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Nathan Myhrvold’s Cosmic Curiosities

In this episode of Inspired Design, Dr. Nathan Myhrvold, a prominent scientist, technologist, inventor, author, and food photographer takes us on a tour through his Modernist Cuisine studios in Bellevue, WA. Get a glimpse into his wild world of creation and hear his hope for Seattle as we contemplate how imperfect design is a common thread through past civilizations.

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Episode Transcript

Gina Colucci:
I’m Gina Colucci with the Seattle Design Center. Every week on Inspired Design, we sit down with an iconic creator in a space that inspires them. This week, I caught up with Nathan Myhrvold at his Modernist Cuisine studios in Bellevue Washington.

Nathan Myhrvold:
Here we pump water up, about 55,000 pounds per square inch. And that water can then be used to cut insanely hard metal or glass.

Gina Colucci:
Nathan is part entrepreneur, part inventor, photographer, chef, scientist, designer. But really, he is a highly educated generalist who spends his time tinkering in various disciplines, too many to count.

Nathan Myhrvold:
I am the world’s foremost expert on dinosaur vomit.

Gina Colucci:
He’s the only person I know with a PhD and a culinary degree.

Nathan Myhrvold:
Pizza is a poorly documented cuisine.

Gina Colucci:
Not to mention he spent over a decade working at Microsoft and did a post-doctoral fellowship at Cambridge under Stephen Hawking.

Nathan Myhrvold:
This is a mock-up of a nuclear reactor core.

Gina Colucci:
My conversation with Nathan was all over the map, literally. He travels to all sorts of places to optimize the best photos.

Nathan Myhrvold:
A billion cicadas will come emerging out of the ground on the East Coast once every 17 years.

Gina Colucci:
The tour of his space was like flipping through my fifth grade science book and stopping on all these different random pages.

Nathan Myhrvold:
Charles Babbage was a British genius who, in the 1840s, decided to make computers.

Gina Colucci:
I think the special thing about Nathan is that he has an ability to shift your perspective because he’s going to show you something ordinary in a way that you’ve never seen before.

Nathan Myhrvold:
So here, if-

Gina Colucci:
Can you describe what we’re looking at?

Nathan Myhrvold:
This is some pictures of blueberries, but the blueberries are bigger than a basketball here, in an actual size, in the photo. Now, if I had just taken one picture of this, the amount that’s in focus, this would have been incredibly shallow, incredibly shallow. This is about 500 photos. And so, we take 500 photos and then we use software to put them together. Well, it’s funny. They’re so big. And out of context, a lot of people don’t realize they’re blueberries. They’ll say, “What is that?” Or, this?

Gina Colucci:
Yeah. Okay. That’s the inside of a blueberry.

Nathan Myhrvold:
Yes. Did you know that blueberries had orange seeds?

Gina Colucci:
No.

Nathan Myhrvold:
I didn’t either. Or that the flesh is green.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah.

Nathan Myhrvold:
But, it is.

Gina Colucci:
I know what the inside of the blueberry looks like because my toddler smashes everywhere. So I know that. I didn’t know the seeds were orange and has, like, little cells. Like, I don’t even know what to-

Nathan Myhrvold:
Those are cells.

Gina Colucci:
Okay.

Nathan Myhrvold:
That’s individuals. You can see here and here and here, individual cells. So that’s how close up we’re getting. You can see the individual cells that make up the thing. And the thing I like about these photos is that they take a very familiar object and they show it to you in a very unfamiliar way. You can live your whole life eating blueberries without ever really looking at a blueberry because that’s not required. And if you do look at it, you’re going to look at it with human scale eyes, not with this kind of magnification. So when you do look at it, you get to rediscover it in a new way.

Gina Colucci:
As my eyes darted around Nathan’s office, because there’s just so much to look at, a bunch of stacks of papers and his computer and pens and notebooks. And then you turn and there’s just a plethora of different machines and microscopes and camera gear. And then there’s also a whole table of screwdrivers and Allen wrenches and pliers, all different sizes and shapes and colors. I spotted this skull on his desk, basically being used like a paperweight.

Gina Colucci:
I mean I have to ask, and I will, what is this skull of?

Nathan Myhrvold:
That’s a skull of a water Buffalo. Now, the reason for that, I just finished a book on pizza. The traditional cheese to put on pizza is Mozzarella Di Bufala. The Bufala part is actually an Asian water buffalo. It’s weird, but somehow water buffaloes from, like India, got to Italy, probably brought by the Romans. We actually figured a whole lot of stuff out about that for the book. So most people don’t know that this Italian thing is actually from an Asian water buffalo.

Nathan Myhrvold:
And then I had seen a chef make a flower out of mozzarella by carving the mozzarella so it looked like a white rose. So I did this homage to Georgia O’Keeffe, where we had the buffalo skull, and then some flowers made of either mozzarella or tomatoes.

Gina Colucci:
That’s amazing.

Nathan Myhrvold:
Now, strictly speaking, was that necessary for the book? Well, I don’t know.

Gina Colucci:
Yes. Yes. A hundred percent.

Nathan Myhrvold:
It was definitely fun.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah.

Nathan Myhrvold:
And it makes the point that it’s Asian water buffaloes, not cows, or not some Italian creature.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah, not an indigenous-

Nathan Myhrvold:
Nope.

Gina Colucci:
That’s amazing.

Gina Colucci:
I’m not the tiniest person. I like to say that the most creative people need some chaos. Are you in agreement with that?

Nathan Myhrvold:
Yes. I mean, I actually like it better if it was all neat. I’m just not going to take the time to do it.

Gina Colucci:
You have much better things to do.

Nathan Myhrvold:
Exactly. And as long as it doesn’t get too bad-

Gina Colucci:
No, I would say this-

Nathan Myhrvold:
Things are okay.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
This way?

Nathan Myhrvold:
This way.

Nathan Myhrvold:
This is one with the crazy camera things that I built for a very specific shot, which you’ll see. So we call this The Three Amigos, and normally if you’re shooting pictures of wildlife or other things at a distance, you’ll use a very long lens. And this is the longest lens photographers typically. This is a 600 millimeter lens. During the pandemic, I was watching one of those BBC Earth things.

Gina Colucci:
With all… Yeah, with the rest of the country.

Nathan Myhrvold:
And they have these spectacular ocean waves. I want to go photograph big ocean waves during a storm. But to do that, you both need to have a long lens, but you also want a panorama. And then I also saw a bunch of bird migration things. That would be a spectacular thing to use this for.

Nathan Myhrvold:
So here we have The Three Amigos at work.

Gina Colucci:
Wow.

Gina Colucci:
So The Three Amigos camera, how do I… I mean, how do I even describe this? Picture a giant camera, multiply it by three, and then put on three giant lenses, the biggest lenses you’ve ever seen. Nathan has built this custom stand for them. And so it puts them all in a row. And the lenses of them probably extend over a foot long.

Nathan Myhrvold:
This is from a place in Missouri where enormous numbers of snow geese come during migration.

Gina Colucci:
The photo itself, printed out, is probably about five feet long?

Nathan Myhrvold:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
And it’s a beautiful sun rise, so you get the orange going up into yellow and then green, and you have a horizon. And then there are hundreds of thousands-

Nathan Myhrvold:
Probably. Many, many thousands.

Gina Colucci:
Many, many thousands of geese just flying throughout the entire panoramic image.

Gina Colucci:
Do you know how many snow geese are in this photo?

Nathan Myhrvold:
I have not literally counted this photo. I mean, in the refuge where we were, they were estimating 700 thousand. Now the thing that snow geese is they roost down in the water, the very shallow water at the edge. And then as soon as the sun comes up, they all take off at once. And that’s what this is about.

Gina Colucci:
How loud was that?

Nathan Myhrvold:
It was loud.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
Nathan’s passion for food and photography started at a young age. By age nine, he was cooking Thanksgiving dinner for his family, and soon had a camera by his side to capture everything.

