Woodshop's Rustic Surf Designs

Jun 10, 2011 at 12am

Everybody seems to have a next-move fantasy in this city. Mine says screw the people jam of my Upper Haight ’hood and indulge my inner beachcomber by moving to the Outer Sunset. If I could set up shop out there, I’d perfect my dune-hiding skills, up my driftwood collection, and hope for psychic inspiration from the artists who’ve migrated out there before me.

I love the fact that once you get beyond 40th Ave., there’s a growing lot of creative homesteaders with an urban-surfside aesthetic. I’ve spent hours browsing Mollusk Surf Shop’s wave-riding art and General Store’s handmade goods crafted from natural materials. Travel south from that nexus to Noriega and there lies my favorite idea lab – Woodshop, a collective of mellow surfers making incredible signs, chairs, tables, surfboards, and smaller knickknacks, some of which end up in, or as a part of, Mollusk and General Store. These guys have added fire to my Maerz 2.0 dream, the fantasy wherein I open an art studio with as much craftsmanship and style as Luke Bartels , Danny Hess , Josh Duthie, and Jeff Canham ’s. (And, by the way, in this vision I would also know how to surf.)

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I’ve been to Woodshop enough times to know the lay of the space, and about all the dogs that double as doorbells – I don’t touch the one with the limp ’cause you never know if she’s gonna bite. I know that behind the beautifully designed storefront window – where the public can ogle Luke’s giant Monterey Cypress table, Josh’s salvaged chairs with polished walnut, elm, and sycamore seats, Danny’s ecofriendly boards, and Jeff’s signature signs – is a workshop littered with sawdust and tree slabs as tall as those in a real forest.

The inner workstation also belies the sense of humor connecting these buddies. Most recent honor among them? Danny’s surfing-thrashed “gross fingernail” was named “Employee of the Week” on a handmade sign.

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One of the great things about this nearly two year old studio is that while each designer has his own niche, the shared space encourages collaboration between these four – which sometimes extends to their friends. On my last trip out there, I was eyeing the new display of skateboards in the showroom and the guys told me a story about Kyle Field (the artist also known as “Little Wings”), who had recently told them he needed a board, like, ASAP. So the group put their talents together and made a couple demos for him to use. They’re not sure what to do with them now, but I think they look pretty cool.

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They work primarily on their own, creating specific designs on commission and also selling pieces straight out of the shop. When I see Josh’s wall of found chairs (amazing finds, some by famous designers, that are mostly picked up off the street) I’m impressed with how seamlessly he turns junk into a collector’s item. He works under the name Chairtastic and gets hired by businesses to give folks special places to sit – I’ll check out Josh’s stools when I finally visit Mission Cheese.

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Luke designs some of the heaviest pieces in the studio, using wood he gets delivered from the town of Marshall, north of San Francisco. Even his cutting boards come from hearty stock. He says he gets a lot of inspiration from Mollusk’s owner John McCambridge, who he describes as having a lot of ambition that’s “tempered by minimalism,” the aesthetic curated in his shops. I think John’s curatorial eye has helped shape much of the great art and design in the city – and, to some degree, the art and beach ephemera I’ve managed to collect in my apartment.

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Much of Mollusk’s visual identity (signs, T-shirts, logos, business cards) was created by Jeff, whose work I’ve admired around the city in various forms. I remember his great birdhouse display in The Curiosity Shoppe, and for the musically inclined, he created single-note thumb pianos that were sold through Park Life. We plucked a couple of the little instruments on my last visit to Woodshop, and they make noises as whimsical as the facial expressions painted on them.

You might also recognize Jeff’s work from a couple story designs he created for The Bold Italic. I recruited him back in the beginning of the year before he got slammed with commissions and began generating pieces for his upcoming Guerrero Gallery show.

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Surfers probably know Danny’s work the best, as he’s the go-to designer for wood boards. He rolled into our photo shoot 45 minutes late, eyes crimson from salt water after he lost track of time body surfing (an excuse it’d be hard to hold against him since he’s such a friendly guy, and also, we’re both UC Santa Cruz alum). Still sandy from the ocean, Danny gave me a tour of his work space where he makes about 160 boards a year.

He told me some great stories about the way he hand makes each board, often using pieces of wood brought in by customers. The surfers’ spiritual approach to their sport seems reinforced by their requests for Danny to use bits of natural materials that have personal meaning.

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I’ve spent a couple hours poking around all the Woodshop projects: Luke’s “branchlers” and cutting boards, Danny’s boards and body surfing “hand shredders,” Jeff’s blocks and signs, Josh’s chairs – their humble vibe makes their work seem so easy. It all feeds into an attitude that shuns over thinking a design. Luke tells me this understated approach ties into the general Outer Sunset lifestyle where there’s an art to keeping things simple. “There’s a culture here that’s bohemian in the sense that we value rustic,” he explains of Woodshop’s collective style. “It inspires me to edit stuff out of my designs.” I like how they infuse this simplicity with modern refinement, giving the furniture a connection to the urban environment that inspired it. 

By the end of our photo shoot for this story, I'm full of new sawdust dreams. The camaraderie is so strong between these guys, and their designs are so thoughtful it’s hard to leave without wishing, even a little, to have such an awesome artistic lifestyle (one where surf breaks are all part of a day’s work). So after getting some friendly advice from Luke about where to get the basics of woodworking (he suggests an intensive furniture making school in Fort Bragg), I bid the guys and their little dogs good-bye, careful still not to touch the pooch with the bum paw.

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Swing by Woodshop and take a peek at the showroom in front of the shop. The designers work by commission and sell straight from the shop, depending on the piece. Luke’s tables start around $4,500 and Josh’s chairs start at $350 each. Danny’s surfboards cost $1295 and take about four months to make based on the season. Jeff paints three to four signs a year, mostly for friends. (He refers folks who are looking for original signs to New Bohemia Signs, where he worked for five years.) You can see his work at Guerrero Gallery this June.

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