Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Thrill of the Hunt: Meet Carlos and Christine Villalta of MidCentury Modern Finds

Carlos and Christine Villalta of Dogpatch's Midcentury Modern Finds with some of their products at their headquarters in Dogpatch, San Francisco. 
As long time fans of all things midcentury modern, we enjoy wasting time surfing the internet for furniture we no longer have room for and accessories that we just might find a spot for.

We were pleasantly surprised to happen upon the website Midcentury Modern Finds (MCM Finds) -- not just because they have a great selection of midcentury furniture and accessories, but also because they are located in Dogpatch.

MCM Finds is located in the San Francisco Storage building -- the same large storage facility at 23rd and Illinois where one-time Dogpatch business, Seven Stills, started and customers of Dogpatch Dance  still boogie, dance and twerk.

Married couple Carlos and Christine Villalta run MCM Finds together. For Christine, it is her full time endeavor and for Carlos, a part time labor of love on weekends and in the evenings after he finishes work at the SFMTA where he has worked for many years.

MCM Finds looks for designs from such American designers as George Nelson, Harry Bertoia, and Florence Knoll;  Brazilian Modern Designers such as Joaquim Tenreiro, Sergio Rodrigues and Jorge Zalzupin as well as French designers such as Raymond Loewy, Pierre Paulin and Charlotte Perriand.

MCM Finds primarily sells to interior designers who know they will find a highly curated line of furniture and accessories to chose from for their clients. They also sell direct to the public.

Why do you do what you do?

I enjoy the different forms and materials of the items we find.  We often have to research our finds to discover the designer and the background of the piece.  I love the research.  You never know what you will find.  We both really love the unique pieces -- we would rather have a great piece by a lesser known designer than a well known piece by a brand name designer.

Brazilian midcentury modern is one of our favorite styles and Sergio Rodrigues and others made some amazing pieces.  Brazilian modern uses a lot of jacaranda wood in its pieces which is similar to rosewood.

As a kid I was always painting and making things for my room.  I grew up in Sausalito and went to school in Santa Cruz where I focused on fine art with an emphasis on ceramics and photography.  I also studied in Mexico City and eventually moved there in 1996 -- to me as a young student it was much more exciting and culturally rich than Santa Cruz! In Mexico I modeled to pay the bills but a friend let me use part of her shop space as a gallery and I curated the art and put together shows there.

In 2001 I was ready for a change so I moved to Barcelona where I taught English, among other jobs. I then moved to Paris for a few months but headed back to the U.S. later that year.  Now that I have two young children I marvel that my parents let me do all that traveling on my own!

I met Carlos in 2001 at a Salsa concert at the Great American Music Hall and we were married in 2005.

We started going to flea markets together and bought furnishings for our home. We loved changing the items we had so when we were done with one item we would sell it on Craigslist.  We didn't realize at the time that what we were buying was called midcentury modern -- we were just buying what we liked and looking for high quality products.  We had success selling on Craigslist and we soon realized we had an actual business so in 2009 we officially started Midcentury Modern Finds.
A  Jens Risom Chair and Arthur Umanoff Magazine Rack from Midcentury Modern Finds 

I love the thrill of the hunt and the feeling that I have found something special.  We work with a network of pickers who are always looking for items for us but I also go to flea markets and auctions to find inventory.

I also really enjoy knowing where our pieces end up. Customers will often send us photos of the pieces in their home.

I grew up in El Salvador but came to California when I was 17.  I took lots of art classes at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts. I particularly liked the silkscreening classes and took classes from Michael Roman as well as other classes from Rene Castro.  They really inspired me.  I actually got a job working for the city of SF in their silkscreening department back when they used to silkscreen all the street signs.  Technology has taken over that process so I made the move to the department of parking and traffic. I've been with the city for 26 years.

My grandmother in El Salvador had Danish style furniture from the 1960s and I loved the clean lines of that furniture. Because the furniture is so well known now people often forget that when the furniture came out in the late 50s and 60s just how unusual the designs were from what came before. These designs are so knocked off now that some people don't realize the great craftsmanship of this furniture.

Why Dogpatch?
We have lived in SF for a long time so we knew about the Dogpatch neighborhood.

We originally stored all the extra furniture in our garage but we quickly ran out of room.  We found a storage unit at Cesar Chavez and Indiana.  We stored the furniture there and met clients there but we still had to bring it to our house to photograph each piece so we were going back and forth a lot.

