CRAFT: Chris French Metal

In the next installment of our CRAFT series, which highlights the varied work of the artists, makers, curators, and craftspeople that inspire and elevate our work, we spoke with Chris French, founder of Chris French Metal. Formally established in 2001 CFM has grown into a talented and highly skilled team of artists, designers, and fabricators, a meticulous studio providing high quality details and services to many of our best projects.

How did you first start honing your craft? Tell me about your background in fine arts.
Art was an accident; our whole business was somewhat of an accident. I grew up building; starting with LEGOs, which evolved into skateboard ramps, then speaker boxes for my low rider, and later furniture for my bedroom. I was simply doing what I knew how to do and what I was good at. I was not a good student, school was very hard for me, but in drafting class and wood shop I was the quintessential ‘A’ student. I wasn’t raised in an academic environment and had no basis to articulate what specifically interested me – this meant my discovery of “craft” happened later in life.

It wasn’t until I met an incredible group of friends at Arizona State University that I knew I could do something with the “craft” I had been inadvertently developing throughout my life. I graduated from ASU with a BFA in Sculpture and immediately moved to San Francisco in March of 1997. I was doing the typical artist thing back then – get a gallery in as many states as you could, create a new body of work every two years, and ship it around for exhibition. I had success with this model, but struggled with the artist’s statements and academically articulating the conceptual aspects of my work. I felt like I was right back in school.

Simultaneously, I was making functional objects for people and those functional objects became handrails, guardrails, and eventually a spiral staircase. This pragmatic approach to metal fabrication scratched a similar itch as my fine art practice but did not have all the conceptual and academic demands around its meaning. I followed this path and here we are 22 years later.

What originally drew you to metalwork? What sets metal apart from other materials you’ve worked with?
I think the immediacy of shape and the ability to change it just as quickly is what originally drew me in.

How does your early career and previous experience in the industry influence your work today?
I don’t see what we do at Chris French Metal as art. I guess I would say that studying art gave me a language to talk about what I see. I’ve always been a looker, someone who notices the nuances in the ordinary, but it wasn’t until studying art at ASU that I had access to the words to describe this skill set.

Tell me about your process. How closely do you work with clients? Describe your relationship with the architect and contractor.
We like to get involved early and ask a lot of questions. Most of the work we do is heavily integrated into the architecture and requires that we are involved with the entire process. I prefer some direction.

Who is on your team? Is collaboration important to your process?
Eleven of the best people you could ask for – my wife and I run the company.

We have three Project Manager / Designers who take our proposals and design documents and dig in.  They work hand in hand with Contractors, Structural Engineers, Waterproofing Engineers, Lighting Consultants, Architects, Interior Designers, Site Superintendents, Outside Vendors, Shop and Field Staff as well as with me personally. They run all the project specific purchasing and coordination.

We have a Facilities Coordinator who handles all our shipping and receiving, co-manages all purchase orders in our database, and helps get work through the shop and into the field.

We also have six shop staff who do all the fabrication and installation.

Tell me what it’s like to run a small business. What challenges have you faced and what has been rewarding about that?
For me, it’s an emotional roller coaster.  There are such intense highs and lows, and they can all happen within hours of each other. I wear a lot of hats and they’re constantly swapped out throughout any given day. That said, it’s also very rewarding. I am supported by incredibly talented people who all love their work and show up every day to do their best, so I couldn’t ask for much more.

There have been too many challenges to list, but over the last 22 years the two biggest were the 2008 crash and COVID. We managed to make it through both of those, maintaining all of our staff, so we’re doing pretty good if you ask me!

Which new technologies have influenced your work as of late? How do you think they will change the industry going forward?
For us, it’s CNC machinery. We purchased our first CNC mill at the end of 2019, and it’s incredible what we’ve done with it and how much there still is to learn. Not everyone in the shop is well versed yet, but we’ll get there!