Nathan Myhrvold:
This is one that we’re getting ready to take. So this is the 4/40 tornado. We name all of the things. These are 40 millimeter lenses. So it’s four 40 millimeter lenses and cameras.

Gina Colucci:
The top case for this camera, it was kind of like an erector set on steroids. Super sleek, very industrial feel to it.

Nathan Myhrvold:
Yeah. In the previous incarnations of this, it wasn’t as compact. And it took like half an hour to set up. Anyway, on a Friday, I’m going storm chasing to photograph tornadoes. That’s why this is called the 4/40 tornado. And for a tornado, what you have to do is stop at the side of the road, jump out, take pictures. And while people are yelling, “We have to go.” And then you jump back in. So this whole thing was designed so we can do that.

Gina Colucci:
So it’s just two, really. Two pieces with the cameras.

Nathan Myhrvold:
Two pieces. That’s right.

Gina Colucci:
Wow.

Nathan Myhrvold:
Normally what storm chasing is, is hours and hours and hours of riding in a car, looking for storms. And then, moments of sheer terror.

Gina Colucci:
And what’s the hopes that you will get the largest panoramic photo of a storm ever taken?

Nathan Myhrvold:
Well, if this thing works at all, that will be true.

Gina Colucci:
Okay.

Nathan Myhrvold:
We’ll see. You don’t know whether you’re going to see a tornado or not, but even a normal thunderstorm in the Midwest is pretty damn spectacular. We never really get thunderstorms here. There, it’s really something

Gina Colucci:
So do we want to… There’s so many more things in this room.

Nathan Myhrvold:
Well, let’s keep going just to…

Nathan Myhrvold:
Okay. So now we’re going to go down into our machine shop. You get to have a peek here above it.

Gina Colucci:
So we’re looking down now and at your machine shop and it almost looks like there’s a giant yellow-

Nathan Myhrvold:
That’s a crane.

Gina Colucci:
Yep, folks. A crane. Like a three-story crane inside the machine shop.

Nathan Myhrvold:
The point of those overhead cranes is that we can move heavy things around the shop.

Nathan Myhrvold:
So here we have all manner of machine tools, which torture metal or plastic or wood in different ways. This is one I bought just this last year.

Gina Colucci:
The machine tool for the furniture had its own little home. Like, it had doors on that you would slide open. And then inside was the actual machine that printed.

Nathan Myhrvold:
I actually bought it to make furniture.

Gina Colucci:
What do you think will be your first piece of furniture?

Nathan Myhrvold:
A chair. I’ve been working on a chair. But, a cool chair.

Gina Colucci:
For a cool chair.

Nathan Myhrvold:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
There were so many machines, I didn’t even know where to look.

Nathan Myhrvold:
This is my Babbage engine. So Charles Babbage was a British genius, who in the 1840s, decided to make computers. But of course they didn’t have electronics in the 1840s, so he made his computer out of gears.

Gina Colucci:
Average machine has 8,000 parts, weighs five tons, and measures 11 feet long. There were all these rungs with numbers going down. It was kind of like an abacus meets a printing press, meets a machine from the 1800s.

Nathan Myhrvold:
He never finished it during his life. And people thought, oh, it was ahead of its time, and his plan will never work. Well in the nineties, the science museum in London realized they had the plans. So they decided to build one and find out could Babbage have succeeded? Well, just like Babbage’s project, they ran out of money. But then they met me. And I said, “Could you do two?”

Gina Colucci:
Why do one when you can have two?

Gina Colucci:
A little extra history on Charles Babbage. His wealthy father supported him financially so he could tinker and event all he wanted. He studied at Cambridge and then became part of London’s intellectual society, and kept company with well-known people, including Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens. While he never completed the full machine, he built a fragment of it and would show it off at as well attended society parties.

Nathan Myhrvold:
The great thing is, his plans work perfectly.

Gina Colucci:
That’s amazing.

Nathan Myhrvold:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
Wow.

Nathan Myhrvold:
And it’s a very complicated machine to have thought through upfront. On most machines, you think things through as much as you can upfront, and then you make a first version like, oops, I didn’t leave any place for this. But, not Babbage.

Gina Colucci:
The thing I saw next blew my mind. I wish I could describe what this looks like to you, but I’ve never seen anything like it before. It was bright blue metal and it almost looked like a giant drill the size of a VW bus.

Gina Colucci:
Now we’re underneath the giant yellow cranes.

Nathan Myhrvold:
Yeah. So this is a mock up of a nuclear reactor core that TerraPower, one of the companies I helped start, created. So that is a reactor core, or it could be.

Gina Colucci:
Could be. Wow. And you’ve got your photography going. You’re building a chair. Do you consider yourself a designer?

Nathan Myhrvold:
This is one of these things where, if other people don’t consider it, you that, should you be calling yourself that? It’s a fascinating question. Some people, if they ask me, am I an artist, it’s the same thing. Well hopefully, the things that I, the photographs that I make, or the things we do in the books, or other stuff, do have strong elements of design and aesthetics and art in them.

Gina Colucci:
How do you translate the importance and beauty of technical design?

Nathan Myhrvold:
Well, you know, the technical objects, cameras or things of that sort, have functionality on top of whatever aesthetic requirements you have of them. Now, sometimes just following the technical requirements actually produces something that’s pretty beautiful and pretty interesting in its own right. But it requires lots of creativity and different kinds of creativity, perhaps, to try to make sure that you get the functional things that have to be there done while, at the same time, achieving some other goal.

Gina Colucci:
You’ve been quoted as saying that, “Technology isn’t a barrier to emotion or creativity. It’s a great enabler.”

Nathan Myhrvold:
Well, I think… Throughout history, there are many artists who have been at the cutting edge of technology development. Leonardo DaVinci being a great example. You could argue he was an engineer. You could argue he was a chemist. You could argue he was lots of things. He was also a great artist. And photography is the recent example of that, right? So photography was a brand new thing in the middle of the 19th century and it allowed us to create a new art form, or a new means to art. And I think great photographs can be art as profound as any sculpture or painting. But if it wasn’t for the technical invention of it, you wouldn’t have it at all.

Nathan Myhrvold:
Well, more recently, we’ve had the technical development enable new things, like enable pictures of the stars. Or in the case of these camera outfits that I build, enable a slightly new kind of photo. And I think that that is an enabler of creativity.

Gina Colucci:
You’ve basically wrote the book on following your passions and designing your life. How did you do that? Do you have like a moment that you were like, “I’m going to fully embrace who I am”?

Nathan Myhrvold:
Well, so one of the problems with being me is that, in general, the world rewards specialization. The further you advanced your education, generally, the easier it is for you to carve out a unique place for you in the world, the more you get paid, the more you get rewarded. Lots of companies are run by people who’ve worked for the company for 25 years, and a combination of talent and surviving attrition and experiences brought them up to this key place. And none of that’s very attractive to me because I’ve always been interested in so many things.

Nathan Myhrvold:
I have friends in each of my different pursuits that can’t quite figure out why I waste so much time on the other ones. My physicist friend, I have a PhD in physics, and my physicist friends all will wonder and chortle just out of hearing, or sometimes just in it, in hearing, what a shame it is that I never had a career in physics. I’m like the guy gone bad to them. And the photographers will say, why aren’t you going to be at the other migration next month? And why aren’t you going to be at this. And why aren’t you going to be at that? Well, the answer is because I’m going to shoot storms, or whatever the answer turns out to be. I’m making pizza. But I like doing all of it.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah.

Nathan Myhrvold:
And I’m not sure I really have a choice in that. I just…

Gina Colucci:
I think what’s nice about this part of the conversation. It kind of humanizes this larger than life figure. I had a million other questions for Nathan and not enough time to ask them all, but I couldn’t leave without asking about dinosaurs.

Gina Colucci:
So you have a replica of a T-Rex in your living room.

Nathan Myhrvold:
I do.

Gina Colucci:
And then you found a T-Rex after that.

Nathan Myhrvold:
Yes.

