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Mark Wickens

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Noa Santos

The founder of Homepolish at home with partner and fellow Hawaii native Ross Matsubara

"The mounted head on our wall is a mouflon, a cross between a mountain goat and a mountain sheep. I believe the only place they exist is on Lanai. My grandpa and my dad are hunters--they hunt on Oahu, on the big island, and on Lanai. In my grandparents' living room there are all these heads of taxidermy, just lines of them. We brought this one back after the first time Ross went home to meet my family. He's fourth generation Hawaiian, and I'm fifth generation. Even though his family is Japanese and my family is Portuguese, when you've been in Hawaii for that long, you just kind of become the same people.

Noa Santos portrait Homepolish

There's definitely a quintessential Hawaii style. If you go to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, it’s a lot of floral print and really quite beautiful. But where I grew up there was no concept of an interior designer. We live directly on the beach and my mom and dad, they like to watch the surf. My dad surfs every day, and he watches the ocean out the windows. There's no real organization to the furniture other than that "this chair needs to be next to the window because I need to look out the window to see if the waves are good." Every time I go home, I shuffle things around and the next day my mom will move that chair back.

Ross: Didn't you shoot one of the [mouflons], too?

Noa: I did shoot one of them.

Ross: He cried when he shot it.

Noa: This is the third apartment it's been in. Every time we move apartments I always take a picture of it and send it to my grandpa, which he loves.

Before I started my first company, I was working in a high-end interior design firm doing residential work. That's where I discovered what I love about the field, which is how profound an effect a home that you love can have on your life. What I didn't like was how [traditional] interior design was relegated to the millionaires: I felt like, why isn't everyone able to love their home? With Ross's help I started my first company, which was just my design firm catering to a younger, savvier clientele. It was an hourly model, with no commissions and no markups. He’s a publicist, and I think within a month he got me on the front page of am New York and in New York Magazine, Metro New York, and Architectural Record. I actually met my Homepolish co-founder after he found me through one of the pieces of press that Ross helped with.

It was baffling to me, because I would meet the most impeccably dressed people in New York. Then I’d go to their house and think, "Whoa, this is crazy." What we're trying to do at Homepolish is change the conversation, to be more like fashion. People think their wardrobe is a constant reflection of where they are in life: If you get a promotion and make more money, you invest in better clothes.

I felt like, why isn't everyone able to love their home?

I think of home as a project, whereas people tend to think there’s a beginning and end. If you did that with your wardrobe, people would have the worst wardrobes! "Every five years I'll just redo my wardrobe." What happens though, is that you don’t think about how your home reflects where you are. And then people become really uncomfortable in their own spaces.

What’s happened in the last decade, was first, access to information. People suddenly felt empowered to craft their own styles. 20 years ago you might look to a brand to tell you what was chic. Millennials are a generation of self-empowered people, and now they feel confident enough to craft something for themselves. At Homepolish, we're not bringing designers into a home to tell you how to live. You booking Homepolish because a designer is going to come in and try to understand who you are. We come in as partners.


And the old interior design model is commission-based, where you charge a design fee and a 30 to 40 percent commission for every piece of furniture. Your incentive as a designer is to get your clients to spend as much money as possible. If I take you over budget, I make more money. And the clients at the firm where I used to work would redecorate their homes--I'm talking throw everything out—every five years, sometimes at a cost of $200,000 a room.

Whereas if I'm going to spend a few thousand dollars on a chair, I don't want to throw that chair out in a few years. Not only do I know that that's a bad investment and I have better ways to spend my money, this is the age of social and environmental responsibility. That's a terrible way to do business.

Ross: I grew up on the east side of Oahu. I'm like the city mouse and he's the country mouse. Noa's from the North Shore, which is like pipeline, country, pineapple fields, sugar cane.

Noa: Ross went to the same high school as Obama, Punahou.

Ross: And Noa went to my rival high school.

Noa: Rival high schools, five minutes away from each other.

Ross: There's only two major prep schools in Hawaii: Punahou, with all the rich white kids and Noa’s, which was all the rich Asian kids.

Noa: Ironically.

What’s a bummer is when people wait to decorate until they own: "I'm not going to do it until I can invest." What you don't realize is that you have to make mistakes along the way. In my first apartment, my bedroom was really dark, because I loved the Jane Hotel and Freemans. I realized, while I love a dark room over drinks, I do not want to live in one. But if you haven’t ever made mistakes, you invest all this money in tile and hard goods with no idea of what you actually like and dislike. Those mistakes are really expensive.

Even though our place is so stylistically disconnected from what you would envision as "Hawaii style," what it taught me is that if you can't relax in your own home, and you can't put a chair where you want to sit, then what are you doing? Here, where things are definitely more organized than where I grew up, but you should never be afraid to switch it up. If you go to Morocco and buy a beautiful pillow, don't be afraid to put it in your home because you're going to throw off the look.

Ross and I have a lot of similarities in style. We like tailored things, drama, light, and black and white. But he really brings an edge to what I would typically do. I don’t think if I were living by myself I would've gone out and bought a nine-foot banana leaf palm. That's how we got some of the statement pieces in this apartment: the gold wheat-sheaf lamp in the bedroom, with the huge black velvet shade. I took Ross lamp shopping at a flea market, and I was looking at midcentury modern lamps. He saw that big black-and-gold lamp and was like, "That's the one." It’s now the one thing I can't get rid of. It's staying. We’re sentimental."

For Home Sweet Home, Curbed talked to 30 engaging personalities across a range of industries to learn about where they grew up and what home means to them. Follow Noa Santos on Twitter, and follow Homepolish on Instagram.

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