WHAT’S ON the table at a restaurant is what’s most important, but at Mamnoon, the tables themselves demand your attention.
If you’ve been to Racha and Wassef Haroun’s Middle Eastern restaurant on Capitol Hill, you have surely noticed the colorful communal tables up front, across from the bread-baking kitchen. At a glance, the tabletops resemble mosaic, but they are a seamless design made with plaster integrally tinted with pigment and sealed in resin. The muted colors are echoed in the pendant lights suspended above. “I wanted something inviting,” says Racha, to soften the room’s industrial look.
The tables are the work of Capitol Hill artist Tina Randolph, who specializes in architectural finishes using vintage patterns and timeworn colors. If you’ve spent any time pondering the spiral graphic at Top Pot Doughnuts downtown, or the map of the world on the wall at Sun Liquor Bar and Restaurant, or the murals inspired by 1930s-era Chinese firecracker packaging at Sun Liquor Lounge, you’ve seen Randolph’s work. “We design spaces with Tina in mind,” says Mark Klebeck, who started both companies with his brother, Michael.
Her work survives even when the business doesn’t. When Linda Derschang built Bait Shop, she erased all traces of the previous tenant, the Asian restaurant Bako, except for a mural by Randolph in the back hallway, inspired by a 1962 Chinese cigarette ad.
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“Although the mural doesn’t have a nautical look, which is the Bait Shop vibe, it’s so amazing we absolutely had to keep it,” says the restaurateur behind such arty Capitol Hill venues as Oddfellows and Tallulah’s. “Art in restaurants and bars makes an enormous difference to the atmosphere, whether it is found at a thrift store, a gallery or created with a particular space in mind.”
Art is important to the Harouns, as well. They were collectors long before they became restaurateurs. Both are of Syrian heritage for many generations. They wanted Mamnoon’s art to show the depth of Middle Eastern culture and also to reflect the restaurant’s East-meets-West ethos.
Pictures by contemporary Middle Eastern and African artists hang in the lounge. To partition the lounge from the dining room, the design firm Graypants created laser-cut screens made of poplar inspired by mashrabiya, the latticework window coverings prevalent in traditional Arabic architecture.
Before this project, the designer didn’t know what a mashrabiya was, say the Harouns. The pixelated pattern of eight-point stars, a symbol widely used in Islamic art, suggests the play of light and shadow in a Northwest woods.
Like the screens, Randolph’s tables mix ancient and modern, East and West.
“I don’t think any Middle Eastern artist could have done what Tina has done,” says Wassef. “We gave her some designs, colors, patterns, ideas. A traditional Middle Eastern artist would likely have reverted to the usual. Tina brought an outsider’s perspective.”
The Mamnoon project pushed Randolph’s boundaries quite a bit. She had been working with pattern for years but in a static way, had never done a functional piece and had never used resin. Her layered plaster method is ancient but computer graphics and adhesive stenciling give it a modern edge.
Using stencils to create the pattern work, she layers in tinted Venetian plaster with a small Italian trowel. When the stencil mask is pulled up, the plaster holds a crisp, raised color detail. “It most closely resembles Italian secco painting techniques,” Randolph says. “It is my modern take on it. I break all the rules by adding a resin coat.”
The resin protects from stains and prevents the sort of wear and tear happening to some of Mamnoon’s grey-lacquered dining tables. As they become chipped and worn, Randolph is touching them up with her custom finishes. “Our tables are slowly getting infected with art,” says Wassef. “Over time, every table will be special.”
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.