Gina Colucci:
Can you tell us a little bit-

Nathan Myhrvold:
Yes. It’s like having a picture of somebody else’s kids up in your house. Yep, that’s a T-Rex, but it’s not my T-Rex.

Gina Colucci:
How tall are these ceilings?

Nathan Myhrvold:
Oh, they’re real tall.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah.

Nathan Myhrvold:
Well, the dinosaur in the mount is maybe 18 feet tall, at its tallest point. So the ceiling is taller than that.

Nathan Myhrvold:
So everyone who studies dinosaurs seriously loved dinosaurs as a kid. Now that’s not true for most professions. Most people have a job that they didn’t realize existed when they were a child. But not people in dinosaurs. So everyone who studies dinosaurs loved dinosaurs as a kid, a hundred percent of us. And basically I was working at Microsoft and I had some dealings for Microsoft with Steven Spielberg, and he invited me to the set of Jurassic Park. That sounds cool.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah.

Nathan Myhrvold:
So I went down to visit and they had a paleontologist there as the consultant for the thing, named Jack Horner. Well, Jack and I immediately hit it off. And soon after that, I started doing serious research on dinosaurs. And so, I’ve published many papers on dinosaurs. I’m working on at least two different dinosaur papers right now with various colleagues from around the world. And so, I am the world’s foremost expert on dinosaur vomit.

Gina Colucci:
That’s something not everybody can say.

Nathan Myhrvold:
The trick is getting all the way to the end of the sentence without laughing. That is the trick. It’s tough.

Gina Colucci:
You nailed it.

Nathan Myhrvold:
But it’s true. I wrote a whole scientific paper on dinosaur vomit. It turns out… Well, now here’s the better thing. There’s almost no examples, and that’s the mystery. So owls will eat rodents and birds, and afterwards they cough up something called an owl pellet. Well, it turns out, across the animal kingdom, huge numbers of birds do this, not just owls. Owls are the most famous example. But most insect eating birds do the same thing with the insect, parts of the insect. Like the outside of a beetle, the exoskeleton is too difficult for them to digest.

Nathan Myhrvold:
So anyway, the dinosaurs almost certainly did this. But it’s been very difficult to find an example of that. And that’s sort of what my paper is about.

Gina Colucci:
So you found an example.

Nathan Myhrvold:
There’s a few… I haven’t personally found one, but I’ve identified some that the other people have found. I also have done big size of dinosaur growth rates and dinosaur biomechanics. I showed that there was a set of large dinosaurs called sauropods, which had huge long whip like tails. They also had huge long necks and little itty-bitty heads. So Brontosaurus, now called apatosaurus, is an example. Well, people never figured out what the tails were for. And I proved that the tails were actually used like a bullwhip. Now, a bullwhip makes a huge noise and it does so for a very counter-intuitive reason. It actually breaks the sound barrier. So the noise you’ll hear from a bullwhip going crack is actually a sonic boom. Well, I figured out that in fact, these dinosaur tails were perfectly proportioned to make sonic booms.

Gina Colucci:
So, is that how they communicated?

Nathan Myhrvold:
It’s very likely how they communicated. In particular, there’s a place on a bullwhip which is what wears out first if you’re using your bull bullwhip all the time. And it’s in a weird spot. It’s about a third of the way down the bull whip, and it’s because that area gets a lot of stress. Well, about half of the specimens of these dinosaurs have a bone abnormality at that spot. And it’s a bone abnormality very similar to what humans get when we overuse muscles or joints. So half of the specimens were cracking their tails, almost till their tails fell off, which seems like male behavior to me.

Gina Colucci:
[inaudible 00:25:58]

Nathan Myhrvold:
Well, most weird things in biology is you’re not to be sexual selection. Antlers, for example, on deer. I think that they cracked their tails to get a date and the noise, which would travel for… If you’re an enormous animal, you eat a lot. So you can’t be really close to your own kind all the time because you run out of food. So you have to communicate for a long distance. People have found that elephants can communicate across 40 miles, for example, for this reason. So I think this is how they got a date.

Gina Colucci:
Dinosaur bones, nuclear reactor, cores, pizza ovens, tornadoes, geese migration, Nathan finds inspiration in all of these things. How? What is his through line?

Nathan Myhrvold:
One thing I love about the natural world are the cool aspects of that, that you can see that in the skeletons of the dinosaurs or, I’ve got some other creatures, too. You could also see it in some of the crazy manmade items that we’ve made. I have a big collection of radio tubes which, before transistors and solid state stuff, that was the big thing. And I’ve got a collection of old computers, which was how we’d do that I’ve got a couple engine blocks in my living room.

Gina Colucci:
And the first computer downstairs.

Nathan Myhrvold:
Well, I have, yes, that downstairs. And those are all inspiring in different ways. The human created things, particularly those that are created for a very specific mission often can be beautiful and can be very interesting objects in their own right. Meanwhile, the natural world is full all of these other incredibly beautiful and incredibly awesome things. And sort of the third aspects of that are moments, which you can’t capture except via photography. And so, photography is the other.

Nathan Myhrvold:
So I like to say, though, that in my house, I don’t have any deliberately human created art. I have my own pictures, which I’ll consider either not human created or not art. But I have mechanical devices, but those weren’t created to be art, but I think they kind of are. And then I have the natural things. And I think that, well, we live in a very technological society, and one aspect of that technology society is we tend to get rid of things that are old. But sometimes that old technology is kind of beautiful in its own right. Almost even more, if it’s what’s passed you by, and it’s not the original great, wonderful thing.

Nathan Myhrvold:
So the other thing is, people… I’m not one who’s ever going to hide his TV in something where you press a button and it comes out or some other thing. It’s like, no. I’m proud of that there’s a TV there. And there’s an old microwave tube sitting right next to it for how they used to transmit it. And, and, and, and… I think that, well, just as steam punk looks to a certain era, I’m trying to anticipate what the steam punk of 50 years from now will be, because it’s kind of how I live. When all my stuff is antique and weird.

Gina Colucci:
Well, I guess that’s the perfect segue to my last question. You’ve studied a lot of past civilizations. Has that made you kind of contemplate what future civilizations will think of us?

Nathan Myhrvold:
Oh, sure. I mean, I love visiting ruins around the world. And it’s actually something I tell some of my designer friends who are very exacting about making sure every detail is correct. I say, you know, I don’t know. I was in the pyramids, and the detail, a lot of the details are all screwed up. It’s still pretty God damned awesome. You don’t actually need every detail to still be awesome.

Nathan Myhrvold:
But we’re living at probably the fastest rate of change, any point in our history. We still have lots of ways to go. We still have tons of things that we have to accomplish both from a social agenda and from a human agenda, with respect to advances in medicine. So I’m hoping a whole lot of the things that we currently do become obsolete. Another thing I have at home is a Civil War surgeon’s kit, which is this whole… It’s like a tool kit, but of all of these things they would use, and a lot of them are pretty horrific because that was like, “Oh, you got a scratch? Well, best we better take the arm off of the elbow.” I’m exaggerating a little bit, but the state of the art medicine of that era is horrific to us. And I’m sure hoping that medicine today seems horrific at some point.

Nathan Myhrvold:
Yet at the same time, we’ve been in a period of relatively, well, informed continuity, I’ll say. It’s not the same as the Renaissance. But from the Renaissance to us, there was no dark ages where everything was lost. We have all of the writings, or almost all the writing and almost all of the stuff there. You can go to Florence and see all of it, and it’s still awesome, and it’s still made for us, effectively. So although politically, we’ve advanced and technology has advanced since the Renaissance, we’ve enormous continuity. It’s probably a longer period of continuity than most times in human history. And so I’m hoping that what we do is we continue like that. That Seattle circa 2021 seems as quaint as Florence circa 1500 does to us today, but not because we went through some enormous catastrophe, but rather because we managed to keep it together while society in the world evolved.

Gina Colucci:
Nathan’s space is full of quirky items. What’s the most unexpected thing you have in your home? Head to Seattle Design Center’s Instagram post for this episode and tell us what it is.

