Interiors Awards 2017: Education

Photography by Matthew Millman

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826 Valencia Tenderloin Center
Designers: Gensler, MKThink, and collaborators
Client: 826 Valencia
Location: San Francisco

“This inspired interior promotes creativity 
and exploration, creating an unexpected wonderland with a richness of spirit. One is transported into a tactile fantasy space that 
is full of surprises. It is exciting that they did 
this on a very minimal budget.” —Jury

Author Dave Eggers and educator Ninive Calegari founded the nonprofit 826 Valencia in 2002 with the goal of supporting the creative writing skills of under-resourced students from ages 6 to 18. Named for the street address of its original location in San Francisco’s Mission District, 826 Valencia soon expanded across the U.S. with several chapters. The organization recently opened its second San Francisco location, with a writing center as well as a retail component in the Tenderloin neighborhood.

When it comes to kids, the phrase “It takes a village” often rings true, and that was also the case in making the 826 Valencia Tenderloin Center a reality. Pro bono design services were delivered by a large team, including Gensler, which designed the retail space and procured donations for interior finishes and furnishings; MKThink, which provided interior architecture services; INTERSTICE Architects, which oversaw the facade’s renovation and permitting; and Office, which provided branding, graphic design, and retail product design. Jonas Kellner, who previously worked with MKThink, served as lead architect and continued to oversee project coordination after having left the firm.

The corner of the 5,000-square-foot Tenderloin Center was once occupied by the Big Boy Market, a liquor store that was a notorious epicenter for crime, particularly drug trafficking. Now, the corner is home to the center’s retail element, affectionately referred to as King Carl’s Emporium, drawing inspiration from a pirate-themed store at 826’s original location.

“We realized that the retail component is critical to our program because this whimsical, weird vibe is what attracts all types of people—donors, volunteers, and community members,” says Bita Nazarian, executive director of 826 Valencia. “When kids come to a space that’s kind of wacky and weird, it influences their attitude toward learning and encourages their imagination.”

Named in honor of the pet puffer fish Carl at 826’s Mission District location, the Tenderloin store sells publications of student work as well as the tools of exploration for worlds both real and imaginary. The accessibly priced wares include everyday items, reimagined, such as Unicorn Horn Polish (lip balm) and Ogre Dental Floss (a jump rope). Details throughout the store draw from nautical motifs, such as rope display shelving and lights, welded ship panels, reclaimed wood planks, and a ship’s cabin ladder. Kellner handpicked doors from local salvage yards to create an installation on one wall. A Fog Bank, which is a donor wall with drawers to hold San Francisco’s most famous natural phenomenon, is located behind the cash wrap. Other surprise elements include a trap door that emits bubbles and secret portal framed by a fireplace mantel that children can crawl through to access the adjacent writing lab.

“The retail space is not just a fun place for the community but it also serves to disarm the kids and the parents,” says Janice Cavaliere, a design director with Gensler’s San Francisco office. “You get this totally different mind-set once you’ve opened a trap door full of bubbles that you don’t necessarily get when walking into a classroom.”

That same sense of whimsy and exploration infuses the center’s learning spaces. The writing lab, which hosts a variety of workshops and community events at no cost to students, features a large mural and a “tree house” with upholstered seating, where kids can hang out and read as a reward for completing their assignments. The center also has work and support spaces for approximately 20 staff members and volunteers.

Community response to the center has been overwhelmingly supportive. Longtime neighbors become emotional when viewing the transformation, and, perhaps most notably, much of the drug trafficking has moved away from this corner. As Nazarian says, “I think people understand that we want better things for our kids.”

who Interior designer: Gensler. Interior architect: MKThink. Architect: Jonas Kellner. Project manager: Valerie Veronin. Exterior architecture: INTERSTICE Architects. Graphic design: Office. Project team: Kelly Dubisar; Janice Cavaliere; Ian Young; Marissa Everling; Samantha Lewis; Miriam Diaz; Ilanit Cohen; Emily Shields; Marcus Hopper; Jill Robertson; Rob Alexander; Jason Schulte; Reva Parness; Cindy Wu; Will Ecke; Brittany Waldner; Dominique Mao; Mimi Chao; Heather Beck. General contractor: BCCI. Engineering: Tipping Structural Engineers. Branding/marketing: BBDO San Francisco.
what Wall of doors: salvaged by Jonas Kellner. Flooring: Muse and Company. Furniture: custom by Raven Mahon; Lifestyle Studios; Dylan Gold. Lighting: Paganini Electric; Orion Chandelier; Phillips; custom. Murals and signage: Office.

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