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canlis

Canlis | Kitchen Culture

canlis

Canlis | Kitchen Culture

In this episode of Inspired Design, we visit renowned fine dining restaurant Canlis. Owners, Mark and Brian Canlis along with Head Chef, Aisha Ibrahim candidly reveal their altruistic philosophies that keep this 70-year-old establishment at the forefront of the industry. Gain a newfound appreciation for their obsession to detail and the design secrets that lie around every corner.

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VISION

Our vision for what it would look like if we carry out the mission perfectly: Canlis strives to be the best restaurant in America. Our people are growing emotionally, relationally, and professionally. We serve one another in a way that makes people feel valued and restored.

VALUES

We value trustworthiness, generosity, and other centeredness.

MISSION

To inspire all people to turn toward one another.

Episode Transcript

Mark Canlis:
This restaurant, at the end of the day, is really about being trusted. I think somebody comes in and says, “Man, tonight is a really big deal to me. It really matters. If I go there, it’s going to be okay. I’ll feel seen and known. I’ll feel served and cared for.” That’s what’s going on.

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.

Gina Colucci:
On this episode of Inspired Design, we sit down with Mark and Brian Canlis at their iconic restaurant and chat with their new head chef, Aisha Ibrahim. Nestled on the hill of Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood, surrounded by trees, overlooking Lake Union, Canlis is the most respected fine dining establishment in the city. Founded 70 years ago by their grandfather, Peter Canlis, Mark and Brian proudly honor their grandfather’s legacy through their loving and attentive stewardship of the restaurant. They oversee everything, from daily operations, to architecture and design, to art procurement, even menu changes.

Brian Canlis:
My name is Brian Canlis. I’ve been here 16 years in my current role, which is the president, and I’m more of a day to day operations guy. I think Mark may be more of a big picture guy.

Mark Canlis:
I’m Mark Canlis. I’m his brother.

Brian Canlis:
You’re the CEO.

Mark Canlis:
I’m the CEO. Really?

Gina Colucci:
Mark and Brian honor their guests through every stage of their time at Canlis.

Brian Canlis:
It’s just like this subtle wink. It’s like the restaurant saw you.

Gina Colucci:
From the food…

Mark Canlis:
What does that look like on the fork?

Gina Colucci:
To the design…

Brian Canlis:
This was done as a tansu, as a super subtle nod to our Japanese heritage.

Gina Colucci:
To art…

Mark Canlis:
To make it pop at night, she put charcoal on it, so that’s actually charcoal on top of a photograph.

Gina Colucci:
Music and aromas…

Brian Canlis:
We think that smells delicious, but we think it can be better.

Gina Colucci:
They really attend to all five senses.

Mark Canlis:
Hundreds of hours just in designing the new shutter.

Brian Canlis:
Every single thing, we get super into.

Mark Canlis:
It’s us, roped into that tree, pruning the branches by hand. You want to know what it takes to run a restaurant? That’s how crazy the shit gets around here. And you might say that’s micromanaging, and sometimes it is, but also, that’s some of the joy. I’ve been looking at that tree my whole life. There’s a real joy to get to rope into it and just sort of manicure it.

Mark Canlis:
We need to do a 90-second Canlis architect and designer sort of run-down?

Gina Colucci:
Yeah, because let’s start from 1950.

Mark Canlis:
Can I just sort of humming, sort of a 90-second tune? I feel like we need a little song that comes in here, and then, doot-doot-doot. Okay, 1950.

Brian Canlis:
The original architect was Roland Terry.

Mark Canlis:
He’s kind of not a big deal yet. He’s a residential interior… he’s a residential architect.

Brian Canlis:
In partnership with Pete Wimberly. The two of them worked on the building, but Roland was the principle.

Mark Canlis:
Peter Canlis wants the restaurant to feel like a home. That’s a big deal.

Gina Colucci:
And Peter Canlis is your…?

Brian Canlis:
Our grandfather.

Mark Canlis:
At that point, restaurants were fancy, formal rooms with columns and mirrors, and they looked like Louis the XIV’s place, right?? We were taking all of our cues at this point in time, which would be the ’40s and ’50s, from Europe. So, the fact that Peter said, “What if you were as comfortable in a restaurant as you would be in your own home?” This is sort of me thinking a little bit. So Roland Terry comes in, and he’s the genius. He finds all these artists, like George Suyama, for example. Or, sorry, George Sugawa.

Brian Canlis:
He wasn’t born yet.

Mark Canlis:
Suyama will come later. And gets him to carve, like the very first sculpture he ever did is that door handle, right? Which is super cool.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah. Just, you walk in, and that is such an iconic piece. You recognize it right away.

Brian Canlis:
It’s his first ever commissioned sculpture, is our door handle. It’s pretty fun. But there are a lot of things that Roland did with Peter, like the kitchen was open to the dining room. That was something you never did in fine dining. The kitchen was where the servants worked.

Mark Canlis:
And the fireplace in the entryway. I’ve had people come in, sort of in their 80s and 90s and tell me, “I have never seen a fireplace in a restaurant before. We had no idea.” In fact, the woman who used to live on the property remembers it being built, and she was a little girl, putting her face up to the glass door and asking if they were building a home or a restaurant. It has a fireplace.

Brian Canlis:
Yeah, and there’s no front desk when you walk in. So traditionally in a restaurant, you walk in and you have a maître d’ and a desk, but you don’t have that for a while until you get into our restaurant. Eh wanted it to feel like you were coming over to his house.

Mark Canlis:
As you’re coming in.

Brian Canlis:
There’s furniture, and there’s a sofa.

Mark Canlis:
Like a human being.

Brian Canlis:
And Roland’s whole thing was blending the outside and the inside, so the stone outside carries through to the inside, and the beams carry through, and the glass carries through. So, that was fun. That was the ’50s.

Mark Canlis:
We remodeled the restaurant in the ’50s, in the ’60s.

Brian Canlis:
Yeah. Not the ’70s.

Mark Canlis:
Not really the ’70s. But in the ’80s, Jean Jongeward would arrive, for the great Canlis refresh.

Brian Canlis:
Yeah.

Mark Canlis:
And it’s worth saying, I think in those days, I think what Roland did, from just an exterior architectural design standpoint, I think that some of his genius was that he went so far beyond that. He knew artists, and he knew Irene McGowan, who came in and was doing all of this lighting work in ways that no one was doing at that time, and we still have a couple of her things. And so, it’s not really until the ’80s, I don’t know, maybe before, that it needs to be sort of refreshed in this way, and it gets super cool, right? She just…

Brian Canlis:
It was ’83 or so?

Mark Canlis:
Yeah.

Brian Canlis:
It was early ’80s. And then, about 15 years later, mid-late-’90s was Jim Cutler the architect redid it, and Doug Razor, the designer.

Mark Canlis:
So, Cutler wanted to work on a Roland Terry building, and just made it financially feasible for us in order for that to happen. It was like, “Hey, I think this is just such a cool project, and let’s try to go back to what maybe, had Canlis had a bigger budget in 1950, what would this have…” Because we were looking at original drawings, that kind of thing.

Brian Canlis:
Yeah, what were the things that Roland Terry couldn’t do because they ran out of money, and let’s do those things.

Gina Colucci:
And so, what were those?

Brian Canlis:
Oh, like bringing the stone columns, having more than two.

Mark Canlis:
Yeah, having the beams all the way through the space. Redoing the porte-cochère in the way that it was meant to be done. And it’s so different, like when you look at the way the restaurant was in those days. We look at old pictures. There’s zero HVAC on the roof. No air conditioning whatsoever.

Brian Canlis:
And no lights.

Mark Canlis:
There are no lights on the ceilings.

Brian Canlis:
So therefore, it’s only…

Mark Canlis:
There are only lights in the ceiling today. We just replaced one of those bulbs over the pandemic. Imagine none of those being there.

Brian Canlis:
So it was like candle light and ambient light, but nothing over the tables. So, it was dark and hot.

Gina Colucci:
Wow. And now there’s over 400.

Mark Canlis:
But I would say the guy who… It’s Doug Razor who comes in and I think sort of brings the restaurant, working off of what Jean did. They really changed it significantly in the ’90s, and that was so needed at that time, and he really guided us for the next 25 years.

Brian Canlis:
Yeah.

Mark Canlis:
Or more. We still… He’s technically retired. We still call him from time to time. And then you had George Suyama come in, from an architectural standpoint. So, I think the restaurant’s been so blessed. If you look at sort of who those… Those, to me, are so signature of the way that kind of northwest design feels.

Brian Canlis:
Right.

Mark Canlis:
And obviously, there’s so many other people who have built that sort of genre up, but I just feel like those are, we’re standing on the shoulders of giants in that sense. You know what I’m saying? It’s real.

Gina Colucci:
Because the business side of Canlis is so well done, it gives Mark and Brian the creative liberty to take risks, and to make sure every detail of the diner experience is perfect.

Mark Canlis:
The guest is in the spotlight. If we suddenly draw too much attention to something, then we are taking the guest out of the spotlight. That would be a bad design. Like, we have to remember, this is about them. So, all of this stuff is like, how are you honoring what they’re experiencing? This is too poppy. This is too flashy. But this suddenly becomes subtle. I want them to just not have anything jarringly take them out of that bubble, and I want it to slowly reveal itself.

Brian Canlis:
Just the butter knife that we have on our tables right now took us six months to achieve. We’re the only restaurant in America that has this butter knife.

Gina Colucci:
They spend hours procuring the place setting. If they change out the butter knife, it has this ripple effect.

Mark Canlis:
This is the butter knife.

Gina Colucci:
Here’s the butter knife. Okay.

Mark Canlis:
Okay, so the butter knife is a thing, you guys. We fell in love with the silverware, and we completely hated the butter knife. And then we just said to ourselves, wait, why does the butter knife have to be…

Brian Canlis:
It comes with the pattern.

Mark Canlis:
With the pattern, right? They’re their own thing.

Brian Canlis:
They’re their own course.

Mark Canlis:
It’s the only thing that lives on the table. It’s its own separate thing. So, we find this butter knife, we fall completely in love with it.

Brian Canlis:
They’re made in Japan. They’re gorgeous. They’re bronze. They’re sharp, which is the tradition in Japan. I had to convince this company to manufacture in Japan that we were worthy of the butter knife. I had to send photos. I had to send a description. I had to send them financial statements, that we were solvent. That took months and months and months, just for a single piece of cutlery. Now I have to convince Seattle not to steal them when they come in, so what we do is, we count them. Every time we clear, we count all the butter knives, and it’s already happening. People take them, and so we have a thing. What we do is, if there’s only three butter knives on a four top, then you say, “Oh, one must have fallen on the floor. I’m going to go drop these off on the kitchen. I’ll come back and look under your table.” And every time, the butter knife has found itself. “Oh, how fun, you found it for us.”

Gina Colucci:
They oversee design and production of locally made custom steak knives.

Mark Canlis:
The steak knife took three years for us to develop. It was like the steak knife was the joke of every team meeting, because we could not, could not figure out what a fine dining restaurant should do about a steak knife. Because knives that come in fancy silverware sets, they’re not really sharp enough, and they get their sharpness through serration, which is kind of a cheap way to do it. It’s like, I hear that on a table.

Mark Canlis:
And Rob Gray, this guy made these knives for us. He found this piece of Koa wood. And Koa has a lot of historical significance, so it’s just going back to the ’50s. We had a restaurant in Hawaii. Peter’s very first place in the late ’40s was in Hawaii, so a lot of our serviceware started in Koa. It started in this really beautiful Hawaiian wood. We still use it, but it’s very hard to get, and so we kind of, as a nod to that sort of historical thing.

Mark Canlis:
Now we don’t have to just use Koa, right? You have all sorts of cambia, bubinga…

Brian Canlis:
Lacewood, zebrawood, wenge.

Mark Canlis:
Sapele. Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
What do you think your grandfather would say?

Brian Canlis:
Oh, he’d probably think we’re nuts. I mean, even when we came back in 2003-’04-’05, the only plates were white and round and simple, and it made washing dishes, which is what our first job was, a little easier. But now everything is handwashed, and there’s 40 different plates out there.

Mark Canlis:
If you have 150, 200 guests, that’s 1,000 pieces of serviceware. If you’re handwashing, that’s a lot of handwashing.

Gina Colucci:
So, I’m holding both knives, the steak knife in my left and the butter knife in my right, from different parts of the world, from different creators, but there’s a very slight similarity, and they complement each other beautifully.

Mark Canlis:
So, the one in your left hand, the steak knife, we got to design from scratch. The one on your right, the Japanese butter knife, you can see that there’s little pins that are holding the handle to essentially the knife itself, that piece of metal that goes all the way through the handle, they match almost identically.

Brian Canlis:
And they get counted every single night and put in the safe and inventoried, because they’re a big deal.

Mark Canlis:
Yeah. Most restaurants might say, well, it doesn’t make sense. You can’t use home-grade stuff in a commercial setting. We would say, wait a minute, I think you can. I think you just have to be really intentional about how to do it. You can handwash things. You can be really intentional.

Gina Colucci:
This is what happens when you change the forks.

Mark Canlis:
You have to start looking at everything that the guest is experiencing in the restaurant. Does that make sense? So, these are the things you’re going to run into, and they’re all, they all need to speak the same language. It’s all a part of the story. It’s like a part of the way that something makes you feel. So then, when Chef says, “We need a tray for rice,” this is what happens. We’re adding this in. It’s like, we’re going to add a character into the movie. We’re like, whoa, okay.

Gina Colucci:
And then they’ll bring in a rice bowl that you can only find in Japan, so that the rice is served and displayed correctly.

Mark Canlis:
This is round three.

Brian Canlis:
Of these plates that we’re building.

Mark Canlis:
Of trying to understand.

Gina Colucci:
So, you build custom plates?

Mark Canlis:
Yeah.

Brian Canlis:
Oh, yeah.

Gina Colucci:
I don’t think people, everyone knows that, is that it’s mostly custom.

Gina Colucci:
Everything is there in front of you on purpose, for your experience.

Mark Canlis:
Because honestly, I think what’s special is, you get a bunch of normal people who decide for one night, they want to go out big. And when you come in, it’s probably not going to just be of happenstance, like oh, I just ended up at Canlis tonight. Whoa, how did this happen, right? It would probably be some intention around it. You would love it if it felt a little bit like the best meal of your life. You’re kind of wondering what the millionaires and the movie stars dine like, right? And this is what they have in their homes, so why wouldn’t we present that to you at Canlis? It just takes a little extra work.

Gina Colucci:
You think this process never ends. Is that…

Brian Canlis:
I hope not.

Mark Canlis:
I mean, this is the process of being considerate. I think that’s what fine dining is. It’s somebody saying, tonight, I’m going to consider, again, from scratch, what is the very best way to take care of you? What is the very most beautiful-est? Most beautiful-est thing I can put in front of you, right? What is beauty, or what is yummy, or what is kind?

Gina Colucci:
Yeah.

Mark Canlis:
If we’re not asking that question all the time, we’re getting stale.

Brian Canlis:
That’s what makes fine dining fun, because no other, there’s no ceiling. It never ends. You just keep pursuing a target that is always in front of you, of being the best, of being the most considerate, of being the most beautiful. There is no arrival.

Mark Canlis:
All of the stuff from a few years ago, we’d have been this excited about a few years ago, and now it’s like…

Brian Canlis:
Now we’re like, ugh, it’s so dated.

Mark Canlis:
Now we’re just like, I don’t want to look at that, right?

Gina Colucci:
So, would you say your innovation and desire to keep evolving is one of your key factors of staying relevant?

Brian Canlis:
Absolutely.

Mark Canlis:
I think it’s the thing that merits our being trusted. It’s a different dining scene right now. It’s post-COVID, or we’re trying to get to this post… We’re all different, and if we’re all different, guess what? Fine dining is all different, because this is a relationship between us and the guest, and if the guest is coming from a different place and feeling like they’re in a different sort of emotional space, or mentally, then we need to adjust to that. I don’t think we’re worth dining at if we’re not asking that question all the time.

Gina Colucci:
You keep evolving and changing. You are really rewriting the fabric of fine dining. You just hired a female head chef and a female head of your wine. What other things are you doing to change fine dining for the better, but also, what do you hope the future of fine dining looks like?

Brian Canlis:
the role that fine dining has always played in the larger restaurant community world wide is, it is the leader. It is the innovator. It is the tip of the spear. We are really excited about the tip of that spear right now being how you treat people, and how you care about the people that are delivering and making the food that you’re eating. That’s where all the innovation that we’re particularly inspired by, and that we want to lead, as this entire industry gets rebuilt, and we’re now being looked at more than ever as a worldwide leader in fine dining.

Mark Canlis:
There’s this really sneaky lie that is pervasive in business that sounds like, to be the very best, you have to use up your people. I don’t know how that snuck in. Obviously, there’s a lot of examples of it out there in the world. But there’s a lot of examples of the exact opposite, where it’s through your people, it’s through the glory of your people being fully alive and flourishing, that the company succeeds. That’s this restaurant’s story.

Mark Canlis:
And so, I think what we’re curious about is, how do we do that now? What does that look like now? If we’re becoming the kind of people we hope to become, and I’m not talking about accomplishing things, but like our character, what kind of dad, what kind of husband, what kind of leader, who am I in the community? What are those things you’re going to say at my funeral? Hopefully those are things that I’m proud of, and if not, that’s not me.

Mark Canlis:
I think as a company, what we want to do is say, okay, hold on, what’s on us? What is here that we control over? What are the privileges that we’re currently enjoying all the time, and which ways can we sort of choose to be thankful for those things, and then use those for good? And I think in business, it’s going to be all about the health of your team. And that is not pulling you from being successful. I actually think it’s pushing you towards that. Our hope is that if we could model what it looks like to turn towards one another in that way, then maybe that idea grows.

Brian Canlis:
When we brought in Aisha, we had mostly decided that she was the right chef for our restaurant before we had tasted any of her food. Her heart, and how she cares and thinks about people, and how she wants to lead, and how she wants to change the issues she’s wrestling with, like the way she was treated for 20 years in this industry, which is not awesome. She is so excited about being a leader that rewrites that story. That’s what got us excited. And then, oh, what do you know, she’s maybe the greatest chef we’ve ever tasted her food of. She can cook the lights out. And so, the combination of those two things, but the first one was more important. The food was a bonus.

Mark Canlis:
And we think that’s really different in kitchens. There are a lot of cooks who come through these doors and have never… they don’t get it. Like, what? Hold on a second. I thought this. And so, that’s our fault, our, the restaurant industry’s fault. We were the ones asleep at the wheel. We were the ones who were like, wait, how have we allowed our industry to become known for not caring for our own people? That is not okay.

Brian Canlis:
Part of that was also television, and the idolatry of angry chefs.

Mark Canlis:
This gets glorified in media all the time. Emotionally immature leadership that somehow we think is entertaining. God, that’s terrifying.

Brian Canlis:
It’s not a headline, like, “Executive chef was nice to cooks.” The stories that people gravitate towards are the negative ones. How do we create a positive story so exciting that that’s a headline? That’s fun for us.

Mark Canlis:
Aisha could be one of those ways. You’ve got to start putting leaders in the right places, so that they can influence people, and they can shine a different light into that world. So, we’re really excited. It’s so cool to have her here.

Gina Colucci:
Seattle Design Center is the premiere marketplace for fine home furnishings, designer textiles, bespoke lighting, curated art, and custom kitchen and bath solutions. We are located in the heart of Georgetown, open to the public Monday through Friday, with complementary parking. Our showroom associates are industry experts, known for their customer service. We’re celebrating new showrooms and added on amenities. Visit SeattleDesignCenter.com for more information about our showrooms and our Find A Designer program.

Gina Colucci:
We head into the kitchen to talk with Canlis head chef, Aisha Ibrahim. There are clocks everywhere, and different sections for every type of dish, and over the left is the main stove, and it’s a lot of stainless steel, and you have the warming station, and you have all the passes, which are large islands.

Aisha Ibrahim:
I wanted to redesign how we looked at stations and how we distributed certain dishes, and when you’re looking at efficiency of movement and how things hit the pass… This is a pass. This is a pass, and that is a pass.

Gina Colucci:
So, it’s like an island or a peninsula off of a stove, or…

Aisha Ibrahim:
Yes. Yeah, so the island is… The island in the middle of these kitchens, like when you look at a fine dining kitchen, there’s always the island. We call it the pass. That is the point in which we kind of pass off the food, and whoever’s expediting, it’s usually myself, and we have an expediter who works kind of in between dining room and front of… and the kitchen, and they sell the food. So, this is the area that we kind of get the final touches. We’re presenting the hottest plates. All the sous chefs are typically kind of standing around the passes, making sure that just before it leaves, we all have eyes on it, we’re all tasting everything.

Aisha Ibrahim:
Having greater access to hot ovens when you’re selling 75 of something a night, versus 40 of something a night, a lot of this movement makes a lot of efficiency. It’s all very deliberate as it’s moving out. So, everything needs to be moving in that direction. By that direction, I mean out of the kitchen.

Aisha Ibrahim:
When you’re cooking a piece of fish, we take it to about 75%. If that heat is where it should be, we use temperature probes and we’re testing it as it’s hitting the pass, the three-minute gap between here and going to the table, it’s residual cooking. So, by the time it hits the guest, it should be perfectly cooked. Then you’ve got a lot of moisture still, and you’re not losing moisture in that process. So, yeah.

Gina Colucci:
That’s fast, though. 3-4 minutes. It comes off. It gets here. You’ve got a food runner waiting.

Aisha Ibrahim:
Yes.

Gina Colucci:
And then it gets to the table, and if you’ve got like a four-top, you’ve got to time that perfectly.

Aisha Ibrahim:
It gives me anxiety thinking about it. Yes, that’s exactly four minutes.

Gina Colucci:
The kitchen is so in tune with the front of the house. Each dish and course is timed to the minute. Everything is paced around the diner’s experience. It’s even taken into account when a guest gets up from their table.

