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San Francisco’s New Design Stars

Tung Chiang, creative lead and studio director at Heath Ceramics

Photographs by Jake Stangel
In a tech-obsessed city, these creators take a hands-on approach to making beautiful objects. 

On a recent afternoon, I stood in a small, sunny San Francisco studio, watching Risa Culbertson drill holes in a piece of plywood. “I’m making an attachment to help in screenprinting tote bags,” explained Culbertson, a printmaker who uses hand-carved linoleum blocks and a 1910 treadle-operated letterpress machine to turn out her totes, cards, prints, and baby onesies under the business name PapaLlama.

I had come to Culbertson’s Mission Creek neighborhood studio, which she shares with the letterpress printer James Tucker, trying to make sense of a rather staggering fact: While the number of tech employees in San Francisco has grown by nearly 50 percent in the past three years, the number of craftspeople starting businesses has shot up at 10 times that rate, according to SFMade, a nonprofit that tracks local manufacturing jobs. The city, it seems, is in the midst of a major maker boom.

In a way, this isn’t surprising. The economics of building a business around $5 handprinted linocut cards (in one case, featuring a ball and chain and the anniversary message best years ever) can work only in the presence of a certain amount of disposable income. Preferably, lots. And in San Francisco, where the tech industry for the past decade has been minting millionaires who are barely into their 20s, spare cash is not in short supply. It’s no wonder that makers (along with Pilates studios and farm-to-table restaurants) have sprouted like wildflowers; the city has been making it rain.

Flora Grubb

Flora Grubb

But I wondered whether San Francisco’s craft bubble might be driven by forces more complicated than just the city’s rising waterline of wealth. Was the phenomenon some sort of 21st-century subset of the California Dream that was born in the Gold Rush and periodically rekindled right into the dot-com era?

The center of the city’s craft movement, I had been told, was here, at the Heath Ceramics complex. Heath co-owners Cathy Bailey and her husband, Robin Petravic, had converted a former industrial laundry into a kind of modern makers’ dream—a collection of light-filled studios, including Culbertson and Tucker’s, set around the vast and airy tile factory. Bailey, a former designer, and Petravic had bought the struggling Heath Ceramics company in 2003 and quickly transformed it, preserving the firm’s high-quality, small-batch ethos and rustic aesthetic—matte-glazed dinnerware with a raw edge—while expanding its range.

After leasing the abandoned laundry building in 2011, they worked a similar transformation, creating an unusual combination of studio-factory and showroom. In the foyer, orange bike racks undulate between polished concrete planters full of succulents. Visitors can sip Blue Bottle coffee and gaze through floor-to-ceiling windows at workers loading glazed tiles into giant orange-and-silver kilns. Or they can browse an elegant retail store next door featuring work made by resident artists—jeweler Julia Turner’s powdercoated steel earrings, perhaps, or Culbertson’s and Tucker’s letterpress cards. Even the built-in seating has a handcrafted aura, with sleek honey-colored tables built from salvaged wood by a local woodworker and hand-stitched leather chairs.

The Heath Ceramics complex

The Heath Ceramics complex

The morning we met in the Heath factory, Bailey said that, as she sees it, San Francisco is a maker’s paradise in part because of the people it attracts.

“The people who live here are self-selecting,” she said. “They come here for the architecture and the surroundings, the water and the hills. People choose to be here for aesthetic reasons.”

The city also works hard to support local manufacturing, she noted, with zoning that helps protect against rent creep. In 2013, Bailey recalled, the mayor of Zurich visited San Francisco and came to see Heath, hoping to glean inspiration so she could go home and encourage the flourishing of craft in her similarly crowded and expensive city.

But the bigger distinction, Bailey believes, may be one of outlook. In New Jersey, where she grew up, she recalled people endlessly complaining about their lots in life. San Francisco, she said, is different. Whether the venture is tech or craft, “people think they can do it. The attitude here is positive.” As Bailey sees it, the extraordinary spirit of DIY optimism that drives a person to found a long-odds tech start-up is not that different from the spirit of DIY optimism that inspires someone to start a business selling hand-thrown ceramic espresso cups or tote bags with images printed by an antique letterpress.

Guitar builder Jacob Aranda at Woodshop

Guitar builder Jacob Aranda at Woodshop

And while the tech industry has been criticized from some artistic quarters for building tools that range from merely distracting to, at worst, dehumanizing, Bailey sees a subtle affinity. “Programmers understand how much work has to go in, on the back end, to make something that looks deceptively clean, simple, and elegant,” she said. “The tangibility, the craft, the detail—they get it.”

