You can get a new client in the most surprising ways.

That’s one thing Alan Tse knows from experience. The 37-year-old once sold a replica Le Corbusier lounge chair on Craigslist, which prompted a “nice lady, in head-to-toe Louis Vuitton” to show up at his door. After she requested a 20-percent discount, Tse went out on a limb, “judging by how put-together she was,” says the San Francisco–based head of Alan Tse Design. “I told her I’d apply that 20-percent discount to her next home-remodeling project.” The hustle paid off: three months later, the same well-coifed mystery woman took him up on the offer, and he scored his first-ever residential project, the Alta, a 2,400-square-foot remodel with addition. “She told me later, she was purchasing the chair to stage a home she was moving out of, so my 20-percent proposition came at the perfect time.”

Photo © Alan Tse

Tse’s story nicely encapsulates his belief that resourcefulness is every bit as important as creative vision, something he says he learned working under Stanley Saitowitz for nine years—that and design rigor, from start to finish. “The success of each design starts with the clarity of the floor plans,” says Tse, “but you need to learn the business aspect: how to get work, how to push your ideas forward.”

He thinks some basic tenets are overlooked all too often: “Knowledge of the permitting process, constructability, budget allocations; balancing scheduling priorities; understanding exposure to professional liabilities; the know-how to effectively problem-solve design and construction issues.”

Sure, it’s a lot, but Tse thinks accumulating this body of knowledge is what “eventually grants you better and better opportunities.”

Working predominantly in San Francisco comes with its own set of peculiar challenges. His first project, Kare-Ken, was a 400-square-foot restaurant in the heart of the Tenderloin. “I had to deal with graffiti, drug addicts on the streets, a ‘massage parlor’ as my next-door neighbor, and intense research on urine-repellent paint products.”

Over time, he’s learned ways to effectively work with the city’s planning department, whose design criteria, notoriously, can be Kafkaesque: “My first two building designs were rejected by the city outright,” he says. He’s since learned how to “parallel workflow with the permitting process to provide a more measurable timeline for clients.”

For instance, the initial design for 1433 Bush—a 40-unit condominium building in Nob Hill—was vetoed by all seven planning commissioners on the grounds that it did not fit in with the neighborhood’s historic context. Tse had two weeks to redesign the 11-story building. “We strive to understand the concept behind their evaluations, digest the criticism in their vision at a city-planning scale, and never negatively respond to their comments.”

He describes himself as a modernist who doesn’t need sleep, aspires to design with flexibility, and has a serious appreciation for clean lines and minimalism. Of his current projects—and there are many—he is particularly pleased about La Maison, a series of six market-rate multifamily housing projects, each developed in the same vein and with the same level of commitment to design. “I’m excited for these because they provide a platform for me to broaden my design opportunities and exercise skill sets I’ve acquired from other projects.”

All those endeavors have one important thing in common: “parameters,” which he says are essential. “They’re the ignitors for design inspiration,” says Tse. “Physical limitations allow you to create and generate spaces. Budget constraints encourage thinking outside your comfort zone. And the city is what puts your design capabilities to the test.”

Alan Tse Design




EDUCATION: University of California, Berkeley, M.Arch., 2009; University of California, Berkeley, B.Arts in Architecture, 2003

WORK HISTORY: Stanley Saitowitz Office | Natoma Architects Inc. 2003–11

KEY COMPLETED PROJECTS: La Maison Condominiums, 2017; International Orange Wellness Center, Larkspur, CA, 2016; 4704 Mission Wine Bar, 2016; Nabe II Restaurant, 2016 (all in San Francisco, except as noted)

KEY CURRENT PROJECTS: Franklin Condominiums; 2240 Market St. Con- dominiums; 2444 Lombard Condomin- iums; 1433 Bush Condominiums; 900 Clement Dental Clinic; Nami Japanese Bistro; Offset House, Cupertino, CA; Delucchi Restaurant (all in San Francisco, except as noted)


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