Gina Colucci:
Inspired Design is brought to you by the Seattle Design Center. The show is produced by Larj Media. You can find them at L-A-R-J, media, dot, com. Special thanks to Miji Suzuki, Lisa Willis, and Kimmy Design for bringing this podcast to life. For more, head to seattledesigncenter.com, where you can subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on social media. If you’re looking for inspiration, come check out the Seattle Design Center in Georgetown. We’re open Monday through Friday, nine to five.

Gina Colucci:
On the next episode of Inspired Design, Denise and Miye Moriguchi give us a tour of the recently remodeled Uwajimaya flagship store in the heart of Seattle’s international district.

Denise Moriguchi:
I would say our [foreign language 00:34:27] and our grandmother would probably be just astounded at what the kitchen and the deli looks like today. We remember her in the old store. She would make lunch for all of the employees every day, and she would hand roll the sushi rolls and curries, and all of the different dishes.

Linda Derschang’s Tavern Tales

In this episode of Inspired Design, Linda Derschang, founder and CEO of The Derschang Group takes us on a wild trip down Seattle grunge memory lane and coins her iconic style High/Low. Learn how and why she uses storytelling to create her infamous gathering places. And wait, did she just say frosting, as in cake?

Explore this Episode

Episode Transcript

Linda Derschang:
I said, “Can you please find an avocado green, a pink, purple, some kind of colored sink?” I just think that sink is fantastic.

Gina Colucci:
I’m Gina Colucci with the Seattle Design Center. Every week on Inspired Design, we sit down with an iconic creator in a space that inspires them.

Linda Derschang:
Here we are in Linda’s Tavern.

Gina Colucci:
That’s Linda Derschang, the creative genius behind Linda’s Tavern on Capitol Hill.

Linda Derschang:
And it has looked pretty much the same since ’99, although it opened in 1994.

Gina Colucci:
Linda has opened 15 businesses over the course of her career, nearly all of them in Seattle. Oddfellows, King’s Hardware, Smith, the Bait Shop. The list goes on.

Linda Derschang:
I had a clothing store on Broadway, previous to owning Linda’s and my store was not doing particularly well. It had at one point. By ’92, ’93, there was a lot of competition, the neighborhood changing, et cetera. I was very good friends and still am with Jonathan Poneman from Sub Pop and friends with Bruce Pavitt. Nirvana had just started getting really big in, would that have been ’91, ’92? Anyway, it financially benefited Sub Pop, so going from a small, scrappy, super cool record label to a still small, scrappy, but very well known record label that actually had now some money happened in the early ’90s. Jonathan reached out to me and said, “Bruce and I have been thinking about opening a bar. What do you think? Want to do it with us?” That really was the beginning.

Gina Colucci:
A quick bit of history here. Bruce Pavitt started a fanzine called Subterranean Pop in the early 1980s as part of a class project at Evergreen State College in Olympia. He quickly began alternating issues of the fanzine with compilation tapes of underground rock bands. Jonathan Poneman joined the scrappy label in the late ’80s. It was not long after that, they released Love Buzz, their first Nirvana single. (music)

Linda Derschang:
When I was young, ’80s, ’90s, people weren’t called creatives. You were an artist or you weren’t. If I were a young person now I would say I’m a creative and how do I make a career out of that? But then, I really didn’t know. I just knew that I liked clothing, so I started my first business in 1984 with a woman that I was in a punk rock band with. We opened a store in Denver. We also had opened a coffee shop in Denver and the next thing we had planned on opening was a bar. Really, what we had in mind I suppose, was a little bit of a lifestyle brand. A clothing store, I could have easily imagined doing a store with furniture and housewares, a bar, a cafe.

Linda Derschang:
But the term lifestyle brand wasn’t around and we were just a couple of young punk rock girls, just thinking about the sort of businesses we would like to go to. I think that idea of creating businesses that I personally would like to go to, has carried through my whole career. So Linda’s really was the bar that Bruce and Jonathan and I, as we started discussing the project, we all had the same idea. It was the bar we wanted to go to. We wanted it to have this Northwest vibe. We didn’t want it to look like a theme bar and you have to be careful, there’s a fine line. But at the time, well, one: I had never designed a bar before, but I had spent time in dive bars. Of course, lots of bars, tons of bars.

Linda Derschang:
But had to really think about what makes a dive bar? This was a Middle Eastern restaurant. This was a full gut and rebuild, which was when I think about it now, that was bananas, even considering with the limited amount of design that I had done with my clothing store. We did work with an architect, but he kept saying, “Are you sure you want linoleum floors? And why do you want all this old wood? You’re going to go find used light fixtures?” Part of the thing was he was just someone that we happened to know, he was a great guy, but his whole look was very modern. He had designed the Gravity Bar, if you remember that.

Gina Colucci:
The Gravity Bar was a long ago, much loved juice bar and vegetarian spot on Broadway. It was open from ’86 to ’05 and was one of the first places to serve veggie green bowls and have wheat grass on the menu. People didn’t know what to make of it. It was such an anomaly. There were travel articles about the restaurant from publications all across the country and smoothies were a dollar.

Linda Derschang:
He was, I think, probably thinking, “Okay, she’s nuts, but I’m going to go along with this, it’s fun.” Actually, the guy that was the head construction dude on this project, it was this older fellow, Randy Jones. Randy Jones, I still remember him. He was in his 50s and he really got what I was trying to achieve. I kept saying, “Randy, I need to bring more things in that give it this woodsy vibe.” He came up with those big logs and turning them into shelves, that was Randy Jones. I found that cupboard in a salvage shop that had been in a pharmacy in Pioneer Square back in the day, it’s super old.

Gina Colucci:
The cupboard Linda mentions that was found in an old salvage shop makes you feel like you’re suspended in time. It fits perfectly with the aesthetic and it’s up over in the corner and they use it for storage.

Linda Derschang:
Graham Graham, who was working on Mo, which is now New Mo’s, had these extra booths and gave us the booths. They were in the basement of Mo. And I had some friends that were doing faux painting and I said, “I want the walls to look like burgundy leather.” You know what, I mean, now it’s looking pretty scruffy, but we’ve never repainted since 1994.

Gina Colucci:
I’m getting stared down by this taxidermy buffalo that is very iconic behind the bar. Does he have a name? Does she, I don’t even know? He, has horns. Have a name or what?

Linda Derschang:
No, but there are rules around the buffalo. They’re not allowed to put necklaces on it, they’re not allowed to put party hats, they’re not allowed to put cigarettes in its mouth. I really have a firm belief about the taxidermy here, but in all of the businesses that I’ve owned, that we need to respect the animal. They’re old, they had a life, that we’re honoring them by putting them in the businesses, I think. It’s not like we went out and shot a buffalo to make the bar look hip. However, when we opened in 1994, that buffalo freaked people out. It was the topic every single night I had to explain something about the buffalo. There were a lot of people that were horrified.

Linda Derschang:
No one at that time was putting taxidermy in their businesses. I’ve always really loved taxidermy, but I’d lived part of my life in Colorado. So there were these mountain bars that had antlers and taxidermy. I don’t know why I’ve always liked it, but I have. So there were times when people would ask about the buffalo and depending on how many times I’d been asked that week, I started sometimes telling people that yes, I had shot it. If they’re going to believe I shot that buffalo, okay. Anyway, most of the time I told the truth and said, “It’s old, it’s beautiful. We respectfully have it hanging up behind the bar.” But it seems so funny now that people would even question it. But it was a pretty big deal when Linda’s first opened.

Linda Derschang:
Later in my career, I had some haters on social media say some things about me copying some places in New York. That was when I designed Smith and during the beginning of Oddfellows. I said, “Look, go to Linda’s Tavern. We were using salvaged wood, salvaged cabinetry, old light fixtures, old paintings and taxidermy in 1994.” It’s a look that I like, but each one of my businesses has a slightly different look. The look that I always love is I think would be just considered high, low. You’re mixing old things, you might find things, you might thrift for certain things, and then you might drop a good amount of money on one light fixture. I don’t know, I just think that that makes a more interesting project.