Aisha Ibrahim:
Actually, let’s back up. When you have your snacks, I get that table set ticket, and I determine how quickly you’re pacing yourselves throughout the night. Sometimes we have tables who just fly through their menus, and they’re out of savory courses in an hour. That means that they’ve hit first course, second course, third course, and they’re already into desserts after an hour. That’s pretty fast.

Aisha Ibrahim:
Todd, who’s our expo right now, will be like, “Hey Chef, these people, they flew through snacks.” And I’m like, “Okay, great. Oh, wait, let’s backpedal, because they just got wines.” So, when they get wines throughout the meal, then they slow down. The wine team comes in, and we want to give them that period of being able to present the wines, talk about it to the guests, and then get their wine glasses down, get the pour, get the spiel, give room for questions from the guests. So then, that kind of, we have to readjust our timeframes. So, I write bottle service or wine pairings, or whatever we have.

Aisha Ibrahim:
When a guest gets up to use the restroom, we have to really pump our brakes. We’re like, “Hey, hold on. Guest is up.” We’ll get a ticket that says guest up. That means that maybe you had gotten up to use the restaurant, take an important phone call, and they’ll let me know, like, “Hey Chef, it’s a phone call,” or “Hey Chef, they’re going to the restroom.” That means we slow things down. We don’t send the food out when the guest is up.

Aisha Ibrahim:
We try to think about how considerate we can be. So, when you’re going quickly, we want to move at the pace that you want to move in. Maybe you have a kid to go home to, or maybe you’re in a rush to get to a flight. We had a guest enter last week who had to be out of here in an hour to get on a flight, and we actually had to box up some petit fours for them.

Aisha Ibrahim:
It’s a lot of information moving at you at all times, but I think the thing that we try to strive for as a kitchen team, and kind of working with the dining room team, is how do we be the most considerate to our guests? If they’re eating slowly, let them eat slowly. If they’re eating quickly, let them eat quickly. If they have to get out of here in an hour, let’s see what we can do, you know? So, we don’t want to compromise the quality of the food. We don’t want them to get subpar food because they have to get out of here in an hour. So, we do everything we can.

Aisha Ibrahim:
It was funny to kind of plate something in a to-go container. You’re like, dropping technical things, and all of the sudden you’re adjusting it, and I’m like, so, am I 6:00? Which is what we call the guest’s perspective. It doesn’t really matter at that point, because the person will probably be eating this at the airport. But if they have to go, we want to send them with the hottest, most beautiful food we can.

Gina Colucci:
Aisha explains the board, and what her ticking process looks like.

Aisha Ibrahim:
So, the board has every single ticket, with all the dietaries. Maybe you’re sitting at seat two, you’re in seat one. It will tell us that on the ticket. We have all this information, so when we’re building your snacks, you shouldn’t feel anything if you’re a vegan. You shouldn’t feel anything if you’re gluten-free. If you’re coming in here and you’re dining, all these critical details, as long as I have the information at the board, and I’m able to convey that to the cooks, we design menus ahead of time to kind of be able to flex to that. No matter what these dietaries are, we try to be as friendly as we are.

Gina Colucci:
At this point, Mark comes into the kitchen and joins the conversation.

Mark Canlis:
I think we’ve had to be really intentional about saying out loud, are these people going to feel less than because of their choices, or because of a dietary restriction in that way? You go through great lengths to make sure that they don’t.

Aisha Ibrahim:
Yeah, I think it’s a part of being considerate to the guests. If someone is coming in here, they’re paying the same price as everyone else. They have maybe invested in a flight to get here. They have paid for a babysitter to come here. I think about my niece, who has every allergy. So sad. She’s a nut allergy, she’s allergic to so many things. And she’s half-Chinese, half-Filipino, and I’m like, you can’t eat nuts and shellfish? I’m so sorry for you. But I don’t want her to walk into a restaurant like this and have less than a good time, you know? I want her to have an amazing time.

Gina Colucci:
One thing that sticks out from all the chrome in the kitchen is this copper door, and it enters into this little room that you can actually see from the dining area, and inside is this wood fire stove, and it’s the original cooking area of the restaurant.

Aisha Ibrahim:
I dream of this being something that is kind of the center of the show, and right now, we’re still collecting information about what the Pacific Northwest holds. In my dream of dreams, in like the next season, instead of putting a protein cook out there, I wanted it to be our vegetable station. We celebrate meat so much in society, and in the ways that we eat in fine dining, but I think we cook so many vegetables here, and I think if we could utilize this hearth to kind of impart smoke, and really treat them as they should be. Treat them with as much care as a piece of beef, a piece of salmon, you know? So, if we could start doing that to vegetables, then we could really kind of… If the cooks can understand the importance, the food kind of starts to drive in the same direction, the guests will feel that. How we feel, I feel the guests feel. If we’re having a great night, I know the guests feel that. When we’re having kind of an off night, you can kind of feel it in the air, as well.

Mark Canlis:
Ostensibly, fine dining back in the ’40s and ’50s, you were just putting slabs of meat on the fire, right? It was not, I think, as holistic approach to food as it is today. So, the idea that you could take the original copper grill where we did all the steaks or lobsters or whatnot, and now be celebrating a piece of bok choy in the same way, I just think speaks to the progress that dining has made in this country, and our own understanding of food. So, it is one of the hardest stations to do, and historically, the chef ran that out there. I mean, that was there, essentially the pass that Aisha’s been talking about, used to happen all in that little room. And so, it’s just a special, albeit really, really, really hot room.

Gina Colucci:
Aisha’s path to becoming a chef was anything but straightforward. She discovered her passion for cooking while in college, laid up with a basketball injury.

Aisha Ibrahim:
In the process of getting back on the court, I was handed this cookbook in study hall one day, and I had zero interest in cooking. I never wanted to learn about cooking eggs, or eggplant omelets, or… I stayed out of the kitchen. I started to kind of read this cookbook. It was one of those Julia Child cookbooks, and my roommate laughs because I could barely cook eggs. She’s like, “I bet you can’t cook anything in this book.”

Aisha Ibrahim:
So, I started working my way through the book, and I would invite my teammates over, just because if someone tells me I can’t do something, it makes me just want to do it, and I’m like, “Okay, come over. I’m going to make salmon with asparagus tonight.” And everyone would laugh and not take me seriously, and I got so into it that by the time sophomore year was over with, I decided that I wasn’t going to go back to school. I wanted to enroll in culinary school.

Aisha Ibrahim:
Got home in the summer and said, “Hey, I’m not going back to school. I have enrolled in culinary school in San Francisco, and I’m moving to California.” I had never been to California before. Never picked up a professional knife before. Never been to San Francisco before. And just decided this was the time in my life to do that. So, I haven’t really looked back since.

Gina Colucci:
Do you miss basketball, or sports?

Aisha Ibrahim:
I do, but it was so natural to walk into a fine dining kitchen. They’re both, they involve a lot of athletic grace and movement, and you’re on your feet all day. It’s hyper-competitive. It’s a lot of muscle memory, how to sauce something, how to pick something up, how to cut fish, how to cut a piece of meat. Yeah, it is a lot of muscle memory, and it really requires, I think, a lot of patience with yourself, you know?

Aisha Ibrahim:
So, it’s fun to kind of run into other athletes on the line. You can always tell the way someone moves. Like, I worked next to a guy at a restaurant once who always opened the oven, and would drop down his right knee as if he was catching a grounder. So, after our third service, I was like, “Hey Justin, did you play baseball?” He was like, “Yeah, I played center field.” And I was like, “I knew it.”

Aisha Ibrahim:
So, yeah, to transition from that life into cooking, there were so many parallels. So, yes, I do miss sports, but I feel like this is an arena on its own, and it’s fun to play in there.

Gina Colucci:
You’ve cooked all over the globe, and in some well-known restaurants. What styles, techniques have you absorbed and kind of made your own?

Aisha Ibrahim:
Most definitely, Japanese, without a doubt. Japanese food, Japanese cooking, the culture of how product is seen through that perspective, and spending some time cooking there, I appreciated that. You know, I’m Asian. We don’t waste in our household. It was foreign to my parents to watch me make a chicken stock after going to French culinary school, and throwing away all these things. They were like, “What are you doing?” And my dad was like, “In France, that’s how it’s done. Not in this house.”

Aisha Ibrahim:
So, Japanese cooking and the way that we approach and care for product, the way that we care about where it’s coming from, and how to honor people who are bringing these products to our table. It’s part of our job to really honor the most respectful farmers and fishermen that we have. We try to support only local fish right now. We’ve got Taylor Shellfish. We have, we work with Northwest Bounty. We work with a lot of local fishermen who have just incredible access to byproducts like the cod. Have you had… the cod around here is incredible. It’s funny that we spend so much money importing Japanese cod. We’ve got gorgeous rock cod from the coastline that is just underutilized.

Aisha Ibrahim:
When it comes to Japanese cooking and techniques, smoking over hay, salt curing fish, learning how to age fish properly, that enhances the product even more. People think fish, and they think, oh, it’s fresh out of the water, and I’m like, no. Some of the best sushi restaurants in the world, it’s at least eight or nine days old, and it’s been handled with so much care.

Gina Colucci:
Sourcing locally, using almost, as much of something as possible is really important to you.

Aisha Ibrahim:
Yes, absolutely. I think the word sustainability, it has become sort of a joke. A lot of people like to use that word as if it’s a catchphrase, or you’re trying to win a reward or get a cookie for it, you know? We don’t want cookies. We want to actually cut down on food waste. Food waste contributes to so much of what’s warming up our earth, right? On top of that, this product that, as cooks, we can be a lot smarter in learning how to utilize.

Aisha Ibrahim:
Before we started sourcing this wheat straw, I thought, oh my god, we have to get rice straw from… Because rice straw imparts so much sweetness. It’s a very delicate style of smoke. That was going to be coming from California, and I’m like, no, wait, we work with a bread lab. They grow wheat. And the wheat straw, I started doing a lot of research about it, is very complex, is very delicate, it’s very sweet. We smoke fish with it. We smoke a lot of our vegetables with it.

Aisha Ibrahim:
We have a buckwheat sauce. I love this. So, we have a buckwheat sauce in one of our eggplant dishes right now, and the buckwheat is a regenerative crop from the bread lab. So, their planting season for wheat is gapped, and in those gapping seasons, they use buckwheat to kind of reintroduce nitrogen back into the soil. So, all that buckwheat comes, and we’re using some of that buckwheat. It’s our way to kind of utilize something that is not what they’re trying to plant, but they have to kind of plant, but it’s still a beautiful product. So, we’re using both the wheat straw and the buckwheat in the same dish, which is really fun.

Aisha Ibrahim:
Spain, I think, in terms of sustainability, Spain was huge in kind of really broadening my mindset, and working with a chef like Eneko in Spain, he’s an incredible leader in the kitchen. He works very closely with his people, and that’s honestly what drew me to work for him. When he offered me the job, I thought, that’s the kind of leader I want to be. Someone who is a family person, but also very grounded with their team, and is aware of what’s going on with their team. You don’t have to be an egomaniac to be successful. I think you can be just a very humble family person, and I really appreciate that about Eneko. He modeled that so well.

Aisha Ibrahim:
Gone are the days, I hope, that you’re just a body in a kitchen. We want to recognize everyone’s efforts, because we’re all here doing something that is special for the guests who are dining with us. So, it’s a huge platform to be the chef here, but I take it very seriously, and really want to work towards creating and continuing to create a kitchen that we can really see ourselves in, and identify with. Be opening the doors to more people who have been scared of fine dining for a long time.

Aisha Ibrahim:
I think we’re tying to figure out how to do this at the level we want to do it, and still maintain being a a reasonable human. I don’t want to detach from myself so much, but you have to put on a game face for sure, for service. But that game face shouldn’t affect how you treat others in the room.

Gina Colucci:
I wanted to know how Aisha’s Filipino heritage influences her cooking and the Canlis menu.

Aisha Ibrahim:
I immigrated to the US when I was six, but I grew up with my parents cooking for me and working. So, one of the dishes my mom always cooked for me was this eggplant omelet for breakfast, lunch or dinner, or to this day, I’m lucky, she makes it at the drop of a hat. The eggplant dish is a pretty humble dish that is found in a lot of Filipino households. It’s just a very strong, nostalgic memory, and something that is just so not fine dining in so many ways. We always think of fine dining as caviar and lobster and all this opulence, and I think the contrasting… Sometimes we do finish that dish with caviar for certain guests. We’re elevating something that might not feel special to the general public, but it’s something that I’m enjoying getting to introduce to people.

Aisha Ibrahim:
We burn the eggplant over the charcoal. We peel the skin, because it captures a lot of the smoke, and then we kind of just take eggs and whisk them. Unlike my mom, we use brown butter. So, we make brown butter, and we kind of let that eggplant hang out in the egg bath, and then we flip it back and forth and drop the whole thing into the pan, and it really gets foamy and nutty, and it’s typically eaten over rice, and I think the buckwheat is…

Aisha Ibrahim:
We make a buckwheat milk by toasting the buckwheat seeds and then seeping them and then pureeing that, and it kind of plays off of that kind of stickiness of rice the next day. So, if that’s what I’m having for breakfast, that smokiness comes from the very bottom of the rice pot, which is not something that we throw away. We actually fight over that in our house. But it’s that crispiness that is really nice. It’s a little smoky. The buckwheat is kind of a play on that. It hints on the process of what I’m thinking when I’m trying to introduce this to a dining room who has maybe never had it before.

Aisha Ibrahim:
It’s typically eaten with soy sauce, so we kind of glaze it with this beautiful tamari that we’re getting. We also finish it with a little bit of calamansi, which is basically like a key lime. It’s a very aromatic, kind of key lime play, that’s very commonly found in Filipino cuisine, but instead of that, we’re taking this Kyoto sweet miso. We finish it with apple cider vinegar, which is so common here. We’re in apple country. So, the acidity from the dish is brought into a more umami/acidic profile of this miso sauce.

Aisha Ibrahim:
I’m introducing flavors that I feel like are familiar to me, but so new to so many people, except once we had a Filipino order it as a first course and ask for rice. And I was like, so excited by that.

Aisha Ibrahim:
My mom grew up in the Philippines, and she would always go to the encyclopedia library that her parents had, and always pick up the W. And she’s like, “I don’t know why.” So, let me back up. Before I took this job, I was telling her about Canlis in Seattle, in Washington, and she told me this story. So, she would go to the encyclopedia and pick up the W, and always turn to the apples, and she would say aloud to her parents, or her friends, or whoever wanted to listen to her, that someday she was going to move to America and pick her own apples from Washington.

Aisha Ibrahim:
And so, she had never done that before. So, just before dinner, we invited her here early. My partner Sam, who’s our R and D chef, made her a spiced cider that we had just picked up from the market, and spiced with juniper berries that our forager brought us. So, it was really fun. We met her at the garden, had a basket, and she got to pick her Washington apples after all. So, it’s beautiful.

Gina Colucci:
We meet back up with Mark and Brian for a tour of the rest of the space.

Brian Canlis:
Let’s just walk, and then we’ll show you stuff.

Gina Colucci:
When you walk into the women’s bathroom, the first thing that you see is this giant window that looks into this small, open space outside, and in there are some plants and rocks, but the focal point is this giant trunk of a tree that extends so high you can’t see the top, and it’s been burned out on the inside, so it’s hollow.

Mark Canlis:
We do a lot of the foraging ourself, but there is a gentleman who helps us, and he discovered this burnt out cedar tree trunk way up high, like 7,000, 6,000 feet, and he has a license to kind of bring stuff down, and he said, “I found this years ago, and I’ve always wondered how to get it down.” Because it’s about 16 feet long. And we put it lengthwise.

Gina Colucci:
So, it’s here?

Mark Canlis:
Because there was a car accident.

Gina Colucci:
Oh, yeah.

Mark Canlis:
So, we had a car, a drunk driver, come off the freeway and hit the restaurant years ago, and it caught the restaurant on fire, and it burnt a tree right here, and we tried to save it. And so, we tried to save the tree, and then it died, and then we saved the trunk, and then slowly, the trunk sort of rotted away and the tree died. This garden has always been a really important piece of the ladies’ room. And so, when I found this cedar, I was like, oh my gosh, this is so symbolic of what we’re doing at the restaurant. I literally needed to replace a tree that died that’s been a part of our… So, there it is, right? And I just, I love it. I think it’s the most beautiful and stunning piece of art in the restaurant. I love it.

Brian Canlis:
But to get it… But there’s power lines right there, and so we had to hire a crane and an entire crew to lift this tree over the restaurant, and then thread the needle straight down.

Mark Canlis:
It took them days to get it out. So, this is off the top of the Cascades, right?

Brian Canlis:
Yeah.

Mark Canlis:
So, it was probably struck by lightning. It was burnt out. That’s why you see all the charred innards, and the outside, of course, the bark is peeled off, but you see the wood is unaffected. Cedar trees do this, actually. It’s a thing. And I love just sort of the death piece of it. I think so much of dining is the story of death to life. You are eating a plant or an animal, and it’s restoring and nourishing us, right? There was something about, I was like, “Yes, we need this.” And so, we bought it.

Mark Canlis:
This spot right here is one of my favorite design moments in the whole restaurant. It’s where all these materials come together, so you have this antique rug, you have the staircase, which is made of wenge. You have the bronze handrail, was designed by Suyama. You have the old Mt. Baker stone, which our grandfather put in. You’ve got this iron curtain, which was this artist named Dylan, who’s in south Seattle, who was inspired by Jean Jongeward’s curtain from the ’80s, doing a modern interpretation of it. And it’s all built into this Japanese stair tansu, which is about our Japanese history we have around here. And so, all of that comes together with the 1950 giant Guy Anderson, that’s actually from the ’70s.

Brian Canlis:
And if no one notices…

Mark Canlis:
That’s fine. Speaking of design, that was Don Clark that just walked past us.

Don Clark:
Are you embarrassing me?

Brian Canlis:
No!

Gina Colucci:
As we toured the space, of course we bumped into their artistic director, Don Clark, and we had the privilege of walking through his most recent project, which was a turkey illustration for their Thanksgiving menu, done in a mid-century modern style.

Brian Canlis:
How many restaurants have an art director? Like, we hired an artist to guide our art.

Mark Canlis:
So, I want to take you to another room. This room technically doesn’t exist.

Gina Colucci:
The place that doesn’t exist is a small, closet-sized room that doesn’t match anywhere else of the curated aesthetic of the restaurant. You enter through some beads, and there’s a small sofa and a chair, and then the walls are covered with memorabilia, and servers’ art, and they have old reservation books. It feels very welcoming and casual. It just felt like a secret hideout.

Mark Canlis:
We built this space for our staff. We recorded an album here with Sub Pop.

Brian Canlis:
Walt Wagner played on our floor for 20 years, and his retirement was a live album recording for Sub Pop of Walt playing Sub Pop hits.

Mark Canlis:
When he retired, we thought, well, hold on a second. Why not book in this? He’s such a legend. Why not just take the entire night and record? And Sub Pop was super into it. So, they came and set up all their fancy stuff, and made this album.

Mark Canlis:
Even the idea of a pianist, it might be considered old-fashioned, but I think if you take a man like Walt, who’s saying, I’m going to completely reconsider music. I might be in my 60s and 70s. He knows more about what’s on the radio today than any of us or our kids, right? And so, he’ll take these incredible songs and turn them into something on the piano, and to me, doing that with music is a part of the design of the guest experience, which is like, everything that you experience, taste, touch, smell, it matters.

Brian Canlis:
Yeah. People don’t expect to hear DJ Shadow when they come to the restaurant.

Mark Canlis:
No, that is an incredible one.

Brian Canlis:
This is DJ Shadow.

Gina Colucci:
And how old is he right now, playing?

Brian Canlis:
Oh, his 70s.

Gina Colucci:
He’s 70?

Brian Canlis:
Yeah. And he gets hit on more than any other guy in our restaurant.

Mark Canlis:
It’s really remarkable. It gives me such hope. I just, it’s something to aspire to. Like, when I’m in my 70s, I’m hoping, you know… Yeah, I don’t know how to say that.

Gina Colucci:
Just that passion, but also not being afraid of the new, right?

Brian Canlis:
Yes.

Mark Canlis:
Yeah. Yeah, why? Why are we afraid of it? Because it’s like we internalize that, and we say, maybe that’s a rejection of the self. Maybe that’s a rejection of where I came from, or what I used to believe. But think of how arrogant it would be to say that I have it all figured out. So, if we do that… Personally, those aren’t the kind of people we hang out with, and I think if you’re a company, that’s not the company that survives long term. You have to have the ability to say, we don’t have the answers. We maybe don’t know what the way is. We’re going to figure that out. And it means we’re going to have to change some things. We’re going to have to give up some of the sacred things that we used to believe in for something better tomorrow. So, cool, right?

Mark Canlis:
This is the fun part, when you’re talking about who are we as a company? What are we really doing here on the planet? How are we actually growing our team? Who are they becoming as people? That’s the work. It is a different kind of design work, but that’s the true work.

Gina Colucci:
Thank you, Mark, Brian and Aisha, for the candid tour of your historic and vibrant space, and sharing some of the Canlis magic with us.

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 meedia.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.

Gina Colucci:
Is there an iconic Northwest creator that you want to hear from? Head to our website and leave a comment.

Gina Colucci:
Next time on Inspired Design, we meet up with Jean Thompson, owner and CEO of Seattle Chocolate, to tour the factory and learn more about her craft.

Jean Thompson:
It’s one of the oldest crops in the world. Like early, early on, the Aztecs and the Mayans used it as, that was the drink for the kings, and the peasants drank coffee. And they used the beans for trading. That was their currency. So, they’ve always, like historically, it’s gotten so much respect, and it wasn’t until it really, I think, got to the US and became kind of the candy, that it really didn’t get the respect that it deserves.

