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An artist finds a home, and community, in a Mission District Victorian

Artist and children's book illustrator Christian Robinson went looking for a room and found a sanctuary

Every week, our House Calls feature takes you into homes with great style, big personality, and ineffable soul. Today, we look at the San Francisco home of illustrator, artist, and animator Christian Robinson. Five years ago, Robinson went looking for a room to rent, simply seeking an affordable place to live. He found that, and a lot more, in a Mission District Victorian.

The name Christian Robinson is familiar to legions of parents and children across the nation. He’s the illustrator of 10 children’s books, including bestsellers such as Last Stop on Market StreetLeo: A Ghost Story, and, most recently, School’s First Day of School. His work, usually a mix of painting and collage, is instantly recognizable for it’s joyful, almost childlike, quality.

Many of his books include sweet interiors, such as the vaguely Victorian rooms in Leo: A Ghost Story. Robinson says that details in Leo’s haunts were partly inspired by his own home: A four-bedroom apartment in the Mission District he shares with three other roommates. To understand what his place means to him, you have to know the home of his childhood.

A long interior hallway is brightened by a tinsel chandelier. The roommates put it up for a party, and they loved it so much they never took it down. A salvaged window is displayed as art.

"I grew up in Los Angeles, in my grandmother’s small, one-bedroom apartment. My mother battled drug addiction and was in and out of prison during my childhood, so my grandmother raised me and my brother. She also had my aunt and two of my cousins living with her," Robinson says. "Basically, the kids slept in the living room on a pull-out couch and a couple of pallets on the floor. It was a little space, but there was a lot of love."

Robinson says that the tight setting encouraged his artistic inclinations. "As it worked out, it really fueled my creativity," he says. "I would get lost in a world I could create. I spent my time drawing the mansions I wanted to live in and the pets that I didn’t have."

Although tight quarters meant there wasn’t a lot of room to display his art, his grandmother was quietly supportive. "There wasn’t space for placing my sculptures on the coffee table or putting up my drawings on the fridge. I kept most of my work under the couch, and it was thrown out a few weeks later," he says. "My grandmother never said much about my art, but there was a quiet admiration there that was beyond words, and that encouraged me. When she had money, she would buy me a box of crayons."

That unspoken support and the efforts of his high school teachers led him to attend California Institute for the Arts and then move to San Francisco. "If it weren’t for the incredible teachers I had, there’s no way I’d be where I am today," he says. "My art teacher at Fairfax High School, Elizabeth Kim, put every scholarship application and art contest in front of me. An English teacher drove me to visit colleges," he says. "I ended up studying animation and landing an internship at Pixar after school."

At the legendary animation house, Robinson was given the opportunity to work on the book for the movie Up. It was his first professional illustrator gig. After his stint at Pixar ended, he found himself drifting in the Bay Area.

The living room contains a blend of new items, DIY creations, and, in the case of the coffee table, sidewalk finds. "Very quickly this became a space that evolved into a place we could call home," says resident Huma Husain. "Together we make this beautiful mosaic of personality, opinions, and quirks. By far, laughter is the most common sound I hear in this house." Chalk art is by Robinson, pillows are from CB2.
Photo by Carlos Chavarria

"It was a wandering period for me. I didn’t want to go be to Los Angeles and fight for jobs with my college friends, so I stayed here and took odd jobs. I worked at an after-school program for kids, I was a live-in nanny. Finally, I got some work at LeapFrog [makers of educational games]. I was living in a series of sketchy situations, and for a time I lived in an SRO unit near Washington Square Park."

All the time, he was keeping a blog as a way to help him stay creative. He would make up small assignments for himself and post the results online. An agent in New York stumbled on the blog, and contacted him. "He sent me an email and told me he was a fan. He asked if I had an agent, which I did not. He offered to be my agent and changed my life," says Robinson. An illustration job, putting images to Renee Watson’s Harlem’s Little Blackbird, followed.

Things were also happening with his housing situation. "I had reached the point where I was done. I didn’t think there was any way for me to afford the city anymore," he says. "I was just about to quit LeapFrog in order to work on children’s books full time, and I didn’t see how I could make it work. Then I found the listing for this room."

Left: Robinson quickly decided to use as much wall space as possible in his small room, in order to keep the floor clear. The desk is from Ikea, the chair is from Muji. Right: A shelf from Muji holds books by illustrators he admires, including fellow Caldecott Honor winner Leo Lionni.

It was a Craigslist ad for a Mission District apartment, and the room was a 100-square-foot bedroom at the front of the house. The lease is held by Leah Nichols, an urban designer and filmmaker who was determined to not just fill the bedrooms, but create a community. "Living with roommates is the more economical choice, but it is also a conscious choice for those, like myself, who wanted a place with people to call home," she says.

Robinson was so desperate for the room, he didn’t tell Nichols he was quitting his corporate job. "I was afraid that she would think I couldn’t pay the rent," he says. When she told him he was in, he says it was a feeling akin to winning the lottery. "I was so happy about having a place. I didn’t care that it was the smallest and overlooked the street, in fact, I liked that," he says. "I felt like I had arrived. It was the first place I lived where I wasn’t embarrassed to have people over."
The roommates are seen here at a July 4th rooftop party, from left: Huma Husain, Christian Robinson, Roman Licea, and Leah Nichols. "I've hit the jackpot with this colorful, creative Craigslist crew," says Husain. "It started off as any random roommate situation might, but very quickly this became shared lives in a space that evolved into a place we call home."