Our studio deeply values working with makers and artisans who are experts in their craft. What is special to you about high-quality, custom goods?
Those with the means and patience can get just about anything they want. We are fortunate to work with creative people who really know what they want, and we get to figure out how to provide it. The process is stimulating and keeps everyone engaged along the way, and can sometimes be frustrating and exhausting, but never boring and never easy!

Design and Process: Renovating an Architect’s Oakland Home

Managing Partner Steven Stept, along with help from the FA Studio, recently completed remodeling his family’s Oakland home – infusing the original structure’s traditional detailing with Steven’s modern aesthetics. Below, read more about the design process and the challenges Steven faced acting as the client, owner, and general contractor – all at once!  

Tell me about your project! What was your design vision for the renovation? What functionality were you missing in your previous space?
This is a house I’ve fiddled with for 20 years and made minor improvements to over time, and as an architect, it’s exciting to test ideas – which this space has allowed me to do. Over the years, I’ve added modernizing elements slowly but surely, notably to transform the landscaping. I added black powder coated steel retaining walls in the front yard, as well as concrete retaining walls and vertical IPE screens in the backyard, which were easy ways to subtly add modern details to the exterior. As I started this renovation, I wanted to carry a modern vibe with steel accent detailing throughout the interior and exterior spaces.

In late 2019, I dusted off a sketch that had been sitting on my desk for a year. The pandemic was the personal pause I needed to finally push this project ahead and, when I enlisted support from our studio, I had time to focus and push the design forward. The first major move we made was chopping off the breakfast nook in the kitchen and pushing the building out four feet into the side yard. This move both expanded the kitchen downstairs and my office upstairs, which gave us more room to add our desired programming.

Upstairs, the previous dark and compressed attic/cluttered office was sculpted into highly functional workspace. The new and expanded space has multiple workstations, as well as updated lighting and windows. Additionally, the kitchen needed to be remodeled – before it was compartmentalized and clunky with remnants of a 60’s remodel lingering in worn materials, outdated appliances, and an inefficient floor plan. We had a vision of a modern, open, functional space with updated appliances, which my wife, Camille, was especially excited about.

Additionally, we were able to add a primary suite upstairs by structurally reframing the entire suite – exploding the roof and developing a large dormer for additional volume. These moves allowed each of our two kids to assume their own bedrooms downstairs – they’re elated! These additions make for a very comfortable home for our family of four – the original 1,310 square foot 1928 era home expanded to 2,089 square feet.

What have you learned about working with clients by playing the role of both the client and the architect? What about working with builders?Throughout this process, I’ve developed a stronger sense of empathy to client challenges – there are so many decisions to make, costs that can increase in a flash, and scheduling challenges that can be extremely frustrating.

I’ve also been shown firsthand how hard it is to be a builder. For this project, I acted as both the owner and builder, ordering and supplying many of the materials, products, fixtures, cabinets, electrical components, custom moldings, and flooring myself. It was a big challenge with so many moving pieces to manage. The experience really gave me a deeper appreciation for the excellent builders and general contractors we work with who keep our projects moving along seamlessly.

We started this project in July, moved out of our house in August, and finished off the project in April. We were able to keep up an impressive pace by working long hours and doing a lot of work ourselves without third party vendors – like the foundation, framing, sheet rock, plumbing, and painting, which is only possible with a job of this size. I’m grateful to have worked with an awesome team.

Have you enjoyed working on your own project in the FA studio? What has the experience been like of working with FA designers on your own home?
It was very helpful to tap different designers and architects in our studio to help me with this project: Aaron Lim, Anjali Iyer, Evan McCurdy, and Mike Trentacosti helped collaborate on the design and production, and with their help, we were able to design faster and smarter.

