Art

Designer, Builder Creates Comfortable Works of Public Art

By Noma Faingold

In the last nine years, Inner Sunset resident Chris Duderstadt has designed, constructed and often artistically painted 144 public benches placed all over San Francisco, with a prominent presence in the Sunset and Richmond districts. 

He is of the belief that if he builds it, they will sit.

Chris Duderstadt sits on one of his creations. He donates his time, talent and resources to provide comfortable benches for public use. Courtesy photo.

Duderstadt, 74, ran his own business, Machine Design, out of his home since 1976, making custom tech and biotech machines. He retired three years ago, giving him more time to make benches. He is proud of the wood design he has honed, making sure they are comfortable. 

“I spend 40 years coming up with a contour that was healthy,” he said.

“The purpose is to put them in a public place where the public can use them,” he added. “It’s for the community. If you are older, a bench every block is helpful. I love putting them on a hill. Every hill should have a bunch of benches.” 

The Public Bench Project is not a formal non-profit. 

“It’s just me,” Duderstadt said. 

He frequently donates the benches (materials cost him $75). A merchant or organization can request a bench through his website (https://publicbenchproject.wordpress.com). Most of the time, Duderstadt will paint them. One bench he created for Green Apple Books was inspired by the apple paintings of surrealist René Magritte. It now appropriately resides in front of the Surreal You Hair Design salon, at 538 Irving St.

Inside the Church of Eight Wheels (554 Fillmore St.) sits a purple bench with raindrops. 

“That’s my Prince bench. I was into Prince. Who wasn’t? I wanted to commemorate,” Duderstadt said.

One of his more recent works is a rainbow-colored Pride bench in front of the parking lot at Ninth Avenue and Irving Street in the Inner Sunset. He also just finished what he is calling, “Smoke Bench,” inspired by the “Judy Chicago: Forever de Young” Oct. 16 smoke installation he attended with about 8,000 people, held in front of the museum. 

Duderstadt builds and paints the benches in his large basement workshop and backyard, at the home which he has shared with his wife, Karen, of 49 years. They met at the University of Kansas while he was working in a developmental lab as a post-graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Missouri. She is a semi-retired professor emeritus of Graduate Nursing at UCSF. They have two sons, Erse, 44, of San Rafael and Karl, 38, who lives in Munich, Germany. 

He was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He moved to the Bay Area in 1973 when he landed an apprentice machinist position with UC Berkeley at its Richmond Field Station before starting his own business in 1976.

Not all the benches survive. Duderstadt said a few have been stolen, vandalized and even destroyed when hit by cars. But he will keep creating them, as long as there is a demand. 

“I like making things. It’s what I’ve always done,” he said. “And the bench is my canvas.”

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