Sasha Plotitsa was not one of those business titans who started the perfect job right out of college and rose steadily through the corporate ranks. He worked in construction, ran a cannabis dispensary, invented a weightlifting tote, created Braille signs, and styled interiors. He also found the time to volunteer and made sure to follow green building practices. Now, at age 50, he’s taken pieces of every job, skill, and passion and brought them into Formr, a small San Francisco furniture company where materials and makers have a fascinating history.
The name of the company created a year ago begins with the word “form” and refers to former incarcerated people hired to produce parts from formerly used (reused) wood. The desks, candlesticks, floating sofa ends and playful and minimalist bottle holders (there are 12 models) are available in original colors such as pink, chartreuse or mint and bear quirky names such as the holder. “HANGover” coat and “SHELFish” shelf. Priced at $ 89 to $ 619, they’re handcrafted in a former auto repair shop in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley, a once-dirty neighborhood that has grown into a hip neighborhood in the heart of the city.
Plotitsa’s previous activities focused on financial success and profit making. But he always found the time to give back to the causes he believed in. A few years ago he decided to change course and focus more on this kind of work. “Maybe this is my midlife crisis or whatever you want to call it, but I wanted to find a way to do something that I’m passionate about, and that is design, and combine it with a social mission. I wanted to provide opportunities for people who get out of prison and start a new life, ”he says.
His little company gets noticed. In June, West Elm added Formr to its local online program, which showcases artisanal and handcrafted products by 150 small businesses, showcasing designs from underserved communities to a national audience. “We loved Sasha’s business acumen and storytelling,” says Larysa Polansky-Hayes, West Elm Program Manager. “The way he takes these different components and puts them together in a spiritual and intelligent way, he’s on to something.”
Plotitsa’s personal story begins in Ukraine. He was 7 when he left Odessa with his parents and came to America, where the family eventually settled in San Francisco. Her parents were both creative: her mother was an artist and played the piano, and her father became an entrepreneur. As a child, Sasha loved to draw and wanted to pursue art in some form or another in college. He says he has also always been “a curious person who likes to experiment”. He expressed an interest in architecture but ended up studying industrial design at San Jose State.
After college, he joined an acquaintance in a Russian night vision binocular import company. Plotitsa did all the graphics, advertising and packaging for the project. “I was the whole art department. I learned a lot, “he says. He spent time in the sign industry and in his father’s construction business, helping with interior design, tile and finish specification, and construction. supply of green building materials On construction sites, he says, he was “blown away” by all the leftover wood and other waste that ended up in the landfill.
From 2008 to 2018, he worked in the cannabis dispensary industry. Plotitsa made his dispensary stand out from the crowd. “Most of the dispensaries looked bad. They were furnished with a horrible shag rug, a Bob Marley poster and a battered sofa, ”he says. Plotitsa created one with a spa-like decor. Eventually, the dispensary was shut down by the federal government, but while running it, he encountered many people who had been jailed after being caught with marijuana.
“The experience opened my eyes to the fact that this was happening all over the country and people were coming out of jail with criminal records and starting their lives over with many obstacles and hurdles that made it difficult to find a employment, ”Plotitsa explains. “It opened my eyes to the concept that people like this need a fresh start.”
The problem resonated with Plotitsa, who always made volunteering a priority, whether it was helping Russian immigrants improve their English or serving meals to the homeless and those with AIDS. Helping others was a family tradition. Her parents often sponsored families from Odessa in search of a new life, and her father gave jobs to family members and friends.
In 2018, Plotitsa was ready for his next adventure. He wanted to design furniture, but he wanted to produce it in a socially responsible way. He had already sketched out a plan to collect salvage materials from contractors. But that didn’t seem to be enough. He Google searched for something to stimulate his imagination. His thoughts went back to his past in the cannabis world and the challenges facing people in prison. When he realized that inmates often had access to carpentry programs, his idea took shape.
After more than two years of planning, designing and prototyping, Formr was ready to start hiring.
Finding former prisoners who had carpentry skills proved difficult. Plotitsa researched about 50 organizations working on the reintegration of formerly incarcerated people. The lives of these people were often complicated. But the reason for their incarceration was not something he took into account when hiring. “It’s not for me to judge their past, the reasons they were incarcerated and the decisions they made,” he says. “They have served their sentence according to their sentence and they are looking to start their lives over. I want to be able to help them.