Are you able to be more experimental with any techniques/details/etc than in client design work? What is your favorite feature or detail of the current design?
Not necessarily more, however the difference was that we did have to make some decisions ‘on the fly’ and I was onsite to make those decisions as construction was underway, so we experimented and tested out new ideas very easily and flexibly. It was mid-pandemic, so my makeshift office was the back bedroom surrounded by stacked furniture and a portable heater. Since I moved in 20 years ago, I’ve been playing around with combining the beautiful, traditional elements of the original home with the more modern feel that I’ve been pursuing professionally. For instance, when renovating specific rooms, we had to navigate transitioning the existing traditional trim into modern spaces. I ended up taking this transition a step further than we had initially planned by creating portals between spaces that gracefully blend the old baseboard into the new. Initially, we considered standard interior window molding, but ended up taking a fresh approach, deciding to paint the more modern trim black to match the windows. Prior to the remodel, I painted one of our existing white windows with black paint to see the comparison and asked Camille what she thought. We ended up choosing black windows that day!

It was also fun to discover great new, affordable products that I can use in my projects at work. I had a very specific need for narrow profile up/down shades that would clear the window handle when fully deployed, based on the window trim that was evolving from the portal concept. We searched ‘narrow-profile’ shades online and discovered a German made company with Bay Area representation, Fensterman LLC, who manufactured shades with a 7/8-inch width. It was a very rewarding problem to solve.

Are you able to involve your kids and wife in the design process? How has it been collaborating with them?
My kids weren’t super interested in the design and construction process, they were more interested in getting back in the house and seeing the finished product. They love having their own rooms and are now starting to show more care and respect for their spaces as they get older.

Even though I drove many of the decisions, my wife Camille was very excited to redo the kitchen with new appliances and was involved in learning about and picking out finishes. Throughout our relationship, Camille has grown to really appreciate both modern design, as well as our larger Oakland community!

Project Team:
Builder: Saul Mejia
Landscape: IRI Landscape, InSitu Landscape
Structural Engineer: Provest Structural Engineering
Lighting: Kim Cladas Lighting Design
Photography: Kristen Paulin

Vendors:  Atherton Appliance, Murray Windows and Doors, DaVinci Marble, Brown Felicetta Designs, Aaron Robinson Custom Woodworking, Belmont Hardware, City Lights, Fenstermann, Vipp, Blu Dot

Making of a Monograph

In 2021, Feldman Architecture released our first monograph, Immersed: The California Houses of Feldman Architecture, published by Oscar Riera Ojeda, which serves as an in-depth look at 20 years of our defining residential work. Publishing a book is both a challenging and rewarding process, a monumental task that asked us to consolidate, edit, organize, and create. We enjoyed and learned a lot over the year long journey and wanted to share for those interested in publishing generally or in crafting their own book. This project kept us busy during quiet COVID times and allowed us to emerge post-pandemic with a better vision for the future of Feldman Architecture.


Engaging a Publisher
We started this process much like many of our other endeavors – by researching, asking questions, and seeking recommendations from our peers. After phoning a few friends with successful, recently published books, we met with a longlist of highly recommended publishers for informational interviews. This step proved fruitful, especially in understanding the specific role a publisher can play – they each specified different levels of involvement in the writing, graphic design, and promotional processes. We also received example RFPs to reference, and from there, were able to draft our own and thoughtfully outline the scale and scope of the project. The publishers we interviewed sent us boxes of books, which also proved extremely helpful – specifically in how we wanted to thematically tie together and organize our varied repertoire of projects. Ultimately, we decided to work with Oscar Reira Ojeda Publishers, whom we felt deeply understood our work, our vision, and approached publishing a book in a similar way to how our team approaches architecture.


Envisioning and Outlining
Alongside Oscar and his team, as well as our trusted communications and media consultants, we started our engagement by exploring the ways in which we could present our best residential work, focusing on showcasing and memorializing the first twenty years of Feldman Architecture. After sifting through a wide range of architectural monographs and identifying what we found successful, our team explored and discussed how we could effectively organize and pare down our project library to the most holistic representation of our studio. We decided to group our shortlist of featured projects into three sections: Urban, Suburban, Rural. We also worked to identify our target audience, focusing on general interest, design enthusiasts, and potential clients by emphasizing the work of the amazing photographers we have invested in over the last 20 years, as opposed to focusing on technical drawings and details. Lastly, we targeted a release date of winter 2021 to coincide with the holiday season and, of course, gift giving!



