DIFFA Dining by Design SF 2009: Part 1 – The Build


How I built this space from scratch in 6 months for DIFFA’s Dining by Design SF 2009.


Even before I began my design business, Dining by Design (DBD) has always been one of my favorite events in San Francisco all year. The combination of great design, food and drink, and charity has always been so inspirational and intoxicating to me.

Officially, the event is described as “the most anticipated high-design charitable event, showcasing top designers who create fantastic, one-of-a-kind tabletop installations that are unveiled for two nights only.” All post-production profits from the events go to Design Industries Foundation Fighting Aids (DIFFA), who directly distributes funding to San Francisco’s largest HIV/AIDS clinic, the Positive Health Program at San Francisco General Hospital, a core program of the AIDS Research Institute at UCSF.

Every year I go to DBD, I leave inspired to do more projects and become involved.  But alas, every year that I’ve wanted to participate, I’ve been thwarted by something whether timing, money, partners, bandwidth, etc.  Nevertheless, my interest never waned and I promised myself that someday soon I would get involved – and it turns out that someday became this year when all the stars aligned for me.  Though this process for me began this year around April, I never blogged about it because 1) I was so busy doing it and 2) I was fearful that it wouldn’t materialize for one reason or another.  But six months later, I am proud to say that I made it happen.

One of the keys to my involvement this year was finding a partner in my friend Cary Cheng.  Cary is a “designer” (really an architect who is waiting to complete his AIA certification) for McCall Design Group, where he works on high-end commercial and retail projects.  Cary has worked on several design related charities over the years including  Leap (Imagination in Learning) Sandcastle Classic and PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support) Petchitecture.  Importantly, Cary brought a robust engineering and construction perspective to our partnership, which is not my strongest suite.  Cary loves getting his hands dirty and has experience with making his own furniture; his experience in this realm would come in handy given what we ended up doing…

The design challenge of doing a space at DIFFA is deciding how to utilize your 14′ x 9′ space to seat 10 people for a sit down dinner.  Most designers, especially first-timers and small-timers like us, usually spend their time and energy on the dining table itself, forgoing structural elements like walls and floors.  This way, they can create their spaces by “simply borrowing” things from showrooms and stores to essentially “piece together” their space – a dining table from here, a rug from there, a chandelier from another store… While it’s a pain work the phones and relationships to borrow items and arrange for shipping  them (in addition to praying that they don’t get damaged in transit or at the event), assembling a space in this method is a snap – like staging a room in a house.  Designers who want to get more elaborate can do so by renting or making structures like walls, floors, etc. to create more encompassing “environments.”

The other extreme at DBD are the blue-chip design firms like Gensler and HOK who have the manpower and budget to design sophisticated and elaborate free-standing environments that have engineered walls, ceilings, platforms, integral lighting, etc.  Some of these spaces are funded by national sponsors and travel to DBD cities across the country; DIFFA is a national charity.  As you can imagine, given the resources these firms have, these spaces are awesome because they look and feel like gorgeous, detailed, self-contained rooms; you feel like you’re in a private dining room at a Jean George restaurant, not on the ground floor of a five-story atrium.  The size and importance of these firms allows them to tap their favorite vendors and fabricators to donate their services, meaning that for the most part, they design whatever they want on paper/computer and someone else builds and assembles it for them.  Some of these firms might assemble their own spaces at DBD, but not having to build it is huge as we would find out.

As we started designing our booth, we discussed the “borrow” method only because it seemed the easiest, especially as first timers.  But quickly, this method seemed not that interesting, especially to Cary who was used to “architecting” complete, cohesive environments.  Though I was the “interior designer” in our partnership, I agreed.  Even in my own work, I always considered myself an interior “architect” as much as a designer; I love working with integral architectural elements and finishes as much as the decorative items like furniture and accessories.  To “throw together” furniture for our DBD space was not going to do it for either of us.

So our early design sessions were really about creating the structure, though we really didn’t have the budget to get too extreme.  The overall budget for this event was not just the materials, but also the costs associated with any transport, assembly or production needs of our design (production fees could be huge if we had to hire the event production firm to hang a lot of lighting, rent drapery, etc.).  In this regard we really had to value engineer our solution.  We wanted to have walls, but didn’t want to pay for renting them, nor did we like the pipe and drape wall systems that the production company had anyways – the last thing we wanted was a space that looked like a trade show booth.  So that led us to the decision to design and build our own structure, a thought that was scary and empowering at the same time.