We actually found our current space when we brought over a piece to photograph in front of the brick wall at the Potrero Power Plant.  We are in our second space at this location.  We are in about 1000 square feet. It is so great to have enough space to store the furniture and also take photographs of them in this space. And there is a loading dock so trucks can pull right up to our space

We also love that this facility is family owned.  We feel good about meeting clients here in this space. We like the feel of the neighborhood as well -- it's still a working class neighborhood.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?
Probably something in interior or furniture design.  When I was in school I wasn't aware of industrial design so I would love to explore that area of design.  We would like to add to our business perhaps with designs of our own.  And I might get back into ceramics -- Carlos just found me a kiln so who knows!

Since I have a full time job I love the creative outlet that this gives me.

Editor's note:  Items in first photo from left to right
Fritz Hansen chair by Frederik Sieck (Danish)
‘Globe 2000’ Floor lamp by Frank Ligtelijn for Raak (Dutch)
Angelo Lelli for Arredoluce floor lamp (Italian)
C. Jeré lamp on top of vintage walnut side table (American)
Norman Cherner for Plycraft chair (American)

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Stop the presses!: Meet Joel Benson of Dependable Letterpress

Joel Benson of Dependable Letterpress with his Heidelberg Press at his San Francisco location in the Dogpatch Neighborhood.
As an avid fan of old movies, when we set the day to check out the Dependable Letterpress shop I had visions of a cluttered, dim and dingy room full of noisy, whirling printing presses as men with cigars clenched between their teeth and with ink under their finger nails, quickly and expertly moved around a printing press room setting type and cursing as they banged on the presses.

We didn't exactly find that the day we met with Joel Benson, owner of Dependable Letterpress located on Illinois Street.  The light filled and tidy room was fairly quiet with only one press in use by the young staff.

The printing press room and those who operate them may look different but the presses and the process of Letterpress hasn't changed much.  Letterpress printing is a centuries old process and was the first widely-used and reliable method of printing. This type of printing involves manually arranging type and designs and pressing them onto high quality paper or other materials.   The hands-on human component gives this type of printing an artisan image in comparison to mass produced digital printing.

And it turns out that Benson was a reluctant craftsman but in the end, the pull and the process and maybe even the magic of letterpress won him over.

Why do you do what you do?

It suits my personality. It is physical labor but it also requires attention to detail and a love of process. I enjoy working within those limitations.  It might be my most and maybe my only marketable skill!

It is very satisfying and takes skill and a bit of mindfulness.  Letterpress is very exacting -- it teaches you to get better and better -- if you make a mistake you start over.

Although I was born in Puerto Rico, I grew up in the Bay Area.  We left Puerto Rico so my dad could go to grad school.  He taught wood working and furniture design in public high schools as well as at the California College of the Arts. My mom was a textile artist and did weaving and costume making as well.  She also taught in public schools. I have one younger brother who lives in New York and works in the computer industry.

I swore I would never be a craftsman like them.  I saw the constant struggle they went through to get people to appreciate what they did and then also a struggle to get customers to pay you for the work -- to know the value. They both tease me now that I'm a craftsman!

In high school I thought I would pursue an academic career so at UC Santa Cruz I studied philosophy and ancient Greek -- the classics.  But I decided I didn't like it.  It was all "in the head" all the time -- no actual doing was involved.

I had to take an elective so I took a class in book arts taught by a rare book dealer.  He brought in samples of amazing books to show the class.  I was really intrigued by the books more as beautiful objects than in the contents of the books themselves.  Here was important text in a beautiful vessel. The books had become treasures.
A close-up of the Dials on a Heidelberg Press at Dependable Letterpress in Dogpatch, San Francisco, CA

I changed my major and took more print classes -- fonts, type, lithography -- and fell in love with the making of books.  But of course I still had to graduate on time!  UC Santa Cruz had a make your own major program so they were flexible.  I designed a major that was an art degree with an emphasis on book arts.

A pivotal event for me was when I took a semester to work at Yolla Bolly Press in Mendocino County. James and Carolyn Robertson were graphic designers who worked in Los Angeles but decided to go back to the land and moved to rural Northern California -- but instead of farming they made books.  Even their newsletter was called Bookfarm! They had a beautiful print shop in a barn and they lived in a house across from it.  It was beautiful and idyllic.

