American Design Hot List 2021
San Francisco, studioahead.com
We backed into the work of Studio Ahead a year ago, discovering their felted-wool floor chair — which they recently spun into a full collection — before we realized they were primarily an interiors firm, creating stylish homes full of pieces by independent designers like BZippy and Christopher Norman. Founders Homan Rajai and Elena Dendiberia honor their own diverse backgrounds with a practice that celebrates the multi-cultural and handmade.
What is American design to you, and what excites you about it?
Elena came to the US from Russia in 2014, and my family came to the US during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. We’re the new generation of design, coming from international backgrounds and knowing not to make generalizations about how people feel comfortable living. We like to ask very simple questions, for instance: How do you like to sit? A question like that has so many cultural implications and design opportunities. Since we’re based in Northern California, we have diverse clients — from South Korea, India, Iran, Russia, the Jewish diaspora. We’re constantly educating ourselves about these other cultures.
In terms of our city and what our experience is, San Francisco is weird when it comes to design. It’s known globally for its innovative and progressive thinking, but it appears to mostly reference the past. There’s something to be said about the fact that most of the big interior designers to come out of San Francisco recently represent Eurocentric aesthetics. Our work — our efforts to respect our clients’ diverse cultural backgrounds and to work with local artisans who represent Northern California — feels reflective of what San Francisco is about today. We resonate with humble, locally sourced materials like wool, felt, rough wood, ceramic, and rammed earth. And we deeply respect traditional craft. We like to challenge ourselves by always thinking about how we can marry these materials and craft natively to the region, with new, forward-thinking ideas.
What are your plans and highlights for the upcoming year?
We’re finishing a few of ongoing interior design projects, one of which is a mid-century residence in Hillsborough that has been in progress for the last three years. We brought in Marmol Radziner to collaborate with us on it. To counteract the angular lines of the home, we designed furniture and rugs based on the organic forms of the landscape surrounding it — the oak groves and hills melting into the Bay. The result is a feeling we think is so essential to Northern California: a play between sharp and soft, man-made and natural.
We also have clients in Berkeley Hills with a carpenter-style home filled with unique objects. We designed the space and furniture around the pieces they’ve collected from their travels, like a stair-runner that combines vintage Turkish and Moroccan carpets. We’re incorporating a pair of primitive verdigris sculptures as a base support for a dining table we are creating with local woodworkers. For their fireplace, which goes into the library, we’re adding a wood built-in sculpture made by Inverness-based artist Ido Yoshimoto.
We’ll also continue developing our production arm, which focuses on designing and fabricating custom pieces that reflect our current obsessions with materiality and forms and that embrace the Northern California aesthetic. Recently we’ve been working with wool felt that’s locally produced in Sebastopol and comes from Sonoma sheep, but has a deep connection to both Russian and Persian cultures. With the furniture pieces we presented in November at Wanted NYC, our exploration of felt started taking a more sculptural approach. We resonate with pieces that represent intention beyond functionality, evoke imagination, and question any rigid order.
What inspires or informs your work in general?
We’re deeply moved by the rich cultural narrative of Northern California and the community of craftsmen and artisans who develop and elevate this narrative through their practices. They work with humble Californian materials. They live in forests and on the beaches in some of the most beautiful parts of the region. Their lifestyle is a representation of what we like about this place.
We love learning about them, learning from them, seeing how they work, and seeing what processes and techniques they utilize. We’re both very curious, and we make a point to do studio visits, because that’s when we feel most inspired and alive. As an effort to give back to the local community of artisans we’ve discovered, we started the blog California: A Journal. Each month we spotlight an artist, designer, architect, or any other creative persona that inspires us.