St. Vincent de Paul Free Dining Room


Debra Nichols Design

Practice Area


St. Vincent de Paul Society of Marin


Project Vision

The St. Vincent de Paul Free Dining Room in San Rafael, Calif., has offered 350 meals a day, 365 days a year, for more than 25 years. Relying on monetary donations, volunteer help, and donated food, it offers its clients a warm meal in a safe environment, augmented with basic necessities such as counseling, clothing, and emotional support.

Operating out of a run-down Gold Rush-era building, the facility had poor lighting, holes in the floor, outdated amenities, and an overall depressing environment.

A local foundation offered a matching grant to improve the facilities. Knowing the bulk of the money would go to infrastructure such as seismic retrofit, electrical, and plumbing, Debra Nichols Design offered to help by providing some color suggestions and donor recognition concepts. Eventually this evolved into full-scale interior design, including inspirational images, texts, and nonverbal messages of dignity and worth.

DND’s concept revolved around creating a space of warmth and comfort. Nichols was inspired by the statement of one client who presumably echoed the sentiments of others: she felt she was not worth the time or money needed to create an improved environment.

Working pro bono, DND had to make the most of the small amount of money left after infrastructure improvements were completed. The team relied on simple yet bold statements through color, materials, decorative elements, and graphics to achieve the greatest impact.

The team finished off the space with a series of plate rails that carry bright restaurant-ware mugs, plates, and platters. While they extend the notion of a homey kitchen and provide focused color details overhead, they are also the vehicle for donor recognition. Plates and platters displayed on the rails carry the names of donors, and have proven a popular and effective means to encourage additional giving.

An additional goal was to inspire clients and donors through quotes around optimism, hope, and charity toward others. Since St. Vincent de Paul is a faith-based organization, the DND team selected quotes from religious leaders and texts from a wide variety of faith traditions. The plate rails were designed with a tall, flat surface on which the quotes are rendered.

Project Details
It is important to recognize such an outstanding contribution to a community and cause in need. It is difficult design problem to solve on any budget, but this demonstrates how small design moves can make a giant impact on a community. The warmth and comfort created by the space brings hope and dignity to a community on the fringe—a forgotten corner transformed into a place of opportunity. As designers, we take an oath to make the world a better place. This project delivers on that promise.
Juror 1
Design Team

Debra Nichols (design principal); Bill Comstock (managing principal); Joyce Ng, Michael Healey (designers); Lauren Herrera (student intern)

Design Firm

Debra Nichols Design


Frederic C. Divine Associates (architects)


Durkin Signs