I had grown up with the trial and tribulation and the lack of appreciate for the life of a craftsman but I saw that they had figured it out and were living so well and had such joy in their work.  They showed me that you could be a craftsman and get all of that out of your life and work after all.  And perhaps my parents did as well but as a kid I didn't see that part.  My time with them changed my life.

When I graduated though I went to work as a gallery assistant for a year in New York while I figured out what do to with my life.

I came back to San Francisco in 1990 and worked for a printer in SF -- Julie Holcomb. I was there about six years.  She decided to specialize in wedding invitations so I moved on -- I didn't want to only do one type of printing plus I was ready to do something different.
Type at Dependable Letterpress in Dogpatch, San Francisco, CA.

I took a break from the printing world and worked several different jobs including one as a database analyst.  Very different but the job still involved problem solving and collaboration.

My daughter was born and I decided I needed to get focused about what I was going to do with my career. I knew I didn't want a corporate job -- the one I had was a soul killer.  Printing was really all I knew so I interviewed for printing jobs but I was thought of as too arty given my letterpress background even though I knew with training I could do any type of printing job.

Finally I reached out to friends in the printing business and they pointed me to someone who had a small press that they wanted to give away to the right person which turned out to be me.  And I still have it!

I put the press in my basement and started to take on jobs. This was in 2002. I primarily worked with designers to print their own designs. I put all the money I made back into the business so that I could purchase more presses.  My first purchase was a Heidelberg Windmill press -- you can only do one color per press so the more presses you have the more colors you can print.

In 2003 I moved out of my basement to a location in South San Francisco for about a year before we made the move to Dogpatch in 2004.  I now have five presses and a staff of six.

I enjoy collaborating with customers on a design and then see it to completion.  Often customers will come in with a slim idea of what they want and we help them flesh it out.  Or they come in with an idea but don't realize how expensive it would be to print.  We work with them to help make it happen and get them close to their vision without breaking their budget. That is the fun part -- planning the project as well as actually producing the product.

In 2015 I hired a graphic designer, Nicole Baker, so now we can produce our own designs as well as have an expert onsite to help customers with their ideas.

Digital printing in contrast to letterpress is limited.  We can print on thick paper, soft paper, wood and many other materials that digital printing can't handle.  For example, one of my favorite clients is the Musee Mecanique in San Francisco -- the largest collection of coin operated mechanical penny arcade machines from the 20h Century.  We print the fortunes for their fortune teller machine.  The paper must be just the right thickness to print on those old machines.

Why Dogpatch?

I moved the business from my home in 2003 to a location in South San Francisco.  The space didn't have the professional image I wanted so we started looking around for another space.  Even though I leave nearby in the Mission I didn't know much about the Dogpatch neighborhood when we started looking for a new space.

I heard about available space in the American Industrial Center (AIC).  When I took a look I knew it would be the perfect space for this business.  This location is my third within the AIC complex.  We started in a small space then shortly after moved to a bigger space. We were on a higher floor and when this ground floor space became available we jumped on it. One of the conditions that our landlord had for us moving to the ground floor was that we needed to have a retail component to accommodate walk in traffic.
Negative Space Gallery at Dependable Letterpress in Dogpatch.

Right now our retail space is a gallery called Negative Space Gallery where we hope to feature a variety of artists. We also hold events there.  Eventually we will have cards and notepads and other paper products printed right here that will be available for purchase.

We feel like we are part of a like-minded community of businesses that are locally owned and operated -- we are all in the same boat.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?

I have this fantasy of operating one of those giant construction cranes. I would do one thing at a time all day long -- pick up something, put it down and repeat. My business can be hectic so at times that seems like a very appealing business!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

"Make Stuff First": Meet John Liston of J. Liston Design

John Liston with one of his custom lamps in his workshop at ShopFloor Design in Dogpatch. His experience with glass and metal come together in this design.
Not long after moving into our new photo studio space in the ShopFloor Design building at Minnesota Street and 26th, I stopped to admire a chair in their showroom that was brightly colored metal and looked like ribbons welded together -- almost in a wide basket weave pattern.  From the other side of the showroom in the actual shop floor came a voice that assured me it was ok to try it out. "It's ok to sit on it -- it is a chair after all and very sturdy." The voice belonged to John Liston of J. Liston design, the designer of what I soon learned was appropriately named, the ribbon chair (see photo below).  I also found out during this interview that one of his ribbon chairs is part of the permanent collection in the Brooklyn Museum.  And don't think he was bragging -- I had to pull that fact out of him.