Gerard Tsutakawa | Chasing Challenges

Gerard Tsutakawa | Chasing Challenges

In this episode of Inspired Design, we head to the Wing Luke Museum for an exclusive guided tour of the Gerard Tsutakawa: Stories Shaped in Bronze exhibit with architect and exhibit curator, Rachael Kitagawa and exhibit developer, Blake Nakatsu. Then we have the privilege of chatting with the renowned sculptor himself at his family home and workshop in Seattle.

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Wing Luke Museum – Gerard Tsutakawa

VISIT EXHIBIT

Gerard Tsutakawa: Stories Shaped in Bronze.

VALUES

People give us meaning and purpose. Relationships are our foundation. We desire community empowerment and ownership. To do this, we have found the following: The work is labor intensive. The work requires flexibility. We willingly relinquish control.

MISSION

Connect everyone to the dynamic history, cultures, and art of Asian Pacific Americans through vivid storytelling and inspiring experiences to advance racial and social equity.

Episode Transcript

Blake Nakatsu:
I think what the exhibit does is tells the story of Gerard and George and through the pieces, we can tell those stories of different periods throughout their careers. You can see different things that they’ve tried in the past. Lots of the stories of why we see the pieces out in public as they are.

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 we are exploring the work of Gerry Tsutakawa first at the Wing Luke Museum, and then at his home workspace in Seattle. Most of you have seen a piece of Gerry’s work. Chances are, if you’ve ever been to a Mariners game, you’ve walked past, you’ve taken a selfie with, you’ve stood by The Mitt. The exhibit is so unique because you get to see George’s work and Gerry’s work side by side. And this is important because you can make the connections of them as father and son, but then you can also make the distinctions between them as individual artists. And George had such an influence on the artist that Gerry became. Seeing this exhibit really will shift your perspective of and give you the appreciation for what it takes to get one of their pieces through development, to a final product, and then installed in its home. Putting this exhibit together was no small feat.

Rachael Kitagawa:
My name is Rachael Kitagawa and I’m a local architect at Hoshide Wanzer Architects. And I’m the curator for this exhibit for the Wing Luke Museum. And I worked closely with Gerard Tsutakawa and Kenji Hoshide as the exhibit designer.

Gina Colucci:
Rachael explains to us why having their work side by side is so important.

Rachael Kitagawa:
Gerry Tsutakawa has been a friend of my family’s for a while. He actually went to school with my father-in-law and has known my husband for a very long time since they were small. And so, because we’ve known Gerry for so long, we’ve known his work and obviously the whole Seattle area knows his work. Gerry’s become sort of a Jack of all trades. He’s not just an artist. He can do it all.

Rachael Kitagawa:
In the exhibit, we highlight both Gerry and George, because George obviously had such influence on Gerry’s work. Gerry apprenticed for George. And obviously some of Gerry’s memories was sitting in the studio at the house and watching his dad work while Gerry carved things into wood. So from a very early age, he was influenced by and was watching his father.

Rachael Kitagawa:
Their art has changed the urban fabric. It really transforms the spaces and the people who use it. A lot of George’s work is very peaceful and meditative with the fountains and the water flowing down, it really makes you stop and become aware of the whole area that you’re walking through and experiencing. Gerry’s work is very playful and whimsical, and it actually encourages you to interact with the pieces. You want to climb on it, you want to touch it. And he is also very conscious that people are going to interact with his pieces and he wants people to interact with it. One of the things we like to highlight in this exhibit is the making of the pieces and how Gerry and George thought about how these pieces are going to go together. How people are going to look at it, walk around it, interact with it, touch it, climb on it in Gerry’s case.

Rachael Kitagawa:
The other nice thing that we like to highlight in this exhibit as well is the community aspect of both George and Gerry’s work. They worked closely with a bunch of communities in order to develop the pieces and give an identity to some of these communities. We decided that because both George and Gerry’s work were so influential, embedded in the memories of a lot of people in interacting with spaces that we would take that direction to focus on how their work has positively influenced the community and how really great design can benefit everyone.

Gina Colucci:
What makes the experience unique is that you actually get to see some original pieces that were made for the exhibit, like the outline of The Mitt, which is unmistakable. It’s huge when you walk up to it.

Rachael Kitagawa:
This outline of The Mitt is a pattern. So you can imagine the outline shape of The Mitt. And of course the iconic circle inside The Mitt is painted a gold color and in The Mitt pattern is completely transparent. And so the way Gerry supported the piece as it is standing, he added struts, horizontal and vertical struts throughout so that you can read all the way through the piece. And also people standing behind the piece in order to take pictures.

Gina Colucci:
When we were at Gerry’s home and we were in his workshop in the back, on the ground you saw the spray paint outline of this, but here it looks so much bigger.

Rachael Kitagawa:
It does. When Gerry got the commission for The Mitt, he went to the interview with this very large, full-size cardboard cutout pattern for The Mitt. It was much too large for him to carry in, so he folded it up into three pieces and took it that way. We wanted to present that in the exhibit, but we realized that after how many years, it was very floppy and would fall apart and wouldn’t stand up, even if we hung it. So Gerry said that he would recreate a pattern of The Mitt. And so he bent the steel in order to make this pattern. And it’s encouraged that people can come and take pictures and selfies and submit it to the Wing Luke’s website so that we can collect some of these stories and pictures of people interacting with the exhibit, as well as his art. So if people…

Gina Colucci:
The exhibit shows the creative process of both George and Gerry. They make smaller models of each piece to work out the details.

Rachael Kitagawa:
We are also highlighting a lot of George’s work in the exhibit. Over here you can see the maquette or working model to study the Seattle Public Library fountain called The Fountain of Wisdom. You can actually see the welds that were done in order to create those curvilinear forms. So if you look on the inside, you can see the circles that were needed in order to create those very organic forms that George is known for. A lot of these pieces, they’re not cast, they’re actually fabricated in sheets and formed into pieces. Sometimes when people see some of the fountains and sculptures, they think that it’s a cast bronze, but it’s actually not. He creates maquette, so small models, and takes those and studies them in multiple iterations until he finds one that he likes. And then what he does is he lofts it or creates patterns from those models at a full-size scale so that he can cut out the metal and form it up.

Gina Colucci:
Creating the sculptures is one part of the process, but then installing these works of art is a whole other feat.

Rachael Kitagawa:
We have some collages on the wall about a few projects that he’s done such as the Illusion Dweller, the Kubota Garden projects, and the Maru piece. We talk about the Illusion Dweller as one of the highlights about some times the difficulties of installation of pieces. Illusion Dweller was cited on a very remote parks area out on a bluff near the water. It was down many rickety wood steps, and there was no way to bring concrete down in order to make the foundation of this piece. And so Gerry being the problem solver decided to bring a truck of concrete and buy a whole bunch of buckets and have a crew fill up these buckets of concrete, have them all cart it down these rickety stairs in order for them to create the foundation base of this piece.

Rachael Kitagawa:
And then they had to actually get the piece down. And so all these people that Gerry had gathered, as well as Gerry himself, his assistant, son, picked up this piece and carried it down these stairs. So if you come and see this, it’s really amazing. Some of these pictures of them hauling this piece down these very steep stairs and taking it out to this very remote location and lifting it into place with ropes and getting it installed. But it’s a very striking piece, especially if you’re on the water and you’re looking back and there’s this very bright, shiny metal sculpture juxtaposed against the very dark green foliage.

Gina Colucci:
The piece is quite tall. And then when you’re looking at these photos, you can see it’s not just four people, but it’s at least 10.

Rachael Kitagawa:
It’s a very fun piece to know the backstory about how it was put into place. And many of Gerry’s pieces take a bit of problem-solving about how to install it. The Tonbi, I believe a bunch of the streets downtown needed to be closed in order to bring in that very large fountain. And so it was done in the middle of the night, brought in and then installed in a night.

Gina Colucci:
We also got to see pieces that you don’t normally get to see in public. These are pieces that show how much of an innovator and problem solver Gerry is. These are pieces that show his ability to play and explore his creative side.

Rachael Kitagawa:
They’re concept pieces, is what Gerry likes to call it. And they’re fun ways to work out ideas. This one is called Liquid Lens. And so it’s a stainless steel box and it has a reflective lens on the bottom and water fills it so you’re supposed to look up and over inside the piece, and then you’ll see this reflection.

Blake Nakatsu:
Blake Nakatsu, Exhibit Developer for the Wing Luke Museum. If you’ve ever been in an indoor pool, the light that’s reflected from the water sort of creates this shimmering effect. If it were to move as I’m tapping the table that it’s sitting on right now, you could see that the water creates a shimmering effect from the box.

Gina Colucci:
At this point, we had seen so much. Rachael and Blake have such an interesting perspective on the exhibit because they created it. I wondered what were their favorite pieces in the exhibit?

Blake Nakatsu:
You’ll see in the back part of the gallery lots of maquettes. And my favorite is the smallest version of The Mitt. It’s the size of a half dollar coin.

Rachael Kitagawa:
A maquette is a small scale model so that a designer artist can study the different iterations of the design until they land on a specific design that they like. At least that’s how Gerry and George would do it.

Blake Nakatsu:
In these cases you’ll see lots of different maquettes by both George and Gerard and the mitts are right over here. The different renditions I think are awesome. You could see what potentially The Mitt could have looked like. The Mitt is so big and then you see the tiniest little mitt and it’s great.

Rachael Kitagawa:
The pieces that I like in the exhibit talk about the actual fabrication of the pieces. So I love the Otamajakushi because it talks about how the pieces went together. But I also love this reproduction of some flat art that was at Gerry’s studio. It’s actually a section detail of the Fountain of Wisdom. If you don’t know what a section is, it’s like you took a piece and you sliced it in half so that you can see how it goes together. And it actually talks about the screws and the sizes of the pieces of metal and everything that goes into anchoring it into the ground. And in order to create that curve.

Gina Colucci:
Gerry is so thoughtful on every piece that he has made and is making. Seeing the details that go into the construction of each piece gave me such an appreciation for his art.

Rachael Kitagawa:
One of the amazing things that people don’t know about the inside of a lot of Gerry’s pieces is that they’re filled with sand and it acts as a heat sink so that people don’t scald themselves when they touch the pieces. Because if you go to other places that have bronze or metal sculptures, sometimes they’ll have little plaques that say, please don’t touch. It may scald or burn. Gerry was very sensitive to the fact that people are going to be interacting with these pieces. One of the first times he tried this technique was on Dragon, which is over in the CID Children’s Park.

Rachael Kitagawa:
He was commissioned to make this dragon for school-age children at the park. And at that time he also had a daughter that was school-age. So not only did he think of her and her friends as he was creating this piece, he had them try it out because he knew that they would be interacting with this metal piece. Sometimes it gets hot in Seattle as we’ve noticed this summer. He needed to figure out how the kids could play on it in all different types of weather. So he tried multiple different things to fill these pieces, but found that sand works the best.

Speaker 5:
Seattle Design Center is the premier marketplace for fine home furnishings, designer textiles, bespoke lighting, curated art, and custom kitchen and bath solutions. We are located in the heart of Georgetown, open to the public Monday through Friday with complimentary parking. Our showroom associates are industry experts known for their customer service. We are celebrating new showrooms and added onsite amenities. Visit Seattledesigncenter.com for more information about our showrooms and our Find a Designer program.

Gina Colucci:
Decades later, Gerry is still designing his pieces to be interactive. We catch up with Gerry at his home workshop, as he’s creating the SeaWave for the Climate Pledge Arena.

Gerard Tsutakawa:
I designed this so that people can actually take a rest here or interact, or just going to be a photo op. This is hollow right now, it’s not quite finished. The bottom shape…

Gina Colucci:
You enter the garage and in the center is this giant sculpture, the SeaWave. At this point of its construction, it’s bright copper colored. And you can see the welds on each curve. It has different textures at this point because they’ve been sanding certain areas and it’s not smooth like it’s going to end up. And it’s in a very raw state.

Gerard Tsutakawa:
It’s probably 85% welded together. We still need to put one more piece on, but these are all weld seams, all these edges. And these are little fills to make the seams look better. And then you can see where it’s polished or ground out. And you were asking about tools. Mostly hand electric tools, but these birds are getting hand hammered. Nothing too fancy, that’s for sure. This is the sheet of bronze.

Gina Colucci:
This is the actual piece that will be at the arena or the Climate Change Arena.

Gerard Tsutakawa:
Yes. But you can see all these curves here. These are all hand formed. So you take a sheet of bronze and you make a pattern, you cut it out, and then you bend it over a pipe. We start with a pretty accurate cardboard pattern. But then transferring that to the bronze requires you to make all the little adjustments for radius. And a lot of these are twisted too. So you’re dealing with 1/8-inch bronze that you’re twisting and bending. If it was a bigger piece, would probably end up down at a machine shop and we’d use more power equipment, but this scale, it’s just buildable here.

Gina Colucci:
It’s really quite special, though, that this is kind of its birthplace and it’s going to be this new symbol.

Gerard Tsutakawa:
I think location is going to be very good. And everything at the Seattle Center gets a lot of heavy use and all that. So I think it’ll be fun to have it down there.

Gina Colucci:
Naturally, my next question was going to be, how was Gerry going to get the SeaWave sculpture from his garage to the Climate Pledge Arena?

Gerard Tsutakawa:
Well, I’ve built a lot of big sculptures here. We have a fairly good size door. It will be placed on a skid. We’ll drag it out the driveway, put some pipes on it and roll it onto my truck and drive it down there. That’s kind of the same process. If it gets bigger than this, then you need to hire a crane and a truck to get it down there.

Gina Colucci:
And as we’re talking, actually, I notice on the floor of the workshop here, you have a spray painted outline of the piece that’s at…

Gerard Tsutakawa:
At the baseball stadium.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah.

Gerard Tsutakawa:
Well, when I was putting together the Wing Luke show, the curator asked me if we had a mitt pattern and I have the original mitt pattern from 1999, but it’s cardboard that’s nine feet tall and 12 feet wide. And she wanted to use it as an entry piece for the show. We pulled it out, we looked at it, I said it’s not going to last. It’s not going to hold up. So I said, oh, I’ll make a smaller version. And we built this out of steel square tubing. And actually, I’m really happy the way it turned out. The square tubing was hand bent here to form the curve. So first we made the pattern on the floor and then I stood here over the torch and a couple pipes and hand bent this thing. So you can see that’s fairly rigid and it has a lot of curves in it

Gina Colucci:
To get these tight curves out of this, I guess it’s thicker than my thumb, would you cut it into smaller pieces to get the curve? And that’s…

Gerard Tsutakawa:
I would take one radius and hand bend it on the table, but it didn’t want to bend. Square is a real difficult shape to reform. So I had to heat it up with the torch, sometimes getting it almost red hot and bending it. I had never done this before and I didn’t even know if we could do it, but I had two weeks left before the show opened. So I came on and started bending like crazy. And I think it turned out really nice.

Gina Colucci:
It’s amazing how you’ve been doing this your whole life and you’re still open to the idea of, let me just try it. Let me just-

Gerard Tsutakawa:
Challenges.

Gina Colucci:
What is [crosstalk 00:20:23]?

Gerard Tsutakawa:
I like the challenges of a new idea and concept. It keeps you going a little bit livelier.

Gina Colucci:
I wanted to know more about all of these tools within his workspace.

Gerard Tsutakawa:
We use hammers a lot. My father was a builder. He grew up in chisels and hand tools mostly. There was very few choices in power tools. He had a grinder and a cutter and a welding machine. So I was lucky. I got to inherit most of his hand tools, but of course nowadays it’s all cordless. That’s a nice one. We use this one a lot and I think it was a body and fender tool. A lot of times you want to tap something and you can’t get it in there. This one will make that shape.

Gina Colucci:
Is this a custom built, like a custom made?

Gerard Tsutakawa:
Yeah the handle was-

Gina Colucci:
OK, you can’t buy that at your store.

Gerard Tsutakawa:
We put the handle on because it broke. The handle came off so this was a free manufacturing of that.

Gina Colucci:
You can even see the wear and tear from the tape on it.

Gerard Tsutakawa:
Oh yeah. One of these days we should pull all the hammers out and take a picture.

Gina Colucci:
I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many different types. Even this mallet it’s like…

Gerard Tsutakawa:
Yeah. And surprisingly, we use all of these for different purposes. And these are called dollies and they’re for hammering against, hand forming. If you have a sheet of metal, you put a dolly behind it and hammer it from the front. And it helps create the shape by creating a little resistance or space behind it.

Gina Colucci:
Once we finished in Gerry’s workshop, we headed inside and sat down in his living room. You could feel the history, the walls were covered with his family’s art. It felt like an extension of the Wing Luke exhibit. This is Gerry’s childhood home. I got the sense like the past present and future were all joining forces within this home. I asked, all of your siblings ended up with career in the arts. Was that your parents’ influence?

Gerard Tsutakawa:
I have fond memories. My father was teaching watercolor at UW. On Saturdays he would bring his student works home and this living room would be full of student art paintings. And we’d be jumping over the paintings and he’d be grading them. And then we’d end up at the UW and running around the halls in the old art department. My mother and father were actually very social and they entertained a lot. So they’d invite other artists over for dinners and invariably by the end of dinner and after my mother cooked a Japanese meal and assuming painting would come out and the rice paper. And so they’d all sit around and do paintings. And so we were going, wow, that’s wonderful. But the next day you go to school and everything’s back to normal so we learned by observing a lot more than…

Gerard Tsutakawa:
My father didn’t really lecture or teach or encourage us to go into the arts, but because it was all around us, you learn that. All four of us kids had piano lessons at young age. And two brothers both went into music. My sister became a writer and she also curated shows and done a few books and all that, too. We all ended up in the arts of some sort. My father loved to go camping and he’s great outdoor enthusiast. So we’d go to the ocean and he’d paint and sketch and hike and all that. Go to Mount Rainier or went to Canada and a lot of different places.

Gina Colucci:
What’s something that you think about or would like to share with leaving a legacy or be able to tell future artists or future collectors?

Gerard Tsutakawa:
I probably like to be known as not just a designer, but a builder. My enjoyment is creating something new. It doesn’t have to be big. It doesn’t have to be fancy or small or whatever, but I just like the creative process. So I’ve been lucky enough that sculpture’s given me that opportunity to create things like that. I guess probably my idea of what I do, is a person that just enjoys building things.

Gina Colucci:
If an artist or a creator perhaps, or interior designer is at a roadblock, and they’re thinking, how do I keep going or be innovative? What’s some wisdom that you can…

Gerard Tsutakawa:
There’s so many talented young artists out there right now. And my advice is stay with a craft and keep working on it. It’s hard to pinpoint anything that’s going to influence somebody, but just stay with a craft that you’re in. And hopefully something good comes from it.

Gina Colucci:
A big thank you to Gerry for his candid conversation and letting us into his family home. And thank you to Rachael and Blake for the heartfelt tour of the Wing Luke Museum exhibit. If you’ve fallen in love with George and Gerry’s work like we have, there’s a walking tour you can take. Head to the Wing Luke Museum website for more information. 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 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. Is there an iconic Northwest creator that you want to hear from? Head to our website and leave a comment.

Gina Colucci:
Next time on Inspired Design, we meet up with the Canlis brothers at their iconic restaurant.

Speaker 7:
We both love design. I think that’s fun. We both disagree all the time, which is fun. I was saying about the silverware, I knew I wanted that silverware-

Speaker 8:
Did you?

Speaker 7:
… 10 sets in. Yes.

Speaker 8:
10 sets in. It’s a team. We’re a team.

Speaker 7:
Yeah, we really are a team. I think because we agree on the really big picture stuff, then it’s fun and easy to fight about the small picture stuff, because it doesn’t matter.

Braden Abraham | Backstage Brilliance

Braden Abraham | Backstage Brilliance

In this episode of Inspired Design, the Artistic Director at Seattle Rep, Braden Abraham, takes us literally behind the curtain to see the intricacies that bring your favorite performances to life. Learn about the interior changes being implemented and how it’ll affect the audiences’ perception and experiences moving forward.

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www.seattlerep.org

VISION

Theater at the heart of public life.

MISSION

Seattle Rep collaborates with extraordinary artists to create productions and programs that reflect and elevate the diverse cultures, perspectives, and life experiences of our region.

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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.

Braden Abraham:
We’re going into the hallway that’s backstage of the Bagley Wright Theatre. These are dressing rooms along here, and here’s the stage.

Gina Colucci:
Oh wow.

Gina Colucci:
This time of Inspired Design, we went to the Seattle Rep and met up with artistic director, Braden Abraham.

Gina Colucci:
What does an artistic director do?

Braden Abraham:
Yeah. What is an artistic director? I would say my primary role is to oversee the selection of all the plays and then making sure that artistic vision is intertwined with longevity and the sustainability of the theater.

Gina Colucci:
The first thing I noticed about Braden was when he started talking about theater, he just lit up. You could tell that was his passion.

Braden Abraham:
It’s sacred only because it’s a place where people gather, and all the stories and memories and performances that have been here, I think charge it with a certain energy.

Gina Colucci:
The Seattle Rep was founded in 1963. And Braden started working there in 2002 as an intern.

Braden Abraham:
I came here thinking I’d be here nine months. And I’ve been here this long. So you just never know what your path is going to be.

Gina Colucci:
You don’t actually talk to many people who’ve spent their entire career in one place.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
How has that shaped you as a person?

Braden Abraham:
I guess we’ll find out. I don’t know yet. I grew up moving a lot. I lived in probably 20 different places in my first 18 years. So for me, part of the adventure is being in one place for a while. And to be at Seattle Rep through a lot of different eras has been a remarkable journey.

Gina Colucci:
I was so excited to see the Seattle Rep from Braden’s perspective.

Gina Colucci:
Oh, wow.

Braden Abraham:
I thought we could just go downstairs and start down there in the shop. This is the production office, the administrative offices.

