All-Star Interior Design Alumni on Realizing Their Dream Careers

By Greta Chiocchetti

During “San Francisco Designer All-Stars,” a recent online panel moderated by Kay Evans, vice president of the School of Interior Architecture & Design (IAD) at Academy of Art University, four alumni were invited to share how they found their way into the industry: Antonio Martins, Lena Baranova, Jon de la Cruz, and Gioi Tran. Each panelist has made their mark in residential and commercial projects in the Bay Area and beyond. 

“I take full responsibility for naming this elite group ‘Designer All-Stars,’ because in my estimation—after over 50 years in the design industry—that is exactly what they are,” said Evans. 

Though each panelist had their unique hurdles to overcome along the way, their stories had a common thread: a solid foundational education at the Academy. 

Jon de la Cruz

“I remember growing up and looking at the Academy of Art buses going back and forth across town,” said de la Cruz, who was born and raised in San Francisco. “It was always in my crosshairs, figuring out how to get to art school.” 

Each of the panelists ultimately found their way into the same creative incubator at IAD, and they shared the experience of reinventing themselves along the way during the online event.

After high school, de la Cruz went into a biology program, realizing later that he was missing a connection to his creative side. 

“I went to UC Santa Cruz to study biology because I thought I wanted to save the world at that time,” said de la Cruz. “But then I took a chemistry course, and I realized there was a lot more math than just inches and feet, and I said no. I came running back to the San Francisco Bay Area and ended up studying interior design because I love to draw and I love to shop. Interior design was just a perfect union of the two.”

Antonio Martins 

A career in design didn’t seem attainable early in life for Martins. “My dream was always to be a designer, but unfortunately, good boys from Catholic families back then could not be designers,” he said. 

Instead, Martins pursued a degree in economics and later one in hospitality, where he had a career for 11 years. “It came to a point where, okay, now I don’t need my parents’ permission anymore—I had my own money. So, I went back to school. I did the master’s [program] at the Academy of Art here in San Francisco.” 

Gioi Tran

Tran began as a ballet dancer in San Francisco—a dynamic but fleeting career.

“As a dancer, you have a very limited time—it’s a very short career. So, I thought, what can this go into?” said Tran. “I went to the Academy, thinking I’d go for fashion design or graphic design, and then someone turned me to interior design. I told myself that if things didn’t work out the first semester, I’d go to New York. Well, you know, things worked out for me.” 

After graduation, Tran met his partner, Vernon Applegate, and the pair opened San Francisco-based firm Applegate Tran Interiors in 1999.

Lena Baranova 

For Baranova, born and raised in Ukraine, absorbing the art and culture that Europe had to offer stayed with her through adulthood. But her path to interior design had some twists and turns; she began her creative career as a fine artist.

“Some of my fondest childhood memories are of my neck hurting because I was staring up for so long in museums,” Baranova said with a laugh. “I loved being a fine artist, but the downside was that you can’t really survive show-to-show. There could be a big sale at one show, but the next you could sell none. So, the practical part of me knew I had to move on to something else—then I discovered interior design. When I found the Academy of Art, it was actually the only university that offered the graduate program I was looking for.”

On finding success 

When asked how they got their first big break, the panelists shared their recipes for success. For Martins, it involved a great deal of persistence. 

“When I graduated from the program, I made a list of three designers that I wanted to work for, and I sent them all letters and my CV. None of them hired me,” said Martins, who later went on to establish his interior design firm. “But going back to my first job in hotels, I sent out letters to every single Hyatt. When I got the interview, they asked me, ‘What if we don’t hire you?’ and I said, ‘I’ll write all the letters again.’ If you really want to work for someone, go for it. [D]on’t harass, but go after what you want. You will get a job.” 

For de la Cruz, who waited tables during his time as an IAD student, a chance encounter led to his first design opportunity. 

“I remember walking to class past this beautiful building on Mission and Second and thinking to myself, ‘One of these days, I want to work there.’ And one day, working at the restaurant, I realized one of my regulars worked there,” said de la Cruz. “I just flat out said, ‘I am a student at the Academy of Art, I don’t have an internship, and I would love to start working for you.’”

Though the firm didn’t have an internship opening at the time, de la Cruz took an assistant receptionist role that led to his first design job. 

“Being able to pick up the phone and hear contractors and architects and clients, and sort of enmeshing myself in that kind of environment,” said de la Cruz. “I started as the assistant receptionist, and after three years, I became a junior designer.” 

De la Cruz went on to work with the Bay Area’s top design firms before opening his firm in 2015, focusing on restaurant design, including The Battery SF, The Cavalier, Marlowe, and Carbone in Las Vegas, along with private residences across the country. 

“I’m a huge proponent of manifesting your outcome,” said de la Cruz. 

In closing, Baranova offered students a piece of advice: “Learn as much as you can while you’re at school. Don’t be afraid to follow your dreams. Build your connections. Build something special that connects you with the firms that excite you.” 

Watch the full “San Francisco Designer All-Stars” online panel below.

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