Difficult to imagine, perhaps, but all was serene in the front office of VonSaal Design Build last week as Manon Dargis and Kris Feliciano worked away at silent computers.
Serene, that is, until Richard Von Saal, the designer/builder in question, stepped in from a phone conversation outside the South Coombs Street studio and opened the door to the back workshop where craftsmen James Churin and Sean Thomas were operating grinders, welders, table saws and planers, and streaming blues/rock.
Coming on the heels of Napa’s BottleRock music festival, which had a marked Von Saal presence, is the Napa Valley Vintner’s auction. The workshop was humming along at a high decibel as finishing touches were put on auction-lot sets for various clients, including the Napa Valley Vintners and a number of wineries. Thomas was planing lengths of walnut destined for Tusk Estates wine boxes, part of an auction lot that will eventually include San Francisco 49ers helmets and jerseys.
Off to one side was a set of weathered Tuscan doors about to be incorporated into the Lakoya lot — a trip through Tuscany, Italy, and a chance to taste and judge dishes with noted chefs Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Masaharu Morimoto, Nancy Silverton and Jean-Georges Vongerichten in the Robb Report’s Culinary Masters Competition.
Nearby, jumbled golf clubs were about to be formed into a chandelier for the auction lot offered by this year’s honorary chairs, Garen and Shari Staglin of Staglin Family Vineyard.
The Staglin lot is a five-day golfing vacation in the Scottish Highlands that includes a stay at Skibo Castle — what Von Saal describes as a “Beauty and the Beast” castle — and a chance to play its impressive course. As Von Saal envisions it, the display will include an 8-foot backdrop replicating one of the carvings on the castle’s wall, and resting on pillars in the foreground will be mahogany wine boxes holding etched double magnums of 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 vintages of Staglin cabernet sauvignon.
These displays and others, designed to entice auction-goers to bid generously, have taken on the qualities of a stage set.
Von Saal counts the James Bond films among his early creative influences.
“I didn’t really understand the spy thing,” he said, during a tour of his studio, “but I understood the evil layers and the cars and the gadgets. I was just enthralled by them, and if you look at my design style, it’s very much in that context.”
Von Saal, a Vintage High School graduate, spent part of his early years in Olympia, Wash., when his mother, Tami, remarried. He credits his second father with teaching building skills and instilling a solid work ethic. The dentist, investor/developer and his wife were always working on their rental properties, and young Richard was there, schlepping tools and materials.
“He was my mentor. He was very tough, which I resented when I was young, but now love him for the lessons he taught me,” Von Saal said. He laughed as he added, “He taught me the value of work; he taught me the value of a dollar because I got a dollar an hour for eight years.”
His own father he remembers as “the funniest, coolest guy in town. Everyone loved him. He had his first heart attack at 11, heart surgery at 15 ... and wasn’t supposed to live past 20, but he made it to 52.”
Von Saal was in his 20s and running a wine vinegar company when he was diagnosed with cancer. He had already noticed the popularity of a San Luis Obispo juice bar and, with a newfound focus on health, he decided to open a juice bar and health food store he called Mixers in a corner of St. Helena’s William Tell building. A few year later, Von Saal had moved Mixers to Napa and added a restaurant to the juice bar/health food store equation. He designed the space, the furniture and the light fixtures, and was the restaurant chef, but after putting in a long string of 5 a.m-to-midnight workdays, he realized what he really wanted out of life: to be an artist, a designer, an architect and a builder. He wanted to do it all, from the ground up.
He closed the restaurant, rented space in a barn on Atlas Peak Road and started carving wood. He had some savings but needed a firmer financial footing. “No one knew me, no one knew what I did, and I didn’t really know how to do this,” he recalled, “or how to get my name out there.”
So Von Saal turned to a friend with a popular Napa beauty salon.
“It was the salon, everybody went there, and it dawned on me that I could meet them,” he said, and if the friend agreed to hire him, he could support himself as he tried to get his business off the ground.
He studied at the Vintage Academy of Hair Design — “a humbling experience,” he admitted — then split his time between the salon and establishing RVS Design. He met his first design client at the salon. Then came an order for wine cave doors, something he had never before built but said, “Yeah, sure,” and created a design that remains impressive. Then he was asked to unload and place truckloads of furniture for new residents moving to the Napa Valley from Chicago. This led to a Von Saal-designed-and-built wine cellar, then a tasting table.
Did he ever doubt himself?
“Never,” he said, “and I still don’t. You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing, love what you’re doing, and it will always work out.”
With all the work coming his way and all the material he was salvaging for various jobs — and projects to come — the barn was getting cramped. Von Saal’s next work space was an RV storage unit behind the Monticello Deli on Monticello Road. He was making a name for himself with his one-of-a-kind wine cellar doors, and he was experimenting with creating different patinas on metal.
Then came a call to interview for a television reality show looking for a designer. That led to a second interview for a similar show. Although neither panned out, Von Saal met a future client on one of the flights home.
Eventually, even the RV storage unit was too small and a move was in order. Glass artist Gordon Huether offered a portion of his studio on Coombs, and Von Saal settled in for a stay of several years before moving to a space behind it. By now, he had one full-time employee and was earning enough to drop a day at the salon.
A chance meeting with Shopworks designer Dan Worden led to the first of many projects for Cade Winery, one requiring welding experience, which Von Saal didn’t have. Unfazed, he bought an MIG welder, read the manual and built the table base.
Part of his success has been bolstered by his ability to incorporate unusual materials in his designs — aluminum panels he salvaged from the nuclear submarine fabrication warehouse at Mare Island, beams of a bridge that once spanned the Sacagawea River, discarded doors from Tuscany.
As he took on more projects — from Napa’s Molinari Caffe to a neglected area behind Starbucks, and a tasting table for St. Helena’s 750 Wines — he was able to drop another day at the salon until finally he was able to rent his current 7,000-square-foot studio and focus entirely on architectural development and interior design fabrication.
“The minute we did that, the company just took off,” Von Saal said, “which assured me I had made the right decision.”
In addition to a variety of auction-lot sets he and his team are creating for Auction Napa Valley, he is working on a base for photographer Dona Bonick’s Napa Art Walk sculpture, as well as the interiors and a ceiling sculpture of red Radio Flyer wagons for Hess Collection’s MacPhail tasting room in Sepastopol’s new Barlow shopping district.
“The idea behind the Radio Flyer sculpture is to draw you in when you’re walking by,” the designer said. “Isn’t that what design is all about — enticing and intriguing people to pay attention?”