Within two years, Nichols brought in pastry cook Roman Licea and transportation planner Huma Husain to round out the household. It’s an exceptionally diverse mix. "Our house is made up of our distinct colors, appearances, upbringings, and cultures," says Nichols. "This mix feels special because it's rare, like a diverse television sitcom without white people. It also feels special since we are located in San Francisco where the decline of racial and socioeconomic diversity is tangible. I am grateful to be part of a home where I am surrounded by those who are aware of their own color (or lack thereof) and who are in the kitchen talking about Lemonade or Colin Kaepernick."

Licea adds: "I call our Victorian 'Rainbow House,' but I've heard it called the United Nations. When I was young, I thought MTV's The Real World was a dream idea. I think we have that, only less drama and promiscuity."

The shared home has played an important role in Robinson’s work. In fact, some of his books were created in his small room. "It’s essential to have a place that feels like a home," the artist says. "Not only a roof over your head, but a neighborhood you like. I give San Francisco credit for infusing me with whatever magic this city has to offer. I love how it is close to nature; the colors of the houses—these colors often find their way into my books; and the positive, progressive, and open-minded attitude here.

Nichols's bedroom displays the trappings of creativity, including books, art, and ephemera. "We keep tabs on each others' creative endeavors and events," she says. "At the end of the day, I know I have a cheerleading section of at least three."

Robinson’s brand of magic is evident in his room and throughout the space. "I started decorating by lying on my bed and staring up at the ceiling," he says. "It’s kind of a mediation that I still do today. I watched what happens over the course of a day in the space, for instance the way light hits the walls. It helped me understand it," he says.

The first thing he did was paint the walls white. "It made the space brighter and lighter," he says.

Because the space is narrow, he selected a twin bed. And, perhaps due to all the gazing at the ceiling, he determined he would need to look up for design and storage opportunities. "The height of the room had potential, and I decided I would put as much on the walls as possible," he says. "This would free up a lot of floor space."

Shelves and bulletin boards encircle the space. Some are sourced from Ikea and Muji, others are crafted by nailing a crate to the wall. Wall art, including a salvaged school poster and a staghorn fern mounted on a wooden plaque also decorate the walls.

A room off the kitchen is the media and game room, where residents gather to relax. "We all have our own aesthetic tastes that we tend to mash together rather than attempting to curate," says Nichols. "Our decor is only cohesive in the fact that it represents a diverse stew."

Furnishing the room was a process of trial and error. "It took a while to find the right balance," Robinson says. "For instance, I found a great desk on the street, but it was too big for the space. After trying a number of things that didn’t work, I landed on the pieces I have today." That includes a pair of foldable desks pushed together to form an "L" shape, a desk chair, and a bed. Clothes are stowed in a closet right outside the room. It may sound spartan, but the wall decor makes the space rich with texture.

Robinson’s possessions mingle with his roommates belongings to make the common rooms collaboratively cheerful. "When humans share a space, there are going to be things that clash," he says. "But we don’t have many of those moments here. It’s all about compromising. If there’s one thing my childhood taught me was how to be in the same space with other people."

Throughout the home, Robinson has created tabletop gardens. He searches out the perfect plant containers in thrift stores, believing that pot and plant work together to make a design statement.

To the mix of communal sofas and art, Robinson brings a prolific green thumb. A veritable jungle grows on many table tops in the home. "I love plants, and my Nana did too. I do a lot of thrifting [and] looking for the perfect plant container. To me, the vessel is as important as what’s in it," Robinson says. "I also try to contrast the shapes of the plants when I group them together. For example, I put a wide-leaf plant next to one with skinny, pointed leaves. At first, I went by aesthetic values, so I killed some early on. Now I know what each one needs to survive."

Although the art in the common spaces is from all the residents, Robinson is the unofficial curator, creating wall installations with pieces ranging from a vintage work depicting Jesus Christ to a small illustration of a crab.

His largest artistic contribution is a chalkboard that he made by painting an inexpensive sign with chalkboard paint. Periodically, he changes the illustration. One week it could show a sketch of a whale, the next it could hold a birthday tribute to one of his roommates. When we visited, it contained the image of an anteater. "I’ve always liked those animals," Robinson says. "They are so strange looking, it’s hard to believe they exist."

Of course, multiple people from diverse backgrounds makes for a social experiment. "We’ve had some moments of discussion, of course," says Robinson. "But Leah wanted to create a community of people that she enjoyed hanging out with—people she could talk to, cook with, and watch movies with—and that’s what she got. I’m an introvert, and I need my private space, but we spend a lot of time together."

His roommates have even found themselves in his books, in ways small and large. "I tell Leah that she’s the inspiration for Sally McCabe, in The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade," he says.

The need for a personal space drove Robinson to rent a studio around the corner from his house in a warehouse populated with artist studios. He works on his books there, and this frees up some space in his bedroom. "Now I can walk in my room and chill," he says. "I don’t turn around, see a piece I’m working on, start thinking about it, and then start working on it. I can turn my laptop off and relax."

In order to make his private space a restful retreat, Robinson rented a nearby studio as a workspace.
His artwork is a mix of painting and collage. Some of his details are sourced from his collection of vintage magazines.

But how much longer the space is relaxing for him is in question. "I love this city, and I’m at a place where I’m seeing my work on bus stops [he recently illustrated a program for the San Francisco Public Library, and his work was seen widely across the town]. I’m so grateful for what the city has done for me and what I’ve done here. But the truth is that my boyfriend, who is a public school teacher, and I can’t afford our own apartment here. It may force us out," he says. "I’m not bitter or angry about this, it is what it is. But I’m in a space where I can see possibilities elsewhere."

Whatever the future holds, the influence of the City by the Bay will be immortalized in parts of his books, such as the slanted streets in Last Stop on Market Street. "It’s gorgeous here. I always dreamed of living in a Victorian house, and now I do," Robinson says. "It’s been like the dream San Francisco experience."