Meet Homan and Elena: California-based interior designers welcome Artsper!

Meet Homan and Elena: California-based interior designers welcome Artsper! - 2
Meet Homan and Elena: California-based interior designers welcome Artsper! - 3
Meet Homan and Elena: California-based interior designers welcome Artsper! - 4
Meet Homan and Elena: California-based interior designers welcome Artsper! - 5

Top row, left to right: The garden and dining room of a home in Noe Valley, California, designed by Studio Ahead; Bottom row, left to right: The office and kitchen of the home in Noe Valley, California © Ekaterina Izmestieva

This week, Artsper had the pleasure of speaking with Homan and Elena, the founders and chief designers of Studio Ahead. Their forward-thinking and culturally-sensitive interior design studio is based in Northern California. Both hailing from immigrant families, the pair's creative philosophy is grounded in a fundamental appreciation for each client's cultural heritage, as well as incorporating well-loved contemporary artworks. Join Artsper as we learn about Homan and Elena's lives, loves and individual journeys to where they are now. Welcome to the world of Studio Ahead…

1. Hello Elena and Homan, could you start by telling us a little bit about yourselves and your respective career journeys so far? What compelled you to establish your own design studio, Studio Ahead?

Elena is from Samara, Russia and studied architecture in Moscow. Then she came to San Francisco about 9 years ago to study fine arts at the San Francisco Art Institute. Very smart and talented, obviously. She also came for love but that's another story!

My family came to California during the Iranian Revolution to escape the fanatic Islamic Regime that had taken over in 1979. So fortunately, I was born here in Northern California living and hiking in the golden hills, summers camping in Yosemite, winters in Tahoe.

Our realities collided while she was working for a former employer of mine. I had just moved back from a year living in Oaxaca and Guadalajara with a boyfriend. He was a restaurateur, an interior designer, a factory owner of leather goods and furniture. I was his partner in crime and we would spend our days exploring artist studios all around Mexico, meeting artisans to learn about new materials, and then hanging out with friends who had surreal hidden homes or hanging at his family's ranch with 60 Andalusian horses. It was a dream. He taught me how to live and not separate work from life. It was all mixed.

After we broke up, I came back to California. Elena was deep in the trenches with high-end residential projects with my former employer, who was a 17th- to 20th-century European antiques dealer. She was a magical woman, almost like a witch. She enchanted you by teaching you about antiques, artisanship from eglomise to marquetry, and she knew how to throw down a Martini or four. Elena and I had both been spellbound at different times.

I came back to the office to work and that's when my world collided with Elena's.

2. In your practice, you seek to build spatial narratives that tell the client's individual story. How do you approach each project? Could you tell us about your personal design philosophies?

Elena and I came from such unique backgrounds. We knew what it was to be othered and we knew what it was to be international. This left our minds open and observant. When you are outside the majority group you pay much closer attention to sociological nuances than you would otherwise.

A lot of our clients are from different realities: South Korea, China, Russia, the Jewish Diaspora, Persia/Iran, India, Venezuela, the Upper East Side (that's a reality in itself)! So we never assume that we know how people exist, an assumption we see a lot of in design. There's a monoculture in design or often a Eurocentric idealism. That's a shame.

When we start with our clients we ask them to not get lost in visuals because often visuals lead to these ingrained notions of beauty. So we start every project the same. We walk through the space with the client and we listen to their needs and what they are thinking. It's much more program oriented.

Then we go back to the office and we create a large questionnaire asking the most basic questions from who exists in this home to how do you like to eat in your home to how do you like to sit? How do you like to sit is a huge cultural question. Do you like to sit upright, do you like to sit lounging, do you like to lounge cuddling with your partner, do you like to sit on the floor with or without cushions? Then it gets deeper into what philosophies do you resonate with, what moments in history, what directors do you like to watch, how do you like to collect art? With art do you like to commission, should we organize studio visits to learn about the artists?

Wow! When you start doing this you start expanding the client's minds to what the process of creating a home or space can be. It starts creating the poetry of how people will live in the space and creates so many design implications that allows us to be creative.

This is how we start and it's only a portion of our process.

Meet Homan and Elena: California-based interior designers welcome Artsper! - 6
Meet Homan and Elena: California-based interior designers welcome Artsper! - 7

From left to right: The master bedroom and living space of the Noe Valley home © Ekaterina Izmestieva

3. At Artsper, we feel that design and contemporary art go hand-in-hand. How do you integrate art into your practice? Do you feel that the client's artistic tastes shape your design strategy?

Art's the biggest! I think most of our clients who approach us now since we've received media attention and accolades come because art is such a focal point of our work. Artwork in the home is the heart and the humans experiencing it are the pulse. We want to make people feel.

We just had a design meeting with a new client who was on the board of the Museum for African Art in NYC and recently moved to Oakland. He is so thoughtful and considered and we feel it a privilege to explore African art through his lens. What a gift and continued learning and exploration for us.

Another client comes from a beautiful family that is well known for commissioning art for generations now. He's grown up around major artists and is excited to explore a new generation of artists, do studio visits and support them in their growth. So we are taking that into consideration with lounge-y, modular furniture that will be surrounded by visually sensuous art and sculpture. It's going to be really special.

4. We've really enjoyed reading through your online publication California: A Journal. Could you tell our readers what inspired you to create such an impactful ode to Californian history?

