Frank Merritt and Teri Gardiner on Ramon's Tailor, Their "Third Place"

Frank Merritt and Teri Gardiner [Photo: Rachel Walther]

Frank Merritt (Architecture 1999) and Teri Gardiner (Graphic Design 2001) are both CCA alumni. Merritt is a principal at Jensen Architects, based in San Francisco. Gardiner is the marketing and communications manager at Richmond Art Center; she also maintains an active freelance graphic design practice.

They met through mutual CCA friends and married in 2009. They live in the lower Nob Hill / upper Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco and run the alternative/experimental gallery Ramon’s Tailor, located at 628 Jones Street.

CCA: What was the inspiration for starting Ramon’s Tailor in 2011? You are already both very busy people!

Frank: Ironically, the inspiration came out of working really long days. I was overwhelmed. I love my job -- I get to be creative and work with great people -- but I wasn’t making time for myself.

Then I read about Ray Oldenburg’s concept of a “third  place.” In addition to your workplace and your home, he says, to have a good life balance you need a third space: the barbershop, the gym, anything.

The idea is that it also promotes community. A lot of other cultures take this for granted, but I feel that its importance isn’t recognized here.

After Teri and I opened Ramon’s Tailor, it’s not like there were suddenly more hours in the day, but it created a shift that put everything in better balance.

Teri: Our idea was to create an experimental storefront where we could showcase artists who are continuing the kind of work we did at CCA: focusing on concept and process. We wanted to create a place where they could play and experiment.

CCA: How did you find the space?

Frank: I was casually looking at places in the neighborhood with tall ceilings, white walls, and plenty of sunlight, thinking, “These are perfect! These are gallery spaces!” Then one day, a block away from our apartment, I saw a “space for lease” sign out front of what had been a tailor shop for 40 years.

It was around the same time as the Gertrude Stein exhibition at SFMOMA. The exhibit reminded me about early 20th century salons where musicians, artists, and writers would get together to talk politics, activism, the art process, who knows what.

I was put off at first by the quirkiness of this little space, but then suddenly realized that it fit the bill perfectly. Its intimate size and subterranean-ness makes it feel like a speakeasy.

And since the “Ramon’s Tailor” sign was still up outside, we left it up and commandeered the name.

CCA: What do you two talk about when you’re at home together? Are there certain conversations that you save for Ramon’s Tailor?

Teri: I do think the space inspires new conversations in our relationship. Sometimes, after an event or exposure to a particularly creative person or work, Frank and I will continue an excited conversation about it for days.

Frank: Before Ramon’s Tailor we used to have a lot of dinner parties at our house. But by holding events at Ramon’s, we can invite more people and focus overtly on creativity, rather than it being a general topic that might or might not come up at the dinner table.

CCA: Tell me more about the connection you perceive between what you’re doing here and your CCA experience.

Frank: It’s precisely about replicating our school experience. By which I mean, trying out an idea, or being given a specific design problem or project . . .

Teri: . . . and having a public venue to share it, generate a conversation, and get feedback.

Frank: We have great freedom because it’s not a commercial gallery. We challenge the artists to undertake projects that reference the space or the neighborhood, or somehow depart from their usual work.

In one particularly memorable exhibition, the artist Bob Stang covered the entire floor with a thick layer of sawdust. We were talking to him about doing a show that’s not just hanging existing work, and he said, “I’ve never done anything three-dimensional, but I’ve always wanted to.”

We said, “Perfect!”

Teri: He went all out. He constructed trestle bridges and train tunnels, and a stump with an axe in it. All on a bed of sawdust. And it was exactly the type of opportunity that Bob was looking for.

That spirit of the artist trying something new and stretching himself, but in a thoughtful way, was apparent to everyone who saw the show.

See photos »

Frank: Recently Tammy Rae Carland ran a CCA Photography course that culminated in an exhibition at Ramon’s Tailor. The students spent a large portion of the semester specifically planning this large exhibition outside of the school.

See photos of student work »

CCA: What originally attracted you to CCA?

Teri: I moved here from Minneapolis, where I received an undergraduate degree in journalism and business. I didn’t learn about graphic design until my final year. I fell in love with it and decided I wanted to learn a lot more.

I checked out a number of schools on the East Coast but ultimately fell in love with CCA.

My combined background in journalism and design is pretty unique; it’s rare that one person can bring both of those sensibilities to a design project. It definitely has given me an edge over the years as I’ve worked in design studios, for a book publisher, and for nonprofits like the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

Frank: I grew up in San Diego. I was seeking a professional degree in architecture and landed on CCA because it’s an art school -- the program isn’t teaching architecture solely from a technical perspective.

Also I wanted to trade my San Diego suburban-sprawl life for a more metropolitan existence.

CCA: What was most memorable for you?

Frank: All of the instructors were amazing. Because most of them were working professionals, it lent credibility to their criticism and input. Also it meant we could get internships in great offices in the city. You were building connections long before you were done with your studies.

Teri: The Graphic Design Program had a lot of second-degree students, so our conversations in class were very cross-disciplinary. I made so many great friendships with people from all kinds of backgrounds -- geology, physics, psychology.

Here we were, all getting our graphic design degrees together!

When people ask me about my time at CCA, I tell them I’m still paying off my student loans, and every month I’m completely happy to write the check.

CCA: Strong words! No one will believe this.

Teri: But that’s really the way I feel. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.