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Studio Tour

Studio Tour: Elektra Steel

by Sabrina Smelko

Every morning,  and her dog Simi head out to her humble but mighty 8′ x 12′ studio space in  and get to work — which, for Zai, involves design and welding, and lots of napping for Simi. Nestled in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco, ShopFloor is a shared focusing on design and fabrication, housing its own , , and Zai’s own .

Having learned to weld at just 14 years old as a student at , Zai creates striking and functional small-batch, hand-welded objects using a TIG approach — a type of arc welding known for its precision and control. Obsessed with geometric shapes and modern finishes, her signature work is often made of steel, but she occasionally incorporates marble and wood into the mix. “Though welding has been a passion of mine for nearly half my life, it’s only in the last year and a half that I’ve made it my full-time profession,” Zai says. After attending Yale for college and grad school where she received her master’s degree in public health, she worked at an enterprise software company for a number of years in the Bay Area. “Though I loved that job, I missed working with my hands,” she explains, “I wanted to see if I could create a career that would involve both my creative and analytical sides.” After educating herself on the business side of being a creative freelancer, Zai found that launching her own metalworking business was a no-brainer.

Although being a business owner is still scary from time to time, finding a space to call her own (without spending an arm and a leg) was surprisingly easy. ShopFloor, founded by David and Christina Whippen in 2011, houses many other makers in the custom-built, limited production design space; craft microbrewery  also operates out of the building. “I found everything I was looking for — and much more — in ShopFloor,” she shares.

Unlike the massive shared workspace, Zai’s own personal studio is less than 100 square feet, so fostering a calm and inspiring work zone was the goal when it came to decorating. “For me, that means lots of plants, clear surfaces, a few beloved objects, and cozy lighting,” she says. In the six short weeks since she took up residence, she’s managed to create a cozy atmosphere by mi in just the right amount of home comforts — blending tools and equipment storage with things like a dining table and mid-century-style credenza.

A one-woman show, Zai admits that running Elektra Steel can sometimes feel lonely (especially as a self-confessed extrovert), but she’s eternally grateful for having arms-reach access to the other talented designers and fabricators at the shop. “They’re incredibly talented, and they’re all much more experienced than I am,” she shares. “I’m constantly asking them about their favorite patinas and oils, or about which steel suppliers and powder coaters are the best in the area… I’m so grateful to have found a shared space that came with a wonderful and supportive community.”