Selecting Projects
It was a challenge to select projects to showcase what we felt best defined not only our work, but also our growth as a studio. It became clear that we wanted to highlight a range of sensibilities represented by the work of each FA partner, emphasizing our dedication to designing responsively to client and site, instead of with a pre-prescribed aesthetic. Initially, we had selected just 12 projects, but quickly realized that there were key case studies missing, and the book grew from what was seemed already overwhelming 250 pages to 373 – much longer than we ever anticipated. We also enjoyed sharing older, milestone projects like Butterfly House and Caterpillar House next to newer projects like Urban Oasis and Surf House – reflecting on our growth and progress provided a fruitful exercise and served to further clarify our path forward.


Photography and Graphics
After finalizing an outline and project selection, we needed to solidify all the photography and graphics that would populate the book under a tight deadline – Surf House, Urban Oasis, and Atherton Pavilions needed to be photographed during the peak of the pandemic. We worked around both rainy and smoky days to capture the magic of these homes, often times with extended two-day shoots, and we were delighted with the results.

We decided to include a floor and site plan for each project, which we updated to maintain visual continuity between projects and live up to our current graphic standards, while still being true our stylistic voice at the time they were initially drafted.

As we continued to churn out content, Oscar’s team selected photos from our library and drafted graphic layouts with fresh eyes. We worked side by side to continuously edit, shift, and evolve, inspired by their new take on our projects and graphics. Our publisher encouraged us to include photos that were previously not shared publicly, making the volume more comprehensive and allowing the stories of the homes to be better understood.


Essays and Interviews  
To finalize all content for the book internally, we updated and standardized each project text to maintain a consistent tone and voice, highlighting design intention, sustainability strategies, materiality, client vision, among other key points. We enlisted the help of respected industry voices Daniel P. Gregory and Aaron Betsky to contribute to the book, inviting them to tour featured projects and draft honest and thoughtful essays about our work, contextualizing it within the greater arch of CA modernism. Their essays shined new light on our work, and highlighted aspects and similarities between projects that were previously unconsidered.

We also invited our longtime collaborators, Bernard Trainor, Brian Groza, and Roman Alonso to contribute short essays focused on the subject of collaboration, which we felt added a necessary perspective to the volume. Lastly, talented interviewer Vladimir Belogolovsky sat down with Jonathan to discuss his path to architecture as well as the growth and development of the studio, adding a personal and reflective chapter to the book.


Materiality and Paper
Alongside Oscar’s team, we sifted through a varied collection of paper samples, excited to experiment with materiality. We loved the idea of a cloth cover and worked with the talented printer to identify a fabric that would not only be durable, but also maintain the purity and rich color of the cover photo. After many iterations of title layout, font, and sizing, we aimed to prioritize simplicity and legibility, electing to keep the back cover completely free of text, therefore opting for a paper insert plastic wrapped to the back of the book displaying promotional information. Seeing our photographer’s work printed at a high resolution further inspired us and contrasting the book’s materiality with the materiality of our projects added an unexplored and exciting dimension to our work.


Finalizing and Proofing
After all the layouts, graphics, and texts were finalized, the manuscript underwent a series of internal and external reviews, catching small typos and edits at every step. To wrap up the project, Jonathan drafted his conclusion, reflecting on not only on the first twenty years of Feldman Architecture, but also on his aspirations for the next twenty. This step also included the long and important process of making sure all our talented collaborators, consultants, and staff were properly credited for their work.


We finally released Immersed: The California Houses of Feldman Architecture on December 1, 2021. Upon receiving 750 prerelease copies to our office (and figuring out how to store them) we gave away around 200 copies to staff, collaborators, contributors, friends, peers, media, and consultants. We pitched the book to relevant and interested publications, and organized promotional events and panels, including an AIASF virtual panel with Bernard Trainor moderated by Daniel P. Gregory, as well as a book release party at the Flexform Showroom in SF’s design district. A year later, we still feel proud of the book, and are excited to share it with new friends, clients, and consultants. On to the next project!


