Aleksandra Zee in her Oakland wood shop. (Photo by Kendall Chase)

Shop Class: A new generation of woodworkers is shaping the Bay Area maker scene

By

Woodworking—that most fundamental of age-old trades—would seem to be having a renaissance. After all, it's a slow craft whose sometimes rough-hewn results can't help but appeal to modern hipsters with a taste for authentic, handmade goods.

Unsurprisingly, the Bay Area maker community supports a number of contemporary woodworkers, each of them with a unique approach ranging from classic carpentry to more glamorous, Instagrammable spins. Also not surprisingly is the concentration of these urban carpenters and artists across the bridge in Oakland, where cheaper rents, a slower pace, and a strong sense of solidarity among creative folks is luring fabricators of all stripes away from the city.


But wherever they live and work, these craftspeople share in common a hardy devotion to their trade, often working 12 hours each day in their studios, many of them housed in warehouses, drilling, carving, and shaping humble wood into beautiful, masterful designs.

We caught up with five local artisans who are revolutionizing the traditional craft to learn about their community and their inspirations.

Florian Roeper

Florian Roeper combines feminine sensuality and masculine dynamism when shaping his contemporary tables (you might recognize his California design), seating, and even special edition skateboards—which often employ metal patinas atop locally sourced hardwoods such as walnut—for Studio Roeper, which he launched 2003.

With a background in sculpture and painting, the designer also translates his passion for raw yet sophisticated materials in spiral sculptures and graphic high-gloss epoxy resin paintings. His work has been commissioned by clients including Ken Fulk, Louis Vuitton, and the Four Seasons. // studioroeper.com

Rough draft. "I went to art school thinking I would study graphic design, but I was immediately fascinated by furniture design and building things with my hands."

On Oakland. "It feels more relaxed and free over here. I'm surrounded by artists and designers in Oakland and that inspire me to live here."

The renaissance of woodworking. "I think the real issue is that woodworking is becoming too abundant. People think they can just slap a live edge slab on a pair of metal tubing legs and call themselves woodworkers. A good comparison is fast food—it's quick and cheap, but the quality it is not very good sometimes, and not healthy."

Aleksandra Zee

If you're interested in art and design and you're on Instagram, then there's a solid chance you already know Aleksandra Zee, the quintessence of the IG influencer who's mastered the concept of the personal brand.

Notable for her signature chevron-print wall pieces, Zee, who launched her studio in 2011, works with wood as a painter would with colors upon a canvas. Her delicate and yet powerful craft has captured the attention of clients who hang her pieces in places you'll no doubt recognize, including Kimpton's Buchanan Hotel, the Joshua Tree House, and the new Mission women's club, The Assembly. In 2017, Zee was forced to leave her San Francisco studio, which she shared with fellow woodworker and mentor Katie Gong, due to affordability. // aleksandrazee.com, instagram.com/aleksandrazee

Rough draft. "I got started working for Anthropologie as a display artist and fell in love with being in the shop. I figured out quickly that I wanted to be making work on my own and wanted to pursue that. So I quit, and worked as a waitress for about three years while I grew my business."

On Oakland. "Oakland is becoming a paradise for me creatively. It is a slower life, quiet and calmer. The community out here is also so inspiring—there are so many incredible makers that keep me pushing the boundaries of my own work. I love it here."

The renaissance of woodworking. "I wouldn't say that all of sudden woodwork is relevant—woodwork and working with your hands has been an appreciated craft and trade for centuries. I think that the over-saturation of poorly made goods is leading people to want to own better made things."

Paul Munson

(Courtesy of Paul Munson)

A well established craftsman in the industry since 1995, Paul Munson launched his eponymous furniture line in 2007, drawing from influences ranging from Art Deco to Arts and Crafts to contemporary.

His latest collection, Radius—comprised of tables, a dresser, credenza, and étagère designed with a Midcentury Modern essence—is customizable online with different sizes and finishes with the aim of bringing bespoke furnishings to everyone. // munsonfurniture.com

Rough draft. "A local chair maker was kind enough to give me some bench time and instruction for some time behind the broom. After that I️ met a couple in the Castro who became my patrons for the next 11 years, making custom furniture, case goods, and mill work for themselves and their friends."

On Oakland. "When I️ started my own shop, West Oakland was an affordable place to do it, with plenty of available industrial buildings to choose from. So you had a lot of makers establishing shops here....There is a lot of power in having so many different craftspeople nearby. There is collaboration, sometimes outright as in finding a metal fabricator for part of a project, and sometimes more subtle like sharing project details or stories of inspiration over a coffee or a beer."

The renaissance of woodworking. "I️ think woodworking has always been relevant, but I️ do see things changing. Consumers are thinking more about sustainability, buying products that are made to last, and considering where and how those products are made."

Katie Gong

Among the Bay Area's most established woodworking mavens, Katie Gong—known for her fluid knotty sculptures, interior design for businesses including Birba and Anchor Public Taps, and simple furnishings—has worked in San Francisco, the East Bay, and back again.

In SF, she became studiomate and mentor to Aleksandra Zee before the two moved to Oakland to share a warehouse space in 2016. But the following year, she returned the city, opening a solo studio at a creative co-op building in the Tenderloin. Her signature look is modern-rustic with the suggestion of sexy elegance. Look for her work on the walls of Upper Market bar Blackbird, in a new exhibit called TiedTied, starting April 21st. // katiegongdesign.com

Rough draft. "I grew up always making things. My grandfather and my father are both carpenters and contractors, and they really encouraged me to build my own creations and to take things apart to see how to put them back together."

Hanging on to SF. "Many woodworkers have their studios in the East Bay because it simply got really expensive to do so in San Francisco. There was a mass exodus of creatives a few years ago, and people were able to get more space for their money. I got really lucky. My partner, Brett Walker, and I were able to work with the city and find a building in the Tenderloin District, called Get High on Mountains. It is an art cooperative that we started as a way to try to hold onto the remaining creatives in San Francisco and to provide them with stable studios in the city.

The renaissance of woodworking. "As well as many of the trades, woodworking is so relevant today because there is an audience for fine craft and the story about where goods come from and how they are made. People are interested in purchasing locally made items that tell a story instead of buying imported goods. We as artists and makers are only able to survive because of this kind of patronage."

Adam Vorrath

In 2015, woodworker Adam Vorrath teamed up with his college mate Greg Laird to open Vorrath Woodworks.

Together, the buddies craft custom cabinetry, doors, tables, and built-ins—all defined by a clean, refined style with Art Deco and midcentury influences—for private clients. // adamvorrathwoodworking.com

Rough draft. I got my start in woodworking when I was around 6 years old, in the woods near my house. I would go to construction sights in the area, collect pieces of lumber out of the dumpsters, and drag them to the woods for building tree houses."

On Oakland. "Oakland and the rest of the Bay Area is a terrific source for material. Here in California, some of the most desirable trees are growing, and there are plenty of sawyers logging those trees and taking the proper steps to make that lumber perfect for furniture making and fine woodworking."

The renaissance of woodworking. "People are striving for natural elements in their homes more and more as we see technology growing faster and things starting to take on a mechanical feel. Adding wood to a remodel, or as a complementary element in conjunction with other materials, brings that beauty and naturalness in."

Related Articles

DON'T MISS A BAY AREA BEAT! SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER.

Follow Us On