A Visit to Lily Chau's Acacia Shop in SF

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By Design Milk / Published by Design Milk
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I ventured into San Francisco-based Acacia on a random Saturday and knew instantly I had found a special shop.

At first sight, I was already in love with the beautiful items that greeted me when I walked through the door but as I walked around, I knew that this was a very purposeful and thoughtfully considered collection of products and designers.

Posted by Vy Tran

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Owner Lily Chau launched the rustic but modern home goods and personal accessories store in 2012 after deciding that she needed a real change from her law career. I’m always inspired by anyone who decides to take such a tremendous (often scary!) leap of faith when changing careers like Lily did. She proves that you don’t need a scrolling roll of experience in order to take on a new challenge as long as you have perseverance, confidence, and passion. 

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Read on to find out Lily’s story and what might be in store (literally) for the holidays…

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Why did you pick this neighborhood? 

Prior to Acacia, I was a lawyer with a large international law firm in New York City, which was where I grew up. After several years of working for corporations and investment banks, including being sent to work for a client in Asia, I needed a profound change. So off to the other coast I went, picking SF because I liked how easy it was to get out into nature. 

I didn’t know what was next, but I promised myself I would keep an open mind. I gravitated towards the Mission, drawn by the coffee shops and independent boutiques. When an opportunity came to open a store, I took it, and was lucky to find a space on Valencia St. The Mission is thought of as a hipster neighborhood, but I felt there was room for a store for people who appreciated good modern design that was also approachable, functional and meant to last.

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What other stores have you worked in before opening this one?

None. Acacia is my first experience with retail. My past work experience has all been in offices, and I’ve worked since high school. I think all except two were law offices! I’ve been learning on the fly. 


Where did you get the name for the store? 

I’d visited the northern Serengeti in Tanzania the year before, where there are beautiful and ridiculously picturesque Umbrella Thorn Acacias. These are hardy, tough trees that grow in a harsh, arid environment, but they’re also beautifully elegant sentinels dotting the savannah. It was also a way of linking this new endeavor with what had been a special experience, so the name felt appropriate.

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Has it changed much since it opened? How? 

The primary operating principle remains: I carry what I like. It’s not about following trends or stocking pieces because it’s in a design bible, or overlooking something because the designer is a relative unknown. My taste has broadened in some ways and become more defined in others, so the store reflects that. 

I’m looking for good design foremost. I remain committed to natural materials, but I also weigh factors like how and where and by whom an object was made. That interest has deepened over time. There are no hard and fast rules, but I think it’s important that consumers make thoughtful choices about what they buy, and through buying, what they support; so I also try to make deliberate and thoughtful choices. 

More and more, I also seek out independent, smaller makers whose work I find interesting. I want to support artisans and craft by providing a platform, but I also just like knowing who made or designed an object and their thought process.

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Any special collaborations coming up? 

Not quite a collaboration, but I hope to bring in a custom color of an object from Most Modest, a local SF design studio (whom we’ve featured before!), in time for the holidays. Justin, the principal designer and owner of Most Modest, is plenty busy with his own projects, but he has been very nice and accommodating and I believe I have cajoled and nudged him enough to make this happen!

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What’s been a consistent best seller? 

Pottery, particularly hand-thrown pieces!

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Are you carrying any new products and/or undiscovered gems you’re particularly excited about? 

I love the Nattlight Candlesticks. I spotted them in Copenhagen earlier this year and I was excited to bring the brand into the store. These candlesticks are unbearably graceful and so beautifully and skillfully rendered in polished brass. 

What is this season’s theme?

For me it’s color. My makers and artisans are incorporating beautiful pastels and vibrant deep greens and blues into their work, but in particular, this gorgeous blush pink seems to have seized the imagination. I tend towards blues and grays, but I’ve been won over by this pale pink. 

I’m also currently all about pottery and ceramics. I’m loving the work I am bringing in from different potters and seeing the range of technique. The pieces are so personal to the maker in style and attitude. You can see the human in the work and I enjoy sharing that with customers.

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What’s your favorite item in the store right now? 

Tricky question. I generally carry items that resonate with me in some way, so I basically love everything in the store for different reasons.

If I had to say, it would be the Hasami Porcelain line of coffee/teaware and dinnerware. They have clean lines, tactile appeal and show beautiful use of material. Every time I bring in a new piece in the collection I’m just struck anew by how lovely it all is. I just brought in an additional color that I have been swooning over. It’s a dreamy, speckled glossy soft gray that adds a different feel to the line – a lighter, softer, gentler aspect – that feels right this year.

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Do you have anything from the store in your own home? 

A few things, yes. I use the white rubber and cork coasters from Most Modest. Besides their good looks, they won’t go sliding off anywhere and are unbreakable. My dresser has a couple of handsome David Rasmussen walnut trays and plates to keep things organized. 

I like the Iittala Kartio glass tumblers for everyday use; they are durable and the color is amazing and elevates anything I’m drinking. 

I also have a few pieces of beautifully simple jewelry from Cinq Workshop. Vipada, the designer, was sweet enough to gift me some pieces of her personal art that I went gaga over, so that will be going up on my wall.

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What’s one of the challenges you have with the business? 

The nuts and bolts of running a brick and mortar business is a challenge. It’s a whole other undertaking that requires playing a myriad of different roles, and that’s a consequence of running the business essentially by myself. I don’t have investors, partners, or a trust fund. I have part-time sales help and the benefits of sharing store space with another company, but the executive, financial, creative and strategic decisions for Acacia are made by me. 


What’s one lesson you’ve learned since opening your store? 

Don’t underestimate yourself. I have now done things that I didn’t know I could do. Keep an open mind about yourself – it’s a lesson that I also have to remind myself of often. 


If you could give one piece of advice to someone who wants to follow a similar path to yours, what would it be? 

Don’t mistake what you’re good at with what you should be doing. It’s easy to keep going down a path because you’re getting a lot of positive reinforcement from other people. Pursue what really sparks your interest, even if you’re not naturally good at it; at least trying to pursue it will bring you closer to the intersection of your passion and your ability.

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Visit Acacia online or at 415 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA 94103.


This story originally appeared on Design Milk.