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Ken Fulk Converts a Catholic Church into Something Far More Fabulous

The designer’s transformation of a SoMa cathedral will convince any aesthete that they’ve died and gone to heaven.


Illuminated sculptures by Nacho Carbonell are part of Carpenters Workshop Gallery, which occupies the mezzanine of St. Joseph’s Arts Society, a former church in SoMa that was reimagined by Ken Fulk.

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Photo: Rich Stapleton

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One of the salons in the nave.

Photo: Douglas Friedman

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The Assouline publishing house outpost, which is open to the public.

Photo: Douglas Friedman

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A corner of the Choir Loft lounge, exclusively for members.

Photo: Douglas Friedman

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Ken Fulk dressed in his Sunday best for the grand opening party.

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The Catholic Church has been overthrown by Ken Fulk. Well, one Catholic church has, anyway. In 2016, Fulk, the celebrity designer behind the Battery, quietly scooped up 13,000-square-foot, 105-year-old St. Joseph’s on Howard Street, at one point the center of the largest Filipino Catholic parish in the country. The church had been vacant since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and over the following quarter century had become a site of squatting and drug use. Today, it’s the newest entry in Fulk’s ever-expanding catalog of over-the-top remodels.

The result of Fulk’s makeover is St. Joseph’s Arts Society, a design-and-arts-focused private social club. But before your eyes roll out the back of your head: SJAS intends to distance itself from the overcrowded pack of pretentious coworking spaces and private clubs around town by stepping out as a nonprofit arts ­organization, albeit one with a high-end clientele. (There are 20 founding members, and 400 subscriptions will be offered initially; no information about dues or initiation fees has been disclosed.) A subscription gives you the perk of nominating an artist, who will be granted membership free of charge. Members get access to most of the venue and entrée into the society’s dinners, exhibitions, parties, and performances. A retail space is open to the public five days a week: Among the Fulk-curated boutiques in the vestibule are an outpost of the high-design publishing house Assouline; the only U.S. location of L’Officine, the French apothecary brand; and a flower bar with bouquets bundled by Mr. Fulk’s Flower Factory. By appointment, nonmembers can also visit the West Coast flagship of Carpenters Workshop Gallery, filled with pieces by international designers including Maarten Baas, Studio Job, and Wendell Castle and located on the building’s 9,000-square-foot mezzanine.

And what a mezzanine it is: An illuminated forest scene by Spanish designer Nacho Carbonell has been erected there, looking like something out of a Guillermo del Toro fairy tale. Suspended from the second level, half a dozen life-size papier-mâché bears in copper collars watch over the nave. The altar is strewn with bearskin rugs. The East Tower houses the original bell tower, and Fulk contracted a team of Italian masters to wash the entire space in pink Venetian plaster. A 120-foot rope sheathed in ruched turquoise velvet drops from the tower, coiling into a dramatic heap on the leopard-print carpet below. Anyone passing by can give the rope a tug and the bell will toll—as clear a signal as you can send to the neighborhood that a new kind of congregation has arrived.


Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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