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Inside a Record Store Owner–Turned–Artist’s Mission Oasis

Fiber artist Windy Chien has reinvented herself more than once, and her Mission district home reflects all her life’s twists and turns.


Above Windy Chien’s living room fireplace hangs artwork by Gary L. Baker, Alicia McCarthy, and Christopher Garrett—all friends of hers. “It’s the work that was made by hand by the people that I know that is the most valuable,” Chien says.

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Chien painted the stripes above her bed to solve an architectural problem. “You can’t hang art on pitched walls,” she says.  

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The largest project Chien undertook was turning her dark, unfinished attic into a master suite.

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Chien in her backyard, outside her woodworking studio.

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Chien’s second bedroom has been officially taken over by her greyhound, Shelly. Says Chien, “She thinks that is her bed.”

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A high-back chair is one of several mid-century pieces around the dining table, all found at the local Salvation Army. 

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Expertly curated piles of books, art, and thrift store–sourced accessories adorn nearly every surface.

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“You know how it is when you get to your 30s: You either get baby lust or house lust or both,” artist Windy Chien says. “I never felt baby lust, but I always wanted a house.” Chien got her house, but as with so much in her life, it didn’t come quite how she’d expected.

Chien isn’t afraid to follow her desires, even into unknown territory. After owning Aquarius Records in the Mission district for 14 years, she sold it to a couple of employees in 2003. Shortly after leaving, she was scooped up by Apple, which was just getting started on a little project known as iTunes. The company had plenty of engineers, but what it needed was music experts. She spent the next eight years developing and growing the platform.

Blessed for the first time in her life with some disposable income, she started thinking seriously about giving up her rent-­controlled apartment, where she had lived for 24 years. She was riding her bike home from a yoga class when she ran into an old friend who was living in a charming house in the same neighborhood that was about to go on the market. Chien checked it out and convinced a colleague from Apple to buy it with her as a tenancy in common. Chien would take the main floor and the unfinished attic, while her coworker would get the garden unit below. That was 2010, and the pair still live a harmonious upstairs-downstairs existence, one that intersects in their shared backyard—a dreamy space bursting with bougainvillea and strung with half a dozen of Chien’s outdoor Helix lights.

“As women, we are brainwashed into thinking we aren’t allowed to buy a house alone,” Chien says. “So it was difficult for me, but I am so glad I did it.” This wholesale change to her lifestyle led to others: She quit Apple and reinvented herself as an artist working in rope, knots, and weaving. Her oeuvre includes commercially successful hits like her Helix lights and sought-after custom installations for designers, architects, and institutions. “After eight years at Apple, I was itching to do my own thing,” she recalls. “I was in my mid-40s, and I realized that I had basically been supporting other people’s art in both my careers—­supporting musicians and game developers and app developers—and I had never really focused on my own creativity.”

Chien’s home functions as both a testing ground for new installations and a time capsule for her former lives. She still has shelves filled with hundreds of records and CDs, and her impressive art collection (virtually a retrospective of the vibrant Mission School movement, with work by local artists including Amy Rathbone, Alicia McCarthy, Virgil Shaw, and the late Chris Corales) is largely made up of pieces she acquired while hosting exhibits at Aquarius—her standard arrangement included keeping one piece from each show for herself. But some of her most treasured works are by her grandmother (and namesake) Winifred, who practiced needlepoint. Chien has some of Winifred’s traditional representational creations, such as a horse, displayed in the house, but her favorites are the color fields her grandmother created closer to the end of her life. “When she got old, her eyesight started to go, so she would just choose a thread from the pile, whatever color it was, and she would do these blocks of color—they literally look like a Chris Johanson painting or something.”

In the stairwell leading from the main floor to Chien’s attic master suite, rope twists and turns, stretching across the banisters like a thick spiderweb. It’s a miniature version of a large-scale work she installed in the soaring offices of the tech firm AngelList. In the attic, the focal point is a bright quartet of lines that Chien painted on the pitched walls, inspired by the classic Hudson Bay blanket on the bed. “When you boil it down, I am obsessed with the element of the line,” she says. The line, she’s realized, is the unifying element in all her disparate artwork. The metaphor for her own life is not lost on Chien: “I’m fascinated with how lines begin in one place and go on a little journey and then end up somewhere else.”


Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco

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