It is hard to characterize Liston's furniture designs because while one piece can be a brightly powdered coated metal chair, another is a brass and glass floor lamp that to me looks like an architect's compass vector (see photo above) and yet another is a cabinet made out of metal and charred wood. One thing they all seem to have in common is that they are meant to be used -- functional pieces -- and they all have clean lines.

Although a conversation with Liston can cover a wide range of topics -- the man is knowledgeable! -- he isn't one to brag about his accomplishments.  Throughout our conversation I was struck again by how the artists I have had the pleasure to interview for this blog are influenced by where they grew up and how they took inspiration from each job they had along the way to achieving their eventual success.  And also of course how none of the success came overnight but only after years of hard work and long hours.

All of that is true of Liston and then some. He could be one of the hardest workers I have met and certainly one of the most committed artists to his craft.  And to top it all off, he also can bake a mean pie.

Why do you do what you do?

To get an idea in my head of a design and then to be able execute it -- I love the creativity of that experience.  

I grew up a military brat -- my dad was a navigator in the air force.  I was born in England and we lived outside a military base there. We lived in England and Germany until I was ten when my dad retired and we moved to upstate New York.  

My parents loved living overseas so they could take advantage of all the opportunities to explore other countries. By the time I moved to the U.S. I already had 21 different country stamps on my passport.  And my mom was fearless -- even when my dad was gone for six months at a time she would pack up my older two brothers and sister and me and head out to explore.

This experience certainly gave me a bigger worldview of people and places.  We didn't have much money so we did a lot of free stuff -- churches, gardens, castles, etc.  As a result, I have a particular love for architecture and I think that shows in my design. 

When I was a sophomore in high school I failed french class. They gave me the choice of taking it again or I could take a music or art class. I decided to take a jewelry class.  My stuff was very organic -- sea pods and shells -- very different from my current designs!  For some reason my professor took an interest in my work and encouraged me.  

After high school I went to RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) -- both of my brothers had gone to RIT -- the school has a great reputation for their photography program as well as their crafts program.  At RIT I focused more on sculpture and less on jewelry. I liked working on larger scale projects.  I graduated with a BFA in metalwork and jewelry design.
John Liston at work in his shop.
After college I worked at Polich Art Works -- a bronze metal foundry located outside of NYC that worked with many major artists including Frank Stella, Maya Lin, Louise Bourgeois and Kiki Smith. I got to meet them and discuss with them what they needed from us to complete their sculptures. 

It was a pivotal time for me -- in working directly with the artists on their designs I realized that these famous artists are human and that made me more confident in my own art and design.

By this time I was 23 and had never lived away from my family or the East Coast.  My supervisor at the foundry told me about other foundries on the West Coast so in 2001 I moved to Berkeley. I thought at the time that given my nomadic upbringing I would stay a few years, get bored, then move to Seattle or Portland but the Bay Area was all I wanted and more. 

I worked at the Artworks Foundry in Berkeley and worked with many famous local artists.  I learned how to work with many different materials and became well versed in working with molds and wax castings. The owners decided to outsource to Mexico so I left to work at a custom decorative hardware shop called Soko Studio.  The owner, Cari Jaye Sokoloff, had her own line and designs -- I eventually ran the shop for her.  

It was another pivotal time for me -- I was working on a more functional aspect of design than I had done before.  I also realized that she was making her mark without having a ton of experience.  

While I was working at the foundry and then Soko Studio, I was also working at night at the Academy of Art as an instructor. I initially was an assistant instructor but then later became the main instructor of a bronze casting class.  

I eventually joined John Lewis Glass Studio.  I was there for about nine years -- I actually just left there in 2016.  It was a good experience -- they were glad to have my expertise in glass casting and metal fabrication and they left me alone to do my work.  I was a good solo worker and a good problem solver.  

About this time I started getting the itch to design jewelry again.  I did some pieces and the fine art gallery Lireille in Piedmont accepted my pieces to sell.  I made about 15 pieces then stopped.  I proved to myself that I still had the hand skills and that was enough for me.  

I then got the bug to make furniture for my house.  David Whippen, one of the owners of ShopFloor Design, had done an independent study with a professor I  knew at the Academy of Art. This professor said that when I was ready to have a studio space of my own that I should check with David. David and I hit it off right away and the space was a good fit for me.  At this point I was still working full time at John Lewis Glass and teaching at the Academy of Art so I could only get to the studio on some weeknight evenings and the weekends.  Given how frugal minded I am -- I knew that if I rented the space I would commit to being here and working in any spare time that I had on my own designs.
The Ribbon Chair by J Liston Design on the showroom floor at ShopFloor in Dogpatch.

