Alicia Cheung loved Niles Lichtenstein, but she wasn’t crazy about his black leather sectional sofa. That’s not to say it was a deal breaker, but to her, one of the founders of sfHEIMAT, one of the city’s best new interior design firms, aesthetics matter.
Alicia admits that she had low expectations when she first visited his Russian Hill apartment in San Francisco. That says nothing about him and everything about her previous experiences. “I was used to single men living like they were still in college, in not-that-clean apartments furnished with hand me downs,” she says. “When I visited Niles at home for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised. He even had flowers on the table.”
That’s not to say she was completely overjoyed. After all, the main piece of furniture in the living room was a large, black-leather sofa. But as things progressed, it was clear that the two were going to be together for the long term and that the sofa’s days were numbered.
(Spoiler alert: The two are now married, and Alicia’s last name is Cheung-Lichtenstein. To find out the sofa’s fate, read on.)
As the two grew closer, Niles pulled a move that is sure to make the hearts of the design-minded a little faster.
“I knew that we were life partners, and I knew I wanted to live with her—but I also knew that design mattered a lot to her, that it was something she was good at,” he says, admitting he put those flowers out on that first visit to impress her. “On Valentine’s Day four years ago, I took a big step and gave her a card with information about a small joint savings account in it. I suggested we use the account to save money for redecorating the apartment, and when we reached that goal, she should move in and do it.”
Alicia was so touched, she was overcome with emotion. “It’s unlike me to cry in front of people,” she says. “But it was the sweetest present, and he presented it in such a sweet way, I couldn’t help it.”
The effort brought the two even closer together. “It was our first common goal,” says Niles. “We both worked hard to make it happen, and it took our relationship to a different level.” At this writing, the couple has been married three years.
When the goal was reached, Alicia moved in, and the work began—and the aesthetic truth came out. “When you go to other people’s homes, you don’t say anything about their decor, unless they are asking your opinion,” she says. “But over time, as I got to know Niles and it became clear I would be living there, I let my opinions be known. I loathed that sofa and I thought it could be better.”
Today, there’s a plush gray-velvet upholstered sofa in the living room. Niles says it looks better and he appreciates it, but says that he gave the black-leather piece it replaced a proper home. “You could say I had a sentimental relationship with it. I’d had it a long time, and entertained a lot of friends on it—it was a place for them to enjoy a beer and sleep over when they were in town,” he says. “I sent out an email to all my buddies letting them know I was getting rid of it, and one of my best friends from elementary school took it.”
That’s not to say the place is sentiment free. For example, the other sofa in the room (it sits across from the new sectional) is a vintage piece that is a part of Alicia’s history. “It belonged to my college roommate's roommate in San Francisco,” she says. “I loved it, and years later when she offered to sell it to me, I bought it. I had it painted, re-stuffed, and reupholstered. The frame was so good, I couldn’t help myself.”
In the adjacent dining room, she converted an antique safe with a dark-green exterior and a polished wood interior into a liquor cabinet. Beside it sits a leather suitcase that belonged to Niles’s father.
“We didn’t furnish the apartment all at once and we didn’t use all new things,” says Alicia. “I had a master plan, but we waited for the right pieces to fulfill it—and we also spent a fair amount of time hunting at the Alameda Point Antiques Faire [the Bay Area’s premiere flea market] for unique items. The makes the space personalized to us.”
Besides the sofa, Alicia had another non-negotiable: She wanted a room where she could be by herself. “I had lived on my own for some time, and I just wanted a place where I could go and shut the door when I wanted,” she says. “We have a closet-sized spare bedroom, and I decided to redo it as a multipurpose space.” Currently, it serves as her office, a spare bedroom, a media room and an all-around creative space.”
For Niles, the founder of the start-up Enwoven, she painted the walls in a dry-erase paint, and when creative and entrepreneurial friends come to visit, the walls are often covered with ideas by the end of the evening.
Although the space is a rental, and not likely to be their “forever home,” the couple invested in painting, putting up temporary wallpaper, and installing new light fixtures. “Changing the background with things that can be easily reversed or removed was a big deal, and it’s a great way to make a big change in a space,” says Alicia. “The paint, wallpaper, and light fixtures made a great difference.”
The process made Niles something of a design convert. “Honestly, at the beginning, I was a bit skeptical. But at the end of the process, I can see what a big difference the redesign made,” he says. “Our home is a blending of us and the moments we want to remember and create.”
And does Niles miss the old sofa? With a laugh, he says: “Never!”