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Surf Shacks 026 – Mason St. Peter & Serena Mitnik-Miller

Ever since we first started our Surf Shacks series, we’ve been haunted by images of Mason St. Peter and Serena Mitnik Miller’s cabin hideaway nestled in a hillside of Topanga Canyon and have been eager to see it firsthand. As you can imagine, a creative couple consisting of an architect and an artist who own the carefully curated General Store with locations in San Francisco and Venice are sure to create the most stylish spaces of our dreams. This little DIY project in particular defines the term “surf shack” in our eyes. Recently we had the opportunity for a visit to the cabin and had a conversation with Mason about the design / build process and his work in general.

Who are you? Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m 1/2 Native California Indian and 1/2 French. I was born and raised in Southern California. I spent the late 70’s and early 80’s in the South Bay. Mainly Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, Venice, and a little in Malibu, where I learned to surf, skate and explore the outer reaches of mind-altering consciousness. My older brother taught me how. Along the way, a few good friends and I built some launch ramps and half pipes in our back yards and an early love of building and design was born. I went to high school in Huntington Beach where furthered my pursuits in the above mentioned fields, then moved to San Francisco in the mid 90’s. I’ve been in SF for about 20 years. Last year Serena, (my wife) and I bought a house in Topanga. I’m soon to be a father for the first time and I’m very excited –I can’t wait to meet my son! 

Congrats! What do you do for a living?

Mostly I dream about space and how it can be created. I’ve learned over the years how to think in 3D and with the help of an architecture school education, how to move my hand to draw that space or idea. I started General Store in 2009 with Serena and I design houses for people. 

Where do you consider home these days?

Topanga, San Francisco, General Store and in our Tundra.

What are your favorite parts about where you live here in Topanga?

I love the smell. Olfactory sensation has always made me nostalgic for my youth, a youth spent in the sage brush of Los Angeles, living wild. When I’m in Topanga I feel like a kid again.

Tell us about the property you live on. How did this tiny home first come to be?

Well… we don’t live in the cabin, we never have. We’ve spent lots of time there but never permanently. We have a good friend who has a cabin on the property. She invited us to visit her one weekend and we fell in love with the place. We tried to rent another cabin on the property, but it wasn’t available. Eventually, we had a meeting with the owner of the property  to discuss the possibility of building a cabin. We were told that if he liked us we’d probably have a long conversation and if he didn’t like us it would be short. After about 3 hours or so we had agreed that building our own cabin was a go. He had a pile of materials where we wanted to build so we started the process of organizing what we could use and preparing the site. 

The place looks amazing. Who designed / built it and how long did it take?

Thanks! Serena and I designed it. Over the course of about 2 years, working mostly about 1 or 2 weekends a month, we slowly built the cabin. Friends helped out when they could, but mostly I built it myself. 

What are your favorite types of architectural projects to work on?

My favorites are the projects that allow the vision to come through. Architecture is a collaborative process, like most things but steering the ship takes a captain and sometimes they get thrown overboard. The ship can get beached, thrown off course or worse, sink. 

Tell us a little about your artwork. What is your inspiration for this body of work?

I’ve been painting and drawing since around 1992. I used to mostly paint with oil and acrylic but I switched over to pen and ink on paper about 7 years ago. The drawings I make now are a reaction to the work I do (for a living). Architecture exacts a certain rigidity and practicality, especially when you consider that each line you draw is money, someone else’s money. My recent body of work dismisses that way of thinking with the intention of organically finding its end. Also, being a skateboarder and having built and dreamt about skate structures all my life, directs my pen. 

What are your favorite parts of your home?

The outside. The deck. The hill across the stream, the trees next to the stream. The hawks that fly overhead, the coyotes that howl at night.

What other projects do you guys have in the works these days?

We’re working on a kid and we’ve almost finished our house in Topanga, ongoing. 

Any parting thoughts, words of wisdom or sage advice from your work experiences or on building your own surf shack?

Try not to get too discouraged by the rules, of which there are many. Time is often of the essence and getting it done can be crucial. Stay focused, stay sharp and stay on target! Star Wars joke. People will always try to say they knew something before you did, they thought something before you did or they were there before you were. Not much is new, there are very few new ideas being implemented these days… Don’t let that discourage you from doing what you do, being who you are and following your own path. Giulietta Carrelli of Trouble Coffee says, “build your own damn house” and I agree whole heartedly with that.

Check out Mason’s work here:

Mason St. Peter

/ Photography and interview by Matt Titone

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