Another pivotal moment for me came when a professor from college, Leonard Urso, saw my designs and insisted I apply for the American Craft Council Show in 2012.  They accepted me into the show and I sold 90% of my designs. I was blown away!

I decided I just might have a real business and J. Liston Design was cast.

I get inspiration from all kinds of architecture -- buildings, bridges -- I love the engineering of structures of how they are put together and I love the industrial feel of them.  But I also love the functionality -- I want my furniture designs to be used.  Another huge inspiration for me is the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher  -- their work documenting industrial structures reflect that form and function in design I admire.

Coup d'etat gallery in San Francisco represents my designs. They sell to designers, architects and direct to the public.  One of my next goals is to get more galleries to carry my designs.

What do you like about having your studio in Dogpatch?
It's great to have David here and the ShopFloor space is also home to other local designers and artists. We don't get in each other's way but if anyone needs help someone is always ready to lend a hand.

I really like that Dogpatch is such a great walking neighborhood and the food in the neighborhood is incredible. One of my favorites is Neighbor Bakehouse.

So we hear you are also a professional pie baker?
Not really! In 2012 a friend sold his glass blowing business and was looking to start another business. He decided on a pie business.  I wanted to be part of it and I agreed to be the baker.  My mom wasn't a good cook and she said if we wanted cookies or other treats when we were growing up that we had to bake them ourselves.  So I learned to bake from cookbooks.  My specialty was a rhubarb pie.  We got a food truck and called our business Fault Line Pie.  We lasted about 8 months -- in the end I was doing most of the work -- I would work all day then bake pies at night.  Not a sustainable schedule!

What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?
I feel like I'm finally where I should be -- all the jobs and all that I have learned has led me to finally having my own design firm.  It's only been since May 2016 that I left my job at John Lewis Glass so I'm ready to see where this goes.

But sometimes I think that being a long-haul trucker would be a good idea.  I mean given how I grew up that would allow me to finally see more of the U.S.!

(editor's note:  "...art schools used to put the fear of God into their students by asking them "Can you make a living out of that?" We wanted just the opposite and simply told them to make stuff first and then we'd go from there." quote is from Bernd and Hilla Becher)

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Natural Skincare Products -- From Hippie to Hip : Meet Julie Kim of Saison Beauty

Julie Kim of Saison Beauty in Dogpatch makes natural beauty products based on ingredients from the four seasons. 
Natural skincare and beauty products have long had more of a hippie than hip image with products found in the aisles of the local Whole Foods or natural health food stores instead of in department stores or chic salons and boutiques.  But in the last decade and especially in the last few years natural skincare lines have grown from a niche market into a rapidly growing full-blown industry. And many of those companies striving to bring natural and safe skincare products free of preservatives and using high quality plant extracts to market are located in Northern California including 100% Pure, EO, Juice Beauty and now Saison Beauty located in Dogpatch.

Saison (pronounced say sawn) is French for season and the changing seasons and how each season can affect our skin was the inspiration for Saison Beauty founder Julie Kim's product line. Her products are categorized not only by the seasons, but also by skin type and product type to make it easier for customers to find the best fit for their skincare needs.  And Kim doesn't just offer products to purchase on her website -- she also offers beauty bonus tips and DIY beauty recipes (pumpkin ginger face mask sounds delicious!).

Why do you do what you do?

I love the challenge of experimenting with ingredients to formulate products.  Then to actually produce the product and be able to offer it to someone to solve a skincare need is such a joy for me.

I always knew that I wanted to start my own business but I didn't know what that business would be. I was born in Korea but came to California as a baby.  I grew up in Southern California and went to college in San Diego where I eventually studied communications. I was particularly interested in international studies.

Saison Beauty Seasonal Body Lotion is manufactured by Julie Kim in Dogpatch, San Francisco, CA

My first job while in high school was for a trendy hair salon. That was my first taste of the beauty world.  They had a talented makeup artist there as well as the hair stylists.  I loved it!  My first job out of college was in London for a PR agency that specialized in beauty.  I learned to work with models and editors and had the opportunity to work with beauty brands that were just starting to be available in Europe such as Shu Uemura and Aveda.  Aveda was one of the first companies to focus on the importance of what was in their products.  One of my projects I worked on was a program for departments stores to train their cosmetic department employees how to apply makeup on different skin types.  That is common now but was cutting edge then in the 1990s.

