From His San Francisco Studio, Paul Benson Turns Raw Materials Into Refined Furnishings

Paul Benson’s metalworks have the presence of heirlooms. Working with antique machines and hand tools in his San Francisco studio, Benson crafts hefty materials—bronze, brass and steel—into furnishings with refinement and glamour. The California native creates bespoke pieces coveted by such A-list East and West Coast interior designers as S.R. Gambrel, Jay Jeffers and Sara Story. And whether an industrially inspired, riveted bedframe or a delicate, hand-turned vessel, each work speaks to a true artist’s commitment to his craft.

SFC&G: Your work incorporates so many elements­—sculpture, metal fabrication, painting. What is your creative background?

Paul Benson: I grew up in a creative family, so I had access to art supplies and a full wood and metal shop from a very early age. My father also had an exotic car company for a while, and I grew fascinated with the design of vintage, hand-built European cars. On the academic front, I spent a semester studying art in London, sketching from the collections at the Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Museum, which is where I was first exposed to amazing examples of classical art, architecture and design. When I returned to San Francisco, I attended SFAI for painting, and soon after started making furniture, using it as a vehicle for blending all of these different influences together.

What elements of skill and craftsmanship do you think distinguish a truly great piece of furniture?

PB: If the design emerges from the craft, then there is a logic that becomes part of the visual language. Without that connection, you can easily go down a slippery slope of adding rivets, screws or other details just for the sake of design. A great piece also requires patience and dedication to precision. 

How do you make such muscular materials look polished and refined?

PB: I’ve found that taking the extra time to achieve the proper fit of the trim and the panels is key. Without that your eye is distracted by uneven transitions or gaps and you quickly become aware of individual, heavy pieces of metal instead of seeing the piece as a whole.

Your work has been featured in projects by A-list designers. What makes for the most inspired partnerships? 

PB: A successful collaboration happens when you have a genuine affinity for each others’ work; it fuels and inspires the whole creative process. It also requires clear communication, and being humble and in the moment, so that a synergistic middle ground can emerge.

Many craftspeople in the Bay Area are mentoring and training the next generation of makers. Are you involved in that process?

PB: I talk with emerging craftspeople and artists often, helping them find ways to get exposure for their work. Eventually I would love to teach at a Bay Area college. Teaching has been a lifelong dream, it would be fantastic to give back in that way. 

I love the saturated, candy-colored lacquers you create for your pieces. How do you achieve that look?

PB: Actually, I don’t use lacquers, which may be surprising, since typically on furniture the glossy colors are lacquers painted directly on wood. The areas of my pieces with color are steel or aluminum panels that are painted with multiple layers of automotive paint that is then sanded and polished. 

Much attention is– being given to 3-D printing these days. Are there digital elements to your process as well?

PB: Sometimes I will have metal plates cut using computer-controlled laser or waterjet cutters, but otherwise it is all done using hand-operated machines. Three-dimensional printing is amazing, but my work has really developed through dealing with the limitations inherent in machining and fabrication. The limitations force you to be creative in ways that you wouldn’t imagine if you were only thinking about your designs in a digital format.   

Since you’ve mastered your craft, what’s left that you’d still like to learn to do?

PB: Thank you so much, but I really see it as more of a matter of taking risks as much as possible to push your craft, and being really stubborn until you achieve the results you are after. Every project has been a learning experience from the very beginning of my career, and usually I discover what I need to learn in the process of working.  

A version of this article appeared in the September 2014 issue of San Francisco Cottages & Gardens with the headline: Master Class.