Two years ago, San Francisco artist and art director George McCalman found himself living alone for the first time in many years and grieving the end of a long-term relationship. His road to recovery involved reimagining the apartment he had shared with his partner and reinvigorating his three community-building groups.
McCalman’s journey to the one-bedroom unit—which is tucked into an Edwardian dwelling on a narrow street—is circuitous and (seemingly) charmed. Prior to his occupancy, it was rented by his friend and her boyfriend. "When she applied to live there, I provided a reference letter for her," he says. "I always loved the place, and I would joke with her, telling her that when she died, I wanted the apartment. It was kind of a gallows humor between us, and my meaning was that the place was so great, death would be the only reason you would ever leave."
Roughly six years later, when McCalman and his then-boyfriend were looking for a new place, his friend called him. "She said, ‘I’m not dying, but I am moving to New York,’" he recalls. "‘Do you want the apartment?’"
After a moment’s hesitation, the couple leapt at the chance. "We just loved it," McCalman says. "We loved the quiet location, we loved that it was a grown-up apartment, we loved that we could walk to many things. There is a warmth to the place that you feel as soon as you walk in."
But five years later, the relationship was over and McCalman found himself on his own. Some people might find it hard to inhabit the space they once shared with an ex. But for McCalman, it became a sanctuary.
For him, leaving wasn’t an option. "It was a nurturing place for me," he says. "So I decided to restart, and identify my sense of myself through that process."
Sadness turned into excitement as McCalman thought about what his own interior perspective would be. His first call was to his long-time friend, interior designer Tim Balon. "I thought about doing it myself, but it would have taken forever," says McCalman. "I needed it to move fast, and I needed another voice to help with the project. Tim is an incredible interior and furniture designer who sees things in a three-dimensional way. He had a perspective that was different from mine, but I absolutely trusted him. I knew he would surprise and push me; I call him the room whisperer."
What followed next was a collaboration rooted in friendship and respect. "We tackled it room by room," says McCalman. "I would come home at night and we would discuss things, and he would try ideas out. We had an ongoing dialogue, and we came to be really in sync when it came to the creating the set for the next stage of my life."
Balon, who is also a mural painter, redefined the space with color. The spaces feature subtle color blocks on the walls above the wainscoting, and geometric shapes in shades of taupe and blue weave the rooms together. "There are five or so different shades in the mural," says McCalman. "The shapes take the existing architectural features of the room and abstract and extend them."
The mural is the backdrop for a home McCalman describes as a place "by and for friends." By "by" he’s referring to the number of pieces made by friends and fellow artists, such as the dining room tables created by Oakland furniture designer Alexis Moran.
"Before, there was a formal dining room table here. It always felt oppressive to me," says McCalman. "When I started this process, one of my first calls was to Alexis. I told her I wanted two dining room tables. The idea is that they can be pushed together and used as a single dining surface, or separated as a dining and a work space." For example, he says he will often start an art project on one table, and reserve the other for dining. "It can take six or eight months for me to complete a piece of art," says McCalman. "This way, I don’t have to scoop up everything when I want to have a dinner party."
When both of the tables are free, they can be configured in three ways. "I’ve been able to seat as many as 25 people at the table," he says.
The idea of accommodating that many is important for McCalman, as creating, gathering, and strengthening community was an equal part of this project. He runs three dining clubs, called Dinner Club, Black Brunch Club, and Gay Happy Hour, respectively. Black Brunch Club was created to bring fellow African Americans together.
"I grew tired of being the only black person in the room," McCalman says. Gay Happy Hour brings friends together for a small pre-party before a night on the town. Dinner Club, shown here, was born out of a need to integrate the different parts of McCalman’s life.
"I realized I had ‘friendship silos,’" he says. "I wanted to bring the people I knew together in one place." The event went through a some iterations (at one point a single person was cooking for everyone), but it quickly settled into a near-monthly potluck at McCalman’s home that draws a group that includes a chef, a florist, a fashion designer, a Pinterest content strategist, a scientist, an architect, a marketing strategist, and a yoga guru. "It’s an eclectic, racially diverse, and very interesting group of folks," McCalman says. "It’s a commitment, but the usual crowd is still there every time we get together."
Over the years, McCalman has perfected the process. "First of all, they all have assignments," he says. "As the organizer, I assign people the dish they are to bring. It’s just easier that way, and the back and forth about what to bring with so many people was exhausting." Music is another assignment for the evening. Although it’s very casual, guests take turns playing DJ.
McCalman says that as the host, he sets the tone. "If they see you having a good time, the guests will have a good time," he says. "If you are stressed and anxious, the guests will feel the same."
He also says the guest list matters. "In our group, there are no wallflowers in the group," he says. "They have opinions and those opinions will be flying left, right, and center during the evening. It’s very inspiring."
He also has the hard and fast rule of having few rules. "People appreciate some guidance on what to bring, but other than that, they are most comfortable if you just let them be themselves," he says. "Of course, the unwritten rule is no assholes, no bullies, no divas. If you invite grounded folks, people who are curious about the world, that makes for a good group who will like each other and a fun evening."
And, of course, the setting makes the event as well. "After putting so much time and energy into my place, I have a new appreciation for it. It has what I need in a space, and it makes people feel good. It’s nurturing environment for all," McCalman says. "I think the place reflects who I am better than any place I've lived before."