“Weekend With” is a series that explores the world of design through the eyes of a designer on their days off. Our last installment took us to Mumbai, where we dodged the city’s traffic to tour the secret hangouts of Bollywood set designers and vintage Indian screen print collectors with the founder of Studio Kohl. This time, Dani Balenson captures that indescribable anxious-yet-excited feeling of moving to a new city and finding your way—by exploring it the way only a designer would. When that new city is San Francisco, there’s a lot to discover.
Waking up on a weekend in San Francisco is very different than it was in Brooklyn. I don’t hear the sound of metal shutters cranking up to tell me what time of day it is, and there aren’t any cars driving by or errant sidewalk conversations making their way into my apartment like they used to. I’ve picked up on new, quieter cues in the Bay; if I can see blue sky and sunshine, I know it’s got to be past 10 a.m.
I stay in bed longer than I used to, too. It’s a nice place to be. The light in my studio apartment is my favorite part and if my cat isn’t pawing at my face to get me to feed him, that’s even better.
I get up and I putz around; I sweep the floors, make the bed, organize the kitchen, make a list of things I want to do that weekend, and eventually go on a run.
I find a lot of comfort and identity in small traditions. I lived in the same apartment in New York for all four years that I was there, went to the same coffee shop to work on side projects every weekend, and when I visit now, I still go to my old massage spot on Canal Street. When I first moved to San Francisco, my weekends began with anxiety over not knowing what to do with myself in an unfamiliar city. I used to feel directionless; I’d ask myself, “What would I be doing in New York right now?” Now, taking the time to start the weekend by moving aimlessly around my apartment—because I want to, rather than because I’m paralyzed by the unknown—feels like a victory every time.
While walking to and from the Panhandle, the little bit of Golden Gate Park that sticks out into the city, where I run (walking there, because I don’t run up hills–I’m not that level of San Franciscan), my eyes and brain wander to the neighborhood details. New York is made up of wrought metal, brick, marble, and green plywood construction walls, while SF is a wash of terrazzo textures, painted pastel, clusters of succulents, and cable wires lining the streets. It’s a lot less crowded than New York, so the city’s atmosphere is driven by its aesthetic, rather than the population’s collective heartbeat. I use my phone camera to capture moments from the shadows of buildings that catch my eye as I walk by, to add to a series of photos for a zine in the works.
Hopping on Muni (like the subway in that it doesn’t do well in the rain, but smaller), I head out to the Inner Sunset neighborhood to meet my friends Kelly and Carly at Yo Tambien Cantina, a favorite tiny lunch spot that feels vaguely like a West Coast outpost of Dimes, with colorful ingredients and feel-good details. On the ride over I pass through a colorful hodgepodge of Victorian, Italianate, Storybook, and Art Deco buildings that all butt up against each other. The architecture is nostalgic and frozen in time, sun-bleached and lower to the ground the further towards the ocean you go. Then there’s the the Muni logo, designed in the ’70s by Walter Landor, who’s curvy and kinda trippy mark is pasted over the neighborhoods as you look out the windows of the tram.
It’s all so different from the brown, beige, or neon landscape I’ve grown up around on the East Coast. I’ve found that designing in California has been heavily influenced by the retro vibes of these buildings, the warm textures in the nature so close at hand, and the general concept of time. I’m an East Coaster at heart, but life is elastic and this is a stretchy part. It feels good to be stretchy in the work I’m making, as well as the life I’m living. The change in scenery has messed with my head in many ways, but primarily it’s prompted me to reflect on what it means to be in the present in your life and make things in that space.
After we finish eating lunch, the three of us drive down to Fort Funston to explore a beach we haven’t been to yet and to see some dogs. It’s about a 15 minute drive from the Inner Sunset to get to the ocean and that proximity blows my mind. Back East, it would have taken a month-ish of planning, transportation coordination, and maybe time off from work to see the dunes, beaches, and mountains that are all less than a half-hour drive from anywhere here.
It was hard at first to feel like I wasn’t living in an eternal vacation. Doing so many “leisurely” things made my workaholic brain feel unproductive, even irrelevant, for a long time after my arrival. I wasn’t sure if this place would ever feel like home, since I was always on a mountain somewhere instead of working away (happily) in a coffee shop.
Now though, I’ve found that balancing exploratory time with intentional time allows you to enjoy both. I can enjoy idling in my apartment or being outside, knowing that I’ll be intentional with my second weekend day or with my evenings. Learning how to view leisure as productivity has allowed me to bring leisure into the productive moments, also.
We decide we’ve had enough sand and dogs for one day, and Kelly drops me off back at my apartment. I make dinner for myself before meeting up with another friend, Jason, and others at a bar, probably Phone Booth on Van Ness or anywhere else there’s a pool table. Before heading out, I check off the things from my morning list that I accomplished that day; not necessarily anything that moved my projects forward, but things that stretched my life forward.