Monkey Business

In Ventura, a simian-inspired couple takes a comprehensive approach to the design/build process.

By Sally Rice

Jen Zahigian and Josh Ganshorn at home in Ventura. In the foreground, the eponymous monkeys that lent their names to the duo’s design/build business, ABLE + BAKER.

Spring is in the air. So is the sweet smell of sawdust that oozes through the woodshop and into the studio where photographer Jen Zahigian, wearing a sexy red dress that looks ‘oh so Marilyn,’ is busy matting images.

Out back, the buzz of a sander pulsates an easy rhythm as her husband and business partner, Joshua Ganshorn, preps wood for an executive desk he’s building from scratch. Together, the duo known as ABLE + BAKER combine skills to create statement—making functional art that is both bold and inspirational.

Jen, alias BAKER (the title has nothing to do with cooking), kneels down and pulls a custom designed cabinet drawer from their collection. The face of the drawer looks like a section of vintage books. It is a virtual high relief made of literary spines of antique covers sandwiched together in unison across the façade of the drawer.

Simply irresistible.

The designer couple moved to Ventura from Northern California two years ago to be closer to family. Before that, they lived in Oakland, where Josh was the project manager for a large architectural firm, supervising multi-million dollar remodels and new construction, while Jen worked in administration after receiving an English degree from Berkeley.

But creativity and marriage have a way of melding and molding lives together, and before long, the two muse-driven characters needed a space of their own to execute their artistic dreams. They founded ABLE + BAKER. Now settled in their Ventura studio, this design team is in fifth gear on the innovation highway.

ABLE + BAKER tackles two different design worlds. The first is the reconfiguration of an old idea, and the second is creating a new, organic original. Although the couple has more innate talent than seems fair in the celestial distribution of such gifts, a project that earned well-deserved coverage was their revamp and renovation of a vintage Airstream trailer. It’s still on the hot plate of creative design for this industry classic.

Josh Ganshorn, hands-on in the Ventura woodshop.

In the remodel project, ABLE + BAKER morphed the otherwise Flintstone interior to one that was progressive functional and edgy while maintaining the esthetic and critical design elements.

“When I’m given a remodel, I’m given all these guidelines and parameters that I have to follow,” Josh says, tossing a tape measure from hand to hand, anxious to get back to the task of finishing wood. “You can’t just inject your own ideas. You have to pay attention to its inner voice and inherent [design] qualities. If you mess with that, you screw everything up. I mean, you wouldn’t put a Craftsman home in the middle of the block with Spanish Colonial architecture.”

The new and improved Airstream, after receiving much literary and photographic publicity, has taken on new life as a guesthouse parked in the backyard of a residential property designed by the famous Greene & Greene architectural firm.

A spinning, vintage globe protrudes from the curved-door walnut cabinetry of a renovated Airstream. The original “Control Panel” below it now operates modern upgrades including an automated futon.

After design restoration, ABLE + BAKER finds true passion in the ethereal, the unknown, the designs and artistic impulses that have yet to be created, as they only exist in the imagination of the artist. But conceptually, the projects—in the areas of architecture and functional art—are already complete.

The concept was perfectly described in a poem Michelangelo wrote referencing his approach to sculpture: There is nothing contained in a block of marble that is not already a finished piece; it is the artist who must free the idea that is waiting to be released.

And so it is with Josh, alias ABLE.

Josh sees these images in his head as completed projects. “I am driven by a desire to create things that don’t yet exist,” he says. “I have visions of designs that I don’t see anyone else doing. This is my ego talking, but there are buildings I want to see built. There are places I want to be that don’t exist, chairs that I want to sit in that haven’t been designed.”

The couple designed and built this contemporary live/work loft in a century-old warehouse. A canopy ceiling and whimsical features like an illuminated curio in the kitchen island highlight the space.

While there are a lot of things out there in the world that make Josh happy, something is missing: “I’m going to have to build the buildings I want and the home I want to live in, because I haven’t quite found the right ones yet … There are already a lot of cool car designs, so I don’t need to go figure that out.”

He explains that his design drive stems from “an innate creative need,” which he feels compelled to satisfy. “It has nothing to do with feeling like I was born to be a designer. Most of it comes from being a poor person all my life and having to make my own stuff. I can’t afford a John Lautner, and I can’t afford Ken Kellogg, and I can’t afford an Art Dyson,” he says, rattling off some of the architects he finds inspirational.

It was this insight that drove Josh to dive head first into his first large-scale architectural build. Through a connection with the architectural firm, the couple landed a sweet deal, purchasing a huge parcel of an old warehouse factory overlooking the bay in Oakland. In that space, Josh designed and built a new home, a tour de force. The only outside assistance came from a contractor who installed the fire sprinklers and a friend named Eric, who helped now and again, as pals often do.

A work in progress, this bath vanity for a local mid-century modern home will blend birch, stainless steel, porcelain, and concrete.

Jen ducks into a side office and emerges seconds later with an album of before-and-after photos. Images of a dark industrial cave piled with debris contrast with the pure visual poetry of sleek, wide-open architectural spaces with curvaceous design elements.

“It was gutted when we started. It had no plumbing, no electrical, nothing. We even had to cut windows out of concrete walls,” Josh says, smiling with pride. “We turned it into a really beautiful, luxurious home.”

“Then we moved to Ventura,” echoes Jen, giggling under her breath.

Beyond the creations ABLE produces with hammers and saws, BAKER’s artistry is found in her photography. Along the walls of the studio, rows of photographs depict a cultural landscape that is pure Americana. “As a child, my family would take road trips across the country. I sat for hours in the backseat of our station wagon just staring out the window,” she says. “I guess it made an impression.”

The images reflect the sights seen by a young girl growing up in 1970s Fresno. Framed eight-by-ten images look like retro snapshots taken with a brownie camera, as Jen’s skill with color technique produces a warm yet washed out tonal quality. “I can create a color palette for the photograph that creates a new interest, a new life, while illuminating the past,” she explains.

Jen learned photography from her grandfather, who took up the art after retiring from a career as a cable splicer in San Francisco. He became quite proficient, converting two bedrooms in his home to darkrooms: one for color, the other for black-and-white. “He taught me everything he knew, and he gave me all his hand-me-down Canons along the way,” Jen adds, grateful for the experience.

“We wanted to bring in photography to give people esthetics, to give them a more complete idea of who they are dealing with,” Josh says.

Despite their creative talent, Jen and Josh are all about humble pie; they don’t take themselves too seriously. Consider the name: ABLE + BAKER, inspired by a couple of monkeys.

They saw the duo on the cover of a 1959 issue of TIME magazine. Simians Able and Baker had traveled to outer space and returned alive, two years prior to any human.

Josh and Jen like to keep it light. After all, it can be interpreted any number of ways when you tell people you’re named after a couple of monkeys.


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