Most DBD spaces that have floors and walls are built up using traditional building materials and methods – 2 x 4 lumber, plywood, drywall, etc.  Though these materials and methods were also familiar to us, we quickly realized that building an entire structure like this would make transport unwieldy, especially for a small team like Cary and I.  So we began to explore materials that would give us the effect of a solid structure but without the weight.  Furthermore, where possible, we wanted our structure to be as sustainable as possible.  While that didn’t mean it would be 100% sustainable, we wanted to push the envelope where possible, which meant low impact-recyclable-reusable materials.

The first thing that we settled on was a platform made of salvaged shipping palettes. From a design perspective, the palettes would provide a perfect 6″ rise off the floor and help to define the footprint of the space.  Structurally, since palettes are meant to support heavy loads in transit, we knew that they would plenty strong enough for a mere dining table and 10 people.  Best of all, palettes are free (though it took some scouring to find ones that were the right size, height and type), modular (so we could break up our platform into several pieces to make transport easier) and reusable (all we did was take a few palettes out of circulation from the shipping library in the sky before we returned them back to their rightful place).  The palettes were arranged like a puzzle to mimic our footprint as closely as possible.  As needed, we filled in empty spots in between palettes by augmenting them with extra wood.  For the top, we used three sheets of 4′ x 8′ FSC-certified plywood – a perfect fit for our 12′ x 8′ footprint.  We also used the same plywood to cover the front face of the platform and the two “wing” panels that cover the construction of our walls.  We finished all these plywood finishes in a custom-tinted stain that was a very deep purple (Why purple?  Read on to find out…).

With the floor settled, we focused on the walls.  Instead of heavy drywall, we came up with the idea of rigid foam insulation, which met our key criteria: solid, lightweight and inexpensive.  Because these Insulfoam-brand panels also came in 4′ x 8′ sheets, 8 panels were enough to cover all the walls of our space.  To join the panels for solidity and maintain a seamless look, we used clear duct tape.  At one point we discussed painting the walls front and back, but in the end we changed our minds because we didn’t think the effort of painting (which is really a pain done meticulously) was worth it in the dim DBD environment.  The obvious benefit of foam walls was not requiring a heavy-duty framing system.  In the end, we devised a series of lightweight support posts – three on each side and four along the back.  Each support post system was made from 1″ x 2″ lumber that was screwed onto a plywood base with a 2″ x 4″ lip.  We abutted the lip against the base of the palette and bolted the two together for strength and stability.  We were able to engineer each support to be only a svelte 12″ deep, which was a critical requirement because we needed every other square inch to be the platform for the table.  As is, our 12′ x 8′ platform was a tight fit to accommodate a table for 10.  To cover the backside of our foam panels and support posts, we stretched inexpensive black polyester fabric and held it in place with matching black upholstery tacks.

While our platform and walls were now engineered, what was missing now was any type of design drama.  What we realized was that our raised platform allowed us the opportunity to recess something in between the walls and the platform – like lights.  The channel was just enough room to slide 4′ fluorescent shop lights – another inexpensive, eco-friendly material.  This element added instant impact and drama by ensuring cool, up-lit walls that used hardly any energy.  Still, without any texture, our walls felt clean but a bit austere.  Fortunately, during one of our inspirational shopping trips to Home Depot, we came across a material called rib lathe, a construction material used as a substrate for adhering stucco and plaster to exterior walls.  Curiously, we found this material, typically never seen by the people outside the construction process, remarkably beautiful.  The lathe was comprised of thousands of tiny apertures laid out in a herringbone-like pattern that looked almost laser-cut.  The galavanized finish shimmered in light like fine metal filigree, similar at a glance to expensive metal drapery like Cascade Coil products.  Cary and I initially talked about installing sheers to take advantage of the up-light a la Philippe Starck in the Mondrian Hotel in LA, but when we saw the lathe we knew we had found our “drapes” – the perfect material to add texture and translucency to our walls.


At a certain point in our design process, we began to embrace a do-it-yourself, ReadyMade attitude, which we brought over into our finishes.  Cary and I both had experience in designing and building our own furniture so creating a table and chair set for DBD was a natural decision.  For the chairs, we worked with the most basic building block of all construction materials – plywood.  Readily available, inexpensive and good enough for Charles and Ray Eames.  For visual interest and strength, we laminated thin strips of plywood together to form a large block that would serve as the seat and back rest.  Accordingly, the legs and seat post were also plywood strips of the same width.  We strategically notched out corners in the seat so that the legs and seat posts slotted in seamlessly.  Over several months, we made a few prototypes playing with the width of the strips and construction methods.  While simple in concept, we discovered laminating plywood was no easy feat especially since we were building with borrowed consumer-grade tools in my crowded garage and on my deck.  Thankfully, Cary and I are both meticulous types and got the details to work.  To finish up the piece, we went to a store called EcoHome Improvement in Berkeley to pick up a sustainable finish product.  The store recommended a product called Vermont Natural Coatings, which gave us the clear, protective sealer coat we wanted while being made of renewable whey proteins, a natural by-product of the cheese-making process.

