a tree because it needs a concrete base for it to be anchored.
What is your favorite secondhand find?
I have a pair of queen and king life sized stone planters in my yard. They symbolize my mom and dad because they can no longer visit. Everytime we have cocktails at sunset, I can feel like my mom and dad are with us.
Where do you even find these things? Are you ever on Facebook Marketplace?
I’ve never bought anything on Facebook. I’ve never bought anything online myself. If I do buy something, it’s from Chairish.
I’m old school, I’m technically challenged. I go to auctions and flea markets. I get lost all over the world. I don’t go where American designers go or where they’re supposed to go. I bought two Louis chairs that were being abandoned from an apartment in Paris. I also find a lot of good stuff at estate sales.
Let’s wrap things up: tell me what you’re proud of about being an Asian American.
One of my biggest accomplishments is leaving my parents and my home country, unable to speak the language and now being able to call myself an American and to support our family.
I’m able to create jobs in this country and to have a job that I love so much. Being able to work with people who I never thought in my wildest dreams would commission me to do what I love. I am proud I was able to manage “the Americans,” people who were born and raised here, as a little 20-something year old and communicate in their language as their director.
Right now, I am so proud I can inspire other island boys or girls to live the life that they want and deserve. You can live the way you want to live, do what you love, and with the person whom you love. For me, that’s what being an American is.
I came here as a young human, and if I die tomorrow, I would feel like I’ve done everything and more than I ever could imagine because of America and the chance to be this person. To me, that’s what I’m proud of being an American.
I have one message for everyone: be kind, spread the love and pay it forward.
Jonathan, you’ve captured all of our hearts. My heart is so full right now. Thank you so much for sharing so much with us.