I left after nine months -- I felt that I had to decide if my future was in Europe or the U.S. so I chose to come back home.  Back in Los Angeles, tech was all the rage so I dove into the tech world and worked as an account manager at an agency.  I decided I wanted to broaden my skills beyond public relations so I moved to Northern California to pursue an MBA at USF.  I also worked full time while pursuing my MBA at NEC Electronics where I worked as a branding specialist.  While there I learned a lot about international product launches which lined up nicely with my goals to get more experience in international business.

After graduation I worked at Gap Inc. where I helped build their e-commerce business for all of their brands --- Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy. I learned so much about digital marketing, product fulfillment, SEO and so much more. I really was fortunate to learn the ins and outs of retail at a complex level.

I like to think that my career choices have always been very deliberate with my goal of owning my own business very much my priority.  As such, my career path hasn't always been about my next promotion but more about what new skills I could acquire that might some day help me in my own venture.

While working at the Gap, I started craving a  more holistic approach to my lifestyle.  All that traveling for work, long hours and just the aging process had started to take a toll. I decided to get healthy.

I experimented with diet and exercise as well as what the skincare and beauty products I used were doing to my body.  I always felt that skincare products are another way that we "feed" our bodies.  In fact, skin can absorb up to 60 percent of what we apply to it.  We eat seasonally and I think we should think of skincare in the same way. I look back at my work with Aveda and I think the seeds were planted then in my mind that skincare products should do no harm. My mom worked on cosmetic formulations in Korea so she understood my passion.  Much of my mother and grandmother's beauty rituals were holistic so perhaps I come by the science and beauty combination naturally!

I started taking classes after work and on weekends about how to formulate products.  It started out as just a hobby. I loved creating a database of herbal properties and figuring out how to solve various skincare issues using them.  My brother-in-law is a doctor and he was very patient with me as I asked him tons of questions about various skin issues.

I started making products and worked with a third-party lab to verify my results and to make sure the products were safe.  It took three years of nights and weekends to create the product line. The green beauty community is a close knit group and everyone has been so supportive and helpful.

By 2015 I was ready to quit my position at the Gap.  My products and website were ready so it was time to launch! The first year was all about testing and learning. The second year about sales and how to get the products on shelves in boutiques and to learn about wholesaling and year three might be about hiring my first employees.

Why Dogpatch?

I had to find a place that would allow me to formulate and package my products. There aren't too many places that allow that in San Francisco.  Thankfully the American Industrial Center (AIC) does! On Craigslist I saw a listing for someone who wanted to share their office space in the AIC.  They were a food business so they had the perfect space for me to start out in.  A space by myself on the second floor soon followed and then nine months ago this space became available.  I love the natural light and the views from this office.

The creativity, energy and sense of community in the AIC and in the neighborhood is just incredible. I love being part of the maker community which is thriving in Dogpatch. And I'm certainly eating my way around the neighborhood!

Sometimes I miss the social aspect that being part of a large company gives you but I find the AIC gives me that connection to a larger community.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?

My goal is to have a balanced, independent and creative life and Saison Beauty gives me all of that.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Not Afraid of A Sticky Wicket: Meet Alan Ashworth of UCSF Cancer Center

Dogpatch resident Alan Ashworth stands in the UCSF Mission Bay lab he heads in his fight against cancer. 
The immense growth of UCSF in Mission Bay has been a cause of great concern for Dogpatch residents as neighborhood leaders and residents grapple with such issues as the encroachment of the campus into the Dogpatch neighborhood, parking problems and the unsightly cigarette butts left on Dogpatch streets by UCSF staff who are not allowed to smoke on the 100% smoke-free campus.

But of course UCSF is neither all bad nor all good and the access to a top medical facility and the best researchers and doctors benefits so many people locally and world-wide.

In the interest of building bridges instead of walls, we sat down with Alan Ashworth, president of the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center who also happens to be a Dogpatch resident.

Ashworth, who joined UCSF in December of 2014, is probably best known as part of the team of scientists who in 1995 discovered the gene BRCA2 which is linked to an increased risk of some types of cancer -- for xample, breast cancer -- and is now used to identify women at high risk for the disease.   In 2005 he identified a way to exploit genetic weaknesses in cancer cells which led to a new approach in cancer treatments.