Gina Colucci:
Oh, cool. Do the [inaudible 00:02:23] work?

Braden Abraham:
They do, actually. Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
So where are we going? What is-

Braden Abraham:
So we’re entering into the scene shop, which is one of my favorite spaces in the whole building. This is where we build all of the sets, all of the props, a lot of props that are specially made for shows. And we do all of the scenic painting for backdrops, sets, all of that. It’s all done here.

Gina Colucci:
We enter an actual workshop. The first thing I noticed was how loud the space was. It’s a giant warehouse with tools and wood and giant sets and props, so you hear the fans and the machines in the background.

Gina Colucci:
How many painters on staff do you have?

Braden Abraham:
We have four painters on staff, I think. And then, we hire an additional to that if we need it. So you can see, this is where we do a lot of building. We store lumber here. We store pieces that we might reuse for other shows. You can see our chandelier collection over there.

Gina Colucci:
That’s fantastic.

Braden Abraham:
All of our saws and stuff. And that’s one of the great things about this facility. This was built in 1983. And one of the reasons why they built a new theater is they wanted to put everything under one roof. That was the goal. And not many theaters actually in the country have that. So the shop is here, and that big door there is where you can move the sets onto the stage. So everything is made here.

Gina Colucci:
That’s amazing.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
And I guess just describe the space for me because… How tall are the ceilings? And then could you estimate the square footage?

Braden Abraham:
I should probably know that. I would say the ceilings are 30 feet tall and maybe this is 10,000 square feet. It’s a fairly big space. And actually often, when we have directors come through, they love this space and like, “Can I make my show in here?” This is a really inspiring space for people. And it’s great when we’re doing shows, when we might have one show on stage, and you’ll have one show being built right here in the shop. And so you can walk down here every day, which I often do, and look through those windows and come down on the floor and actually see stuff being made that’s getting ready to go on stage.

Braden Abraham:
And also, when you’re rehearsing, all of the scenic walls are taped out on the floor. We have anything, except for maybe some of the furniture. So we’re even pretending in there, like okay, there’s a wall here. There’s a door here. But the great thing here is that we can walk down here and we can see the door being built, we can see the wall being built, so we can get a sense of what it is before we actually get to use it on stage.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah. And how does that help your actors and even maybe your directors to be able to put those pieces together?

Braden Abraham:
Yeah. Because say a floor might have a slight rake to it, it might be slightly sloped. So the actor can come down, and we’re just on a flat floor in the rehearsal hall, the actor can come down and test what that feels like in their costume shoes. So they get a sense of it. You can see how it’s one thing to imagine where the window is in the back of the set. It’s another thing to actually see through it. So it just gives directors and the actors a better sense of the room.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
So that’s very helpful.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah. Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
And are there any little, I guess… You pointed out your chandelier collection.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
I see an oversized skull and ribcage.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
And then there’s this…

Braden Abraham:
It’s like Winged Victory thing.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah.

Braden Abraham:
That came in before my time. It’s been here for at least 20 years, and I actually can’t tell you which show that’s from, but we do, we collect things here. There’s the old spirits…

Gina Colucci:
So a neon sign-

Braden Abraham:
Neon from the ’80s that got taken out of the lobby at some point and put up there.

Gina Colucci:
Does it still work?

Braden Abraham:
I think it does. And I think when the shop crew, we have a beer 30 on Friday afternoons sometimes, and I think I’ve seen it working for that beer 30. They set up the keg right there.

Gina Colucci:
That’s great.

Braden Abraham:
And what else do we have? There’s a moon from a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the actor Suzanne Bouchard got lowered onto the stage, sitting in that little crescent moon right there. We have old pieces from sets. There’s [Noel Coward 00:07:08] there. There’s the father from my production of Glass Menagerie in 2012, still sitting up there. I don’t know what that gargoyle’s from. I think that’s from Hound of the Baskervilles maybe. Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
And on average, in a non-pandemic year, but how many different productions do you have?

Braden Abraham:
So we do nine productions a year between two spaces in the span of about nine or 10 months. So it is an intense and often grueling schedule in some ways. It’s really exciting and fun, but we’re basically putting up one show a month, if you can imagine what that pace is like. And in the midst of putting up nine shows, none of which we’ve ever done before… So that’s the other thing, is all of our work is made here. We’ve never done it before. We have a template for budgeting it based on past shows, but every single time it’s new. While we’re doing all of that work. We’re also planning the next season. And in the midst of building all of it and putting it up, we’re also raising money for it, doing all the marketing, all of that. All of that’s happening at the same time. So it never stops.

Gina Colucci:
No. Not at all.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
And on average, how long does it take from, I guess, conception to opening night?

Braden Abraham:
Well, it depends. It’s all over the place. It’s usually, I would say the practical part of it is probably 12 to 18 months. Some projects are years in the making, two or three years of development before we put it up. Some projects, we find the play and the director two months before we announce it, we put it up the following year, so it might only be eight months. It depends.

Gina Colucci:
And what would be an example of one that took years?

Braden Abraham:
Well, so back in 2014, we did two plays about Lyndon Baines Johnson, All the Way and The Great Society. And this was a huge, huge project for us. It was two epic plays, three hours long. And we actually did them with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And we were the first… They premiered both plays. We commissioned one of them, but this was the first place where we put them both together. So you got to see both plays in rotating rep. That project started when I had a conversation with Robert Schenkkan four years earlier, where he described to me an idea he had to write a play about Lyndon Baines Johnson. And even from that moment, I was like, “This is going to be amazing.” And so it took that long to get to that opening night.

Gina Colucci:
And what was that conversation like, to be at the beginning of something? Because you will get plays too that have already been written or they’re remake, but that one was just a fully original.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah. That’s part of what makes this job so fun is when you can get there from the very beginning, from when a play is just an idea. It’s not even a fully formed idea. It’s just the very, very beginning of an idea. But in a special case like that one, when you sit down with a writer like Robert Schenkkan and he describes it to you, you just know that it’s going to be something special because of his enthusiasm, his passion for it, and of course his skill as a writer, his knowledge about it. All of that makes you go, “We have to do this.” And it doesn’t always work out like that one, but that ride is what makes our work so fun. Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
That sounds really special.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah. So what else do we have down here?

Braden Abraham:
Yeah, so let’s keep going. Yeah. So this is the paint floor. And again, you can see a drop that’s laid out that’s about to get painted. I actually don’t know what this is for.

Gina Colucci:
I was struck at how massive this blank canvas was laying on the floor. It took up almost half of the workspace.

Braden Abraham:
What is that? 35 by 20, maybe? 40 by 20.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah. It’s big.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
Can you explain what a drop is for…

Braden Abraham:
Yeah. A drop, so if you go to see a show say that has, say it’s a house on a hill with a beautiful vista behind it, that beautiful Vista is all painted. And so it hangs on a pipe that is at the back of the theater, and that pipe is raised, hanging that drop cloth. And then it’s lit by the lighting designer, and the combination of the paint, the perspective, and the lighting gives you that sense that you’re in the Swiss Alps or something like that. Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
Do you have a memory of one that you’ve seen the progression of and it just blew your mind?

Braden Abraham:
Well, they always do. Here at Seattle Rep, we have some of the best artists, artisans in the country. And it’s amazing to come down and watch them put down the layers of paint and see the detail and the perspective begin to develop. But you don’t really know the full depth of it until you see it with light on it. And that’s the other amazing thing about painters, is that they both understand color from just the paint perspective, but they also understand it from the lighting that’s going to be put on it too and how that works.

Gina Colucci:
And they have to collaborate with the lighting designers and [crosstalk 00:12:43]

Braden Abraham:
Well, and the lighting designer… Yeah, exactly. The set designer really is the one who sets the design, including the drops, and then they collaborate rate with the painters to get the effect they want. But there’s conversations happening with the lighting designer for that entire time. Yeah. It’s cool.

Gina Colucci:
That’s really cool.

Braden Abraham:
So let’s keep going, and we’ll go out onto the main stage. So now, we’re going into the hallway that’s backstage of the main theater, the Bagley Wright Theatre. These are dressing rooms along here, and here’s the stage

Gina Colucci:
Oh, gosh. Oh, wow.

Gina Colucci:
I want to make sure you understand how cool this moment was, walking out onto the main stage. You felt connected to how actors must feel when they go out to perform. The energy on the stage was palpable.

Braden Abraham:
I actually haven’t been in here in a while because of the pandemic, and they’ve just torn out the old seats because we’re renovating the space right now, putting in new seating. So this is the first time I’ve actually seen it in a while with all the seats out, which is pretty amazing.

Gina Colucci:
Do you want to take us a little bit through the renovation that you guys are looking forward to? Or you’re in the middle of, actually.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah. So we’re standing center stage right now, and we’re looking out at the house, and the whole main floor, all the seating is gone. And what we’re doing is we’re replacing the seats, which are pushing 40 years old now and have been in need of replacement. So, there’s a couple things that are happening. First, we just needed new seats because they’re worn out. It’s going to give a lot more access. We’re going to have more ADA, more wheelchair spots in better seats of the house, which was really important to us to come into compliance and just offer more accessible seating to more patrons. So that’s going to be fixed.

Braden Abraham:
The other thing that I’m really excited about as a director is… One of the great things about this space is that for a fairly large space, there’s 860 seats, it actually feels pretty intimate because the back wall where you enter the theater is not that far away.

Gina Colucci:
No.

Braden Abraham:
So you can sit in here and feel pretty close to the stage, even if you’re sitting fairly close to the back. The challenge with this space as a director is that the seats have always been wider than the stage. So what it creates is a sight line issue, where your eye… You can’t use the full width of the stage to stage things. Now what we’re doing is we’re actually putting less seats back in, so we’re narrowing the audience, so it’s more in line with the stage. That way we’ll be able to use the full depth of the stage, and more seats will be good seats. So now, almost every seat on the floor will be a great seat.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
There’s no bad seat in the house.

Braden Abraham:
There’s no bad seat in the house. I think we can actually honestly say that. And they’ll also be more comfortable. There’ll be more room around them. They won’t squeak, which for me is a big thing. Although you can tell when an audience is restless in here, they’re not quite with you, when the seats start to squeak. But that won’t be there anymore.

Gina Colucci:
That’ll never happen again.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah. And then, you see the balcony. Another characteristic of this space is that there’s a very steep balcony. And often, when actors come in, when we come from the rehearsal hall into here, one of the adjustments that we have to make for the actors is that they just have to… If they’re used to talking like this, they just have to raise their chin about 10 degrees for some moments, just to give a little more access to the people up on top, especially when they’re addressing the audience. They’re giving a soliloquy or talking to the audience some way, just having your chin up just a little bit allows them to see the full room. So it’s a little unnatural, but we try to make it feel natural. There’s great seats up in the balcony.

Braden Abraham:
One of the things that I struggle with, or really just don’t like about this space, honestly, is that the sight lines from the balcony, from an architectural point of view, it’s brilliant because it hits directly to the lip of the stage. So from there to here, you can’t actually see much beyond this.

Gina Colucci:
Okay.

Braden Abraham:
The problem is that, first of all, it cuts that audience off from this audience. So if you’re downstairs, it’s hard to have an awareness of who’s upstairs and vice versa. To me, that really takes away from the experience of theater, which is that you want to feel everybody around you. You want to feel that shared experience of feeling like you’re with the whole audience. And I feel like that’s a challenge in this space.

Braden Abraham:
The other thing is that you can never… With a set, it’s hard to break what we call the proscenium line right here. It’s hard to get stuff out into the house, which is fun sometimes, if you want to really emphasize that connection with the audience, and you don’t want this artificial fourth wall, like we call it, you want to be out there with them. It’s hard to do because of the way the space is designed. So, we push it as much as we can on some shows. And on a particular show called Here Lies Love where we tore out all of seats and made this into a giant Studio 54 disco, we completely obliterated it.

Gina Colucci:
That’s awesome.

Braden Abraham:
But on a typical show, we can’t do that. So that’s just a tension that we have to work with in the space.

Gina Colucci:
I saw mattresses back there. Was that for the…

Braden Abraham:
I don’t know what those mattresses were for, but yeah, that was… That’s a whole story in itself when we did that. That was David Byrne’s musical Here Lies Love, which we did in 2016. And yeah, we tore out all of the seats. We built these risers, these seating risers. We completely transformed the space, so much so that people who had been coming to this theater for 30 years, when they walked in, they did not recognize it. They were completely disoriented. The only thing that looked the same was the balcony because… And in that way, the balcony became a huge advantage for us because it became perfect seating even for this dance floor that we’d put in.

Braden Abraham:
And for that show, the audience and the actors were all in the same space. And we had these moving platforms that went through the audience. So the audience was moving around the action. It was incredible.

Gina Colucci:
What a cool experience.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah, it was really cool. [crosstalk 00:19:32].

Gina Colucci:
Is there plans to do anything like that ever again?

Braden Abraham:
Well, I hope so, but we may need to do it in a different space because we were really fighting the architecture here in a way that was really creative, but also really hard and also very expensive.

Gina Colucci:
Well, you can’t put a price tag on [crosstalk 00:19:53].

Braden Abraham:
Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.

Gina Colucci:
And I guess, you have some of the best actors in the world come through here, and I’m… Did you do any acting?

Braden Abraham:
Me? Well, like most people, I started as an actor and then realized that I was probably better on the other side of the table. So yeah, in high school and in college I acted. And I did have one acting experience or well, a few after college. When I first started out in theater, when I moved here, my girlfriend and I at the time did a production of a Sam Shepard play called Cowboy Mouth, and I built the set and we rehearsed in my apartment. And we did it down at the Speakeasy, the old Speakeasy Cafe, which was down in Belltown and burned down, I think, in 2002 or something like that. So yeah, I did a bit of acting.

Gina Colucci:
And well, I guess quickly though-

Braden Abraham:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
With the new seats coming in, where will your favorite seat be?

Braden Abraham:
Well, it’s funny. I don’t sit much. As the director, I like to stand in the back because for me, I want to both watch the play, but I also want to feel the audience. And it’s harder for me if I’m sitting in the house. And even on opening night, I don’t sit. I rarely do.

Braden Abraham:
In fact, one time, my wife… I sat. I was like, “I’m going to sit for this one,” and she was with me and we sat. She [inaudible 00:21:28] me in intermission, she was like, “Don’t ever do that again,” because I was fidgeting. And [crosstalk 00:21:34] no, I probably shouldn’t.

Braden Abraham:
But my favorite seats are usually in the middle, so you can get a full sense of the full stage, but also be close enough that you really feel intimate with the actors. Actually, one of the first shows I ever saw was in this space. I came here on a school trip from Anacortes in 1989. I saw Sunday in the Park with George. I sat right up there. And of course, when I came in this space then as a kid, having maybe been to one or two other theaters in my life, I was just completely blown away by the show and being in here and what was possible in terms of what a theater show could be.

Braden Abraham:
And we’ve launched countless new plays here. There’s just a lot of history here. And I think that’s been one of the hardest things about the pandemic and being closed is that the space is just empty. And we talk about there’s the cliche about a theater being a church. And I don’t really subscribe to that except for maybe the fact that it’s sacred only because it’s a place where people gather, and all the stories and memories and performances that have been here, I think, charge it with a certain energy. In that way, I guess it is a holy place to me because all of those people have been here and shared stories here and shared ideas and questions and all of that. I think that’s what makes it special.

Gina Colucci:
I’ve heard that before, of where people gather, and it’s interesting how our perception of that’s changing with these last few months and the pandemic. What are your hopes as you start to reopen and bring that energy back?

Braden Abraham:
Just by being together again, I think people are going to, I hope, just remember and appreciate what it’s like to be together for theater and for dance and for sports. It’s just by its very nature, healing. And it reminds us of who we are, and it reminds us of what we hold in common with each other. So yeah, that’s my hope.

Gina Colucci:
I hope that too.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
You’re a big baseball fan as well.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
And are there any similarities between being in a sports stadium and being in a theater that you can make?

Braden Abraham:
Oh, I think so. Especially baseball, just the drama, the pace of life, all of the unpredictability of what could happen. And certainly also like with theater, just all of the rich tradition of the players and the game and the memories of what it means to experience the sport together.

Gina Colucci:
You can all root for and against.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
I’m seeing this, quickly as we’re walking out, there’s a blow… I first thought it was a dolphin, but it looks like a plane, an inflatable plane and some funny little-

Braden Abraham:
These are all mementos from past productions and things that the stage hands have picked up. I don’t know where some of these things are from.

Gina Colucci:
Like the disco ball.

Braden Abraham:
Disco ball.

Gina Colucci:
A monkey.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
A Mexican wrestling mask cut out [crosstalk 00:25:18].

Braden Abraham:
So now, we’re back in the hallway, backstage. That’s the costume shop.

Gina Colucci:
Can we check that-

Braden Abraham:
Yeah. You can go in here.

Gina Colucci:
I just… Oh my gosh. I grew up playing dress up.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
And this just looks-

Braden Abraham:
Oh yeah. This would be your young self’s dream. [crosstalk 00:25:43] yeah.

Gina Colucci:
I still love a good costume.

Braden Abraham:
Well, yeah, this is it.

Gina Colucci:
Oh, this is awesome.

Braden Abraham:
So this is where we build all the costumes for the shows. You can see there’s some of the racks here with old costumes. We just wrapped doing an actual film of our public works program, Winter’s Tale. We filmed a musical version of Winter’s Tale outside because of the pandemic. We’re like, “Well, we can’t do a show on stage yet. Let’s do a film.” So we’ve just wrapped that. So there’s a lot of stuff here that’s going back into storage after it was used.

Gina Colucci:
Where do you store all [crosstalk 00:26:19] is it here on site too?

Braden Abraham:
Yeah. We have some storage on site. We don’t keep everything, but we keep a lot of stuff, and we borrow stuff from UDub. Looks like there’s some stuff over there. But most of the stuff for our shows is built here by artisans who work here, and they are incredible. It’s amazing to come in here. Again, you could be in rehearsal, and you come in and they’re building the costume for a particular role. And that’s the dressing room over there where the actors come in and they try stuff on, they fit them. They take all their measurements. So everything’s fitted specifically to the actor, but just the work. That’s one of the things I love about the theater. It’s one of the last few places where everything is handmade right in the same location. And you can actually watch a garment being made, and their craft is incredible.

Gina Colucci:
There’s also a ton of shoes above us.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah. There’s shoe storage up there. And some of these shoes are actually made for specific shows. Back here, we have our dye room. So where we can dye garments and do leather work. That’s hair over there, so where actors get haircuts and get made up with wigs. We have an amazing wig maker, Joyce [Degenfeller 00:27:56], who’s just phenomenal. She’s been here for 30 years, 30 plus years. She’s one of the best in the business. Yeah, this is the dye room.

Gina Colucci:
I like the half mannequin legs standing.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah. You can see a big piece of leather there, hanging up, ready to be made into a hat or something.

Gina Colucci:
It’s like everywhere I look is a different era.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah, exactly.

Gina Colucci:
It’s so cool.

Braden Abraham:
This is all eyeglasses and bracelets, jewelry. One time during a gala, I came here and got my tuxedo on because we have our gala here, and I couldn’t find my cuff links. I’d forgotten them at home. So I ran down here and I was like, “Do you have any cuff links?” And they’re like, “Do we have cuff links? Here. Open this drawer.”

Gina Colucci:
[crosstalk 00:28:42] Men’s accessories.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah. I know. It’s the perfect place. Right?

Gina Colucci:
I know. There’s just, how many? One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, almost over 10 just drawers of glasses.

Braden Abraham:
Yep.

Gina Colucci:
Oh my gosh. The fun you could have.

Braden Abraham:
I know. Total dress up dream, I’m telling you.

Gina Colucci:
Totally. How is it going, I guess watching your actors as you’re directing a play, go from the production and then putting their costumes on, and then doing a run through. Is there a huge difference?

Braden Abraham:
It is… I don’t know if it’s a huge difference, but it’s one of the final pieces, and I think it’s different for every actor. Some actors, they really can find their character much more easily once they get their shoes on because it just affects the way they walk in a different way. And that can be true with a certain costume. It doesn’t give them the character, but it gives them an added sense of being in that world. And it’s just another key part of it. So yeah, it can be one of the final pieces when they get that. And it’s like, oh, this comes together in a different way.

Gina Colucci:
That process would be really cool to watch.

Braden Abraham:
And speaking of rehearsal, this is our main rehearsal room actually, right here. This is the poncho form. This floor is a floor that we put in, in the early ’90s for a production of Cider House Rules.

Gina Colucci:
Oh wow.

Braden Abraham:
It was an adaptation of the John Irving novel that started here and ended up going to Broadway. And the first production… This was our second space before we built a second theater, where we would do a lot of new plays, and there’s some seats that fold out here. And so it’s a 99 seat, what we call a black box theater because it’s all in one space.

Braden Abraham:
The floor is original. Everything else is new that we redid just a few years ago. And when we went about designing the space, I said, “I want to keep the floor because there’s a patina to it from all of the rehearsals and performances that have been here.” And it adds a warmth to the space that just feels right for a space that’s really the creative heart of our building in many ways, because this is where we make the shows. But everything else is new. The seats are new, and they’re much more comfortable than the old seats, which were like the jump seats in a Toyota pickup truck or something. They’re much more comfortable. These panels are for acoustics. And-

Gina Colucci:
And can you describe those? Because they’re very modern, but artistic looking in a way.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah. And they’re wood slatted, fanned panels that go up against the wall. And we’ll go outside, and you can see there’s actually a window there, where with the shade up, as it is now, you can see into the rehearsal hall. And that was part of what we want to do with the space is give people a little peek into the room if we wanted to, without feeling like if you’re in here, you’re in a fishbowl.

Braden Abraham:
But it also comes out of the floor. It matches the floor and brings that warm energy up the wall into the room. And you have the cooler panels behind it, the acoustical panels, which give the space a nice warmth as well in terms of sound.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah. I love the space. I love the height of the ceiling. Even though it’s a relatively small cozy space, the height of the ceilings make it feel [crosstalk 00:32:25].

