A trio of talented designers handles the artwork for some of the city’s hottest restaurants.
THERE’S ALWAYS BEEN an art to restaurant decor — but not like Electric Coffin’s.
The three-man artist studio, whose founders have degrees in painting and sculpture, plus practical experience in carpentry and car fabrication and clothing manufacture, has made a distinctive stamp on some of Seattle’s most prominent new restaurants. Electric Coffin is behind the 23-foot, diorama-filled boat anchoring the bar at Westward (a James Beard Award finalist for design) and the explosive red colors and Godzilla-themed wall treatments at Trove (one of GQ’s 25 best new restaurants of 2015.)
In a fast-growing city criticized for cookie-cutter developments, the artists’ salvaged goods and skills have become as eye-catching on the walls as a chef’s food on the plate. Their mixed-media installations reward close attention, as with tiny city tributes filling the display at Tom Douglas’ Carlile Room, or a view of Godzilla attacking the city for those who peek inside the gas cap of Trove’s ice-cream truck. (About that truck: “We drove it here, threw away the keys, and got the saws and cut it up,” says studio co-founder Patrick “Duffy” De Armas, 30. Then, comments Trove co-owner Rachel Yang, “They made a window, they got vintage tires, these kinds of details are — wow.”)
The studio was born in 2012 as a collaboration between De Armas, a graduate of the University of Washington’s sculpture program, and Justin Kane Elder, a fine arts graduate from Cornish College of the Arts. Joining later was Stefan Hofmann, another UW sculpture graduate and founder of Spacecraft clothing. While each has an independent career, Electric Coffin provides a more “ego-free” collaboration, De Armas says, with artists sometimes tearing out or painting over each other’s work in the nonlinear route from original concept to finished product. Tools and materials and potential inspirations fill their Ballard warehouse studio, from dress patterns and World Book encyclopedias and car parts to a welding bench and a wall of color-coded spray-paint cans. (Hands off the bicycles, which are meant for transportation, not deconstruction.)
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“We feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with developers and architects,” De Armas says. “The fabric of this city is being established right now for the next 50 to 100 years. Being able to work with them and put an impact on that is really cool.”
While the team has worked on projects from a fanciful yurt inside REI to a Space Needle portrait at the Via 6 apartments, restaurants became an unintended specialty when Yang and Seif Chirchi, who had featured Elder’s portraits at their Revel restaurant, hired them to work on Joule. So many new restaurants were looking the same, Yang said — industrial retro-chic interiors, unobtrusive charcoal and gray palettes. Electric Coffin was unpredictable, “unique.”
For that commission, the artists hand-screened cool blue damask wall treatments, playing on words by drawing jewels into a pattern of atomic elements. Wine barrel staves were transformed into a long communal table. An antique jewelry shop sign became a chandelier — except it wasn’t an actual antique, but a new sign fabricated by the team.
That sign caught the eye of Matt Parker, director of design for the Huxley Wallace restaurant group. He and group founder Josh Henderson commissioned a piece for Westward. “We told them our vision for the space — how it was inspired by The Life Aquatic, Cousteau and yacht culture from the 1960s,” Parker wrote in an email.
When time arrived to see the finished product, Parker’s nerves were on edge. “It was either going to be a hit or the city’s most expensive doll house.”
In the end, “it was just the right kind of weird Josh and I were looking for,” Parker wrote. And the piece, one new landmark for a changing city, has done more than anything else to define Westward’s personality.
“I’m glad we took the risk.”