Although he is a scientist and not a surgeon, Ashworth demonstrates a real talent for identifying and tackling difficult health care issues and with surgical like precision, zeroing in on how to solve the problem by finding the right people and the needed funding to help overcome any obstacles to the solution.  One example is the recently announced San Francisco Cancer Initiative (SF CAN), a major public health effort to reduce cancer in San Francisco.

We met with Ashworth in his UCSF office one very rainy day.  But our complaints about the rain were met with a laugh from Ashworth who in his British accent said that where he grew up in Northern England they had 200 different words for rain and what we were experiencing barely qualified as rain. He seemed very glad to not have to use those 200 words anymore.
Petri dishes in the UCSF cancer lab headed by Alan Ashworth.

Why do you do what you do?
The feeling you get when you meet someone who survived because of a treatment you discovered is pretty great. To know that you impacted someone's life in that way is incredibly moving and motivating.  I want to keep doing that kind of work.

So my work experience motivates me but also personal experience motivates me.  My dad died of lung cancer several years ago. He told me not to go to the doctor appointment with him where his treatment was going to be discussed.  Of course I went with him.  And of course my dad was in such shock that he heard practically nothing that the doctor said that day. It is so important to have someone help you through a cancer diagnosis.  People are afraid and they also fear the lack of control over their life that comes with a cancer diagnosis.  I knew everyone in cancer research and I couldn't do anything to save him. My dad died but I know today we could get him into an immunotherapy drug trial and he would have had a chance of survival.

I grew up in Northern England in a post-industrial textile town.  My mom still lives there.  It was a working class town but the schools were good. I was the first person in my extended family to go to university.  I attended Imperial College of Science and Technology in London. I thought I would go into medicine but I chose chemistry instead.  I received my PhD in Biochemistry at University College, London.  I joined the Institute for Cancer Research in London as a researcher and eventually became CEO.

Then UCSF called me about being the director of their cancer center.

No one was more surprised than me when I accepted.  It took me a long time to decide and I still didn't know what my answer would be when UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood called to ask me for my decision.

In the end the decision came down to asking myself "Why Not?" The Bay Area, San Francisco, UCSF -- this is the universe for innovation and excitement in cancer research and patient care. There is a feeling that anything is possible here.  And that has turned out to be more true than I even thought it would be. I have never regretted my decision.

I'm proud of the fact that UCSF is a public organization and as such we have to see everyone.  Our goal is long-term remission or cure.  But the goal is also treatments that give a better quality of life -- more gentle treatments.

One of my projects is the building of the Precision Cancer Medical Building which will be located at Third and 16 Street.  It should open to patients in 2019.  This 170,000 square foot cancer outpatient clinic will be like no other.  This clinic is my baby. The center will deliver the best possible treatment for cancer and this clinic will be very patient centric. Patients will be treated like they matter. We want people to feel in control of their treatment and involved in the decision making. Even the design of the building will be created with the patient in mind with natural light, related treatment rooms in one area instead of spread out all over the facility so patients have to race from one floor to another for appointments. I would rather lose efficiency than patient focus.

One of my other projects is SF CAN -- the San Francisco Cancer Initiative.  This program aims to reduce cancer in SF that can be reduced by better screening and early interventions. My second week here I had a germ of the idea for this program.  I went to a retreat which ended up being about the issue of race in medicine and health.  I found the topic fascinating.  There was so much I didn't know. I had no idea that there was such big disparities. I wondered how a program could be put together for an entire community -- the San Francisco community. The idea is completely measurable and we want it to be. It took 18 months but we launched the program in November. SF is where people come together to do big things like the work done to fight HIV. The idea is that UCSF will provide the scientific backbone while city public health and nonprofit agencies supply the staff and physical space to reach at risk populations. And it is a real partnership with the SF community. Our logo isn't even on the marketing materials.

As you can see, my work reflects my passion for the development of personalized cancer treatment.

Why Dogpatch?
We were introduced to real estate agent Anne Herrera -- she works with a lot of UCSF people who are trying to find a home to buy.  She was so honest and helpful about the process of buying in the San Francisco real estate market where there is little inventory and prices are high.

We looked at many neighborhoods in SF and while many of them, were beautiful we were looking for a more diverse neighborhood.  We also wanted to live close to Mission Bay where my office is but not too close!

