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Photography by Patricia Chang

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Roommates Share Eclectic Style in an Oakland Live/Work Loft

Three roommates by choice decorate with a delightful mishmash of pieces

Contrary to many an introvert's belief, not everyone yearns to live alone. Ben Lewis, Nicholas Albrecht, and Allie-Brooke Shelby, who all live together inside a formerly industrial Oakland warehouse, are three excellent examples of people who still enjoy living with roommates well into adulthood. And in style. "We’re not flatmates because of financial constraints,” says Albrecht. “When we come home tired after a long week, we like to be greeted with a beer and conversation. That's what this home provides.”

The trio, who met through Craigslist and via friends, reside inside the 47th Avenue Studios, aka the Boise, where they’ve carefully selected a delightful mishmash of midcentury and contemporary furniture and decor to set the perfect stage for roommate living. And they do it as adults who prize a chic, beautifully crafted space as much as they do a peaceful (albeit well-populated) household.

The three hail from very different backgrounds: Lewis, a native raised a mile and a half away in Berkeley, collects most of the furniture and other pieces that are thoughtfully scattered throughout the warehouse. Shelby, a Tennessee transplant who works in San Francisco, has a rustic touch when it comes to her petite bedroom. And Albrecht, who moved from his native Naples, Italy to work as a lighting technician and professional photographer, employs a minimal design in his sleeping quarters.

These live/work lofts (an abused term, but accurate for the Boise) were built in stages during the early 20th century by White Farm Equipment, which used the industrial space as a parts distribution center. In the 1970s it was leased to Boise Cascade to serve as a newspaper printing warehouse for several Northern California publications. Later that decade the structure was turned into one of the first live/work lofts in the area, though hardly in the fashion of today’s hyper-renovated lofts in San Francisco’s Mission District or South of Market.

Lewis, Albrecht, and Shelby’s large home—an expansive canvas that comes with three bedrooms, a darkroom, kitchen, workspace, and living room—still bears the marks of its rickety past. Exposed beams, iron factory windows, and expansive rooms come together with aesthetic touches that are being continually added. "This is never finished," says Lewis, explaining that the decor will always be an ever-evolving, fluid work.

A few noteworthy gems include the 1968 Harry Bertoia chair (which Lewis bought for a mere $200 from a guy on a desolate Petaluma road), the Eames chair that punctuates the workroom (the household's love of Eames is also evident in the giant "2," in the Eames Century Modern font, painted on the wall), and the World War II-era framed Italian flag. As Albrecht explains, the flag, still bearing a faint terra cotta splotch of blood, was found wrapped around a dead Italian soldier after a bloody battle in his homeland.)

Another historic highlight (pardon the pun) are the light fixtures that greet arrivals. They were repurposed after being used for years at the historic Beaux Art West Oakland train station. (You can see parts of the old station in E-40's video for "Tell Me When To Go.")

At the risk of sounding pat, all of the found elements in the home go together as well as the three who live here. And it didn't come overnight. "Unfortunately, [Nicholas and I] had to go through several roommates before we found the perfect match," says Lewis.

After a few less than perfect fits, the two came across Shelby, who jumped at the chance to leave her Pacific Heights apartment and move to Oakland. Already familiar with the space—the loft hosts a myriad of events from casual gatherings to orphan Thanksgiving dinner—she moved in with the idea of using her Southern background to accent her room, with a cowhide rug, wrought-iron bed frame, and more. "I grew up in a very rustic home, so a lot of that influence is in here." (Also of note: Her ceiling comes in at a shallow 5’5" at its lowest point, making it a better room for someone who doesn't stretch above 5'7"—i.e., most men.)

"We don’t have strict rules here, but we are adults and there are some things we aren’t willing to deal with anymore," explains  Albrecht. "Don’t hide dirty dishes under the couch."

Lewis adds, "And by all means, get drunk and have as much fun as you want, but if you’re going to pass out, do it in your room. I don’t want to be crawling over you or your friends."

Shelby explains the key to roommate harmony is just respect and understanding: "Walking into a room and knowing when your roommate wants to talk and wants to be left alone is important."

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