When Elena and I started working together, we would do studio visits with artists, gallerists, and artisans. We were craving and searching for an art community. We would meet an artist and they would introduce us to another one and another one. Soon we were traversing and going up dirt roads through oak forests in Inverness to meet people like Ido Yoshimoto, an amazing woodworker; we would go to Sonoma vineyards and meet sheep wool artisan Jessica Switzer Green; go to Berkeley to a contemporary box home/gallery and meet Jeffrey Spahn, a premier west coast collector of California ceramics; Oakland to a warehouse to meet amazing ceramicists like Tyler Cross and Kyle Lypka.

We had to share it with people to let them know these amazing people and not to discount Northern California. This is our collective culture and we have to feed it and help each other grow.

We recently co-curated a show named “Same Blue as the Sky" with one of our biggest inspirations, Mariah Nielson, director of the Blunk Estate and daughter of JB Blunk, a Northern Californian legend. It was somewhat of a physical manifestation of our journal, celebrating legacy and contemporary Northern California artists. The opening night, the fire marshall had to block the door once there were 250 guests inside and there was a 45 minute line around the block!

We will do this type of exhibition every year now in January because it is such a gift to bring people together: artists, collectors, institutions like SFMoMA, designers, architects.

Meet Homan and Elena: California-based interior designers welcome Artsper! - 8
Meet Homan and Elena: California-based interior designers welcome Artsper! - 9

From left to right: Portraits of Elena Dendiberia and Homan Rajai, founders and lead designers of Studio Ahead © Ekaterina Izmestieva

5. San Francisco is globally renowned for its rich cultural diversity and vibrant creative atmosphere. Where do you both find the most creative inspiration?

Our friends, clients, artists, designers. People! We find inspiration from people. And when we need room to breathe nature: Inverness, Healdsburg, the coast, the forest, the Bay. Northern California is unbelievable.

6. Finally, for the budding interior designers amongst our readership, what advice would you offer to a designer who is just starting out in the industry?

Is it actually who you are? Find your reason for doing it and if it's a beautiful reason then dive in deep and hold on. It's not easy at all, but if you really work hard, are curious, make it a lifestyle and dream… It's worth it. You won't believe your life.

Also, get a therapist, do the mental work too so you can enjoy the process and don't torment yourself through the hard moments. It should be joyful; it's a gift and it's magic.

Meet Homan and Elena: California-based interior designers welcome Artsper! - 10

Their favorite artworks

Print, Vitraux pour Jérusalem, Marc Chagall

Vitraux pour Jérusalem

Marc Chagall

Print - 36 x 28 x 3 cm Print - 14.2 x 11 x 1.2 inch


Print, Shapes, Giò Pomodoro


Giò Pomodoro

Print - 37.5 x 57 x 0.2 cm Print - 14.8 x 22.4 x 0.1 inch


Print, Mother and Child, Alice Neel

Mother and Child

Alice Neel

Print - 79.4 x 68.6 cm Print - 31.25 x 27 inch


Sculpture, Have no country but my heart, Andreea Zahiu

Have no country but my heart

Andreea Zahiu

Sculpture - 53 x 53 x 22 cm Sculpture - 20.9 x 20.9 x 8.7 inch


Design, Homer Lamp, Hélène Labadie

Homer Lamp

Hélène Labadie

Design - 24 x 20 x 5 cm Design - 9.4 x 7.9 x 2 inch


Design, Applique murale 2, Claire Cosnefroy

Applique murale 2

Claire Cosnefroy

Design - 35 x 36 x 8 cm Design - 13.8 x 14.2 x 3.1 inch


Fine Art Drawings, Collage aux formes standardisées, Jean Arp

Collage aux formes standardisées

Jean Arp

Fine Art Drawings - 46.5 x 28 x 0.2 cm Fine Art Drawings - 18.3 x 11 x 0.1 inch


Sculpture, Alexei Sculpture in Florida Mahogany Wood, Whirl & Whittle

Alexei Sculpture in Florida Mahogany Wood

Whirl & Whittle

Sculpture - 20 x 28 x 28 cm Sculpture - 7.9 x 11 x 11 inch


Sculpture, Sai Do Ki, Kenji Gomi

Sai Do Ki

Kenji Gomi

Sculpture - 42 x 31 x 30 cm Sculpture - 16.5 x 12.2 x 11.8 inch


Photography, Walking around an oak tree, Cristina Fontsare

Walking around an oak tree

Cristina Fontsare

Photography - 25 x 30 x 0.1 cm Photography - 9.8 x 11.8 x 0 inch


Print, Apocalypse II, Keith Haring

Apocalypse II

Keith Haring

Print - 96.52 x 96.52 x 1.27 cm Print - 38 x 38 x 0.5 inch


Design, Keith Haring - Untitled, Keith Haring

Keith Haring - Untitled

Keith Haring

Design - 80 x 60 x 2 cm Design - 31.5 x 23.6 x 0.8 inch


Design, Jean-Michel Basquiat - Hollywood Africans, The Skateroom

Jean-Michel Basquiat - Hollywood Africans

The Skateroom

Design - 80 x 60 x 2 cm Design - 31.5 x 23.6 x 0.8 inch


Print, Sans Titre, Josef Albers

Sans Titre

Josef Albers

Print - 43 x 43 cm Print - 16.9 x 16.9 inch