Design and Process: Fresh Geographies

The Feldman Architecture team is excited to be expanding our breadth of work geographically, continuing to take on new projects outside of the San Francisco Bay Area. As our designs are centered around sensitivity and responsiveness to both site and context, expanding to fresh locales asks our team to become familiar with new climates, topography, and landscapes. From adjusting roofs to accommodate for snow in Oregon, to paying extra attention to fire resiliency in arid Southern California, read about a few in progress projects below and the beautiful and diverse sites that inspired their designs.

Recent empty nesters looking to relocate from Portland to Bend contacted our team to design an escape fit for their eventual retirement. Needing space for themselves and two dogs, as well as private guest rooms for visits from children, they imagined a home that supports their active lifestyle – specifically accommodating a lap pool and home gym. The responding design reacts delicately to the complex site, shielding occupants from neighbors to the northeast while opening towards views to the south and west as a single-story winged form that thoughtfully blends into the surrounding forest.

The home’s private wing stretches to protect an outdoor lap pool and sitting area, acting as a shield from strong winds and a visual barrier to the neighboring property. Forming an L shaped plan, the public wing runs perpendicularly, housing a living, dining, and kitchen area that opens onto an outdoor patio and firepit, creating a warm outdoor living space for cool Oregon evenings. A protected windowed bridge connects the public and private, creating a sense of transition and compression between the two spaces.

We’re excited to be designing in the Pacific Northwest – stay up to date on our progress here!


A LA-based couple with a toddler approached our firm with an ocean-facing, lush, hillside property in Santa Barbara in search of initial design concepts for a modern, yet timeless, retreat. The original home was a funky getaway and gallery for art collectors in the 60’s, and offered unique moments, but lacked a thoughtful layout and siting that takes full advantage of the property’s views and forested hideaways. Our team approached the site with fresh eyes and a new vision, working with an arborist to identify the critical root zones to protect the mature, healthy, oak groves, and conducted an in-depth site analysis to fully respect Toro Canyon Creek, which fosters a verdant riparian ecosystem that hugs the eastern edge of the site.

The site’s steep topography challenged our team to delicately site each structure in accordance with a variety of landscapes, encapsulating a Majorcan sun-drenched quality from southern ocean views, as well as the woodsy, intimate tree-house mood of the northern end of the property. The design breaks up programming into clusters of plastered forms gathered around a central, protected courtyard – which allows the home to engage with multiple site topographies while maintaining a feeling of intimacy.

Read more about the project here.


Our first Aspen project, located in Snowmass Village, is a ski in ski out remodel – walking distance from the base of the ski resort. The owners, a young outdoorsy couple with two dogs, relocated from the Bay Area to reconnect with their generational roots in the Inner Mountain West, specifically the Roaring Fork Valley. In 2020, they purchased a residential duplex, and alongside our team, are embarking on a remodeling the space to better meet their needs. Our vision focuses on visually and physically improving indoor outdoor connections, customizing the plan and spaces throughout with a focus on improved energy efficiency. The couple is excited to engage with our interiors department in sourcing and selecting modern, sustainable, and unique furnishings.


Nestled in a beautiful 272-acre property in Three Rivers, CA, the Lone Sequoia Ranch main residence sits above the Kaweah River, which gracefully cuts through the expansive site. The property acts as a getaway for an active extended family that often welcomes weekend visitors. As connoisseurs of the outdoors and all the gear that comes along with it, the family is looking to build a multipurpose ranch barn on the property that serves as a garage/workshop and houses an excavator and a Swiss Pinzgauer. Accompanied by a lounge area to take advantage of sweeping river views, at the upper level, quads and motos will be housed with direct access to the adjacent dirt track.

The main residence has a rustic, eclectic feel and a large butterfly roof – the proposed barn draws from the original aesthetic, complementing the existing structure. The new barn, designed with fire resiliency as a priority, uses all non-combustible materials on its exterior including corrugated corten steel cladding, a metal roof, steel trellis, and concrete patios. These resilient and warm toned materials play off the rugged surroundings and topography.