Photography by 

Studio Tour: Elektra Steel
1/17
Zai with her dog Simi outside of ShopFloor's front door. "Since I'm not at the stage in my business yet where I can justify the cost of setting up my own shop, I was hoping to find a place that would include access to a TIG welder, a horizontal bandsaw, a disc grinder, and a welding table," she explains, which she found at ShopFloor.
Studio Tour: Elektra Steel
2/17
"One of the things I love best about the shop is the giant roll-up door," she explains (pictured here). "It's usually kept open, which means the shop gets lots of fresh air and natural light." When he isn't napping or playing with the other shop dogs, Simi enjoys taking his post here and barking at anyone unfamiliar who approaches. "It's a little annoying, but at least we have an effective guard dog!" Zai laughs.
Studio Tour: Elektra Steel
3/17
Zai's personal studio space. Despite the small footprint, the overhead storage adds a lot more function. She added wood furniture, string lights, house plants, and a few pieces of art to help make the otherwise industrial, cold space feel more cozy. "I keep my welding and sanding gear in the credenza, and my in-progress and finished pieces on the shelves," she says. "The racks overhead are great for my supplies for craft fairs." She uses her dining table to lay out and measure materials, as well as for staining and sealing pieces. The rad copper-and-ceramic mug is from , a small coffee startup that also works out of ShopFloor.
Studio Tour: Elektra Steel
4/17
Beneath a hanging ceramic planter is a painting that was created by a close family friend of Zai's, . "She lives and works in Point Reyes, and the local landscapes feature prominently in her artwork. She's built a wonderful life and career for herself over the years, and seeing her work every day reminds me to keep working toward my goals."
Studio Tour: Elektra Steel
5/17
"My shop mates laughed at me when I brought in a giant box full of house plants," Zai laughs, "but I love them so much!" Thanks to the skylights and a giant roll-up door, they are kept happy and healthy. Nestled in next to the plants are two small statues of Ganesh, the Hindu god who's known as the remover of obstacles. "Though I wouldn't describe anyone in my family as particularly religious, we do have a thing for this particular Hindu deity -- my dad has collected dozens of Ganesh statues over the years, ranging in size from less than an inch tall to over six feet tall," Zai explains. "The Ganesh on the right was a gift to me from my mom -- I've had it since I was a teenager. The statue accompanied me to Yale, followed me to my grad school apartment, then back to San Francisco, and now it's my good luck talisman at the shop."
Studio Tour: Elektra Steel
6/17
"I keep this little notebook from inside my purse at all times," Zai says. "I use it to plan out steel orders, record interesting patterns I come across, and brainstorm new pieces." The Om ring she wears was a gift from her Indian grandmother who passed away last summer. "A few years ago, she had matching rings made for me and my sister, and I've worn mine every day since then -- even when I'm in the metal shop. It's probably not the best idea to leave it on while working, but it feels like a part of me now, so I almost never take it off."
Studio Tour: Elektra Steel
7/17
A recent piece of Zai's is this geometric, steel wall hanging. "First, I sketch interesting patterns in my notebook, and then use Illustrator to play around with grayscale colors and patterns on the computer," she explains, "I laser cut the parts out of mild and stainless sheet steel, and treat them with a variety of patinas, oils, and waxes to achieve a range of tones, from silver to grey to black." This is a new direction for her, and she's excited to be debuting a small series in this style at this spring in San Francisco.
Studio Tour: Elektra Steel
8/17
A variety of other pieces done by Zai which showcase her penchant for bold, geometric forms.
Studio Tour: Elektra Steel
9/17
Zai using an angle grinder with a Scotch-Brite attachment to finish the exterior of a Geo Bowl. "It gives it a beautiful, satiny sheen that's still organic enough to give it some character." For any sort of abrasive work, she always wears her safety gear: glasses, a respirator, and earmuffs - but that didn't stop her from bedazzling them! "My fashion sense isn't usually this flashy, but every so often, I'm into the bling," she jokes. "It was actually my sister Mia's idea to hot-glue rhinestones onto my earmuffs -- I can't take too much credit for the idea."
Studio Tour: Elektra Steel
10/17
Safety first! Pictured are Zai's blinged-out earmuffs, leather TIG welding gloves, and her welding helmet.
Studio Tour: Elektra Steel
11/17
"I just invested in a ," Zai explains, which is a 90-degree welding clamp which holds two pieces of steel together in a perfect square. "I can't believe I'd been making do with other clamps my whole life before discovering this tool!"
Studio Tour: Elektra Steel
12/17
Simi keeping Zai company in the workshop on his dedicated dog bed.
Studio Tour: Elektra Steel
13/17
Zai performing some TIG welding. "You hold the torch in one hand, and use the other hand to manually feed in the wire as you weld," she says. "Meanwhile, your foot controls the amperage (sort of like a gas pedal in a car). It's a tricky little dance that involves a lot of coordination." It took a long time for her to get the hang of it, but now it's her favorite type of welding which allows her the most control over the bead in order to weld really thin materials together.
Studio Tour: Elektra Steel
14/17
Zai inspecting her weld.
Studio Tour: Elektra Steel
15/17
Zai using a horizontal band saw to cut a piece of flat bar.
Studio Tour: Elektra Steel
16/17
A close-up shot of the horizontal band saw making a cut in a piece of flat bar. The pale blue liquid is coolant which keeps the blade and the steel cool and lubricated.
Studio Tour: Elektra Steel
17/17
After a long day of work, grabbing a pint is as easy as taking a few steps to Harmonic Brewing, a craft microbrewery that's also housed within the building. "I'm not much of a drinker, but their sour ale is starting to change that. And I love that they offer the option to order just a teeny little glass of beer -- perfect for me!"

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Comments

  • What a role model she is, for entering work that’s not traditionally for girls and for following your dreams, no matter your age or the investment in education and career. Thanks for this story. (Mighty Girls should pick it up.)

  • Whoa, this is one of my favorite maker posts to-date. Her work is so cool, and it’s awesome that she made a point of repping safety gear (I see so many photos of makers using machinery with zero safety gear and unsafe clothing/dangling jewelry that an experienced worker would NEVER wear around machinery). I’m glad she talked about her safety gear and even went so far as to acknowledge her decision to keep her ring on while working (metalworkers typically remove rings due to degloving risk). This is one of the first profiles I’ve seen where the maker took care to include safety gear in the discussion – love that!

    Anyhoo, I’m now figuring out how to save up and buy one of her works! Thanks DS for these profiles and supporting independent artists :)

    • Thanks, Kimithy, for noticing! Wearing safety gear is so deeply engrained in my routine, that it didn’t occur to me that it might stand out to people as being unusual! :) The dangly stuff really freaks me out — I’ve heard too many horror stories!

      For what it’s worth, I suspect that some makers also choose slightly different gear for photoshoots. For instance, I kept watch and engagement ring on for this shoot, but I usually leave those at home. :)

      Thanks for reading, and for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully! I really appreciate it!

  • YES! Love seeing this maker space. It is so refreshing to see a fellow designer practicing a traditionally male trade in San Francisco. Making any kind of physical product in the bay area can be challenging for small makers, so I love to see another lady working hard and carving out such a unique practice for herself.

    • Hi Kate! Thanks so much for your kind words! Hope to cross paths soon — your work is beautiful, and it looks like you also combine traditional craft + digital fabrication! Cheers!

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