Gina Colucci:
Is that explanation of the high, low, would you say that is your design style?

Linda Derschang:
I think it’s my clothing style, my design style, my lifestyle.

Gina Colucci:
Sounds fun to me.

Linda Derschang:
I mean, I’m in a, I think a $30 skirt from UNIQLO and a little bit of a fancier leather jacket.

Gina Colucci:
Talk about using used vintage light fixtures. Is there a story behind where you found some of these?

Linda Derschang:
Yes. For anyone who’s lived in Seattle for a long time, you will remember a store called Ruby Montana’s Pinto Pony.

Gina Colucci:
Ruby Montana’s Pinto Pony opened in 1980 and closed in 2000, when Ruby moved to Palm Springs. The vintage emporium was known for having high end furniture, alongside bargain, kitschy decor.

Linda Derschang:
The wagon wheel was from Ruby’s. In fact, a lot of the paintings on the wall, the Montana Power sign. There’s another painting up at the top of the stairs that was a gift from Steve Wells, who was the original owner of Rebar. He brought that to us. This photograph, the large black and white photograph with a herd of cattle, was found on the side of the road by a warehouse in Belltown. Some people brought it to us when we were opening and said, “We’ll trade this to you if we get free beer for the rest of our lives.” And I said, “Okay.” They moved to LA three years after we opened, so I probably got the better end of that deal.

Gina Colucci:
Probably, yeah.

Linda Derschang:
This big fella, this really big elk. In fact, I don’t know if it’s still the biggest, but at the time it was shot, it was the biggest in the state and it hung in Ernie Steele’s.

TV announcer:
Now let’s go to Philadelphia where the Eagles and the Cardinals fought it out for the National League championship in a blinding snow storm.

Gina Colucci:
Ernie Steele was a famed football player for the University of Washington and then with the Philadelphia Eagles. After his football career, he opened a bar and worked there for 46 years. He sold it in 1993 at the age of 75.

Linda Derschang:
There was an auction and I showed up at the auction and there were people that were so happy to see me and said, “Oh, Linda, we really hope you’re going to buy some of the taxidermy and put it in Linda’s.” That just really made me feel good that people wanted it to be moved down here because Ernie’s was… That was an iconic Seattle bar. Anyway, we have that elk, we had a ram’s head and it was hanging up there above our office door. It disintegrated a few years ago, so.

Gina Colucci:
Rest in peace. Linda’s is just brimming with artifacts from Seattle’s history. I’m shocked at how much stuff is from various iconic bars through the decades. While some relics are priceless, others didn’t age so well.

Linda Derschang:
This is the back of the payphone. Remember payphones?

Gina Colucci:
Yes.

Linda Derschang:
For many years, I thought that the payphone was stolen, it was just gone. And I said, “What happened to the payphone?” One of my employees said, “Somebody took it and the phone company doesn’t want to give us another one.” I’m like, “That’s crazy. Somebody stole our payphone.” Well, no, they just told me that. Then there was a point about five years later that I can’t remember which local publication was writing a story about things that were stolen in bars. They asked me about some of the things that had been stolen in our different bars and restaurants over the years and I told them about the payphone and it was published. One of the employees at Linda’s said, “Oh my God, you told them the payphone was stolen. It wasn’t stolen, the phone company came and took it back.”

Gina Colucci:
Everyone has a Linda’s story. I definitely have memories in this bar and there’s something about the energy of this place. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I felt it as soon as I walked in the door.

Linda Derschang:
It’s just a special place. It really means something. For me, it’s the mid to late ’90s and certainly beyond that, obviously I’ve spent time here. But my main time of being here all the time and running Linda’s was ’94 to ’97 and then I started expanding my company. That was an incredibly magical time and I hear that from a lot of friends that are in my age range. But then there was a next group of people and it was a magical time for them and staff that worked here, and then a next group, and a next group, a next group. The thing that I think is so wonderful about Linda’s is that there are always young people.

Linda Derschang:
It’s kept this vibe, this feeling that it had in the ’90s, yet with different generations and each time there’s an amazing group of people. I’d like to think that that’ll just continue. Sometimes when I come in here and I look around and think, “Okay, well, if I were in my 20s or 30s, I would still love this place.” I love that it’s kept that, it still is a magical place for young people.

Gina Colucci:
Magical, indeed. There are so many stories here. Now we’re in your back patio, which is pretty amazing to have a back patio in the heart of Capitol Hill. What is your favorite spot about this area?

Linda Derschang:
The whole thing is amazing. I mean, it was a parking lot. When Linda’s first opened, we used it as a parking lot. Then within the first six months decided to try to create a patio back here and the landlord agreed. So it ended about halfway through the middle of what is now the current patio. I don’t think we even had the bar on the back until we did the big expansion, as a matter of fact. And at a certain point, and I don’t even remember what year it was, it could have been 2005. We expanded the patio, more than doubled it, built a bar on the back. We had the fellow who had done the original paint by number mural, come out and extend the mural, which was really great.

Linda Derschang:
Then one night, and again, I don’t remember what year it would have been, at least 10 years ago. Someone snuck in here, we don’t know what time and how they did it because there is an alarm system. But my manager called me the next morning and said, “You’re not even going to believe what happened on the back patio.” I’m like, “What?” He said, “The mural.” I go, “Oh, God, what? What happened to the mural?” Somebody frosted it. We didn’t know if it was paint or what they had done. It’s paint by number, so they painted it. The whole thing was painted. The staff went up to the paint and they were really careful, trying to figure out what it was and is this permanent and how did this happen? They scooped a finger full and then decided to taste it and it was frosting.

Gina Colucci:
Was it colorful frosting, like different colors?

Linda Derschang:
Yes, pink and purple and green, yes. Probably out of a can, I have no idea, did they buy canned frosting? Did they make frosting? They frosted the whole thing. But at that time we didn’t document everything on our phones. I’ve got a photo of it somewhere. These days, we’d probably leave it for a few days and let everyone come and Instagram it and see it. But then we thought, “Oh, we’ve got to get this cleaned up before it stains it, before anyone gets any ideas to come do something terrible.” Because sometimes if one person does it, a few more people. Maybe I shouldn’t even tell this story.

Gina Colucci:
I want to know who the staff member was to say, “Well, maybe I should try it.” Kudos for them. I mean, that’s brave. That’s so great. I can imagine it. I want to know how long it took them.

Linda Derschang:
I know.

Gina Colucci:
Was there more than one person?

Linda Derschang:
We have no idea. I mean, it was really bizarre and hilarious.

Gina Colucci:
Linda has designed so many spaces and infused them with soul and history. I wanted to know how she does that.

Linda Derschang:
To me, you’re telling a story and I think Linda’s really tells a story. I’ve told stories with other businesses, but I think that anyone can do that in their home. Even if you’re not trying to make a really designed apartment or house, if you are showing photos of places that you’ve been, or art that you bought on a trip, or furniture that you’ve bought, you’re creating these memories from places that you’ve traveled. Or if your interest is music and you have shelves of albums and a guitar sitting somewhere. That is telling the story of your home and your interests. I think that’s one of the things I love the most about design, is thinking of the story that you are telling if you’re actually doing it for a purpose, to create create a business.

Gina Colucci:
What story are you trying to tell at your new home in the Yucatan?

Linda Derschang:
Well, actually, that’s really an interesting question because I’ve had to think about it quite a lot. I started off thinking that it was going to be a little bit more beachy. Because I was thinking about Tulum and other beach places, beach towns that I’ve been to. And I realized, wait a minute, we’re in the middle of the Yucatan, so a beachy vibe, I mean, it would be fine if somebody wanted to do that. But I thought, “I don’t think I want to do that. I think I also want to really celebrate [foreign language 00:19:27] and the tiles that are used.” The traditional colonial look of the storefronts and the homes and how do I incorporate it into my funky little cinder block house? Which currently is undergoing having the roof taken off and they’re taking it up about three feet and then rebuilding all of that to give it more height and to give it a little bit more of a classic ’20s, ’30s look, so it will end up looking more like the other houses on my street.

