When I first outlined the goal of the San Diego People Project, I told you I wanted to demonstrate the diversity and connectedness of our region.

This project started with the barista at my local coffee shop, on Thorn Street in North Park. I asked her a series of questions, which led me to the next person I photographed, a UCSD art history professor. Since then, it’s been an interesting path. We went from there to a UCSD student, a guy who owns a printing company called Hot Squeegee, the manager of a Roberto’s taco shop, an Oceanside music teacher, an 11-year-old bass player, and, finally last week, an exhibit director at Balboa Park’s science museum.

After photographing Paul Siboroski, the exhibit director, we got to chatting about the part of town I lived in. He asked whether I had ever been to the new fish market on 30th Street.

“Of course,” I told him. “I have a friend who works there.”

And that’s where an integral connection in this project became apparent. Siboroski had eaten at the restaurant just a few weeks earlier. His waitress was my friend, Ftimah Ilahi.

So I stopped by the fish market and asked Ftimah if she was game for a photo shoot. She works just blocks from where the series started, at Santos coffee shop.

I caught up with her Wednesday in Ocean Beach. I photographed her in front of what’s possibly my favorite wall in the city. It has deep blue tones and has been featured in our pages before.

Ftimah is an interior design student and works with furniture and antique dealers in Ocean Beach. Our photo shoot came in between her morning shift working with furniture and her afternoon shift at North Park Fish Market and Grill. After photographing Ftimah, I asked her a series of questions that will again lead me to another San Diegan.

Name: Ftimah Ilahi

Age: 33

Occupation: One is at North Park Fish Market and Grill, and then I work with two furniture dealers out of Vignettes in O.B.

Part of town: Ocean Beach

Now, I’ve known you for a pretty long time, but I feel like there are all these basic things I don’t know about you. What are the roots of your name?

Well, my family background, my dad is black and Egyptian and my mom is Polish and Italian, so it kind of came from my dad’s side of the family. But it’s also a Middle Eastern name, it’s Catholic, there’s areas in Spain that are named after it. For one religion, it’s the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and for the other one, it’s comparable to the Virgin Mary.

Wow, so it’s pretty important.

Yeah, it’s usually spelled f-a-t-i-m-a, but my family spelled it different.

OK. You do all this stuff with furniture and interior design. But I’m a little bit unclear exactly what it is you do on a day-to-day basis.

Well, the two dealers I work with have a space in Vignettes in O.B., so basically whatever they need. If they need me to come in and merchandise, bring pieces into the shop and from there, we have to fit it in, re-merchandise the whole area to make it presentable and sellable to the customer.

And then, I also paint and refurbish the furniture for them. So, sometimes I’ll find pieces and distress them, shabby-chic them, make them look old, change the colors on them.

What is the part of your interior design or furniture work that you enjoy doing the most?

Right now, it’s just the painting of the furniture and actually making things and being creative. Just kind of constructing and building. That all stemmed from me working at Anthropologie, because I was doing merchandising, but we also do visual displays and a lot of them we made from recycled goods and made from scratch, so that was a big stepping stone.

I think once I have more experience, I’ll be able to get a job with an actual interior design company, but right now, I would say my goal is to maybe get my own space in the big antique mall that has my own antiques and furniture and findings of my own.

What type of furniture are you into?

My style’s definitely more vintage, beach cottage, old, rustic, definitely more of the beach living for sure. A lot of pale colors, bright colors, not as much modern.


I’ve just never been attracted to that. It’s just not appealing. It’s just maybe too clean or structural for me. Some of the things when I’m painting them, the best way it comes out is just a messy paint. It’s just a little bit more artistic and free.

How is Ocean Beach in terms of being a place where you can pursue this sort of path.

It’s a good place to start off, especially with having the antique district here.

What’s the most challenging thing about this field?

Consistency of work. Sometimes if things aren’t moving, and there are less things to paint, less things to find, less work to do.

That’s also the good part though. Especially in the fall, it will help me be able to work around my school schedule.

Was there something about you growing up that contributed to what you’re doing now?

I think I was fortunate in the sense that I had a lot of freedom. During the summers, I’d take off and go see (Grateful) Dead shows. When I was 16, I was traveling from Ohio to California and Arizona and kind of would cruise, following the Dead for the summer. That gave me a lot of different life experiences and different cultural experiences.

And that’s contributed to your work?

Well, mainly, I’d say, because my car broke down in Flagstaff, (Ariz.), so that’s how I ended up moving out there. Once I was there, I decided I was going to go to college, which I didn’t really think I was going to do. That’s when I studied fashion merchandising and that led to now.

So the whole reason I know you is because your car broke down once in Flagstaff, Arizona?

Probably, for the most part. That’s how I ended up out here.

— Interview conducted and edited by SAM HODGSON

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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