It’s a unique San Francisco paradox: Everyone knows where to go for taxidermied animals, amber-fossilized insects, and general curiosities. But nobody seems to know that Paxton Gate also innovates and installs classy interiors and gardens.
“Paxton Gate is such a strong brand,” explained lead designer Todd McCrea. “The more we got into it the more we realized that this is becoming an issue” for its design work.
Not only was the design-build part of Paxton Gate somewhat invisible to its fans, its style is untethered to the shop’s aesthetic.
“We’re not about dead animals on the wall, we’re not about fossils. All of which we love…but that’s not what we’re about,” McCrea said.
So the design-build operation is stepping out from the shadow of Paxton Gate to become RareField. The firm recently moved into newly refurbished offices (designed and built, of course, by the RareField team) above Paxton Gate’s Curiosities for Kids shop next to Mission Bicycle.
The endeavor has been a separate company for some time, with mostly separate employees, with an expanding portfolio that includes the interiors of Flour & Water, Salumeria, Central Kitchen, 3rd Rail, and a variety of private gardens and homes. Now, RareField will forge ahead as nominally distinct from Paxton Gate.
Sean Quigley, the founder and owner of Paxton Gate, has been doing designs and builds since 1992 with the help of a small team. He arrived in San Francisco many years earlier as a college student, and eked out a living as a bartender — a trade he occasionally practiced during Paxton Gate’s first 14 years.
The curiosities emporium started as a “quaint garden shop,” but his project grew into a popular retail homage to the actual Sir Joseph Paxton, a British botanist and architect.
The design-build portion of Quigley’s work went on in an upstairs alcove from the first Paxton Gate, where the small staff crammed into a storage space to plan out backyards, restaurants, and more. As the shop, intended to support the design-build operation, flourished, Quigley and his staff continued to nurture their desire to build things.
They developed a postmodern style that embraced both “clean, contemporary lines” and “character,” as Quigley describes it. The team has an affinity for materials with history, like reclaimed wood, but doesn’t want to overdo it.
“We’ve always loved the poetics of [reclaimed] materials, but it’s almost by default now. It’s lost a little bit of its soul,” McCrea said.
The goal of Rare Field’s design is a balance of modernity and materials with a story to tell — a goal evident in the wooden mural that hangs on the wall of the new office. The wood, rescued from an old fence, was planed, sanded, shaped and painted into lean, minimal lines evoking a grain silo on a field.
Being a design-build firm means being a fully licensed general contractor, and that means insurance costs send overhead through the roof. But the finished product is worth it, McCrea said, because it’s never abandoned by the designer or the contractor. Both are the same team, and work seamlessly to both visualize and realize their spaces.
Foreman Josh Neeley, who has been with Paxton Gate for about eight years and started as a carpenter bored with hanging drywall, said he looks forward to doing “as many new things as we can jam into the project.”
Quigley, too, said he’s ready to embrace designing commercial spaces but doesn’t want it to end there.
“I’m excited about the first other thing we do,” he said. And he’s not limiting himself. Some no-holds-barred, slightly flippant brainstorming sessions included ideas like kinetic sidewalk sculptures, tiny houses, and advertising via skywriting.
“The joke is, well, you could do a music video,” Quigley said.
That remains to be seen. For now, RareField is settling into its airy new offices above Valencia street and looking forward to, according to its tagline, “enhancing life through space.”