When San Francisco interior designer Benjamin Dhong started searching for a Sonoma home, he had plenty of inspiration leading him in the right direction.
Fellow interior designer and dear friend Myra Hoefer had welcomed Dhong to Healdsburg many times over the years, and under her generous spirit, he came to adore Sonoma’s relaxed lifestyle. It was fitting, then, that Hoefer, who passed away in 2015, was the one who first saw the listing for Dhong’s current home, about a mile from Healdsburg’s downtown.
As an interior designer, Dhong knew he could revitalize the gardens and maximize the 1,750-square-foot interior for entertaining. Dhong built his design career almost by accident after earning a business degree from UC Berkeley.
He fell in love with architecture on a trip to Italy and left his banking career for an entry-level position at a San Francisco design firm, where he advanced quickly. “It came completely naturally,” he explains. In 2003, he opened Benjamin Dhong Interiors in San Francisco, where he still lives on weekdays.
Designer Benjamin Dhong in the kitchen with his friend and fellow Healdsburg homeowner Julia Berger. (Rebecca Chotkowski)
In the six years he’s owned the Healdsburg property, Dhong has made some structural changes, but focused most of his effort on finishes, paint, artwork, and furniture choices. First up was a kitchen renovation, with the goal of having both formal and casual eating areas at opposite ends of the 30-foot-long room. He raised the kitchen roof, added skylights, and installed a massive antique French oak apothecary cabinet along the back wall. Across from the cabinet stands a new island with sink and prep space and a thick marble waterfall edge.
The overall feel is bright and airy, with French doors that open straight into a garden and a porthole window above to let in even more light. Dhong also borrowed a few square feet of space from the garage to add a relaxing daybed nook – a small change with big impact.
The breakfast area next to the kitchen shows Dhong’s talent for mixing old and new, with a midcentury modern white Saarinen table surrounded by antique upholstered chairs. “My style is to create beautiful rooms that are efficient but elegant, designed in a way so guests can feel like they can relax here. I also like what I call rich man/poor man – high-end pieces mixed with inexpensive things.” Adjacent to the kitchen is another more formal dining area, with a pedestal dining table and chairs.
Dhong believes setting a table should be about having fun. He recommends starting with something pretty and pairing it with something unexpected. Here, he and Berger placed her linens alongside tinted glassware, mismatched china, fruit and flowers. (Rebecca Chotkowski)
Though the home is full of treasures collected over the years, the look is unified. Working within a neutral palette helps, as does Dhong’s expert eye for combining accessories. His open kitchen and large tableware collection are put to good use at this time of year. Often, Dhong takes on holiday hosting duties with another dear friend, Julia Berger, who also has a weekend home in Healdsburg. Berger is the founder of Julia B. Handmade for Life, a high-end line of custom table linens, bedding, and window treatments featuring delicate hand embroidery.
Dhong and Berger believe that holiday entertaining can be gorgeous and grand without being grueling. They love to work with lots of rich greenery, candles, and mirrors for an elegant and sparkling holiday look that’s still traditional but not overtly red-and-green.
At the holiday table, the two celebrate a mix of old and new, making the most of Dhong’s passion for antique glassware and china alongside Berger’s hand-embroidered linens. Pops of color from small clutches of red roses are a nod to the traditional holiday palette in a contemporary format. They share a love of keeping things simple but beautiful, not going overboard even at the holidays. “My favorite color is white,” says Berger.
Textile designer Julia Berger’s table linens make a sparkling holiday display at Benjamin Dhong’s Healdsburg home. Berger works with artisans to produce cocktail napkins, placemats, and other housewares. (Rebecca Chotkowski)
Although Dhong’s kitchen is photo-worthy, he claims his cooking skills are less so. He’s not afraid to sneak in some prepared foods from local markets to ease party prep. A big holiday ham is a classic choice. “It’s so easy. You mash some potatoes and add a side and you’re finished, and everyone thinks it’s so delicious and homey.” He’s also a fan of purchasing a perfectly cooked chicken or turkey from a favorite local market, then carving it and dressing it on a platter with fresh herbs cut from his garden.
“Make people feel comfortable and that will put them in a party mood. Show you’ve made an effort with candles, flowers, and a pretty table setting and then put on Pandora,” Dhong said, “People will relax, and it will all be very festive.”
In Dhong’s formal dining area, Julia Berger’s ‘Como’ linen napkins and placemats anchor another holiday table. (Rebecca Chotkowski)
Despite the expensive homes he designs for clients, Dhong doesn’t think you have to spend a lot to have a beautiful holiday table. “You can have things look 90 percent perfect with three or four trips to HomeGoods.” And he says Safeway is a great place to buy flowers and good, value-priced wines. “There’s a great deal of cooking and entertaining that goes on in Wine Country. It is part of the culture, and it is quite lovely.”
Though he’s still in San Francisco most weekdays, Dhong says his heart is in Healdsburg. “I’m so blessed and lucky to live here. It’s a wonderful lifestyle and there are so many kind and interesting people here. All around the world people recognize Sonoma as a dream place to live.”
The breakfast area has French doors that open directly to the garden. In a guest bath, Dhong repurposed an arched-front dresser as a vanity, adding a basin and marble top. A simple clutch of baby’s breath from the grocery store adds a sweet touch. (Rebecca Chotkowski)