Gina Colucci:
And how high would you say these are?

Braden Abraham:
They’re also probably about 30 feet, maybe 25 feet. So now this space functions both as a rehearsal hall, as a space where we workshop new plays and might do presentations, but it’s also where we might do an opening night party or an event or that kind of thing.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
It’s cool. I love how the lighting too is almost symmetrical throughout. It just adds this element.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah. And we can hang lights up here for shows and stuff too and add to it. But this allows us to have a few looks.

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Gina Colucci:
Now the halls that we previously walked through, not many people would see that-

Braden Abraham:
Those are public spaces. That’s all backstage. So now we’re in the lobby, and I can show you this final theater.

Gina Colucci:
[inaudible 00:33:47].

Braden Abraham:
So now we’re in the part of the building that was built in 1997. So the original part was ’83 and this is ’97. And the goal was to build a larger second stage than the space we were just in, to be able to offer more programming. And let me see, make sure the lights [crosstalk 00:34:20]

Gina Colucci:
As we walk to the second theater, Braden reaches for the lights, but the room isn’t dark. There’s another light source coming from the main stage.

Gina Colucci:
I like there’s just a random little light lantern in the middle of the [crosstalk 00:34:34]

Braden Abraham:
That’s what we call the ghost light. And that’s to keep some light in the space at all times. Theater people are superstitious. And if the theater goes completely dark, that’s no good.

Gina Colucci:
Okay.

Braden Abraham:
So we keep a light on all the time. It’s called the ghost light.

Gina Colucci:
Okay. You were serious. I love that.

Braden Abraham:
Very serious.

Gina Colucci:
And what else? What other superstitions are there that I need to know about?

Braden Abraham:
Oh, well, see, this is another way in which baseball and theater has similarities. Something might work a certain night, and I don’t know, you do it exactly the same the next night, or you don’t change your pre dinner routine so that you don’t mess up your performance. There’s lots of different little things. You don’t say the name of Shakespeare’s the Scottish play in the theater. Well, I won’t say the real name, but I think you know-

Gina Colucci:
You can’t.

Braden Abraham:
I can’t. All kinds of quirky little things. And every theater artist might have something different.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah. I love that. One I know is you say, “Break a leg.”

Braden Abraham:
You say, “Break a leg.” You never say… Yeah, you never say, “Good luck.”

Gina Colucci:
No.

Braden Abraham:
I know. It’s okay.

Gina Colucci:
There’s not [crosstalk 00:35:59].

Braden Abraham:
I’m not that superstitious. So I love this space. So this is a smaller proscenium space. The first space we were in is 855 seats, 860 seats. This is 280. This is a beautiful space to do smaller cast plays, dramas and comedies, solo work. I think it’s one of the… Yeah, I think it’s one of the best spaces in the building. I love the proportions of this space. The opening to the stage is actually quite tall, but I love that you have the possibility of height in here.

Braden Abraham:
I directed a production that was set in a cabin in Idaho, and we took out floor panels and put trees way down in the basement and put them all the way up into the rigging. And you really got the sense of verticality in the space. And then I’ve done other shows in here where it was only 12 feet that you could see, and it felt very letter boxed, almost like a movie. And so that works well too. But yeah, it’s just great, in terms of being very intimate with the actors, hearing every single word without a lot of effort. It works well for those kinds of shows.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah. And one of the biggest differences I noticed from the first year we were in, and you pointed this out there, is the upper level and how it’s more at a curve angle so that if you were up there, you do see the audience-

Braden Abraham:
That’s right.

Gina Colucci:
From the first.

Braden Abraham:
You feel much more connected, which I really like in a theater. I like it when the audience… You can see everybody, and there’s something that’s special about that. Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
I don’t know why my mind goes here, but anytime I’m in a theater and then these little boxes on the side, I always think that’s where the royalty sit. [crosstalk 00:37:56] I don’t know where that came from.

Braden Abraham:
I really hate these boxes. I got to tell you, if I could take them out, I would, and they don’t help with the sight lines upstairs. And you can see that we actually took the seats out of this front one and just made it a lighting position because the boxes aren’t good for anything really but being seen, like if you’re royalty. They’re not very good for watching a play. But that said, there are people who sometimes request these other two, I think just because it gives you more room to stretch out. I don’t think it’s particularly about the view of the play, but maybe it is. I don’t know. Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
Do you ever incorporate those in the play?

Braden Abraham:
Oh yeah. We’ve used them several times. I remember a production of The Beard of Avon, actually before I started working here, by Amy Freed, and Queen Elizabeth made her entrance there. Of course she would, right?

Gina Colucci:
Of course.

Braden Abraham:
And we’ve used them in other shows too. Yeah, they’re good for that sometimes.

Gina Colucci:
If you weren’t excited by our behind the scenes tour, get ready. Listening to Braden talk about what’s coming up this season, it’s going to get you hyped about the magic of the theater. And you’re going to go buy tickets.

Braden Abraham:
I didn’t even talk about our public works program, but it’s one of the programs I’m most proud of that we started in 2014. It’s a program that we make work with our community throughout the year. We have different residencies with different organizations. We teach theater classes, they come here and see shows. We do potlucks together with all these different community organizations. And at the end of the year, we do a large community-based production that involves professional actors, directors, and 80 or so community members and partner arts groups. So it ends up being about 150 people on the stage, all of Seattle, or representatives of all of Seattle, making a show together, which is really special.

Braden Abraham:
And of course, we haven’t been able to do that show in its traditional sense for the last two years. But this year, we decided we’d make a film because for some reason we thought that would be easier, but it did allow us to work with smaller groups of people and do something we hadn’t done before.

Braden Abraham:
And then, when the Bagley Theatre, the big theater, reopens in January, our first show in there will be a piece about Fannie Lou Hamer, the civil rights activist. And that’s written by Cheryl L. West, playwright who’s based in Seattle, but is produced all of over the country. It’s told through story and song, and it’s a beautiful solo show about Fannie Lou Hamer.

Braden Abraham:
And then we have Freestyle Love Supreme by a guy you may have heard of, named Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote a little show called Hamilton. [crosstalk 00:40:54] but Freestyle Love Supreme is the origin of Hamilton in some ways. It’s where Lin and a lot of his long term creative partners who went on to work on Hamilton and In the Heights, another show that we did a few years ago, it’s how they started, which was in the basement of the Drama Book Shop in New York, kicking around and doing an improv hip hop show.

Braden Abraham:
And so that show went to Broadway more recently, and now they’re doing a tour and we’re going to be one of the first theaters in the country to host a tour of that. It’s going to be really fun. Every night’s going to be different, because it’s a total improv show. It’s based on the audience. We’re going to have some special guests.

Braden Abraham:
And then after that we’re doing a new production of Ibsen’s classic Ghosts, which is a really resonant and beautiful, classic play to be doing right now. And Bruce, the new musical about the making of Jaws, which is so much fun, so much fun. Even my daughter who’s 11, who refuses to see Jaws because she’s convinced that it’s too scary for her still, she knows what Jaws is, this movie that was made in the ’70s. And the movie is really about this younger, scrappier group of filmmakers led by a 26-year-old Steven Spielberg, trying to figure out how to make this film and not have it lead to disaster.

Braden Abraham:
And of course, one of the things that makes the film so brilliant is that you don’t see the shark until the end, but really practically why that was is because Steven Spielberg had to improvise because the mechanical shark didn’t work for most of the filming.

Braden Abraham:
And then we have two new plays in the smaller theater, a play called Teenage Dick, which is a very liberally adapted version of Shakespeare’s Richard III set in the high school that’s just hilarious and scathing and fun and great for young actors.

Braden Abraham:
And then we’re also doing a play called Selling Kabul by a playwright named Sylvia Khoury. And that play could not be more timely in terms of what’s happening in Afghanistan. So it’s a beautiful family drama. So we have a really wonderful lineup. I’m looking forward to it.

Gina Colucci:
And so diverse.

Braden Abraham:
Very diverse.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah.

Braden Abraham:
Yeah. You get a lot of different perspectives and stories and styles. But yeah, it’ll be a fun ride. When I put a season together, I really think about the whole journey for the audience. And I’m really excited about what this year has to offer.

Gina Colucci:
Inspired Design is brought to you by the Seattle Design Center. The show is produced by Larj Media. You can find them 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.

Gina Colucci:
Is there an iconic Northwest creator that you want to hear from? Head to our website and leave a comment.

Gina Colucci:
Next time on Inspired Design, we sit down with Gerard Tsutakawa and visit his exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum.

Gerard Tsutakawa:
My father did all his work in this house, and I grew up here and worked in his studio and moved away and then came back and continued to work here.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco | Opera Opulence

Liesl Alice Gatcheco | Opera Opulence

In this episode of Inspired Design, Liesl Alice Gatcheco, Director of Costumes, Hair and Makeup at Seattle Opera reveals what it takes to bring a performance to life. Learn how Playboy altered her career path and how she is now paying tribute to traditional opera while developing modern performances that culturally represent our world today.

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www.seattleopera.org

VISION

Seattle Opera is a cultural icon of a major world city that speaks to all communities of, and visitors to, the Puget Sound region.

MISSION

By drawing our community together and by offering opera’s unique fusion of music and drama, we create life-enhancing experiences that speak deeply to people’s hearts and minds.

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Episode Transcript

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Something in my mind I can have made by professionals in the costume shop is such an incredible opportunity. I don’t know, I can’t even tell you the feeling that you get when you see something that was just an idea and then suddenly there’s this singer wearing it, breathing life into it. And you see a story being told and people affected by it, I love being part of that.

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 time on Inspired Design, Liesl Alice Gatcheco, Director of Costumes, Hair and Makeup, gives us a backstage tour of the Seattle Opera.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
I came here thinking I was going to work for one year. I was a stitcher in the costume shop in 03, kind of when they first opened McCaw Hall and I just kept coming back. I was a stitcher, then I was assistant wardrobe head. I heard they needed someone in the hair and makeup department, that job was going to last a year and that lasted 11, because of all the changes over the pandemic, I became the Costume, Hair and Makeup director. So here I am.

Gina Colucci:
I was so excited to dive in to the creative process that, I wanted to start the tour right away. When you enter, you’re taking aback by how big this collaborative space is. They’ve got working stations and sewing machines the size of sofas and ironing boards the size of VW Bugs and racks of mannequins. And they’ve got everything they need in one place to bring stories alive. I feel like I’m on the set of Project Runway.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Yeah. So this is the shop. All our sewing machines. We have nine big huge cutting tables, our huge ironing boards, all this fabric and lining. If we go over here, this is our wig and makeup room. Then we get to see the space needle from here.

Gina Colucci:
Wow. After you get over how large the main space is, you realize there are these little rooms off to the side and one of them, it’s not so little is where they make the wigs. It reminds you of a hair salon with the different stations, but then you realize they aren’t cutting people’s hair. They are creating wigs.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
We have all different stations and Ashley and her team come in here and ventilate wigs, which is the act of tying hair into the wig lace just like what you can see right here. So we do a tracing of each singer’s hairline.

Gina Colucci:
I was a little curious at the process and the attention to detail that went into the creation of the wigs. And Liesl is showing me how the wig makers sew in each strand, and how they will take a model of the actor’s head and even draw where their hairline is for reference. So they can make it as realistic as possible. And what kind of hair is this?

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
It’s human hair.

Gina Colucci:
It is? Cool.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
It is sourced from all sorts of places.

Gina Colucci:
Like finding my hair. You have a basket of rats in here.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Yes.

Gina Colucci:
I bet.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
So rats are these nylon sponges that you put inside wigs to give height to the wigs. If you need like a bouffant or a bigger bun or something like that, you put it inside the hair. Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
The volumizer.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
The volumizer right?

Gina Colucci:
I like what they called it.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Yeah. And they actually have a rat photo.

Gina Colucci:
Can you tell someone you have a sense of humor

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
It’s pretty funny.

Gina Colucci:
Yes.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Yeah. Oh gosh. We all do.

Gina Colucci:
One of the wigs that was finished and was up in the corner on display was this ornate long woman’s hair in an updo. But in the middle of the updo, there was a whole model ship in it.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
This is a big wig dryer. So Ashley will roller set wigs before styling them. And then we put them in this dryer to bake. Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
It can take up to 40 hours to create one wig. If you think about it, that’s our average work week to make one piece of a performer’s costume. And each strand of hair is sewn in by hand into the netting that will create the whole wig.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
How things have changed trends and opera, lots of new young directors don’t like wigs, because they look too wiggy, fake and they’ll want natural hair, but they don’t understand that the singer has to sit there to get their hair done. Also McCaw Hall is huge, right? So that’s fine for TV, but on a huge stage where the closest person is a hundred feet away, a costume is big. And if you have your own hair, you look like a pinhead. So the wig really helps to balance out the whole look.

Gina Colucci:
The wig is like the cherry on top for the costume and in the opera, traditionally things are bigger and more elaborate. And to create these worlds, it’s obvious they needed a lot of space. So this building was built in 2018.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Yes.

Gina Colucci:
What did your wig shop look like before you moved in here?

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Oh, we were like in a crappy utility closet outside of a elevator. So over here, laundry and then our thread, and specialty machines and every color you could ever think of, this is our shoe storage.

Gina Colucci:
And we got to see some other rooms that are critical in the creation of the costumes and the hair and the makeup, everything down to boxes for accessories and then racks and racks of shoes and all different sizes and colors and make.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
There’s even more than that. Leather belts, any sort of accessory you might need over here.

Gina Colucci:
They have a whole wall of yarn in every color, a whole wall of different undergarments, cufflinks, glasses, jewelry, hair pieces. Do you need a garter.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Yeah. Or arm bounds. Cummer buns, Henleys.

Gina Colucci:
And the shoe racket. It’s two levels.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Yes.

Gina Colucci:
So beneath there’s like boots and bins full of shoes and then a staircase up where it’s almost like you’re in a department store.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Exactly. That’s true. So this is the crafts area. So our Craft Supervisor, Miriam works here. So she works on all the non clothing, things like making hats, shoes leather work, any kind of embellishment that you might see on a costume. Feathers on a pat or anything crazy that we need to make happen. Miriam can just magically do it. This is the dye room.

Gina Colucci:
The dye room almost looked like really nice laundry room in somebody’s home, except for the fact that they have this giant vac in the room that is used to dye garments and fabric. And by giant, I mean like a big, hot tub.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Washing machines, sinks, ventilator, basically any color of fabric or shade or texture pattern that you want dyed, Miriam can make that happen. For Orpheus, which we’re producing in January, I wanted a lot of Japanese shibori prints on the dancers. So I’m going to ask Miriam to dye some unitards for the dancers like that and some kimono top kind of thing. So we’ll see how that plays out. And then this is the painting rooms. And we also have a big, huge spray booth.

Gina Colucci:
The spray booth looked like a large service elevator. It was all made out of metal. It had a big vacuum coming out of the top to keep the air clean when in use. And doors that you could close. And then it had some hanging rods inside. So you could hang up whatever you were painting.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
You can hang up costumes in here. Or sometimes the props people come in here and use it just so that, we don’t have to smell any of those fumes.

Gina Colucci:
You even have a fume [inaudible 00:09:28].

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
So, and then is our fitting room. It’s split into two sides.

Gina Colucci:
We quickly walked past the fitting rooms, which were larger department store fitting rooms. But you would have to be able to fit three, four or five people in there. Because you have the performer and then the seamstresses and an art director, all having to fit in one room to, to make sure everything is perfect.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
For one person on stage. Like MiMi, for example in bohème, probably like 10 people worked to make her look how she does full-time. Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
Wow.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Yeah. So you think about people who fit the costume, those of us who decided who was wearing what? The wardrobe department, the wig department, the hair and makeup crew. So this is our costume collection.

Gina Colucci:
Oh my God.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
So this room is probably-

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
It’s like Costco.

Gina Colucci:
It is, I feel like I’m in Costco costumes.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
There’s 10 rows racks.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
More than three levels each.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
All our petticoats and corsets night gowns, contemporary costumes. And it starts getting older and then to fantasy toward the back, 19th century gowns for coats-

Gina Colucci:
It’s the Bridgerton row.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Yeah, exactly. The Bridgerton row.

Gina Colucci:
After the initial shock of what walking into that room, you realize that everything was organized and that’s no easy task.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
One of the first things that I kind of took on was trying to figure out how to best organize this. So we’re working on a whole bar coding and digitizing program. For us, so that we can get the shows together faster instead of running around, trying to find things. So other people can rent from us, even local theaters and stuff like that. I just like to be more active in the community and let people use our resources because there’s a lot of amazing things that haven’t been touched for 20 years. And to me, that’s really sad.

Gina Colucci:
Every piece though, is handmade.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Absolutely.

Gina Colucci:
From scratch.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
From scratch. Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
And these are beautiful gowns.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Yeah. And, they have boning and lining. I mean, they’re really made to last 30 years for sure. That’s why I’m like, “There is actually crypto in Seattle and nobody knows about it.”

Gina Colucci:
I was struck by how you could tell the quality of each piece just by a quick glance.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
You wonder why couture gowns can be $45,000. I can tell you why, because there’s 10 people working on it and hand making it and sewing it on little details. Lace speeding. I mean down to the corsets they made from scratch.

Gina Colucci:
Oh my gosh.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Every single thing was handmade.

Gina Colucci:
I couldn’t believe it, but we stumbled upon the first dress that Liesl had ever made for the Seattle Opera. And it was Carmen’s cigarette factory dress.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
So when she’s working in the cigarette factory I believe.

Gina Colucci:
And it’s heavy.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
It’s heavy. It’s probably 20 pounds.

Gina Colucci:
And you have another, almost very similar version.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
Here.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
I mean, we have several versions of Carmen depending on the person or the singer, their size. If we need to build a new one for somebody new coming in, goes all the way back here. I mean, we have crazy armor. More boots fabric, we’re going to do a build for Santa Fe opera.

Gina Colucci:
What’s that?

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Do you need an Anubis head? And the fact that just something in my mind I can have made by professionals in the costume shop is such an incredible opportunity. It took like three or four people to build this double face duchess satin. First I did a sketch obviously, and this pleading part was not on the sketch, but once we threw it on the dress farm, I knew something else had to be there. I love the singer Lexi LoBianco who actually wore this dress. She cried, she was so happy that something was built for her to actually flatter her size. So that was really special to me. I don’t know. I can’t even tell you the feeling that you get when you see something that was just an idea. And then suddenly there’s this singer wearing it, breathing life into it. And you see a story being told and people affected by it. I love being part of that. Hopefully she’ll be back and will do it again or get a chance to design something new.

Speaker 4:
Seattle Design Center is the premier marketplace for fine home furnishings, designer, textiles, bespoke lighting, curated art and custom kitchen and bath solutions. We are located in the heart of Georgetown, open to the public Monday through Friday with complimentary parking. Our showroom associates are industry experts known for their customer service. We are celebrating new showrooms and added onsite amenities. Visit seattledesigncenter.com for more information about our showrooms and our Find a Designer program.

Gina Colucci:
I wanted to know how Liesl became the director of costumes, hair, and makeup.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
I’m very good at change. I think because I’m really good with change. It kind of helped through the pandemic and all those things. I actually, I think deep down my ability to be flexible and be able to deal with change is because I’m the child of immigrants for sure. And I can understand where different people come from and it’s not hard for me interpreting things is like so natural for me.

Gina Colucci:
Do you think that helps your creative process as well? The flexibility?

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Absolutely. Before I went into opera or theater, I was in fashion and I had big dreams to be a fashion designer. I was born and raised in Seattle and moved to New York when I was 18 and went to FIT and had these dreams to become a fashion designer. And I was a fashion editor for a short time at Esquire magazine, Mary Claire magazine. It’s a hard business. It’s not to say that I didn’t meet some wonderful people, but it’s a numbers game. It’s about making money. And when you’re designing… Any piece of clothing you buy in a store is driven by a merchandiser. They work closely with you to tell you what was great last season. I need this many styles, and then you’re kind of designing for this customer. You don’t really know, but you’re just make all these assumptions.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
And what I love so much about designing in theater and opera is you have these crazy constraints. Which like a certain genre you have to design within, a certain director wants these elements, a set designer wants these elements. The lighting tells you, your budget tells you how much you can spend and build. So I don’t know, that’s more exciting to me. And what I do is so dependent on these other people in our creative team and you get to be there from beginning to end. So it’s really a satisfying creative process. You see a mockup, you see something built and tweaked and then on stage, and then it’s done. I always thought that because I’m more of a generalist that, that was a problem. It’s you see all these successful people, I’m doing air quotes who are specialists, but in reality have really served me to have done so many different things.

Gina Colucci:
I knew Liesl had a great story to tell us, she designed and manufactured the classic Playboy bunny costume.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
So that’s funny. I was a designer in LA. So in the late nineties, a friend of mine came to me and was like, “You know how to sew, right? I was like, “Yes.” I think I was a designer at GUESS at the time or something. Which when you’re designing for companies like that, you’re not actually making anything it’s all on the computer and communicating with factories. And I was like, “Yes, I do.” He goes, “Well, a friend of mine is having fit problems for Playboy, they’re trying to relaunch the bunny costume, can you help with that?” I was like, “Okay.” Didn’t think it was anything. Because I had been doing a lot of costing jobs all over LA, and so I brought my sewing machine over to the offices in Beverly Hills.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
And the bunny costume is a work of engineering. It is a seven piece boned costume that is like a bulletproof vest. That’s how you get that shape on the women that you see, because it’s really tight. Sometimes it takes two or three people to zip them into it. Because I had gone to FIT and I had mad sewing skills, it wasn’t a big deal for me to help figure it out. And, I mean, it took a while, but I was into it. And so they eventually got rid of the stylist who was trying to develop it and gave the job to me. And it became this 12 year relationship where I started making the bunny costumes worldwide, it was a good run. It was an amazing account to have, I remember when I told my parents, they were kind of silent. But then, they were like, “Oh, it’s very technical.” The girl’s really professional nice. So it was a fun experience, I would take my friends to parties there and all that stuff. And it was a great run, a great experience.