A small core of workers has been formed to handle the work and responsibilities. Cris Wolf is currently one of three part-time employees of Plotitsa. Wolf, 46, moved around a lot as a child. But one thing that has stuck with him is the time he spent with his grandfather in Vallejo, California. “My grandfather did a lot of work with his hands. It was Osage so he taught me to work with natural materials. That’s where I fell in love with it, ”he says. Wolf graduated from high school and served in the military, but he had a history of trauma and mental illness and made bad choices. He was jailed for 19 years, he says, “for taking someone’s life.”
“I was released on a conditional program that helps me monitor my mental illness and somehow make sure that I continue my therapy and protect myself,” says Wolf. He saw an advertisement on a job website for a carpenter and noted that the company had hired people who had been incarcerated. “If anyone wants to give me a chance, then it’s this guy,” he said. “So I applied and it ended up working.”
Wolf sometimes says he’s tired and feels the pressure to get things done. “But most of the time it’s a really satisfying job, and I love coming home and feeling like I’ve accomplished something and done something beautiful,” he says.
The idea of recycling construction debris also turned out to be a bit more difficult than Plotitsa had anticipated. Some companies were reluctant to add another step in their construction workflow. One person who signed up was Dmitry Shapiro, who had met Plotitsa through their children. Shapiro, 47, is a project manager at CB Construction, a company specializing in high-end residential projects in San Francisco.
“It hurts to throw away all this wonderful wood that’s been around for 100 years,” Shapiro says. Plotitsa often marks old redwood beams and other materials from Shapiro’s home improvement projects, then his employees remove nails and screws from the wood and clean it.
Shapiro says that while he thought his friend’s business proposition was cool, he was initially skeptical of his plans to use formerly incarcerated workers. “It seemed a bit risky to me,” he says. “But he found some pretty stellar guys, so he seems to make it work.” (Plotitsa’s first employee was actually a woman.)
Plotitsa knew that the furniture itself had to be functional and original to attract the attention of buyers. It focuses on smaller rooms that make life at home more comfortable, organized and cheerful. “Cool”, for example, is a shelf that holds and displays sunglasses near a front door. The “UnderSTUDY” wall desk holds a computer and is small enough to create a workspace in tight spaces. The “overLap” has room for a laptop and coffee and has a slot for a phone. When it’s not a desk, it can be a side table.
He set a launch date of March 11, 2020, an ill-suited choice, as the world began to shut down due to the coronavirus. But he had at least two good things going for him: he made small-scale furniture suitable for people working from home, and it was sold online.
The first three months seemed bleak. In less than a week, there was an order for shelter in place. He had to put his only employee on leave. “Within a week of opening, I thought about closing,” he says. With the support and encouragement of his family, however, he moved forward. After a few starts and stops, it reopened on June 17, 2020, and has been running continuously since then.
Plotitsa and his wife, a therapist, have two children. “I’m fortunate that my wife is the main breadwinner right now and I have her support,” he says. “It was not easy during the covid. It doesn’t come cheap to run a business and pay people a fair wage in San Francisco.
“A lot of customers were excited about the mission and bought furniture because they were happy with the purchase,” he adds. “It’s just as much a priority as the design itself.
His wishlist for the future includes retail locations, adding technology to enable recycling of other types of building materials, and franchising the business model.
The hardest part of his job, he says, is finding and keeping employees. “Sometimes it’s hard to keep a cool head, like when an employee doesn’t show up and there are orders to fill,” Plotitsa explains. “Then the next day you get a call from West Elm. It’s tumultuous, but it’s also exhilarating and exciting. Building relationships with his employees beyond just being a boss is something he strives to achieve every day. “I want to support them in their life,” he says.
He has adapted his style of working with Wolf and other employees, who often have many insecurities. “I try to support them and support them and be upbeat and positive about the work they do,” Plotitsa says. “I’m not the best communicator, but I’ve learned to be better. I also learn things from Cris, and he tries to communicate with me about concerns that concern him.
Jura Koncius covers interiors and lifestyle for The Post.