IF YOU’VE INDULGED in hipster coffee, craft beer or cocktails at popular Bay Area spots such as the Alembic and Pinhole Coffee in San Francisco, Drake’s Dealership in Oakland, or the cool new Arthur Mac’s Tap & Snack restaurant near the MacArthur BART station, it is likely that you’ve already encountered the work of San Francisco designer Ben Frombgen.

Originally from Barker, New York, on Lake Ontario, Frombgen, 52, has been on a circuitous design journey that few know about.

“When I was a kid my family had a roadside stand and sold fruit and vegetables all summer long,” he recalls. His father had a machine shop he started as a teenager in his garage that eventually became Diversified Manufacturing, an operation in nearby Lockport that was big enough to handle projects for Los Alamos National Laboratory and international collaborations with Fuji Bikes of Japan. “It opened up a new world for me,” Frombgen says of growing up around the shop. After studying architecture at Virginia Tech and working with architects Steven Holl and Rafael Viñoly in New York, he came to San Francisco, stepped into architect Olle Lundberg’s steel workshop and atelier in Dogpatch and was besotted. “I was so at home among machines, I stayed there for nine years,” Frombgen says.

Another job for five years at Sagan Piechota Architecture led in 2008 to the next chapter of his career: the founding of an uncommon design/build practice called Bcooperative, specializing in interiors with built-in, portable/collapsible features for coffeehouses, bars, restaurants, and parklets replete with bike racks — all often graced with his signature motif: a distinctive bench or booth.

Architect Carlo Scarpa is Frombgen’s design hero, but the forms of Frombgen’s benches with high backs and raised arms, which help to form cocoons within open beer gardens and cavernous, loftlike restaurant interiors, often echo highbacked chairs by architect Frank Lloyd Wright that provided room-like enclosures within open-plan spaces.

Wood and steel — with the occasional introduction of leather, stone and tile for designs that call for it — are the key materials Frombgen likes to work with.

There was always steel, but “wood happened accidentally,” he says with a laugh. “I was offered a cache of wood in lieu of money for a design job and soon began to sell it and learned about the trade. Wood is my first collaborator.”

Indeed, as his firm name implies, Frombgen collaborates not just with materials but with other companies too.

For instance, at the Alembic, he developed and enhanced an interior design by New York–based brand designer Kevin Landwehr. At Drake’s Dealership, an Oakland car-dealership-turned-restaurant remodeled by Flynn Architecture, Bcooperative also designed several distinctive seating solutions. Architects such as Baran Studio Architecture and Farm League Design and Management Group — the two firms that designed the shell where Bcooperative most recently inserted Arthur Mac’s Tap & Snack pizza restaurant and beer garden in Oakland — rely on Frombgen’s custom booths to bring spaces alive.

Collaboration is key at every stage and Frombgen, who sometimes rides in on his bike, is so hands-on during fabrication and installation, he often gets mistaken for a contractor or carpenter.

“I always try to understand the site as an architect does but I also try to understand the builder. The site and builder are the same thing in my mind,” Frombgen says. “When I know how a builder works I can design for his building capabilities. It’s the stew we cook together that tastes best.”

Frombgen’s approach may seem oddly experimental, but it is remarkably efficient. For the Alembic, he interpreted Landwehr’s sketches for the bar and interior on site. He was able to alter the tufting for upholstery and assemble tiny wall moldings, the beer taps and the drip trays in real time by hand, “as if they were all fine jewelry,” Frombgen says.

“You can never do that sitting at a computer.”

Photos by Adrian Gregorutti (first two), and Courtesy of Ben Frombgen (remaining)

Zahid Sardar

Zahid Sardar brings an extensive range of design interests and keen knowledge of Bay Area design culture to SPACES magazine. He is a San Francisco editor, curator and author specializing in global architecture, interiors, landscape and industrial design. His work has appeared in numerous design publications as well as the San Francisco Chronicle for which he served as an influential design editor for 22 years. Sardar serves on the San Francisco Decorator Showcase design advisory board.