The first piece of furniture that we actually decided on from our first Home Dept trip was our “chandelier”.  Literally, when we walked down our first aisle together we both stopped to touch and admire these planters made by a company called Southern Patio.  What caught our attention initially was the bright, cool Miami-inspired colors of this collection as well as the sleek lines, high-quality finish and range of sizes.  We were immediately drawn by the over-sized, “Devo-hat” model and knew that this planter, placed upside down, had the scale and sophistication be our light.  We never came close to finding a better option so this resin planter really became our light.  All we had to do was drill a small hole in the bottom and drop-in three super- inexpensive Ikea corded lights with energy-efficient CFL bulbs and we were done.  While we knew this could be the best faux-designer piece of our space, we got lucky that the planter had a rich translucency when lit by three measly CFL’s.  Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.  Since our booth with literally lit all by florescent lights, I know our electrical load was the lowest of all DBD spaces and probably a fraction of the big energy users.  This light is also the reason for the purple color throughout the space.  The purple planter was the best-looking option available and the first thing that we decided on so it became the cornerstone and inspiration for the whole space just like that.

Unlike  our chandelier, our table didn’t come together until the very end.  For months we toyed with more elaborate designs including something made with CMU block and something that was like glowing plinth.  In the end, these other designs proved too difficult to fabricate so we ended up with a saw horse-based design that we discussed early on.  Sawhorses are extremely strong, easy to use and – again – inexpensive (note the pattern yet?).  Because the sawhorses were too wide, we did have the trim them in the middle and rejoin them with a 2″ x 4″.  However, buying two Burro Brand sawhorses and slapping a MDF board on top seemed a bit elementary to us so we devised simple ways to “kick it up a notch.”  One thing we did was to use paint them a contrasting two-tone color scheme – the outside white and inside purple.  In fashion terms, this was like having a conservative-looking suit on the exterior but adding a wild interior lining, like an Ozwald Boateng or Paul Smith suit.  This seemed like a simple way to add some unexpected flair.  Next, we wanted to disguise the table’s profile a bit and make it look less like two saw horses so we added a “crossbeam” of sorts to bridge them while adding some lateral stability.  As an architectural detail, we left a reveal along the top edge to allow light to pass through.  Lastly, in going with our strong accent lighting theme, we mounted florescent kitchen under-cabinet lights under the saw sawhorses and along the crossbeams to create create that glowing-table effect and show off our whimsical paint job.  Not a lot of people ever saw this, but we even painted the center underside of our tabletop purple for greater effect.  In the end, our table was one of the few at DBD unburdened by a table cloth – adding to our modern, clean aesthetic and showing off our handiwork.

When it came to the actual tabletop, we wanted to keep it spare.  We knew we wanted some flowers to soften the hard edges and add an organic element so a centerpiece was an obvious decision.  Less obvious was what to make it with.  We scoured Home Depot, of course, to find a ReadyMade-type piece in order to keep our fabrication time down.  But after looking into galvanized venting, perforated pipes, paint containers, etc., nothing really spoke to us.  While wandering the aisles, this time in the landscape plumbing area, we came across some nicely finished Styrene piping.  What we liked was the matte white finish, the (relatively) refined appearance, and of course the flexibility pipe and pipe joints yielded.  Playing with 4″ pipe joints, we created a long and low centerpiece with 4″ pots across the top to hold flowers.  The bridge-like design also created an “underpass” that allowed interaction between both sides of the table as well as light to come through, now a core design theme.  The flowers were sourced from my favorite local florist, Bloomies Flowers, located in Market Hall in Rockridge, Oakland.  Again, simple was the theme so we stuck to only five types of plants and three colors (purple, green and white) for the whole arrangement, which was mostly dominated by calla lilies and purple-tinted kale.  In keeping with our concept, we hoped for our flowers to be casually sophisticated – dramatic but natural and accessible.

Despite our table’s concept, the place settings were an area where we had a hard time creating something ReadyMade.  We wanted to try something avant garde with building products, but those ideas lacked the refinement and pop of color that we were seeking.  Once we ruled out creating our settings, we visited affordable big box stores to find something that would work; just because we couldn’t make it, didn’t mean we had to break the bank to create a gorgeous tabletop.  CB2 in Berkeley provided us exactly what we wanted, which was wasn’t surprising because I’ve been a big fan since it’s inception.  When we walked in, the chartreuse green collection of products immediately jumped out at us for its dynamic, fresh-quality as well as its ability to family with and accent our ubiquitous purple flourishes.  The resulting final color scheme in our space – purple, chartreuse, white and silver – really typified what we were seeking: something cool, comfortable, fresh and modern.  With a green charger anchoring each setting, we completed each one with matching green chopsticks, a gorgeous dandelion salad plate, a deep soup bowl with scalloped sides, a smoked glass cup, and a smokey gray napkin.  Simple, modern, elegant.

