For all its professed eccentricities, San Francisco is a town in love with traditional design. At the San Francisco Design Center and in specialty shops all over town you can find your mid-century modern loveseats, your featureless Danish blonde wood consoles, or painstakingly re-created Victorian hardware. But what about those of us with stranger tastes?
I am possibly the world's worst shopper, easily defeated by the option-paralysis of shops overflowing with consumables. At the same time I am struck by jealousy when I visit friends who have turned their homes into something wonderful and weird. In an attempt to face my fears, I met up with my friend and artisan furniture designer Paul Mirocha, who also happens to have a superbly eclectic apartment of his own. We went looking for the purveyors of the odd and unusual amongst the onslaught of pretty.
Paul is like an old-school Wunderkammer collector. Instead of choosing a time period or strict design motif and then going out on a scavenger hunt for the perfect Eames chair, he finds objects that speak for themselves, and the organization comes after. This is not to say that it's design mayhem – his home is elegantly appointed with a carefully cultivated collection of individually important items, artfully arranged. He builds furniture from salvage and found wood. By his guidelines, most advice from design magazines is cheating. "The most important thing is to not care what anyone else thinks." I think this advice is both brilliant and hard to follow.
We met on a sunny afternoon on Valencia Street at the slam-dunk, easiest place of first resort for odd interiors, Paxton Gate. Best known as a treasure trove of botanical prints, mounted insects, and taxidermy, the shop is actually an evolution from its original primary role as a landscape design company – so we headed to the back of the shop in search of unusual planty options. Its robust selection of carnivorous plants is complemented by retro-styled Wardian cases. These miniature greenhouses once fueled the Victorian fetish for nature under glass, and now offer protection for exotic plants. They are just the thing to add an element of crazed Victoriana to an otherwise staid room.
The tentacled bromeliads at the front of the shop are Paxton Gate’s specialty, and also a bargain. With their long twisty tendrils or strange tufts of tangled strands, these epiphytic bromeliads have a few key advantages over other houseplants above and beyond their other-worldly appearance. They require very little care, and since they are small and don't require soil to flourish, they do not have to be potted. They can hang on walls or be placed in terrariums to show off their green tendrils to best advantage without too much fear of killing them.
We took a quick tour to admire the slightly creepy handblown light fixtures by artist Evan Chambers, and to consider just where one might put a mounted unicorn head in a well-designed home. Valencia's new and hip boutiques have thankfully not displaced most of the weird shops full of old stuff that we both love. We made a beeline for Harrington Galleries, with Paul doing the good shopping buddy thing by dragging me into the occasional shop along the way.
Harrington Galleries' enormous selection of antiques and used stuff has been in business for more than 40 years, and the great thing about the place is that is has a nice mix of styles and eras, as well a mix of proper antiques and random funky stuff. It was not long before I found myself wondering if I could fit a mammoth WWII- era steel desk into my tiny living room (the answer is no, but I would like to).
Harrington's is kind of an all-era, all-aesthetic one-stop shop, but the staff curates and arranges things within this cavernous space to create little miniature environments, sometimes by era or style, but sometimes by just following a color or textural theme. Things come and go at a good pitch, so you never know what you might find. As you go farther back into the store, the selection gets more random. Paul and I were practically climbing over mid-century bed frames to get at a Victorian china cabinet that would make a handsome home for a curio collection, or to keep the smaller taxidermy pieces away from the cats.
At Harrington's, most everything that interested me was actually affordable, another advantage of looking in shops like this where perseverance is rewarded with finds. I also like that saving these kind of orphan items is also sustainable. As Paul put it, "When you invest in antiques, and you find another you want to put in its place, there will always be another home for it." The same cannot necessarily be said for my Ikea shelves.
We are also lucky that our city has so many options for learning how to make things. Everything from Japanese furniture design to structural welding classes are offered on a regular basis, so there's really no excuse not to try to make something myself, or at least modify something I find.
For some inspiration on the-making-stuff front, I hit The Industrialists on Market Street. It’s been in the business of rescuing and refurbishing stainless steel cabinets, carts, and furniture for more than 15 years. These days, the staff often create entirely new items by combining elements from unrelated and often broken pieces. In the process they rescue unwanted and discarded bits from hospitals and labs and turn them into new creations with a timeless aesthetic that will be around for generations – and it's all done by hand here in the Bay Area.
In the front of the shop, a table was being crafted from an industrial stainless cart and a huge slab of recycled sequoia wood, with the edges of the tabletop maintaining the original contours of the tree. It's a particularly striking bit of repurposing. The shop owner showed us photos other pieces – modern, lofty kitchen islands rescued from surgical carts, built-in glass and steel bookcases, and custom cabinets created Dr. Frankenstein-like from a half dozen original pieces.
It was impossible to tell whether any of these pieces were either perfectly preserved vintage or completely modern. All the variations were created through careful selection of handles and hinges, feet and knobs. Three sleek glass-topped bars in the back of the shop were destined, once complete and polished, for a hotel in Chicago, unrecognizable from their earlier institutional incarnations.
Our last stop was further up Market at Antiquario, where I had found a few beloved odds and ends years ago. Antiquario is one of those wonderfully jam-packed shops where you have to edge carefully around the maze, trying not to knock anything over. It is a bonanza of the old and odd. Right by the door was a display case full of taxidermic songbirds sitting under a huge black chandelier. In the jumble were giant gilded frames, architectural ornaments, and exotic horns from unknown beasts. Every possible era and design sensibility was represented in the form of beautiful orphan objects. The biggest challenge was to find the one out of all that spoke specifically to me.
I ventured upstairs into the creaking loft space and found a whole stash of old globes with country names like Prussia and the Belgian Congo, and a stack of aluminum travel trunks buried under hefty Bavarian-looking dining room chairs. As I priced globes and tried to get closer to hidden treasures without upsetting the stacks, time must have gotten away from me. Ultimately, I was saved from having to decide on anything because I was nearly locked in before the shop closed for the evening. It looks like I will have to go back.
Over the course of our explorations, Paul and I talked about the elements that make a home design personal. It was a funny thing to talk about while shopping, since a lot of what we agree on comes down to an anti-consumerist approach; a predilection for finding, making, and cultivating, rather than just buying. But this awareness doesn't preclude buying anything ; instead it asks us to question our purchases and develop a respect for the things we are willing to shell out for. In my case, this made me want to track down artisan items, antiques, and things that are made by hand. Art instead of prints and unique items instead of mass-produced no matter how famous the designer. It also made me want to go back to things that are important to me that currently reside in boxes or shelves, and find ways to bring them out into the light.
In the end, I didn't buy anything that afternoon, but I came home with lists and notes and a new enthusiasm to give my apartment some much needed love. I may still be crap at shopping, but now at least I know where to go.
The key to finding the best unusual places in the city for apartment shopping is to do some homework first – or, like me, cheat and find a friend with fabulous taste. Valencia Street between 17th and 21st Streets offers the densest population of unusual antiques and used random stuff in the city, with Harrington Galleries and Paxton Gate in the mix. And Castro Street has a few terrific places within walking distance of The Industrialists on Market. Antiquario is further up Market Street, and absolutely worth the parking nightmare, particularly since there are a few other places nearby.