I had arrived in the U.S. before my wife so I got the chance to wander around Dogpatch a bit.  I thought it was quite nice.  I liked the diversity I saw and it felt like a real neighborhood with all the shops and restaurants. We weren't sure we could afford to look here but with Anne's help we were able to find a small condo to buy which just happens to be on the same street as where Anne lives. So she definitely knew the neighborhood!

We enjoy walking around the neighborhood and being greeted by neighbors.  It is very different from our London neighborhood where you really didn't get to know anyone because people didn't stay too long there. And of course the proximity to Mission Bay was perfect.

We have settled in nicely although you can't find much cricket here.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?
There is nothing I enjoy more than the work I am doing.  It is serious work but that work is helping people in a big way.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

"A little sweat ain't never hurt nobody": Meet Kafi Payne of Dogpatch Dance & Yoga

Kafi Payne of Dogpatch Dance and Yoga in her studio in Dogpatch. Kafi's studio has classes in many diverse programs like roller dance, twerk and Bollywood. 
When prominent San Francisco industrialist Claus Spreckles built his California Sugar Refinery along what is now 23rd Street along the waterfront in 1881 -- we are certain he never dreamed that one day one of the last two remaining sugar warehouses would be home to a dance studio.

Especially a studio that offers unusual ways to get you moving including such classes as After Work Twerk, Dance Hall, Roller Dancing, Heels (dance in your high heels!), Burlesque, Bollywood dancing and so much more.  Yet that is what you will find at Dogpatch Dance & Yoga now opened for business on the second floor of the building now known as Storage San Francisco at 435 23rd Street.

And what a gem of a space it is.  The 3,500 square foot space now outfitted with full-length mirrors is full of light and has an amazing view of the bay.  Owner Kafi Payne opened the studio in August 2016 and her goal is for the studio to be busy morning to night.  Sounds like a sweet plan to us.

Why do you do what you do?

I find joy in movement and that is what I want for everyone.  I think dance is healing.

We have busy lives. We grow up, we go to school and we work. And work! We may love the work but not the working.  And then we come home and we have family responsibilities.

When I was a kid there wasn't much money for dance classes so I took dance classes whenever I could.  I never really thought of myself as a dancer.  It was just something I loved to do. After college I took all kinds of dance classes as a way to relax after a long day at work.  I also took yoga classes -- I think yoga helps dancers be able to dance longer!  I eventually trained with Annie Carpenter to become a Yoga instructor.

I'm from the Caribbean but grew up in New York and Atlanta.  I met my husband who is from the Bay Area at college -- Emory University.  We moved to this area after college.  We both became educators.  I worked for the Oakland School District training teachers and also as a Spanish teacher. And I still work in the education field.  I also received my Masters in Education from SFSU and I'm working on my Doctor of Education from Berkeley.  I know what learning looks like!

I have two young boys and one day one of my sons asked me if I could do anything I wanted to do what would that be.  I told him I wanted to open a dance studio!  He was surprised.  My kids thought of me as serious -- they even said that I never laughed. That is NOT how I wanted to be remembered by them!

My kids are so proud that I'm realizing my dream.  I love showing them that you can work towards a goal and make it happen.

The studio is still a work in progress of course.  When I decided to open the studio I asked several of the dance instructors that I knew if they would join me.  They agreed but then dropped out when the studio became a reality.  That forced me to step out of my comfort zone and approach instructors I admired but didn't know. That experience also reminded me that is ok to ask for help.  We should all remember that!

I love being able to work with these amazing instructors and help them realize their artistic vision as well.  Instructors such as Richard Humphrey who is known as the father of Rollerdance and who taught Dr. Oz to roller dance is teaching at my studio!  A good teacher is everything and we have the best.

Why Dogpatch?

After I decided to open a studio I did my research about the best location for it.  I live and work in Oakland but it seemed to me that Oakland was saturated with dance and performance spaces.

Not San Francisco -- I was amazed how few dance studios there are in SF.  There are places where you can rent space for dance groups but not that many places where you can book a class.

I saw a listing for this space on Craigslist and it was the first spot I looked at and I knew it would be perfect.  I just knew that dancing needed to happen here.  I knew that Beyonce would be ok rehearsing here!

I met and spoke with many community leaders in Dogpatch.  Everyone was so welcoming and I felt like they wanted me to be successful and would help me in any way that they could to make that happen.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?

I will always be dancing and teaching!

*thanks to Beyonce for the lyric: "A little sweat ain't never hurt nobody"