Linda Derschang:
That’s another part of it, is making it really fit into the neighborhood as opposed to doing something that stands out. I want to embrace what the town is, rather than putting my own stamp on it. So I had to go back and forth between, okay, it’s a small town, it’s not a city. We’re not on the beach. What is the look and the feeling? What do I want people to feel when they come? What do I want to feel when I walk into my house? I want it to feel like a bit of an oasis. You’ve been out, either exploring pyramids, you’ve been out walking around the town and you walk through the doors and immediately you’re going to see the different pasta tiles. Which God, the tile is so good in the Yucatan, it’s so gorgeous.

Linda Derschang:
Then walk through and you will see a lap pool in the distance, but you walk through the area that is currently the original house and through a hallway. After you pass a couple of guests rooms, you’ll see to your left, an indoor courtyard and to your right, some stairs up to the main bedroom. Then walk into a room that will have casement windows and French doors and just cement floors and be very, very, very simple, that looks out to the pool and a wild garden, actually. I want it to look really natural in a lot of ways. I honestly can see the whole look in my head already. And it’s almost like a blurry photograph.

Linda Derschang:
This is how I think every time I’m doing a design project, it’s like a blurry photograph and you have to just slowly wipe away almost like Vaseline. You’re wiping away till you get to see the photograph completely clearly. If I do it right, it will end up as I’ve envisioned it. I think that’s always the trick, because sometimes you’ll go, “Oh, God, maybe I shouldn’t have chosen this particular thing, because I veered in a slightly different direction. How do I correct and veer in another direction?” I don’t preplan, whether it’s my businesses or my homes. A lot of it, it just starts happening, which can drive a contractor batty.

Gina Colucci:
Having a vision is one thing, but like Linda said, you still have to hire contractors and others to bring it to life. She told us her trick on how to make that work.

Linda Derschang:
When I was designing the Bait Shop, I thought about a fairly elaborate story for that design. The reason I did it was to explain to the contractor and his team, the vision, because I knew that it was going to be a hard one. It had been an Asian restaurant that had been remodeled. It had a polished cement floor and it was really upscale and modern looking. But I wanted to turn it into a bar that looked like it had been there since the early 1950s and a dive bar. So I had to convince the landlord that knotty pine walls were a great idea and that I was going to put linoleum on the beautiful, polished cement floors. And he’s like, “Really, I don’t know. I’m not feeling really good about this.” I was like, “Craig, come on. Trust me, it’s going to be good.” I mean, I have to say it was a bit of a battle to get him to let me do it. I said, “Look, you’ve been in my other businesses. Really, trust me.”

Linda Derschang:
The story was this. There was a guy that had been a fishermen and he was in his probably later 40s and he was ready to retire from fishing and he had saved some money, but not enough to hire anyone to build his bar. So he got his fishermen buddies and construction buddies all together and they built this bar called Bait Shop. Knotty pine walls and the horseshoe booths and linoleum floors and that fake paneling in the bathrooms. It was his dream bar, but because he was working on it with his buddies, it was a little funky. It wasn’t perfectly done, but it was really amazing.

Linda Derschang:
By the time 1970s rolls around, he would have been in his 60s at that point. So he had his son take over the bar, he was ready to step down. His son wanted to run it. His son was just a goofball and he had a Trans-Am. He took it out one night and he totaled his car and all that was left was the hood of the car. So he painted it and he hung it on the wall. Then he wanted to change the light fixtures that his dad had put up and he put these ’70s, mod light fixtures up. But he left the knotty pine and the linoleum and he stuck around for quite a long time and then finally he was ready to get out of it and we took it over.

Linda Derschang:
The construction guys were like, “But that, I mean, didn’t happen.” I go, “Look around, there are polished cement floors. We’re in a failed restaurant that was remodeled three years ago and went out of business. No, it didn’t happen. But that’s what we’re creating.” They’re like, “All right.” The main guy that owns the company was like, “Okay, here we go again.” He’d worked with me before. But his guys were like, “Oh, yeah. This is going to be rad.” When I told him about the fake paneling in the bathrooms, he was like, “That ’70s paneling, that stuff’s hideous.” I go, “I know, it’s rad. It’s going to look really good.”

Linda Derschang:
Anyway, I’m convincing somebody again. Always a man. Trust me, it’s going to be great. Anyway, the guys came to put down the linoleum and it looks very similar to the linoleum at Linda’s. These guys walked in and they did it on a Saturday and I was there and they’re like, “Wait a minute. Why are we putting this, I mean, we don’t mean to say it, we work for the company, but this is crappy linoleum on this polished cement floor?” I go, “Well, do you want me to tell you the story about the bar?” And they said, “Yeah,” so I told them the whole story. They’re like, “Oh, my God. This is rad,” and then they were super excited to do it. They got into it and the day they were putting the, I think it’s called beauty bark. I can’t remember the name of it, the ’70s fake wood paneling.

Linda Derschang:
The day that the guy was installing that in one of the bathrooms, I walked into the bathroom. This was a cool, tattooed, rock and roll dude. And I go, “Jeremy, is this bad, or is this just so cool?” And he looked at me and he goes, “Linda, this is so fucking cool.” I’m like, “Yeah!” Anyway, it was a really, really fun project. My sister came to town to visit and we were almost done with it and I was explaining this whole thing to her. And she was like, “But wait. Where are the people? I mean, how did you know to buy it from them?” I said, “Ginny, I told you, this is a made up story.” She’s like, “Where do you come up with these things?” She’s a French teacher and she teaches philosophy. I’m like, “I don’t know. I just make them up.”

Gina Colucci:
While the Bait Shop story is completely made up, the bonkers story Linda told me next is stranger than fiction.

Gina Colucci:
We’ve done a tour and gotten some little highlights. What’s your favorite story or most iconic night here that just is imprinted in your mind and will never leave?

Linda Derschang:
Oh, my God. I think it was when we had the Ron Jeremy Rum release party here. Yes, the distributor of Ron Jeremy Rum reached out to us and asked if we would have a party. When we met with them, they showed us photos of other parties that they’d had. They were in clubs, in dance clubs in Las Vegas or something. I’m like, “And you want to do this at Linda’s Tavern?” They’re like, “Yeah, we think it’d be really fun.” At the time I had this really awesome guy and he said, “Can we create the posters?” And they said, Sure.” So Jonah created this poster and it had an old image of Ron Jeremy when he was young and the poster said, “Ron Jeremy is coming,” and then Linda’s Tavern, whatever, June 12th, blah, blah, blah. They were all over the neighborhood.

Linda Derschang:
So I showed up here on a Friday night, he was already here. Patio was packed. There were a number of people that came just to meet Ron Jeremy. There were a number of people that just happened to be at Linda’s because it was a Friday night and they were approaching me saying, “Did you know he was going to be here?” I’m like, “This party was planned. Yes, we knew he was going to be here.” And Kelly O, who writes for The Stranger said, “Linda, you throw the best parties.” It was just an absurd night and just, I don’t know. It was just a weird, weird party. And having Ron Jeremy here, I don’t know. It was just a funny night at Linda’s.

Gina Colucci:
I can only imagine. It’s like that every night, right?

Linda Derschang:
Well.

Gina Colucci:
Linda’s career blows my mind. And I know it’s been a challenging year for her and everyone in the restaurant industry, navigating all the curve balls that the pandemic has thrown. And I had to ask, what’s next? What do you think is next for you?

Linda Derschang:
Oh, I know. I don’t want to open any more bars or restaurants, but honestly I’d planned that before the pandemic, because I’m a woman of a certain age and I really have worked very hard. This is a challenging industry and creating not only different interiors, but different concepts, from dive bars to nightclubs, to all day, all night neighborhood cafes, like Oddfellows, it’s been a lot. And it’s been a really, really fun career that I’m not ready to completely end. But I think that you’re constantly pushed if you’ve had some success to do more, do more, do more. And I did, and now I want to do less, less, less. Often people that are not business people, so not creatives, their focus is business say, “But what will you do?” Like somehow I’ll be bored. I have an apartment in New York. I could easily go to a few museums a week, go to lectures, see friends, ride my bike, take pictures. I need to learn Spanish, especially now I’m going to live in a small town in the Yucatan.