In some quarters, at least, this seems to be true. Not long after meeting Bailey, I drove to the Outer Sunset, near where the city’s western edge meets the ocean, to visit Luke Bartels, a furniture maker, and Jeff Canham, who designs and carves art-quality wooden signs. They ply their crafts at Woodshop, a woodworking collective whose members share space and tools. Sitting on salvaged chairs in the shop’s grubby anteroom, Canham talked cheerfully about his recent artist’s residency at Facebook, where he had collaborated with an engineer to create a work for the walls of a campus atrium. The result—four spare lines of code, painted in towering symbols—showed a computer program written to loop infinitely toward an aspirational end point: “perfection.” To Canham, the moment reflected a shared appreciation for skillful design.

PapaLlama’s Risa Culbertson at Aesthetic Union

PapaLlama’s Risa Culbertson at Aesthetic Union

But not everyone I talked to shared Canham’s sense of analog-digital rapport. Risa Culbertson, for one, sees letterpress printing as a way of pushing back against the uniformity that tends to characterize many modern objects. “There’s so much perfection in the world, especially with digital design,” she noted. “With linocuts, I love that every single piece is different. There’s a magic to things printed by hand. They’re unique, and tactile.”

This attachment to the singular and handmade may not be new, but in the land of a thousand start-ups, it can seem almost like a political stance, one group’s reaction to living in a place that inevitably rewards consistency and speed over vagary and inefficiency. James Tucker, Culbertson’s shop mate, mentioned that he had just finished a run of 2,000 custom- printed coffee bags, each of which had to be hand-fed into a 1910 Chandler & Price press. It was exactly the kind of time-consuming effort that technology tries to spare us, Tucker acknowledged. Then he shrugged jauntily, “But there’s a joy to making things with your hands. And, for me, a pleasure in being a carrier of the old knowledge.”

A few days later, I met with Miranda Jones on a bench in Flora Grubb Gardens, near the city’s semi-industrial Dogpatch neighborhood, on the southeast edge of the city near the Bay. Though Flora Grubb is a working nursery, named for its proprietor, it more closely resembles an exquisite estate, with Moroccan palms shading winding paths, Vietnamese pots in opulent glazes, and staghorn ferns mounted like trophy antlers from an exotic elk. Even the bench we were sitting on was unique, made of a single piece of hand-cast concrete that had been wired to generate radiant heat on the city’s chilly summer nights. A roving gardener informed me that the shop’s cat loves it.

Galanter & Jones’s Helios heated bench

Galanter & Jones’s Helios heated bench

I had come to talk with Jones, who, with her brother Aaron, runs Galanter & Jones, the company that makes the benches. With our fannies gently cooked, Jones, a former style editor at Sunset magazine, acknowledged that getting started as full-time craft entrepreneurs had been tough. A year into it, Aaron still casts and assembles each bench with only one assistant, working out of a cramped 600-square-foot studio. “We call ourselves a start-up,” she told me. “We just make a physical product instead of a virtual one.”

In San Francisco, at least, that distinction is not insignificant. Unlike a tech start-up, Jones’s company doesn’t have the backing of wealthy investors and venture capitalists. And the financial realities of producing high-quality handmade goods can be startling even to makers. The internally heated bench, Jones told me, retails for $7,900.

Despite the costs, nearly all the makers I met seemed more passionate than bitter, happy to be championing objects that are made with care, crafted from thoughtfully chosen materials, and rich in individual character.

Like most of the people I spoke with, Flora Grubb recognizes that craft can be seen by some as simple extravagance. “There are not many places in the world where people would want my expensive garden store, or my boyfriend’s relatively expensive restaurants,” she admitted. (Her boyfriend, Charlie Hallowell, owns the popular and trendsetting Oakland establishments Pizzaiolo, Boot and Shoe Service, and Penrose, across the bay.)

But Grubb also argued that craft is thriving precisely because it acts as a vital corrective to our increasingly virtual lives. “These are old-fashioned values,” she said. “So much of technology gives us a little buzz of something that feels like happiness in the moment but, over time, isn’t. Craft is an antidote to the screen world.”

As to the city’s glad embrace of both worlds, Grubb says simply, “That’s the amazing reality of San Francisco.”

Handmade San Francisco: 7 ways to dip into San Francisco’s maker scene.

This appeared in the October 2014 issue.