I consider myself a creative person; yet I can’t draw, paint, or sculpt. My children will ask me to draw a lion or a firetruck, and I actually feel embarrassed as their wide eyes watch my poor attempt in action. On the other hand, my husband can sketch any number of things in a matter of minutes and their eyes light up. I suppose I will stick to reading books and the occasional Lego build. I think my creative side is a bit more subtle. I’ve been told I have a decent eye with a camera. I can come up with clever ideas for a party; invitation, decoration, theme and the like. I think my brain tracks somewhere in the zone between left and right; at least an online quiz told me that once. Places like Flax Art & Design inspire the right side. I know better than to load my basket with brushes and paints, but I can still enjoy what I might be able to DIY out of a beautiful paper or ribbon.
I first visited Flax at its flagship store in San Francisco during the planning stages of my wedding. My wedding sent me on a search for every type of green, orange, and teal colored paper or ribbon I could get my DIY hands on. It was almost seven years ago, and I still have ribbon left over. Now it gets used to wrap kids presents. Born and raised in Oakland, Flax wasn’t on my radar as a go-to spot for supplies. When my mom, a San Francisco native, clued me in to what Flax may have to offer, I made the trip over and got my happy little hands on stacks and rolls galore. Fast forward seven years and when she handed me a newspaper clipping about Flax moving to Oakland, I was intrigued. While it may be an unfortunate tale of real estate boom for some, for Oakland it has been a gain. The neighborhood camaraderie that Oaklanders possess has welcomed Flax, forging new relationships for owner Howard Flax, and inspiring new events and local artistic causes to support. While the quirky sign loved by many along San Francisco’s Market Street has been replaced with a more sleek black and white exterior here in Oakland, what is inside is still the wide breadth of supplies for both the novice and professional artist. The store is housed in a 1920’s building on the edge of Downtown Oakland. Believed to have once been an auto repair shop, its most recent incarnation prior to Flax was an indoor soccer field. Cleaned up, with soccer balls removed from the the rafters, the rejuvenated space is open and light filled.
The history behind the Flax brand is a quintessential story of American success from humble immigrant beginnings at the turn of the 20th Century. A family of Russian siblings, the Flax’s found early success on the East Coast with a painting and contracting business prior to WWI. After losing everything during The Great Depression, they rebounded with success in the trade of art supplies. Eventually the siblings spread out across the US, with brother Herman opening a San Francisco store on Kearny Street in 1938. The store relocated a couple of blocks away in 1951. Upon his death in 1955, the store was taken over by two of Hermans’ sons. The store was later moved to Sutter Street, and eventually found its final home in San Francisco at 1699 Market. 38 years later, it has found a home in Oakland. As of 2010, the store is now run by the 3rd generation of the Flax family, including Howard Flax, who was kind enough to invite me in for a visit at their new Oakland location. With a history full of fun details including a back-door cameo in Hitchcock’s Vertigo and a Jefferson Airplane photo shoot, Flax has become an icon in the Bay Area, as well as nationwide thanks to the family’s additional art supply stores in Orlando, Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles. The iconic “F” logo, designed by Los Angeles graphic designer Louis Danziger in 1949, is now included in the permanent design collection at the Museum of Modern Art.
My visit allowed me the opportunity to wander; time to take in rows of color in the form of papers, pens, and paints. While most well-known as a one-stop-shop for art supplies, Flax also has a frame section, a lovely collection of greeting cards, and a wonderful kids selection, complete with an art table for them to enjoy while you grab what you need to satisfy your creative side.
Two of my right brain retail weaknesses are beautiful notebooks and paper. Flax has a wonderful selection of both. Racks draped with papers in designs ranging from vintage maps and labels to clever anatomy images are scattered throughout. There are shelves of notebooks, from simple designs filled with blank white paper, to lovely lined journals. My retail therapy need was met with a simple green Semikolon notebook for note-taking.
I invite you to follow your own right brain inclinations, and to make a trip to Flax Art & Design. Oakland is lucky to have inherited this Bay Area artistic icon. With support already flourishing within our community, my hope for this family-owned brand is that Oakland becomes a home in which it can continue to thrive. We welcome their family…to ours.
Flax is located at:
1501 Martin Luther King Jr. Way
Oakland, CA 94612
(parking is located in back, see map on the side of their building, also pictured above. Due to one-way streets, you will need to circle around to its entrance on 15th Street.)
Visit www.flaxart.com for more information and to shop their online store.
Additional Flax Locations in the Bay Area:
Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd. Building D, San Francisco, CA 94123
3600 El Camino Real, San Mateo, CA 94403
Flax is hosting a Kids Fest Event on Saturday July 30th from 11:00am-1:00pm. A free event, this years craft filled extravaganza is “Under the Sea” themed!
Flax is a sponsor of this year’s Pro Arts Open Studio Festival, a two weekend event which I had hoped to attend this coming Saturday. My schedule will prevent me from being able to go, but please visit www.proartsgallery.org for lots more information. This is a wonderful event supporting so many artists throughout the East Bay.
Photo of Market Street Flax Sign – used with permission, Robby Virus via flickr
Two historical photos of the old Flax storefront and the Jefferson Airplane portrait were sourced via the Flax website, used with permission.
All other photos by Adrienne Schell