Linda Derschang:
I just think that if you’re a curious person, there are endless things that you can do to entertain yourself. I think I’ve done enough business. I’d rather think about the rest of my life as, I don’t know, a new adventure that I don’t necessarily want to monetize. I just want to enjoy and keep learning and exploring and creating.

Gina Colucci:
One of my favorite parts of this whole interview was learning about the infamous icing of the mural in the back of Linda’s. Do you have any leads of who did it or do you have a wild Linda’s Tavern story? I know we all do. Tell us by commenting on the Seattle Design Center’s Instagram post for this episode.

Gina Colucci:
Inspired Design is brought to you by the Seattle Design Center. The show is produced by Larj Media. You can find them at larjmedia.com. Special thanks to Meechie Suzuki, Lisa Willis, and Kimmy Design for bringing this podcast to life. For more, head to seattledesigncenter.com, where you can subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on social media.

Gina Colucci:
On the next episode of Inspired Design, we go behind the scenes with Nathan Myhrvold in his state-of-the-art photography lab and learn all about his latest projects.

Nathan Myhrvold:
You can see individual cells, so that’s how close up we’re getting. The thing I like about these photos is that they take a very familiar object and they show it to you in a very unfamiliar way. You can live your whole life, eating blueberries without ever really looking at a blueberry. So when you do look at it, you get to rediscover it in a new way.

LaNesha Debardelaben’s Museum Muse

In this episode of Inspired Design, LaNesha DeBardelaben,  President and CEO of Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) meets us at her place of inspiration, the Douglass-Truth branch of the Seattle Library.  LaNesha will reveal her historical twin and help you find yours while taking you on a soulful journey that transcends time and space.

Statement by LaNesha in response to Gov. Inslee Signing Legislation to Make Juneteenth a Legal State Holiday In Washington

“The passage of legislation to make Juneteenth a legal, statewide holiday establishes Washington as a national leader in acknowledging, educating, and celebrating a more inclusive American history. As an institution dedicated to spreading knowledge, understanding, and enjoyment of the histories, arts, and cultures of African Americans in the Northwest, NAAM was proud to work with Inspire Washington on the advocacy of this legislation and to champion its passage, as noted in the Crosscut op ed here.  Juneteenth is an important part of our history and culture — not Black history, but American history. Inclusive recognition and anti-racist education are essential in building understanding and paving the way toward a more just society. This June 19, NAAM will honor Juneteenth by collaborating with nine other African American museums across the country to host a virtual celebration that people can join from anywhere in the world. For the local community, we will also host an outdoor Jubilee Day Jamboree in Seattle.”

Explore this Episode

Episode Transcript

Speaker 1:
This is my favorite spot in Seattle. Besides the Northwest African American Museum this is the space and place that gives me so much joy and serenity and calm. And it’s a space for reflection and perfection.

Gina Colucci:
I’m Gina Colucci with the Seattle Design Center. Every week on Inspired Design we sit down with an iconic creator in a space that inspires them. Today I’m speaking with LaNesha DeBardelaben, President and CEO of the Northwest African American Museum. She came to Seattle from Detroit, where she was the senior vice president at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. She has global experience with museums and libraries in Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, England, Germany, and Israel, and is involved in both the International Council of Museums and the International Women’s Forum. That’s why I was a little surprised when LaNesha suggested the Douglass-Truth Branch of the Seattle Public Library as the inspiring location of our conversation.

LaNesha DeBardelaben:
I have been drawn to libraries ever since I was a little girl. I was reserved, I was an introvert, and libraries naturally were spaces where I just felt comfortable. I felt like I could be myself, and I’ve always been curious about history and about culture, and libraries are places that are full of knowledge and information about history and culture.

Gina Colucci:
I learned how museums and libraries are intertwined in LaNesha’s personal and professional life, and in our society as a whole.

LaNesha DeBardelaben:
I fell in love with the inner workings, the inner feel the energy of the library. As soon as you walk in, you are faced with these beautiful portraits of Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglas. And again, these are individuals that I’ve been studying since a little girl, going to the library spending every day after school reading about black history. And the Douglass-Truth library is an institution that houses the largest African American historical and literary collection in the West Coast. That is so impressive. That’s a point of pride, and that drew me here as well. So there are just so many aspects about the Douglass-Truth Library that literally made it, like my second home, just like when I was a little girl, the library was always my second home and here in Seattle this is like my second home. We are right in the heart of the city at 23rd and Yesler.

Gina Colucci:
The library extends beyond the walls of the building itself. It has strong roots in the central district.

LaNesha DeBardelaben:
In the 1940s and ’50s, and definitely by the ’60s, the central district was a predominantly African American community and the residents of the city at that time ensured that this library would reflect the African American rich literary and artistic traditions. And so we are graced, these walls are graced with the artwork of brilliant artists of color. If you look behind you, that artwork on the wall, that’s the work of an award winning local black woman artist, Marita Dingus. And the two portraits of Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglas were done by a local artist, Eddie Ray Walker, and the other artwork that adorns these walls, they reflect the rich cultural diversity that has always been found in the central district. And so it just enriches the soul to be in this space.

LaNesha DeBardelaben:
Like it’s not just the books that are on the shelf here that enrich us. It’s the artwork. It’s the rooms that are in this library, named after important trailblazing African American men and women and families of this community, pioneers like the Gayton Family Meeting Room, the Gayton family is just an influential African American family, who they were pioneers here. They’ve been here since the 1880s. And then we have the Louise McKinney reading room named after the former first lady of Mount Sinai Baptist church, the first Baptist African-American congregation founded in 1890 here in Seattle. So we learned so much about African American history, about Seattle and about ourselves at the Douglass-Truth Library.

Gina Colucci:
Because LaNesha so firmly believes in the connection between history and each person’s story, I wanted to ask about her story and how museums became her profession and her calling?

LaNesha DeBardelaben:
The interesting thing is that I grew up in poverty in a small town in Saginaw, Michigan, two hours north of Detroit. And because of the impoverished conditions of my family and community, I did not attend museums until college. My junior year in college was my first real museum experience. So growing up, not only did I not go to museums, because it was across town and there were economic barriers, there was an admission fee. And so that’s why I spent all my time in the public library. And it was not until my going into my junior year in college, I was studying history. I was planning to be a high school history teacher. And I happened upon this internship at a museum and was not aware of career options in museums, because I did not see anybody that looked like me in museums. I did not have full access to museums economically.

LaNesha DeBardelaben:
It was not in my purview at all. That internship experience changed the trajectory of my career entirely. And this was while I was overseas as an exchange student in Nairobi Kenya. And so my first experience was in a black museum, an African museum. And I saw myself all around, because these were people of color who were museum educators and museum administrators and museum curators. And with my passion for history and for education and for literacy, my world changed, because I could bring all of this together, all of my passions together in a career in museums, and I’ve not looked back, that was 28 years ago. And the museum field has truly been a dream come true for me. It doesn’t feel like work. It never feels like work. Because it is surrounding myself with the stories of the past that have always fueled and nourished my soul. And so the work feeds me and strengthens me and is so seamlessly aligned with my purpose, my passion, and my calling. And so there is no other career field for someone who is so drawn to telling and preserving the stories of the past.

Gina Colucci:
That’s amazing. It’s not every day you get to talk to somebody who has that initial, that definite, this is when I was inspired to take this career path. You know, something sparked you and you just ran with it. And it’s really amazing. You kind of mentioned the speaking to your soul, is there a art piece or a exhibit that just split you wide open?

