In an era of big-box stores and mass production, many people are yearning for authenticity. Happily, the East Bay is a hub of artisanal energy, making it easy to find a skilled local craftsperson to produce your dining table, living room rug, go-to chair, or light fixture—and to learn the story of its creation. Diablo visited the studios of four furniture and home-decor designers, whose work exudes passion, quality, and artistry.
Studio Roeper, Alameda
Knock On Wood
For 16 years, Florian Roeper has been designing and handcrafting luxury wood furniture at Alameda Point Studios, in an industrial building that was once part of the Alameda Naval Air Station. He initially commuted from San Francisco before moving to Oakland. "I was pretty charmed by the diversity, the slower pace, and all the good food," he says. "And there’s more space here for creative freedom."
Roeper’s studio houses his many specialized tools and various slabs of wood, which lean against the walls, awaiting their new lives as distinctive furnishings. He specializes in tables, though he also creates dining chairs, paintings, sculptures, and custom pieces that have been snapped up by art collectors, design lovers, and boutique hotels around the world.
While attending California College of the Arts, Roeper pursued graphic design and architecture—until he saw some projects the woodworking students were creating. "I was blown away," he says. "I immediately signed up for woodworking classes." He quips that his heritage—a mix of German and Italian—makes him well suited for the work, giving him a balance of logical thinking and sensual, artistic design.
Roeper mills the wood himself at a Martinez sawmill. "I love being able to start from point zero—to have seen the actual tree, perhaps," he says. "It’s more of a personal connection." He uses native California species like claro walnut, now wildly popular. "As we mill the slabs, [the wood] doesn’t come out as perfect, straight grain, [as in] no knots, no holes, no cracks," he says. "But what other tree has this kind of grain? So let’s take this beautiful material, without taking away its imperfections, and put it into an architectural format, clean the edges."
Early on, Roeper apprenticed with Al Garvey, a master door-maker and member of the storied Bolinas Crafts Guild. "He got me excited about patina work on metals," Roeper says. "Wood is the starting point, and I like to incorporate metal as I see fit."
Roeper also produces his own pigment-free finishes, and evidence of his experiments—oils, varnishes—can be spotted on his "crazy finishing table." "My stains are cocktails that I’ve come up with to create a chemical reaction so you don’t see actual pigments," he explains. "You want the grain to pop out just as it is, but maybe a little lighter or a little darker."
Over the years, Roeper’s style has become increasingly minimalist, as he challenges himself to simplify his timeless designs while retaining the soul of a piece. This year, he unveiled his Phantom collection, which sports bold lines and complements the wood’s natural beauty with bronze or silver leaf on the interior faces. Still brimming with the enthusiasm of his student days, he says, "It’s a fun project." studioroeper.com.
"The legs represent a contemporary look, as a counterbalance to the organic, live-edge top," Roeper says. "It’s claro walnut, and not just any old slab. It’s reaching the size limit of what a walnut tree can grow into: It’s 14 feet long and 6-and-a-half feet wide, which is enormous … and very rare. The metals on the base are customizable. We have bronze, but we can also do zinc, nickel, brass, or copper. Or we can do the same design in an all-wood finish."
Jess Wainer Glassworks and Lighting, Oakland
Let It Glow
As a kid growing up in Ohio, drawing and painting came naturally to Jess Wainer, who always received positive feedback from her art teachers. Then she took a class in glass—a fairly unforgiving medium—and met her match. "It was challenging," she remembers. "Glass teaches you about failure, patience, and moving on when things don’t go your way. It’s filled with life lessons."
While studying at the Rhode Island School of Design, she tried glass again, and this time recognized the creative possibilities. "When I got into the hot shop [where glass is melted, blown, and shaped] and had my hands on the material again, there was no way I could choose anything else," she says.
Today, Wainer makes bespoke sculptural lighting and vessels. She blows glass at Glow Glass Studio, a fully equipped warehouse space in Oakland, ideal for artists working on larger projects. She brainstorms designs at Norton Factory Studios, a former factory that’s been converted into artist work spaces. In her airy unit are various glass objects, ideation sketches, and a hanging scale model of a chandelier design.
Wainer initially made glass housewares, selling to clients and shops including the SFMOMA Museum Store. She then started fabricating lighting for other designers and ultimately went independent, designing her own custom pieces. "Once I found clients who were on board with me being my true, over-the-top, creative self, everything fell into place," she says. "I could say, ‘I’m going to spend a month doing discovery in your house. I’m going to make something formally … that is so much more than a traditional light fixture would be.’"
She tends to favor feminine, organic shapes. "My work is influenced by travel and by natural light in all the ways that we see it—in cobblestone alleyways in Italy, in remote desert land beyond electricity," Wainer says. "I’m investigating light as something to play with, to react to, to contain or reflect." For one client, she created a pendant light featuring etched tree branches that projects a 360-degree illumination of a mystical forest across the room. Another client’s Persian rug collection sparked ideas.
For larger works, Wainer sometimes collaborates with other local glassmakers. "We need muscle—people who physically can handle that much glass," she says. "So we’re all in the shop, working together. I’ve worked with some supertalented glassmakers, so I’m lucky to live in a place like this." She also hires wax-casting experts, craftspeople who polish her glassworks and drill them for lamp hardware, and steel fabricators who create custom metal parts.
Untold hours spent in the hot shop have left an ever-present heat rash on Wainer’s arm. "I like that," she says. "My love affair with the material is deep and lifelong." jesswainer.com.