Process Case Study: Atherton Renewal

A young family approached our firm with an Atherton home in desperate need of a remodel. The estate, built in 1995, mixed a variety of conflicting architectural elements – steeply sloped roofs, complicated massing, and pronounced dormers evoked another era. “It was overwhelming at first,” remembers Chris Kurrle, Project Principal – the neotraditional architecture made itself apparent in the lack of natural light in each space, the small aperture of all portals and windows, and lack of connection to the surrounding site. The façade was heavily ornamented and the front roof sat at an angle, coming at a cost to the functionality of the interior spaces, creating sharp 45-degree angles, and truncating rooms on the second floor.

The lush and verdant grounds were defined by a heritage live oak that marked the site near the entrance, as well as an overgrown rose garden on the southern edge of the property – yet the structure’s original layout turned its back to every distinctive landscaping moment. A lack of outdoor living spaces further detached indoor and outdoor, and in the rear yard, an awkwardly short, deep pool alongside a pool house felt oddly disconnected from the main house.


The intervention focused on cleaning up, simplifying, and modernizing the façade, introducing meaningful natural light into the home, expanding all glazing sizes, and enhancing views to the surrounding landscape. “The project leverages the bones of the existing building, stripping away all that is superfluous, breathing in a new sense of life,” said Kurrle for California Homes Magazine.

The renovation widens and lengthens cramped spaces, streamlining the overcluttered entry sequence and creating a better orchestrated flow without modifying the home’s programming. The proportions of the original entry created a dark, heavy space – the new design introduces natural light by both expanding vertically as well as punching out the floor into the basement level, creating a bright three-story volume. At the upper level, a mezzanine walkway allows free and open circulation. Inserting new glass walls and a trimming back the previously overhanging Juliet balcony floods the upper office with daylight from the entry skylight.

Transitioning the entry staircase from rectilinear to curved minimizes dead space and naturally accommodates uninterrupted clean, white walls adorned with delicate wood paneling, adding visual texture. The curves of the staircase create a sensation of floating and eliminate the need for landings between levels. The three-story shape of the stair hall is mirrored by an elliptical skylight supporting a multi-tiered chandelier and mimicking the cascading movement of the daylight above.

Additional lighting in the space is strategic and sparse, maintaining the purity of the clean curved wall, free of additional ornamentation. The custom chandelier, designed in collaboration with the interior designer and the lighting fabricator, Allied Maker, floats rods between a foundational metal ring and the skylight’s opening. Numerous studies allowed for precision in the number, placement, and size of each pendant, and directed the experience of the chandelier from multiple viewpoints.

To the south of the entry, the original living room was walled off from the garden, the space on the property that receives the most natural daylight. The renovation opens this southern façade by inserting a wall of folding glass doors, reimagined by BAMO to evoke a greenhouse. To reinforce an indoor-outdoor connection, the team modified the grade of the living room to be level with the outdoor patio, with Slate stone slabs extending from interior to exterior seamlessly. Removing the original ceiling to expose an A-Frame shape gives the space verticality and introduces naturally textured light wood paneling.

Like the Living Room, the renovation remedied a dysfunctional, narrow kitchen layout previously disconnected from the sprawling backyard, inserting a wall of sliding doors that open onto a new, shaded back patio. A trellis unifies the space, extending the indoor kitchen directly into an outdoor dining space.

A new rear trellis is carefully placed as a device to streamline the back façade, masking discontinuity between upper and lower-level fenestrations. The clients envisioned a solution that shaded the space during the hottest points of the day without creating striping, asking for a technically complex and aesthetically pleasing installation. A series of 3D computer studies tested slat angles, depth, and positioning, resulting in a trellis that protected the space from western exposure and glare, providing comfort at every point of the day.