LaNesha DeBardelaben:
Absolutely. You know there is, Gina. It is in Memphis, Tennessee. The National Civil Rights Museum is a historic site. It is the assassination site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It’s where he spent his last night, took his last breath. And in 1991 the site became a museum, a public museum. And since the day they opened, they have been educating through exhibitions on the power of the civil rights movement and the legacy of Dr. King’s life. And in 2014 that museum underwent an extensive multimillion dollar renovation. And shortly thereafter I visited that museum, and it literally brought me to my knees standing in front of room 306, and listening to Mahalia Jackson sing Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s favorite hymn, Precious Lord take my hand.

LaNesha DeBardelaben:
(singing)

LaNesha DeBardelaben:
It is the most soul stirring, heart touching, exhibition experience I have ever encountered. And I encourage everybody, if you get a chance to go to Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, which is now the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, your soul will be moved when you hear Mahalia Jackson as you walk toward 306, the hotel room of Dr. King’s assassination site. There is nothing like that museum experience for a visitor.

Gina Colucci:
Just hearing you speak of it gives me chills. You know, having that experience for you and being the president and CEO of the Northwest African American Museum. Do you hope that you can have an impact on somebody like that exhibit had an impact you?

LaNesha DeBardelaben:
Museum exhibitions are spaces where we should leave differently from how we entered the gallery, and exhibitions that help people to have an open mind and a changed heart are exhibitions that are really fulfilling their mission.

Gina Colucci:
And we need that right now. Yes, we do. We talk about a lot of places that inspire people, but is there a person that inspires you?

LaNesha DeBardelaben:
Oh, so many. So let me just think. I believe that we all have a historical twin, someone in the past that we strive to look like, that we strive to emulate their strength, their tenacity, their resolve, their drive. And I believe that if we just reflect on who we are striving to be, we will come to discover and realize who our historical twin is. And my historical twin gives me such inspiration. I think about her daily. Her example keeps me going when I get tired and become a bit weary and become a bit frustrated with the challenges I’m facing. I think about Mary McLeod Bethune and what she faced and how she overcame it. Gives me the strength to face whatever comes my way and to overcome it. So Mary McLeod Bethune was born in 1875 in South Carolina as the 17th of 17 children to formally enslaved parents.

LaNesha DeBardelaben:
And she was the only sibling who was afforded an education and her family entrusted her said, “Mary, you’re the only one that’s going to be able to get this education. So use it to make us all better.” She took that expectation seriously. And she went on to study in college and become an educator. She wanted to be a missionary, but, into Africa, but black women at that time were not allowed to be missionaries in Africa from Moody Bible College, where she was in Chicago. And so she instead went into education and it became her calling. And she started a college with a $1.50 cents and faith. And she established the National Council of Negro Women in 1935. She was an advisor to Franklin Roosevelt, a close friend to Eleanor Roosevelt.

LaNesha DeBardelaben:
And she was one of the most influential black women in politics during one of the most transformative times in African American history during World War II going into the 1950s. Mary McLeod Bethune was an institution builder when African Americans were not allowed to go to the hospital in Daytona Beach, Florida, because they had quotas on the number of African Americans that the mainstream hospital would serve, Mary McLeod Bethune started her own hospital. When African Americans were not allowed to go to the library in Daytona Beach, Florida, Mary McLeod Bethune started her own library. She started her own college. And so she was fearless and she did not let anything stop her. And so I strive to be that kind of institution builder. I strive to carry that kind of determination into the work that I do.

LaNesha DeBardelaben:
I’m striving to look like Mary McLeod Bethune and it is what keeps me going and striving to make a difference the way that she did, because I too am one of the, I’m the first in my immediate family to go to college. And I realized that everything that I do is in service to others to make my family proud the way that Mary McLeod Bethune made hers proud. That same expectation that was on her is on me. And so I’m just grateful that her example gives me a model of leadership and selfless influence that I hope.

Gina Colucci:
You definitely are. Those are big shoes to fill, you are well on your way. As our tour took us to the new edition of the library, you descend down this beautiful staircase. And once at the bottom we rounded the corner and right there is this huge display.

LaNesha DeBardelaben:
This is my absolute favorite space. My heart is swelling with pride right now.

Gina Colucci:
To describe what we were looking at. It’s a floor to ceiling glass case filled with images representing the rich history of black women in Washington State and beyond.

LaNesha DeBardelaben:
We are at the display case of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Delta Upsilon Omega Chapter. This display case tells the story of African Americans in this community, in this city, in this state, through the lens of the oldest black sorority in the country.

Gina Colucci:
It holds personal meaning for LaNesha, an Alpha Kappa Alpha member herself.

LaNesha DeBardelaben:
Yes, yes, yes. This exhibition space is always telling the African American story by African American women of this community. This sorority donated the … At that time, it was called the Negro Collection. It was in 1965 and the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Delta Upsilon Omega Chapter, which is located here in Seattle, comprised of college educated African American women leaders in all kinds of fields and industries. These are all professional women that come together to serve community in a shared sisterhood. And it’s so inspiring to see that they have dedicated since 1965 their financial and volunteer hours to ensure that this display is always adorned with black history, black art and black culture. It is truly an inspiration. This is my absolute favorite spot, because it was in a space like this that drew me to African American history as a small child, as a six-year-old, seven-year-old girl, going to the library, I was drawn to displays like this that allowed me to see myself and see who I could be.

LaNesha DeBardelaben:
And here we are looking into this display case and seeing women like Ida B. Wells, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Church Terrell, Sojourner Truth. These women reflect the best of black womanhood. It just almost brings me to tears, because it is what so many of us have dedicated our lives to doing, to preserving this history. So that we can always know who we are, who we can be. And that we are always working on becoming our best self. I encourage individuals to come and to stand in front of this Delta Upsilon Omega Chapter Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority display case, because there is going to be some historical truth that you need to know, and it’s told here in this display case. And it helps us all to become better, no matter what our gender may be, no matter what our ethnicity may be.

LaNesha DeBardelaben:
These are stories of individuals who overcame odds and we all face hardships and challenges in our lives. All of us, no matter who we are, no matter our age, our ethnicity. And these stories inspire us to find a way to hold on, to get through, to overcome the challenges that we all face in our lives.

Gina Colucci:
As we walked up closer to it, you could see this title.

LaNesha DeBardelaben:
Lifting as We Climb. That was the motto, and that still is the motto of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. This is an organization that was established in 1896 when black women were rejected from joining the National Association of Women’s Clubs. They had to organize themselves and create their own organization so that they could employ their leadership, their commitment to community, pull their resources together to serve their community. And to build a better way for African Americans. And so this model, Lifting as We Climb is a mantra that all of us should live by. We are all climbing, we’re all striving to become better in our personal lives, in our family lives, in our professional lives. As we climb, let’s lift up somebody else. Let’s help somebody else as we help ourselves. These black women have lived by this. They have led by this, and they have died by this.

LaNesha DeBardelaben:
They have spent their lives giving their best as they strive to be their best. It’s a lesson for all of us. Their legacy teaches and instructs us all on how to do what we can when we can, how we can, to improve the life of others. That’s what Lifting as We Climb is all about. This sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority is the sorority that our first female vice president is a member of. And she joined the sorority at a historically black college, Howard University. And so we are at a point of transition and redefinition of what kind of country we will be. And we have to lift as we climb in order for us, all of us, to continue on this path of becoming a better country for all, a more equitable country for all.

Gina Colucci:
Hey, if you’re inspired to find your historic twin, head to Instagram and comment on the post for this episode, Inspire Design is brought to you by the Seattle Design Center. The show is produced by Larj Media. You can find them at larjmedia.com. Special, thanks to Michi Suzuki, Lisa Willis, and Kimmy Design for bringing this podcast to life. For more, head to seattledesigncenter.com, where you can subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on social media. On the next episode of Inspired Design, Linda Derschang gives us all the juicy behind the scenes details about Linda’s Tavern and her layer design process.

Speaker 1:
All right so can you please find an avocado green, a pink, purple, some kind of colored sync. And I just think that sync is fantastic.

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