This architect started out redesigning bomb shelters. Now she’s a top name in design on the West Coast.

Published on November 16, 2019

Your local bomb shelter just sits there, idle. That same space — starting with a decidedly negative and dreary undertone given its original intent — could transform into a positive and popular hang-out spot for teens.

Or at least that’s the thinking of Studio AHEAD Principal Designer Elena Dendiberia when she got her start in design. Now based in the San Francisco Bay area, her studio is among those most sought after for original design work. Grit Daily went behind the scenes with Dendiberia to get a closer look at what goes into her team’s work. And it is a bit avant-garde — no pun intended.

Grit Daily: You had your own interesting adventures in the art world before you started Studio AHEAD. Share those.

Elena Dendiberia: I got involved in the art world in my final year of college in Russia while I was pursuing my degree in architecture. We had a large basement that was originally constructed as a bomb shelter. We transformed it into a gallery space/major hangout spot and would literally spend all our time there after classes. 

I had my first shows there. At the time I was experimenting with painting and exploring various unconventional materials. I had a phase where I started painting using red wine as the main color pigment. The beauty of those pieces was in their unsteady nature. They constantly change over time as wine was slowly disappearing from the canvas surface, especially if the piece had direct sun exposure.

When I graduated from college I was simultaneously working on architectural, design, and art projects. I was doing more shows and art residencies abroad. Over time my works were becoming more tactile and process-based. I started working mostly with found textile: deconstructing, dying, sun bleaching, printing and painting over it.

When I started AHEAD two years ago my focus shifted to more design-oriented direction. Some of my friends who know me from my art background are now wondering if I am still making art. For me this transition doesn’t mean becoming less of an artist or neglecting my passion for art. My work now has more collaborative character, which I was lacking during art studio practice. I still sketch a lot, but now it is mostly for a furniture collection we are creating or custom pieces we are producing for our clients.

GD: What’s behind the Studio AHEAD name?

ED: It is a common practice for design firms to use founder’s names as a company name.

We were intentionally trying to avoid just focusing on our names, but rather we were looking for a simple word that can describe our process and vision. It is important for us to maintain the collaborative nature of our work. We are constantly learning from our clients, fabricators, artists we bring on the projects. At the end it is not just us, it is a broader collective process.

The word “Ahead” came naturally when I was sketching some ideas on paper and playing with letters. I was writing down some key words for our practice and it all came together to AHEAD. I like that the word itself has an impulse, it is not static. It is constant movement further forward in space.

GD: How did you pick this team?

ED: I was working for various design firms for several years before starting AHEAD. I felt there was a better opportunity for me to grow by committing to my own vision and working independently. It was a slow transitional phase for me. In my spare time I was working on putting together ideas for abstract projects that I would be interested in working on. 

It let me free up my imagination and dream bigger than a paid Mon-Fri job. Plus, I had an amazing network of artist friends that I was inspired by. At the same time I thought that my pure creative process was lacking certain strategy and organization. I started sharing my ideas with two close friends from the design industry, and was happily surprised when I received their feedback and realized we have similar aesthetic values and picture a similar future. These 2 wonderful human beings are my business partners now.

GD: Why enter what looks like a very crowded design market?

ED: It is true that the Bay Area has a great number of interior design firms. At the same time the market here is very homogenous both in terms of ethnic diversity and the design product itself. I feel there is a gap between the speed the city is growing and innovating in technology versus the lack of innovation and unique concepts in the design approach.

Nonetheless, it is very inspiring how San Francisco attracts great minds from all over the world and it is our challenge as an interior design firm to stay tuned in with the new pace of life and technology. I see our studio as a logical response to the new type of client that this city attracts: international, knowledgeable, curious and passionate. It’s our goal to help them understand the importance of physical space and design process in an area where technology, efficiency and the digital world dominates. 

We don’t want to limit our work to only being a client-based firm. We are starting to treat ourselves as a think tank. We ask ourselves what physical spaces don’t exist that we would want to spend time in? How can we promote diverse interactions, culture, relaxation, fun, and reflection through physical spaces? We have started coming up with concepts, pitching them to investors and working with developers who believe in them. 

GD: What is a “creative center” when it comes to design? Isn’t the whole team creative?

ED: The whole team is certainly creative, but in different ways. My partners and I have complementary skills and strengths.

When it comes to my particular responsibilities I deal mostly with creating and managing visual content that we produce. Whether it is designing and building custom pieces, overseeing studio collaborations and composing initial storyboards for our projects.

GD: Where can people see your work?

ED: At the moment most of our projects are residential. So the best way to see them is on our website or instagram @studioahead where we share a lot of things that inspire us as well as our own work and process.

We also work on a few exciting business-to-consumer startups that would be accessible to a broader audience. One of them is a niche chain of blow out/straightening hair salons, designed specifically for people with textured hair (Black, African, Middle Eastern, Latin American). This project is founded by a black female entrepreneur who came up with the concept while doing her masters at Harvard Business School. We are not only creating the interiors, but also came up with the branding, logo, overall visual concept that was used for the pitch deck.

GD: How should we as pedestrians view the relationship between form and function? Inquiring minds want to know.

ED: I believe that functionality is a constant element for any design or architectural project. However, I don’t think there’s a universal idea of functionality that works for everyone. We practice a very personal approach to design when form and function could both reflect the personality of a particular place and person. Personality in this case acts more like a form that can reveal genius loci.

Also, in this moment of time we have such a focus on efficiency and productivity. We are starting to realize that the most functional and efficient things don’t always connect to the emotional needs of a person. There is no necessity of designing something that is purely “functional” if it is emotionally void or uninspiring to the people using it.

GD: What’s one conventional wisdom about design that’s just plain wrong?

ED: Interior design is often perceived as something superficial, decorative.  In fact it is a long and complex process of creating environments that reflect the client’s understanding of physical and emotional comfort in the space. We need to have a pretty clear idea how particular person would interact with a space before we commit to design. You almost act as a personal coach in the beginning trying to analyze client’s needs and build emotional connection.

On the other hand, interior design at the level we do it supports artists and artisans who do exceptional work, own their own small businesses and are pursuing their passions. Almost all the photos in our portfolio include custom pieces that have a human story behind them. It takes a beautiful community of architects, landscape architects, contractors, artists, and artisans to make a physical space come to fruition. 

GD: Give us a nugget: What’s one big design trend on the horizon we don’t know about yet — but should?

ED: At Studio AHEAD we don’t believe in trends. I know it might sound cliché. But I do believe in culture and the way it can influence any aspect of our surroundings, including design. Northern California has its own unique culture of living and I think this is something that should be reflected in design. Farm-to-table movement, wine culture, the beauty of nature and organic products, handcrafting and woodworking traditions, entrepreneurship and new technology. Each place has its own culture: we love to be sensitive to that and then help translate and elevate these values into a physical manifestation.

Speaking of art, are you headed to Grit Daily Live!’s Miami Art Summit cohosted by JADA on December 6 and 7?

Sophia Platt is a Columnist at Grit Daily. She is the founder of The Bridge Conference aimed at closing the gender gap in the funding space by connecting international LPs to women GPs. The Bridge is the first world's conference focusing on women-led, high-growth venture capital funds. The mission is to bring inclusivity, diversity and equal gender opportunities to the funding space, where less than 10% of the decision makers are women.

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