Gina Colucci:
A lot of industries were hit hard during the pandemic and one was live performances. And you realize how many people it takes to put on a production. They’re just starting to come back, they’re just starting to get back to their new normal. And you could tell that the building was just starting to come alive again.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
I’m trying to figure out ways to train young people, get them more excited. And also for me being a person of color, that’s really important too. I grew up in North Seattle, Shoreline, mostly white people. I was never exposed to the opera, I had never heard of it. I knew musicals, but opera never touched me somehow. So our education department is trying to do things to reach out to other people because, we will not to keep this art form going unless we do. Not only hiring people to be on stage and backstage to create the art, but telling new stories. A lot of the classics that we do are a hundred years old, told by white men and sadly there’s perspective of a white man on another culture. You see that Orientalism in it and that’s okay, no one here living today was trying to do that, it just happened and history is convoluted and a really hard thing. But, what we need to do is tell new stories about different people, different cultures, different age groups, different experiences. Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
Do you have any operas that you’re producing that kind of tell a different perspective?

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
We have an exciting one next season. This is why I love my job. We are producing an opera based on that novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, our General Director, Christina Scheppelmann went out and found a female filmmaker from Afghanistan and invited her to direct it. So she came here for meetings during the time that the US was pulling out of Afghanistan. I loved just talking to her and hearing her stories and learning things like burqa styles changed to depending on how close you are to certain borders, India, Iran, all these different things. But just, it was such an education and such an opportunity for me to actually be touched by somebody whose experience sadly was difficult, because she can’t go back right now and her family’s there. But the fact that I’m touched by something big that you see in the news and I can experience her story. So I love things like that.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah. And so, will her experience be able to kind of go into that show and…

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Yes. Absolutely. I hopefully will take a trip somewhere that is safe, to go buy fabric and stuff and costumes and do my best to be culturally sensitive and produce the right thing to tell the story in the way that she wants. That is so exciting and inspiring for me.

Gina Colucci:
It’s really exciting. By this time we had made a full lap around the facility.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
I’m just going to walk you back into the designer room.

Gina Colucci:
We came across the pin board.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
This is just my inspiration board kind of, and then photos of the performers who will actually be wearing the costumes.

Gina Colucci:
Where Liesl had put up images from newspapers or printed out from the internet. And you could tell that this was the beginning of her creative process.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
So basically during the kind of creative team development process, the set has gone through quite a few iterations. Our set designer, Carrie Wong from UDub did actual mockups. The conversation was mostly between starting with him, the Director of Production, my boss, Doug and the director developing this world. Orpheus is in love with his wife Eurydice. She dies and he goes to the underworld to go get her. And there’s… So this is kind of the world-

Gina Colucci:
Wow.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
These people will inhabit.

Gina Colucci:
And you’re showing us renders on paper of what it will look like.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Of the set. Right? So, and then the director, she actually put together some visuals of how she sees the singer’s costumes to be, or the visuals for them. One thing that was really important to her is that they’re young and modern, but for me I like going over this, most of the time I just listen. I listen for a long time and kind of let it marinate in the back of my head before I make any decisions.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
And sometimes that’s actually a good thing to do because the set went through three different transformations. I mean, same feeling, but three different transformations. So I decided to wait till they painted the floor, which is this pattern right here. And one thing that I kind of brought to the table is that she wanted modern costumes, but this isn’t a modern world really that we see it’s very ethereal.

Gina Colucci:
I mean they’re in the pattern that you pointed out.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Yeah. It’s very otherworldly.

Gina Colucci:
How would you describe it? Yeah, it’s…

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
They’re calling it, I believe chaos pattern. I needed to figure out a way to bring this kind of dark ethereal underworld into the modern world at the same time. And we’re presenting it in Tagney Jones Hall. So that is way more intimate than McCaw Hall. So that’s another thing I have to consider.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
People are going to be very close up and really examining the costumes. So for Orpheus, I didn’t think he could be like this modern as far as just a suit. So I’m going to bring in some textural elements in gold and a lot applique. And also some Japanese elements. So kind of bringing some of her ideas and some of my ideas and I present them to her to see how she feels if they’ll work in the world, and hopefully she’ll say yes. So I’m just at the point waiting for us to kind of finish what the look is like Amore is really Cupid, in our minds eye it’s a chubby little guy with a arrow, but-

Gina Colucci:
For the hair.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Yeah. But her interpretation of Amore is that character is neither good or bad, and that character is androgynous. I wanted to bring some cool modern elements with a little bit of fantasy in there, but we’ll see how the costume develops. I think what I’m going to do is have a base costume of a red kind of tight suit and then add elements like feathers onto her. Cupid has feathers sometimes like an angel, but in a very modern dark way, totally different than what you imagine. And then I am in love with bull cuts. So instead of doing the obvious, like slicking a woman’s hair back to make her look like a man, I think I’m going to do this crazy androgynous bull cut with really big shoulder pads.

Gina Colucci:
That sounds amazing.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
Can’t wait for that wig. Yeah.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
These are the dancers. They have two parts. One is they are wedding guests at the beginning. So they’ll have that modern and ethereal look that like what Orpheus has. And then a really famous piece of music is Dance of the Furies in the opera and that’s interpreted so many different ways. So in this design I have to find out what kind of movement is required. The director mentioned how she likes Chinese water sleeves. It’s Chinese dancers who have sleeves that are 10 feet long or something like that. Which, is this tiny element here, so I’m going to try and figure out how to incorporate that into my design. I love all these different constraints of this person wants this. This person wants that they have to move this way. This fabric will work for that this or that kind of movement, this certain fabric will not.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
And then there’s a technical side. We are doing 18 performances, I think six every week. So I have to take into consideration the wardrobe department. So they’re going to have to wash and turn the wardrobe every night. So maybe for our phase jacket, I’ll have a snap-in lining, because I don’t know if we can turn dry cleaning that fast. So I think about those technical things as well. I mean there’s so many times I’ve been in the wardrobe department and when you get costumes where the dye has not been set. Yeah. And then as a wardrobe person, you’ll be washing something and it’ll bleed onto the other thing and then emergency call happens and then people try to remake a new one. There’s always some sort of drama. So I think because I’ve been in wardrobe, I understand those tiny details that might seem like nothing, but will make it easier for the crews to actually run the show.

Gina Colucci:
And you know, along with the intensive labor and the work that goes into each piece, what do you hope viewers feel when they come and watch these shows?

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Yeah, so I mean there are definite opera fanatics out there who love it and understand it, the work that goes into it. But, there’s so much competition in entertainment these days. I think a lot of people don’t understand what’s involved. If you’re not exposed to opera, I can imagine some kid saying, “Oh, I’m just going to go there and fall asleep.” But you have to be there to receive it. The first thing that is considered in this art form is the music obviously. So we’re really lucky the symphony plays for us, we have these world class singers. The spectacle of grand opera is amazing and it’s hard to find that live experience. So I hope they take in not just the music, the orchestration, but the whole atmospheric experience. Even walking into McCaw Hall, even having a drink.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
I’ve attended opening night, which I haven’t done for a long time. I got opening night tickets for my team so we can all kind of celebrate being back together. And it was a really nice to sit in there and feel the excitement of the audience, especially since kind of our homecoming back from the pandemic. But I hope that they see the grandeur of it and really appreciate that and just know that there were hundreds of people putting their blood, sweat, and tears into it to make incredible presentation, which you don’t get to see that much these days. I mean, how many months did we all spend watching Netflix, which I am very guilty of, but most of it is special effects on a computer. So there’s something really special about what you see visually, what you hear and then what you feel from the audience around you.

Gina Colucci:
Thank you, Liesl, for the fascinating tour. For more information on upcoming shows, head to seattleopera.org. 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 Kimi 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. Is there an iconic Northwest creator that you want to hear from head to our website and leave a comment. Next time on Inspired Design, Braden Abraham, Artistic Director at the Seattle Rep takes us on an in depth tour of the theater.

Braden Abraham:
When I put a season together, I really think about the whole journey for the audience. And I’m really excited about what this year has to offer.

Louie Gong | Conscious Collaborations

Louie Gong | Conscious Collaborations

In this episode of Inspired Design, we meet up with artist, activist, educator and founder of Eighth Generation, Louie Gong, at his landmark store in Pike Place Market. We discuss the significance of manufacturing goods right here in Seattle and what that means for Native artists and conscious consumers. Supporting local has reached new heights

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https://eighthgeneration.com/

Visit their store in Pike Place Market

93 Pike St #103, Seattle, WA 98101

Eighth Generation is a Seattle-based art and lifestyle brand owned by the Snoqualmie Tribe.  It was founded in 2008 when Louie Gong (Nooksack) — an artist, activist and educator widely known for merging traditional Coast Salish art with influences from his urban environment to make strong statements about identity — started customizing shoes in his living room. Now the first Native-owned company to ever produce wool blankets — with a flagship retail store in Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Market — Eighth Generation is a proud participant in the global economy.

Eighth Generation provides a strong, ethical alternative to “Native-inspired” art and products through its artist-centric approach and 100% Native designed products. Our Inspired Natives™ Project, anchored by the tagline “Inspired Natives™, not Native-inspired,” builds business capacity among cultural artists while addressing the economic impact of cultural appropriation.

Episode Transcript

Louie Gong:
As a kid being raised by Grandma and Grandpa, I was first raised in a house with no running water, and we were very poor, but that doesn’t tell the whole story of how I grew up, because I always had a dad who was very good at a few different things. And one of them was the martial arts.

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.

Gina Colucci:
Louie Gong is a native artist, educator and public speaker who was raised by his grandparents in the Nooksack tribal community. Louie is also Chinese, French and Scottish

Louie Gong:
Imagine five-year-old Louie sitting on a stool in the corner of a boxing ring, crying, and my dad putting his hand on my shoulder and saying, “If you want to be successful, you have to have the courage to try, over and over again,” and then sending me back out when the bell ring, to get beat up by a much bigger kid.

Gina Colucci:
A self-taught artist, Louie began making art in 2008. After working as an activist for several years, he picked up a pair of plain Van sneakers and started drawing Native designs on them.

Louie Gong:
Nothing reflected who I was. So when I sort of settled for a plain gray pair, I knew that I was going to grab a Sharpie and draw on them.

Gina Colucci:
He started a company, Eighth Generation, with the mission of making cultural art sustainable. As you’ll hear in our conversation, Louie has been wildly successful. Eighth Gen is the fastest growing Native company in North America.

Louie Gong:
Taking that leap of faith to invest in myself was a magical moment that I hope other people can experience, as well. But what I would share to the people who have made this move, and not been successful in their first try, is that my journey, which looks like instant success from a distance, if you look a little closer, is composed of a thousand failures.

Gina Colucci:
When I caught up with Louie, we talked art, identity, and how he’s breaking down old stereotypes of modern Native people.

Louie Gong:
Well, you guys are up here on a really good day, because today is, I think, the four-year anniversary of when me and a friend of Eighth Generation named Bob, and our intern, Sequoia, stayed up till 2:00 a.m., working on the point of sale.

Louie Gong:
I know that, because social media just told me that it was the anniversary. I looked at this video of a much younger-faced Louie, with a Shop-Vac, vacuum up all the sawdust, after putting the point of sale together.

Louie Gong:
Yeah, so we have this, a cash register point of sale, that is also a nice display at the store. What it embodies, I think, is the Eighth Generation spirit, because when we opened the store, we did not have a big budget.

Louie Gong:
The cabinets here are from IKEA, and the countertop is from Urban Reclamations, which is a local business, and a local artist did the geometric woodwork that’s on the front. But the installation happened the day before the store opened, with these two hands right here, with sweat on my brow.

Louie Gong:
Here at two o’clock in the morning with friends and family embodies, not just the Eighth Generation spirit, but my own journey as an artist. There’s been a lot of elbow grease.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah.

Louie Gong:
The name Eighth Generation is based on the inter-tribal value of seven generations. To describe it in a rudimentary way, it’s basically just a decision making framework that says that you should consider the consequences of your decisions, seven generations into the future.

Louie Gong:
By naming the business Eighth Generation, I’m paying respect to everybody that came before me. When I think about the possibilities of having a new phase of creative work that affects cultural change, in an even greater way than Eighth Generation has, I get really excited, because I know that’s the next collaboration with my grandma and grandpa, and my dad, and the other people that supported me along my journey.

Gina Colucci:
Why and what was it like deciding to open your storefront, here at Pike Place Market?

Louie Gong:
At Eighth Gen, we pursue multiple types of currencies. It’s not just all about making money. We also want to control the story about Native people, and we want to create opportunities for Native artists.

Louie Gong:
Being at Pike Place Market was really attractive to us, because we knew we could reach thousands of people a day, from all over the world, but also that it was a great place to do business. People were interested in experiencing Native art when they visit Pike Place Market.

Louie Gong:
So this was a space that sort of checked all the boxes for us. For me personally, I definitely have a strong activist streak, so I only get interested in the idea if it’s disrupting something. Being the only Native-owned store at Pike Place Market, and the only one downtown at that time was very attractive to me.

Louie Gong:
We wanted to shake things up, have a strong presence here. We have neon signs out here and also a sign on the front of our store, that’s 25 feet long.

Louie Gong:
To get any of those in place, it took years of work, that has totally happened, in a way that is invisible to most people who will visit the store. I mean, for me personally, I embraced that grind, but sometimes I need to tell the story into a mic, so people know.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah.

Louie Gong:
[crosstalk 00:06:09] Because people will say, people will think that the store was handed to you, or that the signs were handed to you. As a Native-owned business, we get a lot of weird ideas projected onto us, by people who walk in the store.

Louie Gong:
People think that we’re a nonprofit, because they look at the capacity that is represented by what they see in the store. And they think that Native people could never get to that space, unless they were sponsored in some way.

Louie Gong:
That, of course, is not the case. The business has never even had a business loan. Of course, we’re owned by the Snoqualmie tribe now, which is very exciting, and makes us feel super optimistic about the business’s ability to grow times a hundred into the future.

Louie Gong:
They’ll also come into the store, and assume that everything in the store is handmade, because Native people can’t work with manufacturers, like everybody else can. For it to be “Native,” I’m making air quotes, officially, it needs to be handmade by your aunties and grandmas in the back room.

Louie Gong:
Some people are really disappointed, when what we tell them doesn’t reinforce the stereotypes that they have when they walk into the store, and they turn around and walk out. But that’s okay with us, because even though they didn’t buy anything, they’re leaving with something which is really important. And that’s accurate information about contemporary Native people.

Gina Colucci:
One other question I kind of wanted to touch on, I know you have phone cases, you have socks, you have cards here, jewelry, but you see very modern items with your traditional art on it.

Louie Gong:
Yeah. People always come in here, and they say, “Where’s the flute music? And how come you don’t have any one-off carvings for sale?” They want that one-off art piece when they think of Indigenous art, because that’s what they associate with Indigenous art.

Louie Gong:
Here at Eighth Gen, we have exclusively created products, and a lot of them for very contemporary objects, like phone cases. We do that, because we actively try to push against stereotypes, and the resistance that we get to just exercise in our natural way of being.

Louie Gong:
As a Native person, I use a phone case and I wear socks. So the idea that our own artwork shouldn’t be on those objects is totally false. It is the internalization of these anthropological ideals that are frozen in time, like at first contact.

Louie Gong:
I started to recognize that, “Hey, our ancestors always put art on things that they use.” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with putting our art on utilitarian objects.

Louie Gong:
I started off, by the way, drawing on shoes, and moccasins were custom footwear. People were surprised and said that what I was doing was very contemporary, but it wasn’t at all. It was actually traditional.

Gina Colucci:
What was going through your mind when you were drawing your first pair of Vans?

Louie Gong:
It stemmed from frustration. I went to the Vans store, and I looked up on the shelf, and there was no designs up there that really reflected who I wad. There were skulls and checker boards, but nothing reflected who I was.

Louie Gong:
So when I sort of settled for a plain gray pair, I knew that I was going to grab a Sharpie and draw on them. And I didn’t know what it would be, but I knew it needed to reflect me.

Louie Gong:
And a few months later, I didn’t do it right away, I took at that Sharpie, and I drew a very simple Coast Salish paw pattern on the shoes. And it wasn’t very good.

Louie Gong:
I started wearing them when the design was half done, but when people saw them, they were like, “Man, those are sick. Where’d you get those? How can I get a pair?” That was the beginning of Eighth Generation.

Louie Gong:
I knew that they liked it, not because the art was spectacular, it was because the idea was resonating with their lived experience. And I think that you see me following that initial spark in almost everything that Eighth Generation does.

Gina Colucci:
That’s great. And why did you do the paw prints?

Louie Gong:
I did the paw prints on the shoes, because the shoes go in your feet. I thought having paws on a pair of classic slip on Vans made perfect sense, but also, the shape of the design matched the shape of the shoe.

Gina Colucci:
That makes me think, I was actually just on your Instagram page, and you created this box, and each corner is a different …

Speaker 3:
Yeah, it’s a guardian.

Speaker 4:
Guardian.

Louie Gong:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
That’s right, yeah. It was fascinating to see that it was perfectly each one melded into the other, if I’m getting this correct. So each corner is a different profile point of view of your guides.

Louie Gong:
Yeah. The Guardians Bent Wood Box, which is a collaboration with my uncle, Peter Gong. He makes the boxes, and I often put art on them.

Louie Gong:
The Guardians box that we’re talking about was actually a gift that was commissioned by the city of Seattle, and gifted to the President of China, back in 2015. So I put my guardians design on it, which is a Chinese Fu dog, designed with Northwest Native design elements on it.

Louie Gong:
But it’s a good example of how I think very purposefully about the space that I’m putting the art on, and the purpose of the product or the object that the art is going on, as well. In this case, I wanted something to represent protection, so that you could put something important on the box, and the way the Guardian’s design is composed on the box, it represents sort of protections for each direction.

Gina Colucci:
That’s really, really beautiful. Actually I wanted to know, because …

Louie Gong:
That was my first box that I ever painted.

Gina Colucci:
Really?

Louie Gong:
Yeah, it was my first box that I ever painted. I had no idea what I was doing, and it was all very last minute too. So I had two days to make something for the President of China, and …

Gina Colucci:
No pressure.

Louie Gong:
Yeah, no big deal. But I already had the box in hand, so I got to work and finished it at the eleventh hour.

Louie Gong:
The last step in the process was to put a coat of notoriously slow drawing walnut oil on the box. It just brought out the color of the wood, and made it super beautiful.

Louie Gong:
But I wasn’t able to see what it looked like completely dry. When I stuck it in the box to give to the Mayor, who was going to give it to the President of China, and what I know is that when that then dry box was pulled from its packaging, to gift to the president of China, it had a perfectly visible thumbprint from my thumb on the top of it.

Gina Colucci:
So now they have your fingerprints.

Louie Gong:
Now they have the fingerprints, and I have an important lesson about what not to do, at the very last minute, before giving an important gift.

Gina Colucci:
Sorry.

Speaker 3:
Yeah.

Announcer:
Seattle Design Center is the premier marketplace for fine home furnishings, designer, textiles, bespoke lighting, curated art, and custom kitchen and bath solutions. We are located in the heart of Georgetown, open to the public Monday through Friday, with complimentary parking.

Announcer:
Our showroom associates are industry experts known for their customer service. We are celebrating new showrooms and added onsite amenities. Visit seattledesigncenter.com for more information about our showrooms, and our find a designer program.

Gina Colucci:
I’m just so curious about everything around me. Do you want to, I guess, talk about the drum that’s up here?

Louie Gong:
Oh, sure. So this drum up here, we’re really proud of. It’s not a ceremonial drum. It was a drum that was gifted to Eighth Generation by the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development.

Louie Gong:
It’s a national organization, and they recognized us in Vegas, in this grand showcase, because of our work on behalf of Indigenous artists. Receiving that award as an Indigenous artist myself makes me really proud.

Gina Colucci:
What a cool moment. Can you just describe to me, because I don’t know, what’s the difference between this drum and the ceremonial drum?

Louie Gong:
Well, if we had anything that was ceremonial, it wouldn’t be in the store. So one of the reasons why buying from a Native company or a Native artist is important, is because we vet what we bring to market before you ever see it. If you want to make sure that you’re not culturally appropriating or holding something that is not appropriate for you to have, then make sure you are purchasing the things that you’re interested in from Indigenous artists, or Indigenous businesses.

Gina Colucci:
Do you want to tell us about these blankets?

Louie Gong:
Yeah, come over here. This is the first blanket we ever produced. Eighth Generation is the first Native-owned company to produce wool blankets. As an entrepreneur, I didn’t have any business knowledge, and I didn’t have any money.

Louie Gong:
So getting to the point where I can produce a wool blanket with my art on, was not only a first for the Native community, but man, it was a whole collection of first for me in my development. Anyway, the first blanket we produced is this Thunderbird design.

Louie Gong:
The Thunderbird design is mine, but on the ends of it, you’ll see some Maori waves. They’re here on this blanket, because it was a collaboration with our friends at the Evergreen Longhouse.

Louie Gong:
They have a really strong relationship with the Maori, and often do cultural exchanges. So we wanted this to represent that sort of intersection or exchange of cultural knowledge between the Maori and Coast Salish communities.

Gina Colucci:
What made you choose the Thunderbird personally?

Louie Gong:
One of the things that I enjoy as a artist is taking a client’s vision and bringing it to life. It sort of gets filtered through my interests and my experience, and something totally new is created.

Louie Gong:
What you see here is a giant Thunderbird on a bright red blanket, and it’s reminiscent of the giant Thunderbird that’s on the very front of the Evergreen Longhouse. In this way, we’re honoring that physical space that they created, but the artwork in itself is totally unique to me.

