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.”