Mark Brand HeadshotI first came across Mark Brand in the pages of PINK Magazine and immediately knew that I would like the guy. Mark is cool, confident and yet approachable. How often do you find those three qualities in the world of design? For 20 years, Mark has directed the award-winning studio of Mark Brand Architecture by working closely with clients in designing fine custom residences, additions, and remodels.

In the above mentioned article, he noted that the biggest challenge in San Francisco is not making buildings to be earthquake-friendly, but rather designing them to be budget-friendly. That’s our segue to the topic of money. I asked Mark to get personal about economical design, business ownership and penny pinching clients.

1. I understand that you started your firm twenty years ago with a business card and no clients. How important was cash flow in those early years of growing your business?
It was very important. I had some savings when I started my company, but in order to make it last until my income matched my expenses, I had to cut back on my expenses severely. At first I survived on home made sandwiches and single-ply toilet paper.

Mark Brand House2. Is good design only for the rich?
Not at all. None of our clients are rich. A few of them are pretty well off, but most of them are basically upper middle class. But good design is for everybody. Look at the things Target is selling. Whatever your income and lifestyle (short of outright poverty), then good design is available to you as long as you have a good eye and educate yourself. Good design is not just about things that look good — at a deeper level, it’s about whether it serves a need and solves a problem, and whether it is solved gracefully.

3. What is your most significant memory about money?
My parents both grew up during the Great Depression. For that reason, we grew up with a fear of poverty, even though we were basically upper middle class. We were led to believe that if we spent more than $5 for a shirt or $10 for a pair of pants, we would end up in the poor house.

4. What is your worst habit around finances?
One of my worst habits could also be considered one of my best. (It depends upon your point of view.) I have at critical points in my life been overly generous to my own personal detriment. I also wish I had saved more money earlier in my life so I could have bought a house sooner than I did. (This is partly related to the first point.)

5. Do you and your partner see eye-to-eye on money?
No, but I would say we balance each other pretty well. Sometimes I spend more money than I should for the things I want but I choose to do this and I work hard to pay for them. My partner is almost too careful with money, sometimes buying things that jump out at me as looking cheap. But we have taught each other a lot. Before we met, I might buy something costing 10 times what he would spend on a similar item. He has shown me that you don’t have to go all the way to the top to have something really wonderful. Unfortunately, as you get closer to the higher end, prices for products increase exponentially. If you can afford the higher end, that is great, but some people go into debt to support a lifestyle or simply to buy things they convince themselves they can’t live without. Likewise, I have taught my partner that sometimes an apparent bargain might just end up being junk you bought cheap and didn’t need. I would rather have fewer, nicer things.

Mark Brand Bathroom6. When you spec materials for projects, what is most important to you: price, quality, trend, or status? What is typically most important to your clients?
My first reaction to this question was to laugh. I think most of my clients would say they are not interested in trend or status, and I feel the same way. Those words seemed really in your face at first blush. The more I thought about this question, however, I realized that in reality a lot of our decision making is at least influenced by an unconscious desire for status. We just don’t want to believe this about ourselves. The same is true of trend following. No one wants to think they are following trends, but I would be out of business if I was unaware of the latest styles and materials. I describe my design work as being eclectic, and some is pretty “fashion forward,” but I have been around long enough to maintain a healthy skepticism about some trends I see. To finally answer your question, I would say I look for quality in the materials I choose for my clients and some of those materials are low key and timeless, and some of them are trendier and draw attention to them — it all depends upon what will best serve our client’s particular goals.

Mark Brand Traditional House7. What’s your view about big vs. small houses? Is one better than the other?
From a personal point of view, I think a lot of people, including some of our clients, want bigger houses than they need. I think if a house can serve the necessary functions, is well laid out and is visually attractive, it doesn’t need to be that big. One of our projects is going to be featured in an upcoming book by Sarah Susanka and Mark Vassallo. They are authors of the Not So Big House series, and I admire their philosophy. From a business and sheer fun point of view, however, I enjoy working on large houses just as much or more than small houses. Who wouldn’t?

8. Neighborhood transformation by gay and lesbian residents often has economic impact on neglected areas. Have you seen this type of gentrification outside the Castro?
Actually, San Francisco’s Western Addition has long been the subject of gay and lesbian gentrification as far back as the late 70’s or early 80’s. More recently, even Hunter’s Point in San Francisco has seen a noticeable influx of gay and lesbian home owners. The Western Addition is a very different place than it used to be. Hunter’s Point is very early in this process, but with the new light rail service which has recently been extended to serve the neighborhood, it probably won’t be far behind.

9. What did your mother teach you about the value of dollar?
My mother and father pretty much spoke in the same voice on this subject, but they were so fearful and conservative on money issues that if I took their teachings completely to heart, I would never have had the risk-taking spirit required to start a company.

Mark Brand10. Which is more important: how much money you make or how you spend it? And does money buy happiness?
Beyond a very basic level of income, it is much more important how you spend it. And no, money doesn’t buy happiness. Some lottery winners have demonstrated this quite dramatically. But I can’t help but join with others in saying that the lack of money certainly can bring suffering. Beyond a basic level of income, I think most people could be happy with very little. We often feel trapped by our own expectations and those of people around us.

I read of a man in the Bay Area who committed suicide and, if I recall correctly, he took his entire family with him. He couldn’t keep up with the costs of living in his neighborhood and soccer lessons for the kids and all of the other costs associated with that suburban upper middle class lifestyle. I was really saddened by this story, because I could understand that pressure, and understand how a person could feel there was no way out. I am sure the reality was that his family loved him for himself and not what he could provide. This was a total tragedy, and it highlights to me the worst part of our consumer society.

Oprah recently visited a Quaker family and I found their happiness and simplicity quite inspiring. A friend of mine from high school was an attorney for the State Court of Appeals in Sacramento, and he is a total believer in living simply. He took early retirement and now works part time for the same Court. My current lifestyle is 180 degrees different from that, but I am at heart a simple person and admire the choices he has made. With a little retraining I think I could be happy living at a very basic level of existence with access to a library or Wikipedia.

More about Mark Brand
Mark Brand was born in 1954 in Lodi, California . A 1977 Honors graduate of the University of California at Berkeley’s architecture program, he worked for five years at Stone, Marraccini and Patterson in San Francisco, receiving his Architect’s license in 1982. He was Project Architect for three years at Sady S. Hayashida Architect in Berkeley prior to opening his own firm in 1986.

Mark’s work has been exhibited at the Contemporary Realist Gallery and in the American Institute of Architects’ “Small Firms, Great Projects” exhibits. He has been awarded multiple Citations from the American Institute of Architects and was the winner of Design/Wise, the 1997 Illinois Design Excellence Award for Interiors.

Mark’s projects have been published in the San Francisco Examiner, The San Francisco Chronicle, Metropolitan Home, Home, Practical Homeowner and the catalog of Small Firms, Great Projects. In addition, his work will be featured in the upcoming book Remodeling Not So Big by Sarah Susanka and Marc Vassallo.

Read other Queercents interviews in the Ten Money Questions archive.