Louie Gong:
I think that there are a lot of ways that Native values and traditions have been sort of siloed all under one category, in this sort of pan-Indian idea, and been sold to consumers for hundreds of years. One thing that Eighth Generation is doing, by talking about all the different regions and the difference between artists, by making sure that people know the values of our company, and how they might be different from values of a company that’s on another side of the country, we’re unpacking all that stuff that this broad base of consumers in this country have absorbed over a lifetime.

Louie Gong:
This idea of spirit animal is one of those things. In some communities, it might be a legitimate belief system, but the way that it is commonly understood in pop culture is not very accurate.

Louie Gong:
So here at Eighth Generation, you’ll never hear us talking about spirit animals. And if you see that on a product description of a product, you better go check to see if that’s a Native-owned business, because it’s probably not.

Louie Gong:
We’re less interested in reaffirming stereotypes, and we don’t care at all if the ’80s music being blasted on the sound system in the store throws you off. Because we like ’80s music.

Speaker 3:
Thanks.

Speaker 6:
And so do I.

Louie Gong:
So we just have transitioned from the main retail side of the store to the gallery space.

Gina Colucci:
What I’m noticing is, you have these amazing displays, that visually show you exactly where the artist is from.

Louie Gong:
Let’s come over here and look at this blanket. It’s called Renewal, by Sarah Agaton Howes. What it displays is the floral that is indicative of the traditional art from her region. So Sarah is a bead work artist, and traditionally in her area, they would put their bead work on black fabric, and that’s why the base of this design is black.

Louie Gong:
The reason why they worked on black fabric is pretty similar to the reason why I say John Pepion, who’s a Blackfeet artist from Montana works on ledger paper. And it is that during the reservation period, Native people had very limited access to resources for art.

Louie Gong:
In Sarah’s community, the only fabric that they had to apply their bead work to were the hand-me-down robes from priests. In John Pepion’s community, the only paper that they had to illustrate on were the scrap ledger papers from the Indian agents who were in that area at the time.

Gina Colucci:
I asked Louie to explain what it means to have that art created from necessity, displayed in a Native gallery, a meeting space.

Louie Gong:
It’s crazy to think that in 2016, when the store opened, it was the only Native store in the entire city of Seattle. And Seattle, of course, is named after a Native person. Our football team has a Native aesthetic in its logo.

Louie Gong:
There are totem poles everywhere, and the Native origins of this region are used in the branding of the city, all over the place. Yet the actual participation of Native people in commerce, for people visiting Seattle, was almost nothing.

Louie Gong:
So us being here is an important symbol of change, because I think, with Eighth Generation reaching the scale that we’ve reached now, we’re the fastest growing Native-owned business in the United States or Canada.

Louie Gong:
The reality is that we’ll never go back to the time when there were no Native stores or artists truly participating in the commerce around people coming to visit Seattle. I believe that we’ve opened the doors for a whole generation of Native artists to understand that what we have done is totally possible.

Gina Colucci:
We grabbed a seat and started to talk more about Louie’s personal journey. Thank you so much for being so open with everything in your store and with Eighth Generation.

Gina Colucci:
But I also want to learn like a little bit more bout you personally. Do you want to tell what it was like growing up for you as a Native person with the Nooksack tribe?

Louie Gong:
You know, growing up as a Native person, living in Nooksack was pretty tricky. Right now, I’m able to exercise my identity in a really bold way. I’m Chinese, Native and white. So it wasn’t like there was one set of cultural MAs and communities to connect with, there were always multiple for me.

Louie Gong:
So it was pretty complicated for a young kid. I can remember looking in the mirror and thinking, “Do I look, am I Chinese? Am I Native?” And not really understanding how I was perceived, because the world around me was giving me different messages.

Louie Gong:
Specifically, I can remember this one time, I think I was about 12 years old, I went to the bank, and I didn’t have my ID.

Louie Gong:
So I looked up at the teller in this very small town of Everson, Washington, where I grew up, and I said, “Come on. Don’t I look like a Gong?”

Louie Gong:
She looked down at me and she said, “No.” So I turned around and left without being able to withdraw any money. But the more lasting impact on me was that, “Oh my God, I don’t look Chinese. What do I look like?”

Louie Gong:
I think I spent a lot of time in my teens and into college, trying to understand how, what I inherited from Grandma and Grandpa who raised me, either matched or didn’t match how I was perceived by the community.

Louie Gong:
What you’re sort of told by society is that those things should be congruent. And for me, there was no congruency. I had always received resistance if I was trying to enter an Asian space, or enter a native space, or enter a white space. There was no place where I felt implicit belonging.

Gina Colucci:
I asked Louie, how did he manage to and navigate different spaces if he never fit in?

Louie Gong:
As a kid being raised by Grandma and Grandpa, I was first raised in a house with no running water, and we were very poor, but that doesn’t tell the whole story of how I grew up, because I always had a dad who was very good at a few different things. And one of them was the martial arts.

Louie Gong:
From the time I was able to walk, my dad would come pick me up, and bring me to the martial arts school, where he taught classes. And my early years are defined by participating in the martial arts, starting off with traditional Kung Fu, and then transitioning to kickboxing.

Louie Gong:
Later, my dad and family would transition into Muay Thai, and then have a school that also had mixed martial arts. To this day, they still have a martial arts school.

Louie Gong:
I guess, as a kid, I learned code switching really quickly. So I would be at home, and it was perfectly normal for me to grab a tin ladle and dip it into a bucket of water. That was where I got my drinking water.

Louie Gong:
But then my dad would take me to a martial arts tournament on the weekend, and there’d be hundreds of people there, and he would enroll me in the division up. As an eight-year-old, I was fighting 12 year olds that are way bigger. I have some great pictures of that.

Louie Gong:
Now, I’m not just unafraid of getting punched in the face. I think being not afraid of being punched in the face comes out in me not being afraid to be courageous with my ideas, or to express them, even when I know there’ll be resistance, but also I’m having grown up poor, and with a fair amount of chaos, I’m quite comfortable with the unknown.

Louie Gong:
So that has been an important tool for me on this entrepreneurial journey. You never quite know what the future holds, but you’re constantly required to take all your resources and go all in, like in a poker game.

Louie Gong:
I did that over and over many times, in order to build Eighth Generation. I think that was possible, because I was not really attached to my poker chips.

Louie Gong:
I know what it’s like to be poor. And frankly, those are one of the most happy times of my life. So to go back to that space was not as scary for me, as it might have been to other people.

Gina Colucci:
Going back to that, I mean, you’re from a multi-generational home, same as myself. How do you think that influenced who you are in your work today?

Louie Gong:
When people tell the story about what it was like to go visit that old home that I grew up in, they say the doors were always open. My dad, who was also raised in that home, brought four friends home after school, and my uncle Ted brought five friends home.

Louie Gong:
My grandpa would cook up a big meal on his Coleman camp stove, and then feed everybody. And I think that this meeting space that’s embedded in the store, that we’re sitting in right now, sort of flows from those origins.

Gina Colucci:
What do you think identity means today? And how has that changed, and what does it mean to you?

Louie Gong:
I think that I got to a point, in my exploration of identity. Well, I think I got to a point where I stopped trying to understand it explicitly, but I know what the ingredients are to supporting healthy identity development. It’s just, I don’t have to monitor where it ends up.

Louie Gong:
For me, identity was so important that in college, I started working with a national organization at the time called Maven. It was a nonprofit whose mission was to raise awareness about mixed heritage people and families.

Louie Gong:
By the time we got into the 2000s, I was volunteering regularly with Maven. Then I became a board member, and I became president of Maven in 2006 or 2007-ish, when Barack Obama was running for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, and people were really confused about him.

Louie Gong:
“Is he Kenyan? Is he American? Is he black? Is he white? How do we describe his lived experience?” And it was super clear at that time that the country not have the tools for talking about a complex identity.

Louie Gong:
Because I was a leader of an institutional force around that discussion, I got a lot of opportunity to use my experience, growing up with my Chinese grandpa and Native grandma, in a rural farming community, to a national audience. In doing that, I learned a couple powerful lessons.

Louie Gong:
One is that the experiences that I had growing up with my grandma and grandpa on the reservation were not only relevant to the experiences of everybody in the country, they were absolutely needed. Also, what I realized is that when I am thinking about other ideas, whether it was a business idea, or who might like my art, I need to think about how those ideas will be experienced beyond the boundaries of my community.

Louie Gong:
It may seem like a simple idea, but Native people are taught this idea that your relevance ends at the boundaries of your community. So it was at that time, based upon my experiences talking about race and identity, that I started to think globally about what is possible for my life.

Louie Gong:
And my artwork, work around identity, really is work for here, I’m pointing to my head, and here, the heart, and I think it was maintenance and building up of those two things that allowed me to think big, and then push forward really hard on the business.

Gina Colucci:
Louie mentioned in passing that he sold Eighth Gen to the Snoqualmie tribe. I was curious about the significance of that.

Louie Gong:
Eighth Generation grew really fast, since launching wool blankets in 2015. In 2019, I did something that had never been done before, which is to sell this art space business to the Snoqualmie tribe. Now Eighth Generation is owned by hundreds of local Indigenous people.

Louie Gong:
For me, as a sort of grass roots artist, accidental entrepreneur, the idea of handing it off to a group of Indigenous people, sort of ensures that the trajectory of the business and our values will get maintained into the future. A good example of that played out recently when a national brand co-opted our tagline and talking points to create a program that looked like ours.

Louie Gong:
Our tagline is “Inspired natives, not Native-inspired,” and they were saying, “Indigenous inspired,” and just changing the one term, but then also co-opting other talking points associated with our business.

Louie Gong:
Our legal counsel was able to send a cease and desist, and took care of it within a matter of weeks. For the first time, we have a Native business that can hold legal space with national level companies, and keep the market that we’ve illuminated at that next level open, until we can develop our capacity to occupy that space.

Louie Gong:
In the past, capitalism would have closed off that space almost immediately. So the business sale to Snoqualmie, I think, was an amazing strategic move for the idea of Eighth Generation, as a symbol for Native excellence and Native power.

Louie Gong:
Together, we’re just going to keep kicking ass, until we can occupy that space lateral with these legacy companies. And then, when we’re on our level playing field, let’s see what we can do.

Gina Colucci:
Inspired Design is brought to you by the Seattle Design Center. The show is produced by Larj Media.

Gina Colucci:
You can find them at larjmedia.com. Special thanks to Michi Suzuki, Lisa Willis, and Kimmy Design, for bringing this podcast to life.

Gina Colucci:
For more, head to seattledesigncenter.com, where you can subscribe to our newsletter, and follow us on social media. Is there an iconic Northwest creator that you want to hear from? Head to our website and leave a comment.

Gina Colucci:
Next time on Inspired Design, we go behind the scenes with Liesl Alice Gatcheco, director of costumes, hair and makeup at the Seattle Opera.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
So this is Carmen’s fancy dress that you see at the end.

Gina Colucci:
Oh. And it’s heavy.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
It’s heavy, it’s probably 20 pounds.

Gina Colucci:
Oh.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
I mean, down to the corsets they made from scratch.

Gina Colucci:
Oh my gosh.

Liesl Alice Gatcheco:
Every single thing was handmade.

Leonard Garfield | Magnificent MOHAI

Leonard Garfield | Magnificent MOHAI

In this episode of Inspired Design, explore the MOHAI (Museum of History and Industry) with Executive Director, Leonard Garfield, a true walking encyclopedia. His knowledge of Northwest history beautifully compliments his contagious passion for architecture. We also learn how a few key individuals laid the groundwork for the flourishing tech hub Seattle is today.

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Episode Transcript

Leonard Garfield:
People of all ages come in here and they listen and they reflect on who we are, where we are and they ask themselves what’s this all about, which is what we want. We want people to be curious.

Gina Colucci:
This is Leonard Garfield, the Executive Director of Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry. He is like an encyclopedia, he knows so much about local history and has seen just about everything during his 20 years as the head of MOHAI.

Leonard Garfield:
One of the ones that we’ve always been curious about is an artifact from the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair called the Bubbleator.

Speaker 1:
Please step to the rear of the fair. We can only accommodate 100 of you essentially at a time.

Leonard Garfield:
That was the elevator that went up and down in what is now the center house and it’s this really cool kind of little pod that would take you up and down, seemed very futuristic at the time. When the fair ended, it ended up in someone’s backyard, where it served as a kind of terrarium filled with plants and so forth. And we were called out to take a look at, to see if we could maybe persuade the owner to donate that to the museums.

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. What you just heard is one of many stories that Leonard told me as we explored the museum. The building itself is an icon in South Lake Union, but it also keeps all the stories from Seattle’s past, from the obscure, to the historic.

Leonard Garfield:
Well, come on this way. Gina, I don’t know if you know this, but this is a historic armory building built during World War II where thousands and thousands of Navy recruits would practice for the war. It actually is designed like a battleship. This building was to simulate a ship because the guys who were training here were actually going to go into combat in the Pacific. There are parts of this building that look like the bridge of a ship, there are places that folks could practice all the skills they need for war.

Gina Colucci:
Leonard, do you want to tell us a little bit about the remodel and move of MOHAI?

Leonard Garfield:
Yeah. It’s and you know, Gina, it’s been in about 10 years. We opened up here at the historic Naval Reserve Armory, the building we’re in right now in the late, late fall, in fact, December 29, 2012, so almost 10 years and that’s exciting. We used to be located closer to the University of Washington in a building actually designed by a well known Seattle architect, Paul Thiry back in 1952, but it really was… We’d outgrown it. Really, it was time to move, but more importantly, 520 needed to be wide and then it came right through our museum, so we had to move and we came down here.

Leonard Garfield:
Naval Reserve Armory was never meant to be a museum. It has huge open spaces where there are rooms. The ceilings are very low, lots and lots of windows and museums hate windows, but we decided, let’s just preserve all that. Let’s keep the great atrium. Let’s keep the historic floor where the guys used to drill. Let’s leave all the windows around it and just find other ways of showcasing the artifacts and telling the story of Seattle history. The remodel was a big project. We opened up about 10 years ago and we’ve been going great guns ever since, but I think our biggest artifact actually is the building itself and we totally were committed to saving the historic character. Despite all the exhibits and the kind of fun stuff, that’s in here now, the bones of the building still really shine. And I love like when you look at the Seattle skyline from Lake Union, you see the MOHAI in sort of in the center, all gleaming and white.

Gina Colucci:
Our tour starts with an artifact that’s rich in Seattle history. Tell me about what we’re standing next to.

Leonard Garfield:
What are we standing next to. Well, the building was to train Naval people, but actually, there’s a lot of maritime history here. And this is probably the most remarkable artifact we have just about. This particular piece is called the Wawona. It’s a gigantic 64-foot sculpture by the Seattle artist named John Grode. He’s a very important… very large scale environmental artist. What does it look like to you, Gina?

Gina Colucci:
It looks almost like the trunk of a tree.

Leonard Garfield:
Exactly. It looks like a 65-foot tall tree, and here’s what’s remarkable about it. It’s actually hanging. It weighs 11 tons and what it is, is it is the remnants of a tall masted sailing ship from the 1890s that used to be moored right out here on Lake Union. You know what that ship did? It carried lumber, of course, in the Northwest, from our great forest. The ship had deteriorated over a century and eventually had to be dismantled, but John and a team of dozens and dozens of artists worked to save the remnants of that boat, planks from the hull, pieces of wood from throughout the ship and to reconstitute it as an enormous sculpture, it was a ship made of wood and the artist’s thought was let’s have it return to nature. Let’s have it go right back where it started, which was a tree.

Leonard Garfield:
Those nodules that come out or almost like the roots of a tree, or they could be the barnacles on the hull of the ship, because in a way, it’s both things. You can actually… Let’s go this way because you can push it and you can go inside it. And if you… Can you hear the sound?

Gina Colucci:
It almost sounds like a ship.

Leonard Garfield:
It sounds like the hull of a ship. And if you go inside, are we allowed to go inside? Gina, come on, let’s walk inside.

Gina Colucci:
Okay, let’s go.

Leonard Garfield:
This is so cool, because if you look down here, you’re looking at Lake Union. This sculpture actually continues below the water line and if you look up, there’s a hole in our roof, a little oculus that connects you to the sky. This enormous tree that he crafted from a ship, now connects the sea to the sky and it kind of reminds us that history is all about making those connections.

Gina Colucci:
Wow.

Leonard Garfield:
Is this amazing? It’s called the Wawona.

Gina Colucci:
It’s fascinating.

Leonard Garfield:
It’s fascinating and it’s absolutely breathtaking. And people of all ages come in here and they listen and they reflect on who we are, where we are and they ask themselves what’s this all about, which is what we want. We want people to be curious.

Gina Colucci:
This is… piques that curiosity, definitely.

Leonard Garfield:
We could go out this way. What should we do next?

Gina Colucci:
Well, I know that since we’re here, there’s a giant, well, plane in the middle of the building.

Leonard Garfield:
Oh my gosh. All right.

Gina Colucci:
I don’t know if you noticed.

Leonard Garfield:
I did notice that. And it’s about to land on us. What have we got to do? Well, here’s another thing. And it all kind of ties together. That giant plane, which is the very commercial airplane ever made by anybody, it’s called the Boeing B-1, Boeing’s first plane. And he made it from Northwest lumber, of course, but what’s so cool about it is it was really in the early days called a flying boat because it was fashion crafted by maritime craftsmen by actually the folks who made boats right out here on Lake Union.

Leonard Garfield:
I don’t know if you’ve heard of those great boat makers, the Pocock brothers, but you might have heard this book called The Boys Who Rode… what’s the book called?

Gina Colucci:
The Boys in the Boat.

Leonard Garfield:
The Boys in the Boat. Thank you, Gina. You got it. George Pocock, he made the hull of that plane. Bill Boeing said that George Pocock, he makes the most beautiful vessels… make a beautiful vessel that flies. And so, he crafted the fuselage. The women who made sails actually made the wings of the airplane and he decided that he wasn’t going to fiddle with landing. He was just going to take off from water and land on water, so it went from Seattle Lake Union to Victoria, landing in the Victoria Harbor. And it was the first commercial airplane. It carried mail. It was the first international airplane. It went from the U.S. to Canada. And it’s just so emblematic of our Northwest because it is wood, it is maritime craftsmanship, and it takes advantage of the fact that we can land on water and take off from water and not worry so much about these tricky hills.

Leonard Garfield:
But here is one other thing, if you look at the engine there that actually propelled the plane, that was engineered by a very young guy, he was about 20 years old and his name was Wong Tsu. He was from China. He was an aeronautical prodigy. Somehow, Bill Boeing had discovered this young man. He recruited him from China, put him through MIT. And when he was fully educated and this brilliant, brilliant young man came to Seattle and he worked with Boeing and with George Pocock to make the plane fly. The very first aeronautical engineer in the United States was from China.

Leonard Garfield:
He stayed with Boeing for a couple of years, got the company off the ground, went back to China and founded the aviation industry in China. And today, if you ask a school kid in China who’s Wong Tsu, they’ll know, because he was the father of Chinese aviation, but he was also the father of American aviation, but we sometimes forget that, but what a wonderful story of what an international community we are and that great innovations like this take craftsmen of the old traditions like the boat builders and brilliant new minds who may come from anywhere in the world, and in a way, isn’t that what Seattle’s about even today?

Gina Colucci:
Absolutely. And what’s also fascinating is that as a first U.S. mail transport, and this also being the home of a giant company, that it’s kind of-

Leonard Garfield:
I forgot about that. It’s such a great point. Where would Amazon be if it weren’t for planes like that going all over the world and getting you those products instantly? It all started right here in Lake Union back in 1919 is when that plane took off. Can I tell you very quickly though, that the very first truck of UPS, another great partner of Amazon, is in our collection? Because UPS was founded in Seattle. Did you know that?

Gina Colucci:
I did not know that.

Leonard Garfield:
There was a young bicycle courier, bicycles were brand new in the early 20th century, Seattle was growing a support and in the gold rush days, people wanted to get down to that port real quickly, because they wanted to get their stuff either from Alaska or to Alaska and a young guy decided he was going to do a delivery service on a bicycle. And his name was… I’m going blank on his name momentarily. What was our friend who founded UPS? I am blanking on our friend’s name. UPS founder, he was a young kid. He was like 17. James Casey, Jim Casey. He was a 17-year-old. He founded UPS. Years ago, it moved out of Seattle in terms of the corporate headquarters, but it’s so fun as you pointed out to think that all that way of getting products around the world, it began here and getting those products around the world is still here in a really big way.

Gina Colucci:
And so, you said you have the UPS truck.

Leonard Garfield:
We do.

Gina Colucci:
Where is it?

Leonard Garfield:
Like many museums, the word in storage is frequently used. We have 4 million things. Lots of them are photographs or archival elements, but we have hundreds of thousands of three dimensional objects including the UPS truck. And so, it has been on display actually right where we’re standing a few years ago, it’ll come back on display, but museums are very protective about bringing things out in display too long because the environment, the light, people sort of never touching them, but they think about touching them and that alone causes them to deteriorate because sometimes they do touch them. The truck is resting right now in storage at the MOHAI Resource Center. Gina, our resource center is in Georgetown. It’s as big as this building. It’s that big because we have so many things.

Gina Colucci:
I think your Resource Center is actually very close to the Design Center.

Leonard Garfield:
I think you are absolutely right. It is exactly one block south of the Design Center. And isn’t that cool too, because I would love someday for the design center folks and the MOHAI folks to get together and look at historic designs because we have a very significant furniture collection. We have a huge decorative arts collection and we have 10,000 garments that are absolutely amazing, wedding gowns to bathing suits, to everything in between.

Gina Colucci:
And the Design Center’s The largest supplier location of textile choices in the Pacific Northwest. Just thinking about that and that history is fascinating.

