A few blocks from the churning Pacific in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset neighbourhood sits the charming duplex built in 1900 where Jay Nelson lives in the lower flat with his wife, the painter Rachel Kaye, and their one-year-old daughter Romy. They bought the building with friends and Jay tore his apartment down to the studs and rebuilt it, mostly by himself. Little details like the porthole window that peeks into the back garden are immediately recognisable as his touch.
Effie Efthymiadi from Freunde von Freunden catches up with Jay Nelson…
It’s out behind the building where you fully step into Jay’s world – through a solarium and dining room addition still in the works. Over to the side sit stacks of reclaimed and scavenged redwood, to the left a shingle-topped outdoor shower that looks like an overgrown birdhouse from a children’s book. A long table and benches of rough-hewn logs sit front and center, potted succulents here and there, and looming over it all, a light-flooded studio he built to share with Rachel.
We sipped coffee and watched the morning go from sun-drenched to foggy with a speed that only seems to happen in this city. We chatted about building with found materials, working as an artist in residence at Facebook, and pondered when surfing may become uncool again.
Let’s start with the simplest question: Why wood? How did you get started working primarily with this material?
Well, let’s see, when I was a kid I used to work a lot with wood. My dad was often remodeling our house, so there was always a lot of scrap lumber lying around. It was simply accessible to me. All through high school I was building stuff with friends and that was kind of a hobby that we all took up – building forts, pulleys, tree houses and skate ramps.
Do you remember the first thing you built?
Yeah, I built a tree house when I was about nine years old. I would nail found pieces of wood on the tree and just keep doing that until there was thick layer of wood on top of everything.
Friends would come over and help but it got so crazy and the tree was so mangled that my dad was like, “listen, I’ll buy you all the material to build a skate ramp if you take all that wood out of the tree.” My whole childhood was pretty much working with wood – you tend to gravitate towards the things you know.
Tell me about your first vehicle customisation?
I actually had this book, Some Turtles Have Nice Shells, that was made in the 70s about house trucking
I was living above Mollusk in an attic and a friend’s mom had this old ‘91 Honda CRX whose hatchback had been smashed by a big truck. At first I put a tarp over it and taped it down but when that failed I screwed some Plexiglas to it and had that for a little while. I actually had this book, Some Turtles Have Nice Shells, that was made in the 70s about house trucking and they had a section that was about mini house trucks. It was really inspiring to see people living so minimally in these cars and I thought this car was perfect for it.
I had this vision of this whole bed up top that could fold up and you’d have a little space in there to cook, draw, read, write or do whatever you want. It seemed like a fun project to see how small of a living space I could create. Now I feel like that’s kind of a normal thing that people think about, but it was exciting because I was making something without knowing how to go about it. I hadn’t really seen anything similar before.