Working alongside a team of trusted consultants allowed us to find success in this complex and technically challenging project. BAMO, the interior designer, was integral in crafting the vision alongside the homeowner and setting the tone for the project. As our team drafted the initial floorplans, BAMO overlayed furniture layouts and set material palettes that heavily influenced both the interior and exterior architecture and allowed for a wonderful collaborative back and forth as we refined the vision. “The Feldman team quickly understood the challenges of the project’s schedule and existing condition. Their fresh design and inventive planning were both bold and practical, efficient yet elegant and was the key component in realizing and exceeding the client’s vision,” Michael Booth, Principal at BAMO.

Ground Studio, the landscape team, was involved and walking the site with us on day one, sharing reactions and initial thoughts about the configurations of the rear yard, as well as the driveway and auto court, which was successfully manipulated and shaped to improve the entry experience.

Plath & CO, the builders, were introduced to the project after the team had formulated and finalized floor plans, and greatly helped polish the significant framing, sequencing, and excavation challenges, playing a key part in completing the project in record time. From presenting cost implications at the right time, to balancing a large-scale project with many technical challenges with cost and speed, the project could not have been completed so successfully without such an amazing team.

Photography by Matthew Millman.

CRAFT: Aaron Robinson

How did you first start honing your craft? What originally drew you to woodwork in general and cabinetry specifically?
I grew up in the antique business, my dad owned a furniture refinishing and restoration operation, and my uncle owned a 7,000 sq-ft antique collective here in Santa Cruz. We mainly dealt in early American furniture like Shaker, Empire, and Art Nouveau in Oak, Mahogany, and Walnut. Even my grandparents were in the business, restoring, dressing, and dealing in antique porcelain dolls and some ephemera. Growing up between both shops, furniture was a big part of my life. There was always something to fix, sand, stain, or spray, a new vignette to set up in the store, or another antique show to travel to with a truck full of furniture and collectables to sell. My biggest influence was everyone around me making things, fixing things, taking things apart and making different objects. They were all artists of some sort – painters, sculptors, mechanics, pattern makers, and a lot of wood workers – I always had someone around that could show me how to make or fix anything. I quickly developed confidence – even if I didn’t know how, I could figure it out.

When I was a teenager, clients started asking my dad to build one-off pieces of furniture, or even a whole kitchen, and custom cabinetry started organically out of that. Back then, all the work was furniture quality cabinets – hand cut dovetails, hand shaped raised panels, carving, turning – all by hand or with basic tooling. It wasn’t until I worked for wood shops later in my 20’s that I worked with a CNC machine or any large-scale industrial machine. CAD drawing wasn’t on anyone’s radar back then.

I started my own small shop when I was 25 years old, focusing mostly on built-in cabinetry: media centers, bookcases, mantles, etc. A few years later, I was offered a job building for a high-end cabinet shop nearby. It was great money and better hours, which worked well with a new daughter at home. For a while, I bounced around until I landed at a prominent Bay Area shop that gave me the opportunity to learn to draw with the computer program I still use now, some 15 years later. That was the breakthrough for me. I was able to develop a new skill and really create my own career in cabinet design and engineering.

How does your early career and previous experience in the industry influence your work today?
Growing up around furniture, particularly Mission and Arts & Crafts furniture, had a big influence on my style and taste – the clean lines and subtle angles were always very attractive to me. Being in my dad’s orbit and learning about specific designers like Gustav Stickley and Charles Mcintosh was also influential. Working in the shop with him and emulating their designs helped me get a feel for not only style, but also proportion and function.

Tell me about your process. How closely do you work with clients?
Describe your relationship with the architect and contractor.
I really love collaborative projects. The jobs where everyone – the builder, architect, designers, and especially the homeowner – are all working together to create the best version of something. I like to get involved in a new project as early as possible, before framing, which allows us to take our time refining the design through the redline and iterative process.

I’ve always tried very hard to act as a partner in the process, which contractors appreciate. They know they can rely on me to help guide a homeowner through the cabinet process, freeing them up to focus on the long list of other pressing tasks that need their attention. I also think the quality of my drawings are especially helpful to this process – I’m able to supply very accurate scaled drawings of all the cabinetry, including floor plan views, cross sections, and elevations with detailed notes and photo references of the convenience hardware and pre-installation items. Most helpful to a homeowner is getting to see near photo quality renderings of the final cabinetry designs.

