San Francisco is Building a New Language of Design

[Work in Progress] Exhibition

Installation view of [Work in Progress,] now on view at the American Industrial Center in San Francisco. All photos by Sahra Jajarmikhayat. Courtesy of the curators Kate Greenberg, Kelley Perumbeti, and Sahra Jarjarmikyat.


January 18, 2024

San Francisco’s techy reputation, notorious for its open-plan offices, would have us thinking that many Bay Area residents prefer a bean bag over an Eames chair. The new exhibition at the American Industrial Center, [Works in Progress] is setting the record straight. The show features 12 Bay Area designers who are part of the community of craftsmen, makers, and creators rewriting the language of California design.

While many [Works in Progress] designers take advantage of their tech-saturated surroundings, fabricating pieces with the help of 3D printers, rapid prototyping, and CAD software, all reference traditional craft. The Bay Area was a hotbed for the Arts and Crafts movement, where wood reigned while the industrial age favored steel, and the Social Seriality Movement, where printmaking churned out agitprop from activist groups like the Black Panthers and members of the Chicano Art Movement. In [Works in Progress], these movements are referenced in live edge end tables, white oak seating, and graphically painted dining sets.

“When you get close to the work, you can see how each detail holds the conviction and hand of the designer. They each tell a unique story,” Kate Greenberg, [Works in Progress] co-curator and an independent designer, said. “But when the works are seen together, patterns in structure, approach to material, and emotional effect begin to emerge. That feels really exciting. The Bay Area does have a distinct voice, no matter how subtle.”

Woodwork shines in contributions by Ido Yoshimoto, NJ Roseti—whose body of work earned an award at ICFF 2023—and The Long Confidence. Ido’s stool, which looks like it has been freshly plucked from a Redwood forest, showcases his training as an arborist and sculptor. The artist, who studied under prolific woodworker JB Blunk, honors the organic curvature of his material, just as his mentor did. One side of the stool is stained with indigo, which deepens the contrast of the woodgrain.

NJ and The Long Confidence’s works, on the other hand, are sanded into smooth surfaces. NJ’s maple and mahogany side table, part of his collection All Over Again, rises up like a skyscraper in the International Style. His process combines digital fabrication with hand techniques, allowing him to use organic materials to build glitched-out, boxy furniture. The Long Confidence, Berkeley-based Rafi Ajl’s studio practice, takes a more traditional approach. Their Pin Chair perches on tapered legs and has a thin, spindled backrest.

Graphics pop in a textile work by Prowl Studio. “Exposure Therapy” is high-tech upholstery that tells the devastating story of California wildfires. Made in collaboration with Amsterdam-based digital knitting engineers BYBORRE, the foamless textile puffs up like smoke swirling through the Sequoias.

Office of Tangible Space also embraces technology, using a CNC machine to cut the dramatic angles of their Abigail dining set. The chairs are made of oak + plywood with high pressure laminate (corrugated metal and green).

Another standout piece is Studio AHEAD’s Sheep Stool, a fuzzy piece covered in merino wool from Northern California sheep. The stool, which has a flat structure, can be laid on its side or situated upright. Each side has its own unique cut, making it appear as a whole new piece from every angle.

[Works in Progress] shows that San Francisco is building a new era of design that embraces traditional craft and the advancements of the tech industry. Kate hopes that others will recognize that this is the beginning of a movement.

“There’s something really exciting brewing in this community that is just beginning to get teased out, and there is great value in recording a contemporary scene and ascertaining its particular identity.”