We envisioned our setting as the perfect backdrop for an Asian-fusion meal of sushi and noodles.  So while we didn’t prepare a meal for the show, we used organic, Asian-inspired ingredients – baby green Thai eggplants, baby regular eggplants, and limes from Berkeley Bowl – to accessorize our place settings and play out our color scheme further.


All this then only leaves our art to be discussed…. Wow, where do I start?  So I could easily write several posts just about our art, but I won’t and it wouldn’t do it justice anyways.  When Cary and I realized that our space would be clean-lined and spare, with walls mostly covered by rib lathe, we knew that we needed great art to bring some much needed texture, organic shapes and, most importantly, soul, to our single but prominent art area along the back wall.  We initially toyed with the idea of commissioning a local artist to create some very urbane, graffiti art to provide that juxtaposition between raw and refined, but that idea lost out when we though it might be a bit too edgy for what we were doing.  So without an artist in our back pocket, we turned to… Craigslist, of course.  A quick gig post later, we began to receive replies from local artists who were interested in the event and our concept.  But after reviewing many portfolios, only one artist stood out, Jamie Spinello, a San Francisco Art Institute graduate based in Oakland.  What drew us to Jamie’s work was her layered, textured mixed media pieces that used a multitude of materials, including upcycled materials.  Her work had a refined quality and organic aesthetic that we knew would work against the linear, museum-like quality of our space.  Moreover, Jamie’s initial email to me sounded authentic in her desire to create a piece that complemented our sustainability theme and highlighted DIFFA’s overall focus, AIDS research.  At our initial meeting where we discussed a possible collaboration, we essentially already decided together what her art would represent: the cell-based AIDS virus itself.  Given the aesthetic of the things that Jamie had done, this was like a no-brainer.  And what better way to pay homage to AIDS research, to bring awareness to the disease, to bring some levity and beauty to an otherwise sad disease, than through an art piece that depicted the AIDS virus itself.  We knew that this could be brilliant.  In Jamie’s own words, here is her statement about her piece, titled “Leukos Kytos”, made from plastic bottles, acrylic paint, photo paper, screen, duct tape, magazine paper, hot glue, nylon thread:

This work explores parallels in biological forms both internal and external. Leukos Kytos is inspired by white blood cells in the human body and images of the AIDS virus.  The result is a collection of ephemeral objects that could be easily read as underlying sea life as well as internal cell forms. All materials can be found in the local hardware store or recycling bin. The plastic forms consist of upcycled discarded objects (plastic bottles, magazines pages, discarded plastic photo paper).

Though Jamie and I were in regular communication, and she showed me concept sketches and in-progress pictures, the final result, which Cary and I only saw the night before, was better than we could have imagined.  The colors, forms, textures, and materials were amazing.  Like our space, the piece as pure art was amazing in and of itself; but when people hear and realize the story behind it, it is that much more astonishing.  As luck would have it, guess who we discovered on the day of the event was the sponsor for our table?  None other than Dr. John Greenspan and his wife Dr. Deborah Greenspan, world-renowned doctors and bonafide rock stars in the field of AIDS research.  Mr. Greenspan is the Director of the AIDS Research Institute at UCSF – the primary beneficiary of the entire DIFFA SF event – and by the way, one of the original co-founders of HIV disease. He was essentially DBD SF’s main client if you will.  We got lucky.  Do you think he loved the art?

PART 2: The Event

This HUGE post, just about making our space, has taken more than a week to write on and off, so I need to get it up.  But soon, I will finish this up with Part 2 to talk about the actual event itself, along with my professionally shot pictures.  As a preview, let’s just say it was a ton of work, but all worth it in the end, thanks to amazing feedback and support from the public as well as family and friends.

About Cantilever Design

Designs for Modern Luxury is a blog by Karman Ng, principal of Cantilever Design, an award-winning interior design firm located in the San Francisco Bay Area. Always reading, researching and reveling in “the best of design” for himself and his clients, Karman began his blog as a way to share his thoughts and finds-from furniture to fashion to food. Karman hopes his blog fosters dialogue and sharing of design-related products, news, tips, ideas and secrets so that everyone can enjoy a little bit more modern luxury in their lives. For more information about Cantilever Design, visit http:///www.cantilever-design.com or follow Karman at http://twitter.com/karmanng.
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