Jeff King Talks With

Oakland Metal Fabricator Chris French

Chris French of, Chris French Metal, is known for his sophisticated and complicated — and always artistic — metalwork in the Bay Area, which puts him in high demand for the Area’s top architects and designers. Chris’s innate talent, inquisitive approach to projects, and friendly collaborative style make it all the more enjoyable to work with him and his team. We’ve always been impressed with his work, and after our most recent collaboration, we invited Chris to partake in our Spotlight series so we could find out more about this gem of a metal head.

Steel fire surround and flanking casework in steel. Designed by CFM. Photography by Matthew Millman.

JK: Let’s start at the beginning: how did you become interested in metalwork? What’s your educational background?

CF: My background is in fine arts. I went to Arizona State University and graduated with a BFA in Sculpture. I moved to San Francisco in 1997 as a studio assistant to [sculptor] Bella Feldman, and during my 4-year stint with Bella, I was actively pursuing my own fine art career. And although I was having moderate success, I wasn’t satisfied with the process. Since I had some knowledge of fabrication and an interest in problem-solving, I began making more functional objects for anyone who was willing to pay me.  

Steel counters and wine storage for Piechota Architecture. Photography by Joe Fletcher.

Jeff King: And how long after that did you start Chris French Metal?

Chris French: So in 1999, I began making functional objects with metal. This practical approach to my formal training began to reveal my true passions for building, problem-solving, planning, coordination, collaboration, and organization. In 2002, I began to take what I was doing more seriously business-wise and became a licensed contractor. Today, with 20 years of business, CFM reflects a lot of me but it is truly a reflection of those who have worked and who are currently working with me. CFM is an evolving firm and will always be a work in progress.

Steel stair and guardrail, aluminum wall screen for Feldman Architecture. Photography by Joe Fletcher.

JK: Given the range of projects you’ve created, what’s the general process all of them go through?

CF: On a micro level, they all start in the office. As soon as we are awarded the work, regardless of size, it is entered into our database and assigned to a Project Manager/Designer. The PM/D then handles all the coordination, design development, submittals, and site measurements and liaises with our shop throughout the fabrication and installation process. On a macro level, we like to get involved early. If possible, we like to be in contract soon after the general contractor is awarded the work. This allows me and our PM/D to start asking meaningful questions, work through design development, and get in front of potential conflicts and issues that may otherwise initially go unacknowledged if we are brought in later in the process.

Steel and oak display cases, screen wall, and point-of-sale units. Designed by CFM. Photography by Adam Rouse.

JK: How has your relationship with metal fabrication changed over the years? 

CF: Well a big one is that I don’t do the actual fabrication anymore. I have an incredible team of fabricators whom I implicitly trust to execute the designs that come out of our office. My role is more of a guide and partner to the means and methods of fabrication. On a company level, we definitely rely on technology a lot more, CNC machining, and laser and water jet cutting for both the projects and the layout guides.

Steel stair and guardrail for IwamotoScott Architecture. Photography by Bruce Damonte.

JK: What’s something you haven’t yet been commissioned for that you’d love to create?

CF: I would like to be involved with the design and build of a house. We have made just about every element of a house in one way or another, but have yet to do it all at once. The closest may have been [our project for] Aether Apparel in Hayes Valley. I don’t think this would be easy and I’m not ready for the scale that some of our projects have been a part of, but a single-story home in the 1,000 – 2,000 square-foot range would be a really fun challenge.

Aluminum screen wall, entry door system, and bench for Aidlin Darling Design. Photography by Matthew Millman.

JK: What types of projects excite you?

CF: True collaborations are really a pleasure to be involved with. Working with a team that trusts CFM to make informed, thoughtful resolutions to their design not only expedites the process but it makes everyone involved more excited about what they are doing. I also really enjoy seeing and hearing the satisfaction of the end-user, ultimately that is what it’s about — and when you can experience their gratefulness, it makes it all worth it.

Brass reception desk for NicoleHollis. Photography by Mariko Reed.

JK: What do you think most people would find surprising about your work or metal fabrication in general?

CF: That metal is not straight, flat, or free of flaws. Bar stock and tube can arrive arched or wavy and when it does, it needs to be straightened before we can begin fabrication. Pieces that are laser and water jet cut, tend to spring and come out of flat, so they need to be rolled and or pressed back into flat before fabrication begins. All of these materials have inherent characteristics that sometimes don’t express themselves until we’re done fabricating and detailing the entire piece and we’re getting ready to finish it. The material also has a grain [similar to wood] which needs to be considered before we begin to cut. This is where a lot of our effort goes: to making things “perfect.”

Bronze sculpture for San Francisco artist, Andy Vogt; sculpture is located in the new terminal 1 at SFO. Photo courtesy of the artist.

  JK: If you weren’t doing this, what do you think you’d be doing?

CF: Tough question. Prior to metal fabrication, I worked retail to put myself through college as well as during high school. This is my first and only career-oriented job, so I really don’t know anything else. I guess if I could be doing absolutely anything, I would own and operate a neighborhood business: a corner store or a bar, or maybe a small bites kind of restaurant.  A place that my neighbors would consider an extension of their home and spend quality time in the neighborhood.

Steel security screen and pivot gate, pivot door, and entry windows and stainless steel fascia panel and guardrail for Aidlin Darling Design. Photography by Matthew Millman.

JK: We’ve been lucky to work with you on a few projects, most recently with our Presidio Speakeasy remodel, for which you fabricated the stairs that wrap around a glass-enclosed wine cellar. What can you tell us about that project?

CF: The entire scope stands out. It is a spectacular area of the home that is all interwoven in an effortless way. We are really pleased with the outcome and the process. Red Dot Studio had a vision, not overly detailed, and your team needed a firm that could take a loose idea and figure out all the details.

Lobby entry wall cladding system for Korth Sunseri Hagey Architects. Photography by Adam Rouse.

JK: What’s your favorite restaurant in the Bay Area?

CF: Wow, how to answer this one! Delfina because it is one of the best restaurants, end of story. Also because my wife and I started going there the week they opened and continued to celebrate both of our birthdays there every year for many, many years until we moved to Berkeley and it was just harder to get there. I am also a huge fan of Douglas Burnham (principal and founder of Envelope A+D) who happens to be the architect for Craig and Annie Stoll’s restaurants and with whom we have done a lot of work since the early 2000s.

Thanks so much for talking with us, Chris, we look forward to working with you again soon. And we hope you get to build that house from the ground up one day soon! To learn more about Chris and his shop, check out his website and give them a follow on Instagram.