Homan Rajai believes in magic. Not in hocus pocus, or the other-wordly interventions we see on TV, but in the emotional strain, kindled by real-world connections that fill your lungs and warm your core. Like any Bay Area native, his life has been jolted by the rollercoaster of the tech industry. Only beyond displacement, Rajai saw an opportunity. “I never want to discount tech because it created a huge industry here,” says the San Francisco-based interior designer, who counts a number of startup founders as his clients and collaborators. “But when something so powerful—so international—comes into a place that is so small … it becomes easy to forget humanity.” So Rajai refused to do so.
Founded in 2017, Studio AHEAD uses Northern California as its footprint to explore local talent and deep artistic traditions through diverse perspectives. It partners with the likes of Inverness, California, woodworker Ido Yoshimoto and Sebastopol textile workshop JG Switzer to design one-of-a-kind commissions for its spaces rather than ordering standard items through a catalog. After a serendipitous run-in with wool artisan Jessica Switzer Green and a flock of her sheep on Sacramento Street, the studio launched its merino wool felt-coated furniture and object line two years later. In 2020, California: A Journal was born as a platform to celebrate, converse with, and allow others to discover the NorCal artists and designers who inspire the San Francisco practice—many of whom it now calls close friends.
The idea struck Rajai and Elena Dendiberia while working at another design firm that focused on 17th to 20th century European antiques. “We were both still coming into our own understandings of design, and we realized so much of it existed outside of that reality,” explains Rajai. “We wanted to explore the new generation of San Franciscans that were valuing artisans, craftsmanship, and elevated design.” So the pair left. They teamed up and used their multi-cultural backgrounds—Rajai, whose parents immigrated to California during the Iranian Revolution, has also lived in Kenya and Mexico; and Samara, Russia-born Dendiberia came to the U.S. in 2014—to shape their approach for Studio AHEAD. To this day, one of the first questions the duo asks a prospective client is how he or she sits. Do you like to sit upright? Do you like to lounge? Do you like to cuddle on a sofa with a partner and watch a movie? Do you like to sit on the floor? It’s more than just chit-chat, notes Rajai: “Understanding these codes allows us to translate what we love from Northern California into their cultural norms to create something really interesting.”
That mantra is clear in a recently-completed concept space in San Francisco’s Lower Haight; Rajai and Dendiberia converted a marketing office abandoned for remote work into a Japanese-Brutalist exhibition venue replete with wall-to-floor tatami-like upholstery and modular mesh metal work. As it is in a Dolores Heights residence, where a sculpture by fellow SF native Jesse Schlesinger can be seen on full display, as well as "Same Blue as the Sky," Studio AHEAD’s inaugural exhibition. Organized with curator and design historian Mariah Nielson, the month-long show opened a day before FOG and featured the work of 11 contemporary and historical local artists—including Nielson’s father, the late J. B. Blunk—who have not only informed Studio AHEAD but the wider landscape of art and design.
While Rajai and Dendiberia have their sights set on expansion—via national projects as well as a second edition of their NorCal exhibition—the co-founders come across regular reminders of why Studio AHEAD began in the first place. “I still smile when I hear that one of our clients will go out to Inverness to spend a weekend, and end up having coffee with the guy who made their one-of-a-kind Shaker chairs,” says Rajai. “Those kinds of connections … That’s what we want. That’s how life should be.”