A San Francisco Tastemaker with Art and Soul

Everyone brings something to the table when San Francisco tastemaker Celia Tejada is hosting.

EVERY THURSDAY NIGHT, San Francisco tastemaker Celia Tejada gathers a group of family and friends at her house in the Western Addition for “tertulia.” The evening — as suggested by the Spanish word for it — is like a literary salon. Guests discuss art, poetry, politics and love, fueling the conversation with a gourmet potluck and Tejada’s own Lake County red wine.

On the first Thursday of each month, everyone brings a poem to read. Sometimes the poetry nights have a theme, such as a current political drama or the Summer of Love. But there’s usually a constant. “It’s become a running joke among her friends,” says Katie Tamony, the former editor of Sunset magazine and a tertulia attendee, “that, of course, Celia is going to read Neruda.”

Pablo Neruda, the 20th-century Chilean poet, was a fiery writer and activist whose work is renowned for its passion and soul. And it seems fitting that Tejada is drawn to him, because those two words could describe her too.

“She’s really all about the soul,” says Diane Moore, Tejada’s longtime friend and former business partner. “That’s what she designs from, the beauty of her soul. It’s who she is. And when she creates, she’s just expressing who she is.”

Tejada expressed this in her role as chief creative officer of Restoration Hardware, a position she held until last November. She now expresses it at the inn she owns, Molino Tejada, in Polientes, Spain, and the 82-acre Lake County ranch she co-owns with her brother. It’s even present at the front door of her 1890 Victorian home, where she has hung a chalkboard. On it she let a friend recently scribble a Neruda quote: “And just like that, every morning of my life I bring from a dream another dream.”

At RH, this came across as she collaborated with the company’s creative teams to bring new concepts to life. She conducted historical research, chose fabrics and helped to define RH’s distinctive look. “What resonates with me is authenticity,” Tejada says. “I’m inspired by old world Europe and particularly my (native) country, Spain. I look for authenticity in values, people, architecture and design.”

Vibrant murals, like this one by Okuda San Miguel.
Vibrant murals, like this one by Okuda San Miguel, can be found at Molino Tejada, the luxurious inn and cultural center Tejada created in her Spanish hometown. Also pictured is chef Jesus Sanchez.

To understand Tejada, who recently turned 60, it helps to know where she came from, which informs everything regarding who she is and what she creates today.

Tejada grew up on a farm in the rural village of Ruerrero, in the Cantabria province of Spain. Her parents raised cattle and grew potatoes. She was one of six children and the only girl, a distinction that taught her to be fearless. “My brothers would throw me on a horse and get it running before I knew how to ride,” she says. “When you have five brothers, you have to be feisty or they eat you alive.”

She was very close to her family — and remains so, spending every August in her family’s Ruerrero farmhouse, which she now owns. This sense of family continues to profoundly influence her design. “I would describe her design philosophy as capturing what’s most important in life: family, friends, food,” Tamony says. “It’s about the meaning of life’s moments. That really infuses her work. She’s not simply designing a beautiful space. She’s imagining the wonderful things that will happen in that space.”

Her childhood also inspired her in more practical ways. As a young girl Tejada helped her brothers build stone walls and repair roofs, and she dreamed of becoming an architect. But she never went to high school and her family was poor, so she studied to become a delineante, or draftsperson, instead. When a design school opened in nearby Bilbao, she pleaded with her mother and brothers (her father had already died) to help her attend. They scraped together the money to send her, and it changed her life. “I learned everything about art, and I just became fascinated,” she says. “I had found my world.”

Tejada got her first job in Basque country, which was fraught with political turmoil at the time, then left for a position in Marbella, Spain, designing high-end kitchens for expensive mansions. She came to the U.S. in 1979 for personal reasons: she had fallen in love with an American. When she visited him they drove across the country, from Connecticut to San Francisco, and she fell in love all over again. “I felt like I had found my kingdom here,” she says. “I love the freedom, and the people from all over the world.” Even though she and her boyfriend broke up years later, Tejada remained in San Francisco. She married someone else, had two sons, and later divorced amicably.

But all the while she was defining the Celia Tejada style, first as an interior designer and then as a fashion designer creating clothes under her own name (with Diane Moore). Her design house sold items to the likes of Barneys New York and I. Magnin. When the stock market tanked in the mid-’90s, though, her business struggled too. That was when Gary Friedman, then the president of Williams Sonoma, approached her to start a design division for Pottery Barn.

At the time, Pottery Barn (owned by Williams Sonoma) mostly sold furniture from other manufacturers. As senior vice president of design and brand division, Tejada helped create the look for which Pottery Barn is known today: stylish casual living. She then helped do the same at Pottery Barn Kids and Pottery Barn Teen. In 2001, Friedman left for Corte Madera’s RH. Tejada joined him there in 2013.

The more Tejada became an American tastemaker, however, the more she longed for home. In 1999, she and her brother had bought property in Lake County and created a Spanish-style ranch there, Rancho Tejada, growing tempranillo and grenache grapes and making their own wine (which they sold, briefly). She also grew increasingly concerned about the “beautiful, forgotten valley” in Spain where she’d grown up. It was dying, and young people were leaving. So in 2016, she bought a mill house, built in 1670, and converted it to Molino Tejada, a luxurious inn.

Tejada designed the interiors there, including the common notes that appear in all of her properties: a mixture of high- and low-end furniture, antiques, lots of daybeds, tons of pillows and fabulous kitchens. And, of course, she included dining room tables with benches — not chairs — because, she says, “I don’t want to limit the number of guests.” The table in the dining room in her childhood farmhouse, a room now located in the property’s former stables, seats 42.

Tejada purchased a Spanish mill house built in 1670 and converted it into an in called Molino Tejada.
Tejada purchased a Spanish mill house built in 1670 and converted it into Molino Tejada. She designed all the interiors using a mix of high- and low-end items.

Molino Tejada Inn

Tejada purchased a Spanish mill house built in 1670 and converted it into Molino Tejada. She designed all the interiors using a mix of high- and low-end items.

Molino Tejada quickly drew the attention of publications such as Conde Nast Traveler, Vogue and Architectural Digest, and guests arrived from around the world. Tejada now envisions the inn as an arts and cultural center. Already, Spanish artists such as Adrian Ssegura and Okuda San Miguel have been in residence and created vivid outdoor murals.

It’s hard to imagine Tejada would have it otherwise. Her San Francisco home, its walls painted in gray, black or white, is an ode to art. One room brims with poetry books. Another with design and photography books. Another holds a home theater. “I love to be around writers, photographers, filmmakers and chefs,” she says.

That’s evident on Thursday nights. The eclectic, creative group she gathers is like family to her. She reads them Neruda, as they sit at the custom-made 15-foot table in her San Francisco dining room. The table is small by Tejada’s standards. It seats only 25.

Photography by Lenny Gonzalez and Nathan Denhart.

This article originally appeared in Spaces’s print edition under the headline: “Art & Soul”.