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The Framer Next Door

By Jennifer Blot

Steve Bernzweig is the guy San Franciscans in the know entrust with their art

Steve Bernzweig works in his store at 1100 Ortega Street, surrounded by his own paintings and custom-built frames for his devoted clientele. (Matthew Petty / Nob Hill Gazette)

Steve Bernzweig has framed original paintings by Dali, Chagall and Picasso — but that’s not how he attracts customers to the namesake framing business his father founded five decades ago.

It’s the way he treats people — and art.

Bernzweig’s Zen-like patience coupled with a solemn respect for his customers’ treasures — whether a painting by a listed artist, a fraying photo, or four-year-old’s impressionistic paint strokes — are the first thing one notices upon entering the mom-and-pop business (in this case, pop-and-son) at the sleepy corner of Ortega Street, one block east of bustling 19th Avenue.

Longtime patrons seemingly love to talk about Bernzweig because, ultimately, it’s part of a story about their own collections. For Michael Onken, it’s vintage maps and Fillmore rock posters with bespoke mats. Mike Robinson saves golf trip mementos – pin flags, ball markers, score cards – and has Bernzweig curate them in custom shadow boxes. And for Dr. Allen Calvin, it’s the ingenuity of his wife’s long and winding family tree rolled up like a Torah scroll.

“THE ATTITUDE OF THE PLACE IS: WE WANT TO TREAT YOU THE WAY WE’D LIKE TO BE TREATED, A GOLDEN RULE KIND OF THING”

— Dr. Allen Calvin, customer

Onken, a San Francisco native and small business owner who estimates he’s had at least 50 pieces framed, gives Bernzweig carte blanche: “I just drop something off and say, ‘Have fun. Call me when it’s ready.’” It’s a very different approach than when he first visited the shop in the 1990s, unfurled two original Some Like It Hot movie posters, and hovered anxiously.

As Bernzweig Framing and Design celebrates its 52nd anniversary next month with Steve Bernzweig and his 27-year-old son Eric at the helm, many customers still reminisce about Steve’s father, Al, who died in 2017. An artist who once exhibited his work at the de Young, Al discovered his calling making frames from a workshop in his Outer Sunset garage, servicing high-end galleries in Palo Alto and at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Steve began assisting his dad during high school, and later, while attending UC Berkeley as a pre-med student. Eventually, his artistic side prevailed and he helped his father transform a former produce market on Ortega Street into the current retail workspace. Over time, Steve augmented traditional framing and photo restoration with his creative matting — a process that embeds a pattern or motif from the original artwork into a complementary mat in hues ranging from antique sepia to psychedelic tie-dye and tartan plaid.

I’m always trying to think of new, creative ways to make art look better — and not in the boundaries that are standard,” Bernzweig admits.

His gallery is eclectic and unpretentious. There’s an old carousel horse in the window, a limited-edition Alexander Calder “McGovern” lithograph sharing the wall with a Stinson Beach souvenir print. But the overriding theme is San Francisco. The shop frames for several local artists, including John Musgrove, Janis Portal and retired UCSF cardiologist Eli Botvinick.

Bernzweig’s clientele includes high-profile collectors, but don’t expect him to drop names. “We don’t give precedent to one job over another,” he says. “We treat them all as one-of-a-kind valuable pieces.”

On a recent Saturday morning, Bernzweig regular Diane Holland carried in an antique French painting, instructed Steve to disassemble the unsightly frame it had endured for more than a century — and set about finding a new one. “He listens to what I want,” Holland admits. “It’s great service –old-fashioned service.”

Up the hill from the gallery, Dr. Calvin’s home in Golden Gate Heights is something of a Bernzweig museum. The president of Palo Alto University says he’s lost track of the number of pieces framed in his decades-long relationship with the business.

“The attitude of the place is: We want to treat you the way we’d like to be treated, a golden rule kind of thing,” Calvin acknowledges. “What Steve’s really trying to do is find a way for you to visually present either a memory, or an idea, or something you love in a way that reflects your feelings about it.”

Bernzweig’s hope is to keep his father’s business alive for years to come – provided there’s a market. “Our biggest fear is that our customers run out of wall space.”

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