Who is on your team? Is collaboration important to your process?
I currently work with two custom cabinet shops – first with BFD Cabinets (I’ll let that sink in) – Brown Felicetta Design is the best shop I’ve ever worked with. Dave Brown runs the shop day to day, and Vince Felicetta runs the business, operates the CNC, and does his own sales. They’ve invested heavily in the best machinery and an even better staff. Victor, the shop foreman leads the fight, and Bob, Juan Pablo (JP), Sergio, Marc and Rich can build anything I can come up with. Emeterio gives everything that finishing touch. Lastly, we have an awesome group of site carpenters – Shawn, Bryan, Jesus, Zabdi, and Roman – that can handle anything we throw at them. We have an amazing team where everyone seems to have the same idea about what we do. Doing good work begets good results, client satisfaction, appreciation, self-satisfaction, and of course a good living. Without their collaboration, none of what I do would be possible.

When BFD is too busy, Coastal Woodworks, out of Salinas, is a small shop run by James Copsey and Larry Williams. They’re two Salinas Firefighters that love woodworking so much they that opened their own shop. They’ve invested in some of the best tooling and machinery – and excel at crafting first class work.

Tell me what it’s like to run a small business. What challenges have you faced and what has been rewarding about that?
Claiming that running a small business is hard is cliche, but it’s fully accurate! Most days, I’d rather poke myself in the eye with a sharp stick than “run a business.” Draw, meet with clients, build furniture, that I LOVE! But running the day-to-day stuff – filing paperwork, bidding jobs, scheduling work, and collecting money!? Ugh, Kill me now! Even with all that, being self-employed is the best, if you can do it. Being completely self-reliant on generating an income isn’t for everyone – there can be long periods between checks as projects develop or finish up. Managing client, family, and especially my own expectations is key. I don’t always get it right, but through good management, I’m able to make my own schedule and find ways to balance my work, life, family, and solo pursuits.

At this point, almost 30 years in, I think I’ve made a pile of mistakes and created a lot of challenges for myself. I’ll continue to make more, unfortunately, but of all the mistakes I’ve made, I’ve not only been able to fix, but I’ve been able to learn how to do better. After the initial frustration, I take comfort in the fact I was able to identify my shortcoming and make an adjustment. Beyond that, there have been so many ups and downs. I’ve made it through recessions, housing bubble bursts, shop moves, and now COVID. These hurdles have taught me that everything will be okay, don’t panic. Do good work and take care of your people and they will take care of you.

Which new technologies have influenced your work as of late? How do you think they will change the industry going forward?
The new pre-finished veneers and various laminates are all pretty exciting. Many of the new wood textured laminates are so spot on that, without touching them, you wouldn’t know they aren’t wood. The solid color acrylic panels, my favorite being the ultra-matte products, are amazing – several are made with a “self-healing” coating. When scratched, most Magic Erasers work well – for more severe scratches heat makes blemishes disappear. Most of the solid colors are available with a “zero joint” edge banding that creates an essentially seamless panel. If you’re thinking of designing a kitchen with a flat flush solid color door, you’d be crazy not to use these products. A bonus is that many of these materials are laid up on a core made from recycled materials and newer high tech green resins – making them not only sustainable, but also extremely water resistant. I think real wood and exotic veneers will always be in style, but if you could use a sustainable product that’s equal if not better, why wouldn’t you?

Our studio deeply values working with makers and artisans who are experts in their craft. What is special to you about high-quality, custom goods?
Everything we do is one of a kind. Even if we use the same materials and hardware, every project we do is different and unique. We’re able to create beautiful custom spaces that meet our client’s needs, and while many of these needs are similar, everyone has their own individual need according to how they’ll live in their space.

I love visiting a home I’ve worked on and seeing the family using the pieces we’ve created. That’s a special feeling. Somebody once said to me, “a new kitchen is a game changer,” – that captured it for me.
Pictured to the right: Aaron with our San Mateo clients in their recently finished kitchen.