Clear and Gold Pendant
"I’ve been curious about playing with surface design, in looking at projection rather than decoration. How can I modify [a lamp’s] surface so it shimmers or projects patterns on the walls?" Wainer says. "I like the relationship between the untouched, clear glass at the top and the ghostly metallic on the lip. When you illuminate them at night, the speckles have a glimmer-starburst effect." This pendant and the Sunrise pendant (pictured on the opposite page, beside Wainer) relate to her more recent work. "Glass can transform and play with light," she says. "That theme is within everything I work on."
Laleh and Alessandro Latini
Furniture Designers and Store Owners
Hearth and Home Wares
At Sobu, a light-filled shop on College Avenue in Oakland, you’ll find eco-friendly furniture designed in-house, along with decor pieces from local and international artisans. You might also see Laleh or Alessandro Latini, the owners. "Sometimes I feel like I’m at home and people are coming to visit me," Laleh says.
The two met in high school, then went their separate ways. Laleh studied film and photography, becoming a graphic designer for the likes of Williams Sonoma and Design Within Reach. Alessandro was an architect before transitioning into furniture design, working for an Oakland-based wholesaler. Years later, they reconnected, fell in love, and got hitched. When their children entered school, they started discussing their shared dream: opening a little store.
Sobu—named after their kids, Sofia and Bruno—started out as a pop-up in Old Oakland and eventually relocated to College Avenue. Their stylish line of furnishings—dining tables, lounge chairs, sofas, desks, and more—exudes a cool, midcentury-modern vibe. All of their furniture is chemical-free, and they opt for solid-wood construction, using materials like American walnut, ash, acacia, and teak.
The design process often starts with an inspirational image. "I bombard [Alessandro] with photos throughout the week," Laleh says. "‘I love this chair design,’ or ‘Oh, this combination of wood and upholstery—we should do a sofa.’" Then, he sketches, a freelancer transforms those sketches into 3-D renderings, and the design is perfected through fine-tuning.
Next, Alessandro sends the design to a workshop, which builds a sample, and he makes adjustments before the piece goes into production. "We work with a lot of local woodworkers, upholsterers, and metalworkers, mostly for custom work, and we also make a few pieces in our collection locally," Laleh says.
Alessandro’s experience in the wholesale market also exposed him to skilled craftspeople around the world. "He already had a relationship with a few wonderful small workshops in India, Vietnam, and China, where we get some of our products made," Laleh says.
Sobu sells furniture by other makers too, as well as lighting and housewares. Laleh exhibits her own photography in the shop, and Sobu hosts openings for local artists as well. "The atmosphere in the East Bay is very inviting to artists," she says. "There are so many makers and designers, and there are venues and shops like ours that show their work."
Neighbors stop in to introduce themselves and express their appreciation for Sobu. "We recognize people and shout out the window, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’" Laleh says. "That’s the extra-fun part of having a store." sobusobu.com.
"This chair is part of the Woody collection that includes a sofa as well as a bench and little cube, like an ottoman," Laleh says. "It’s made of solid ash. … We wanted it to be supercomfortable, so we designed it to be deeper. When you sit in it, you really recline and can curl up your feet if you want. The fabric is a supersoft synthetic that zips off. It’s the first collection that [Alessandro and I] … really collaborated on, and that was fun for me."
Master Rug Designer and Builder
Joshua's Rugs, Walnut Creek
Joshua Hasson has been working 14-hour days in his rug studio in Walnut Creek, where a large work in progress is stretched over a frame, hung vertically. Using a special tool, he feeds wool tufts through a backing. As he guides the tool along, pushing the colored wool through, the rug’s design forms, like a painting.
"I’m going to tell you a secret," he says. "This tool, I built. Every company starts with these tools, and they modify their tools. If someone comes to my place who’s a rug-maker, he will know my secrets almost right away." Hasson’s modified tool helps give his work a flawless, uniform appearance.
His custom, hand-tufted rugs start with a drawing of the proposed design. "Customers come with fabric or pillows, and I can see colors and movement, which can guide my work," Hasson says. "I can take elements from pictures, whatever you want." For one client, he incorporated a subtle ladybug climbing one of the rug’s many vines. For another, he created a textured, weblike pattern on a large rug that was inset directly into the home’s hardwood floor.
Once the client approves the design, it’s time to choose the colors. "We take poms [wool balls in various shades] from the shelves and we can see how the colors work next to each other," Hasson says. "Then I make a sample—it’s like a small rug—so the client can put it on their floor and see it in daylight and in the evening with their lights. They can also feel it."
Hasson uses New Zealand wool, which he prefers for area rugs. "In New Zealand, the grass is green constantly, so the sheep are eating healthy grass," he explains. "They have beautiful wool and the fiber is longer." He vigorously rubs a rug to show that it doesn’t shed fibers, which means it will have a longer life span. When he creates a rug for a heavily trafficked area, he makes the stitches particularly small and close, to increase the tuft density. Depending on the rug’s design, he might finish by using a tool called a carver to do some fine sculpting, defining the image.
Hasson launched his business in Israel 38 years ago, spent five years in Colorado, then moved to the East Bay in 1996. He loves collaborating with his customers, and recalls one especially rewarding project. "[The client was] an artist, and she showed me some small ideas that she had painted," he says. "I told her, ‘I can put this design into a rug.’ When someone is involved in my work, it’s fun for them too." Other clients have included pro baseball pitcher C.C. Sabathia (a Vallejo native) and Yoko Ono.
"It’s creation," Hasson emphasizes. "I know how to make a rug. I’m always excited to finish it, to see the reaction of the client." joshuasrugs.com.
Among the rug swatches on view in Hasson’s work space is this vibrant creation seen at right, in the upper left corner. "I made [it] as a sample," he says. "I do hiking and running in the mountains, and it’s really nice to see the layers of the earth. So that was the inspiration. There are different colors, from heat and soil and whatever there is in the ground. Each layer has its own time. This reminds me of that."