Leonard Garfield:
Let’s do that. I really want to do that partnership. You heard it here, because the design history of the Northwest is really, really important and there’s some great names, Jack Lenor Larsen. I won’t go into all the names, but I know you guys at the Design Center are familiar with them that really did innovate, especially after World War II.

Gina Colucci:
We’re talking about the Jack Lenor Larsen, a Seattle born textile designer, innovator really, who was at the top of his professional game for decades. He did tons of commercial work, but his fabrics can be found in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Louvre, hey, and even the Seattle Design Center. Another local tie in for you, it said that Jack convinced a young Dale Chihuly to give up weaving glass and to try blowing it instead.

Leonard Garfield:
There have been quite a few important designs that have come out of here, including some important artists. That’s my next stop. And see, we’re doing a very easy tour because we don’t have to ever move away. It’s right there. It’s a gigantic picture that you see on the wall. And I can tell you where you can see even more of those, but-

Gina Colucci:
I was going to say it’s very familiar.

Leonard Garfield:
It does look familiar because you know what? It’s WPA art, Work Progress Administration. That was the program during the great depression in the 1930s that put everybody back to work, but it also put artists back to work, but artists were asked to do artwork that reflected other people working. This is a mural called the Men Who Work the Ships. It is designed by Kenneth Callahan. Kenneth Callahan is a very, very important Seattle artist who was particularly prolific in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s.

Leonard Garfield:
And if you look at that, you actually see the working labor force of Seattle during the depression doing one of our core industries, which is making sure that all the vessels that came in and out of Seattle were in good repair. What I love about this particular painting is you really are seeing people at work. They’re working on repairing boilers and other aspects of the engine room of the ship. And you see a little racial diversity there as well. And it’s important to remember that in the Seattle workforce, there were people from all over the world. There were Black people, white people, Asian people, Hispanic people, native workers as well.

Leonard Garfield:
And not many artists captured that because regrettably, artists were encouraged to paint the world that they thought their patrons would most appreciate, but Kenneth Callahan stepped beyond that. He said, “I want to paint the world as it is.” He went down to the waterfront. He went into the engine room of these great vessels and he saw these guys just sweating and working from all over the world, working together to get something done. And that was the spirit that President Roosevelt wanted to really embody when he asked these artists to join the WPA. That particular mural is one of his series and the others you can see at the Pacific… What do they call the building now on Beacon Hill? It was Amazon for a while, Pacific Health Center.

Gina Colucci:
I think it’s Pacific Health Center. I went right by it. I’m convinced it’s [crosstalk 00:15:30] but that’s a different story.

Leonard Garfield:
Next time you go home, if you go there, still that way, go into the lobby. There’s a whole series of those murals that MOHAI restored and donated back to the… because that used to be the Marine hospital where all the guys who worked in the maritime industry would get their healthcare. They were originally designed for that building. They’d been at MOHAI for a number of years. We restored them and sent some of them back to their original location, which is kind of cool.

Gina Colucci:
I mean, that is also kind of an iconic building. You’re driving south on the five and I should say I-5, but-

Leonard Garfield:
Don’t get California on me.

Gina Colucci:
As you’re driving south on I-5 and it’s up on your left hand-side and it kind of glows and it’s like an-

Leonard Garfield:
It’s Art Deco. It’s Art Deco. It’s probably… You’re so good, Gina, in identifying that. It’s probably the best Art Deco building in Seattle, maybe the whole Northwest. It’s just this beautiful orange mountain as if it were rising up echoing, of course, Mount Rainier, which was such an inspiration to artists and architects of the 1930s. The building is also a WPA building as were the murals. They were all done as a piece.

Gina Colucci:
That’s really… I don’t think you see many buildings that have art done at the same time.

Leonard Garfield:
Very few. And that wasn’t… Again, to the design center, we all know design is holistic, right? I mean, it can be the spoon you use to eat your breakfast. It can be the way you do your garden or the car you drive and it’s really the way we work and live. And that holistic view of design was the spirit of the WPA that work was of value and design and work were really complimentary parts of the same whole, not in contradiction to each other.

Gina Colucci:
It’s a beautiful perspective. I love how you put that.

Leonard Garfield:
It’s a really cool painting because it’s very heroic. The figures, it’s a series of about 10 guys working in the engine room, the boiler room of a great big ship. They’re down in the bowels of this big engine room and they’re very muscular guys. Kenneth Callahan liked a lot of muscular guys. They’ll be [crosstalk 00:17:31] exactly. He was not shy about. He actually was a gay artist. He was pretty openly gay, I guess he was. I don’t think any of his family’s living so if I get in trouble for saying that, but it is quite known that he was. And so, there’s a kind of sensuousness to the figures, which is… but it really was a celebration of muscularity and the muscularness of labor, whether it was women or men or whoever it was, it was the notion that there’s a kind of fluidity and power and strength. That’s much like the forms we admire in nature.

Leonard Garfield:
We can admire that in our own work and our own labor as well. And so, you see that at work here. The guys are dressed in probably the most casual, rough and tumble garments, jeans, the kinds of stuff you’d actually see. And all of their faces are turned toward their work. He’s really not asking us to celebrate the individuals as much as he’s asking us to celebrate the bodies in motion with the machine and the title of the work is the Men Who Work the Ships. And so, I think the men become really part of the ship and really, they’re celebrated as doing that really tough, tough work.

Gina Colucci:
You can kind of see the similarities of this very strong internal vessel to their strong hardworking bodies.

Leonard Garfield:
You’re so right. Look at the curves of the pipes and the sides of the walls. They’re sinewy and they’re curved much like you’re right, just like the musculature of the figures. There is very much a… They’re reflecting back to each other.

Gina Colucci:
And the color palette too is natural, but earthy.

Leonard Garfield:
It’s very natural. It’s gritty. It’s earthy. It’s like steel and strength, nothing flashy. And again, it all becomes one piece, really. The colors of the men and the colors of the ship itself are very much integrated.

Speaker 2:
Seattle Design Center is the premier marketplace for fine home furnishings, designer textiles, bespoke lighting, curated art, and custom kitchen and bath solutions. We are located in the heart of Georgetown, open to the public Monday through Friday with complimentary parking. Our showroom associates are industry experts known for their customer service. We are celebrating new showrooms and added onsite amenities. Visit seattledesigncenter.com for more information about our showrooms and our Find a Designer program.

Leonard Garfield:
That is the original R. Now, you got to remember it, Gina.

Gina Colucci:
I mean, I’ve-

Leonard Garfield:
Picture it, if you will. There’s a fake… No, there’s a replica R on the freeway today. When you go south or north on I-5, you do see it, but that’s the original put up there shortly after World War II to herald the Rainier Brewery, everyone’s favorite beer in Seattle. Here’s the funny thing about the sign. When we did dismantle it to take it down to preserve it, we noticed not only that we had the beautiful neon and all this little light bulbs, which light up if you turn a switch there, but it also had about 10 bullet holes in it. Apparently, it was an attractive target practice for passing motorists which kind of, I must tell another side of the story here, but that’s part of its history as well.

Gina Colucci:
Don’t try this at home, kids.

Leonard Garfield:
Yes, do not try this at home. Another fun sign that we have on display is the All Roads Lead to the Dog House. And for real old time Seattleites, they’ll remember the Dog House Restaurant. That was the all-night diner you’d go to with the kind of rough and tough waitresses and you’d get your cup of coffee. They keep you going, lots of folks coming in from the bars or folks working the late night shift and just a beloved restaurant. When that sign had to be removed, it came here. We are quite the repository of historic signs. And our most recent is the pink Elephant Car Wash sign. Gina, if you’ve got an idea of where we should put that in its new home, right now, it’s being restored. It will be ready one of these days and we’re going to locate it somewhere.

Gina Colucci:
Our tour ended. We sat down to talk more history, Leonard’s true passion. We talked a lot about historic design in Seattle and what themes, design, spaces, lessons seem most relevant to us today in your opinion?

Leonard Garfield:
I think if I were to think about Seattle design, I think there are a couple of things that come to the forge you look at historically. One is respect for the natural environment. I think our natural setting has really inspired our design, whether it is in our fabrics, our clothing, and we think of Eddie Bauer or Filson or REI or in our architecture, and The Northwest School of Architecture really paid great sensitivity to the use of natural locally sourced materials.

Leonard Garfield:
I think a respect and an understanding of nature and being open to that, recognizing that we live in nature, I think that’s hugely important. I think our location on the Pacific rim has been important. I think the influences, particularly from Asia, have been extremely important in our design, our architecture, our art. And then I think that in the Northwest and in Seattle in particular, there is an authenticity, a lack of pretentiousness, a lack of hierarchy, this kind of accessibility that everybody’s on an equal playing field, and we all have something to contribute. I think that spirit, as opposed to a spirit that’s very pretentious or exclusive, I think that approach of embracing everybody is very key to the Northwest design aesthetic.

Gina Colucci:
What’s something that you hope architects and builders and designers keep in mind as they’re creating and planning new spaces for us Seattleites?

Leonard Garfield:
Boy, that’s such a good question. What I always appreciate is when an architect or designer thinks not just about their work, but thinks about the work around them. I love context. I love people who design to fit into a larger fabric, whether it’s an urban fabric or whether it’s just a specific design palette or opportunity. And I think that where Seattle does best, and sometimes this is our most modest stuff is when we build in harmony with the setting and with the neighbors and with the neighborhood. I think we’re… sometimes we don’t have a distinguished stuff is when we build something that’s completely disrespectful or not paying much attention to the surrounding neighborhood. And I think all great designers are always cognizant of the larger context.

Leonard Garfield:
I’m loving all the glass that’s going up in Seattle. I love the glass because it reflects the sky and we have such a great sky here. In the middle of the summer, as we’re experiencing now, it’s just a brilliant sky with fabulous sunrises and sunsets, but through much of the year, it’s that misty haze that we have that we just kind of love because it’s so wonderful and refreshing. And I think all the new glass buildings do a good job of reflecting that. I like that. But I do agree that those craftsman buildings, whether they’re bungalows or whether they’re the more formal arts and crafts, English revival style buildings, because they do hearken back to the use of materials and to the natural setting.

Leonard Garfield:
I do think that’s a special asset that we have, but also, Pioneer Square. I mean, sometimes we forget that the stones, particularly the Romanesque revival architecture from Pioneer Square, there aren’t many places in America that have so many blocks of basically intact historic architecture from the turn of the last century. And I think we sometimes take that for granted because it’s been a number of decades since we really had the movement to save that.

Leonard Garfield:
Oh, and then speaking of saving, we have to save Pike Place Market because it’s just so special. And why is it special? Not because it’s fancier because there’s anything from a design standpoint that stands out, but because it’s so authentic and it’s so accessible and it’s a kind of design that really is about how we live and use spaces, how we exist in spaces as opposed to how spaces land on us. And so, I’d say Pike Place Market is just a great amazing treasure for Seattle.

Gina Colucci:
I couldn’t agree more. Can you go into depth a little bit about or comment about the stone and being one of the largest collections of it in…

Leonard Garfield:
Pioneer Square, I’m not sure how many blocks it is, but it’s many blocks. It’s on the very site where Seattle burned down. Seattle was largely a wooden city until 1889. In the summer of that year, they had a dry spell just like we have a dry spell now. And there was an accident and a building caught on fire. And before you know it, basically the whole of downtown Seattle was burned down. When they rebuilt, they decided we’re going to be smarter, we’re going to make it fireproof. And so, they built in stone and that coincided with the movement in American architecture of the so-called Romanesque revival, which was taking huge blocks of stone in all cases locally sourced, sandstone for the most part from places like Tenino and places like Pierce County. And they bring these huge blocks in, sometimes they’d work them and form them on the outside and the ornament would be carved into the stone, so it was very much organic and coming from it.

Leonard Garfield:
And they would only go up X number of stories because stone is a heavy material and this predates the elevator or the reinforced steel architecture that will allow you to go very high. It gave the city almost an instant sense of monumentality and almost an instant sense of age. Even if they were brand new, they were so massive and heavy and ponderous that they seemed like suddenly we had an instantly old city happening in downtown Seattle, but it was quite an architectural marvel. And it was published… As the billions were going up, they were published in New York architecture magazines. It’s really an example of the best commercial work of the day.

Leonard Garfield:
And pretty much between the fire in 1889 and the turn of the century, say, in 1900, the entire Pioneer Square was built. If you can imagine the whole city rebuilding in a completely new design aesthetic and we talked about the harmony of buildings, all those buildings harmonize with each other. They’re all the same color. They’re basically all the same height. They use a lot of the same design vocabulary because people understood that they weren’t building just for themselves, they were really building an environment for people to occupy.

Gina Colucci:
Wow. And I’m guessing you probably have some of those publications.

Leonard Garfield:
We do in our library. Gina, we have a library filled with thousands of historic documents, everything from city directories to corporate records, to diaries and letters, to magazines and newspapers and lots and lots of historic photographs. If anybody at the design center anywhere is interested in researching the history of design in Seattle or particular buildings or neighborhoods, a good first step would be to the MOHAI library and you can find how to get information on that by just going to our website, mohai.org.

Gina Colucci:
That’s amazing tip right there. And one last question, what’s one story that really inspired you along the way?

Leonard Garfield:
The story that inspires me the most is actually the story of the cleaning up of Lake Washington. Back in the 1950s and well before that, the lake was becoming very polluted. It wasn’t safe to swim. It wasn’t safe certainly to catch fish or eat them. People who had taken this wonderful resource for granted were suddenly discovering that it was toxic. And rather than waiting for there to be an environmental calamity where the lake caught on fire as happened elsewhere around the country, or not waiting for a court order where it was mandated you must clean this up because all kinds of suits were filed, smart civic leaders all around the lake from the City of Seattle and from the dozens of suburban communities all got together and not just the political leaders, but volunteers and middle class folks and school teachers and lawyers and people who really cared and said, “Let’s get together and clean up this lake.”

Gina Colucci:
A little more background. In the 1950s, locals called Lake Washington, Lake Stinko. Surrounding cities had dumped raw sewage into the lake for decades. That ended in the early ’40s, but left the lake polluted and smelly. Sewage was handled mostly by individual cities, but we needed regional planning and cooperation to make any big improvements to the lake’s water quality. King County voters approved the creation of Metro in September 1958, but it had not been a sure thing. It was first on the ballot in May of that year and didn’t pass. Then there was a huge public education campaign over the summer led by volunteers and passionate citizens, like Leonard mentioned, and this is what convinced voters that we needed to spend the money and clean up the lake.

Gina Colucci:
Metro created a legal entity that could spearhead a regional approach to sewage management and divert it from the lake. It was a big project that lasted about a decade. By 1971, Lake Washington’s water was more transparent than it had been since 1950.

Leonard Garfield:
And the cleanup of Lake Washington was such a massive environmental undertaking, but it was all initiated by just regular people in Seattle who said, “We can do things smarter and we can do things better. We don’t need a big philanthropist to come in and solve our problems. We don’t need the government to tell us what to do. We can do it ourselves.” And that sense of self-reliance, which we sometimes call the Seattle spirit, that’s what inspires me. And I think if we take that attitude that we can build the city we want, we have the power to do it. We just have to get together and do it and Seattle’s never shied away from a smart idea. We can look to the past for those kinds of inspiring stories and tackle the challenges we have now.

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 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. Next time on Inspired Design, we meet up with Louie Gong at his eighth generation store in Pike Place Market.

Louie Gong:
It’s crazy to think that in 2016 when the store opened, it was the only native store in the entire city of Seattle. The native origins of this region are used in the branding of the city all over the place and yet the actual participation of native people in commerce for people visiting Seattle was almost nothing.

Gina Colucci:
Is there an iconic Northwest creator that you want to hear from? Head to our website and leave a comment.

Everett Fitzhugh | Keeping it Kraken

Everett Fitzhugh | Keeping it Kraken

In this episode of Inspired Design, let NHL announcer, Everett Fitzhugh’s contagious energy and passion for the future seep through your speakers and into your ears. You will be transported to the new Climate Pledge Area and get an endearing glimpse into why Everett is so proud to make history with The Seattle Kraken!

Listen on your platform of choice

Explore this Episode

Episode Transcript

Everett Fitzhugh:
I’ve got a lot of energy, and I’ve got a lot of passion, and I have a lot of volume when I speak. Like my goal call, “He scores!” It’s a very deep goal call. So you do that enough time, I guess your voice gets used to it, but,

Gina Colucci:
But 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.

Everett Fitzhugh:
So many people speak with such reverence of the old Key Arena. Then you preserve the history of the building, the iconic historic roof that is still there,

Gina Colucci:
I had the chance to meet Everett Fitzhugh at the Climate Pledge Arena Preview Center. Everett is the Kraken’s first play-by-play announcer, and the first full-time Black broadcaster in NHL history.

Everett Fitzhugh:
I hope it tells that nine-year-old Black kid in south Seattle that you belong in this game. There’s a place for you.

Gina Colucci:
He became a hockey fan as a kid.

Everett Fitzhugh:
The culture of hockey is something that I fell in love with.

Gina Colucci:
But got his first taste of NHL broadcasting in 2018.

Everett Fitzhugh:
As a play-by-play announcer, I’m following the puck. He may be looking,

Gina Colucci:
When I caught up with Everett. Hi.

Everett Fitzhugh:
Hi.

Gina Colucci:
Nice to meet you.

Everett Fitzhugh:
Nice meet you, as well.

Gina Colucci:
His excitement about all things Kraken was palpable.

Everett Fitzhugh:
Welcome to our Preview Center.

Gina Colucci:
Thank you for having us.

Everett Fitzhugh:
Yeah, this is going to be a lot of fun. I know that we’re so close to opening our building, and I want to show you what everybody can expect. So, let’s take a walk through our model room, here.

Gina Colucci:
Let’s go. Wow.

Gina Colucci:
Everett opens the door to this preview area, and it’s almost like you’re walking up a ramp into a movie theater. Along the wall of the ramp are all these historical photos of famous people and artists who have performed at the arena.

Everett Fitzhugh:
There’s been so much foot traffic through this building, and so much excitement through this building. And we really have captured the history of Seattle, of Seattle hockey, of the building. A lot of people don’t know the very first American team to win the Stanley Cup were the Metropolitans back in 1917.

Gina Colucci:
No way.

Everett Fitzhugh:
Yeah. So,

Gina Colucci:
I’m one of those people who had no idea.

Everett Fitzhugh:
So it’s going to actually be really, really cool, because our second home game is against the Montreal Canadiens, who the Metropolitans beat. So it’s going to be Montreal’s first trip back to Seattle in about 106 years.

Gina Colucci:
Wow. That’s history.

Everett Fitzhugh:
Yeah,

Gina Colucci:
That is making a [crosstalk 00:02:35]

Everett Fitzhugh:
Just got goosebumps thinking about it, right?

Gina Colucci:
Yeah.

Everett Fitzhugh:
So we’ll come around the corner here. This is going to be a world-class music venue, live events, family shows. This is going to be a place for our community to come together. So you see Elvis has been here. You see the construction of the Space Needle for the World’s Fair. You see the construction of the original building. You’ve got a Sonics jersey from back in the day. Jimmy Hendrix, all of these amazing people who’ve come through this building. And, of course, you’ve got the Storm. This is going to be their home, too.

Gina Colucci:
Yes.

Everett Fitzhugh:
The four-time WNBA champions, Seattle Storm. So,

Gina Colucci:
Let’s go.

Everett Fitzhugh:
Yes. So there is just so much history that’s going to be in this building. I think it gets lost sometimes, that obviously we, as the Kraken, and the Storm are going to be the primary tenants, but we’re looking to have 150 nights a year, 200 nights a year of events, of live entertainment. And it goes way beyond hockey.

Everett Fitzhugh:
So then we’ll stop right here. And this is something that I’m really, really proud of. I get goosebumps seeing this every time. I’ve probably seen this about 20 times now, and I still get goosebumps. So I’m going to play a little show for you guys, here. And you guys are going to really get to feel and see and hear just what is going to happen with the opening of this arena and the announcement of this team.

Video:
Clearly, the people in Seattle want a team.

Video:
A massive [inaudible 00:04:09] of sports fans in Seattle.

Video:
Their goal is to get 10,000 deposits over a six-week period.

Video:
They got 10,000 commits in 12 minutes.

Video:
No expansion team in the history of sports has done this.

Video:
The rest of the hockey world took notice.

Gina Colucci:
This is the ultimate hype video of hype videos. We were standing there, and Everett presses play, and you can just feel the excitement and the drama and how much this team is going to mean for Seattle. Beneath it was this full model of the Climate Pledge Arena. And as the video progressed, and got more excited and loud, the arena started to light up in different places, til ultimately the roof of the model lifts off. It’s like, there’s fireworks going on around the arena, and you can see the court start to light up in the middle, and the seats, and they have audio of the crowd cheering. It just shows you how much thought and purposeful design went into the redesign of this iconic building.

Video:
We’ll bring the Stanley Cup back to Seattle. Let’s go, Kraken!

Everett Fitzhugh:
You know, I’m not from Seattle, but I know so many people speak with such reverence and they speak with such fondness of the old building, the old Key Arena. Right? And then, to have it shut down for a couple of years, but then you preserve the history of the building, the iconic historic roof.

Gina Colucci:
A relic of The 1962 World’s Fair, the Washington State Coliseum, more commonly known as the Key Arena, was recently designated a historical landmark. It was designed by Paul Thiry, the fair’s principle architect, who intended for the building to become a sports arena after the fair. The landmark designation means that the interior can under undergo renovations, but the exterior must be preserved.

Everett Fitzhugh:
We actually were able to put the roof on temporary stilts and supports for over a year, about two years, actually. And we dug out. We built up. Now, when you come in, you actually enter the arena on the main concourse level. So you’re actually going down to your seats. If you’re in the lower bowl, as opposed to a lot of other buildings, you have to go up to [inaudible 00:06:50] place. So you actually enter probably right around on this level here. If you have seats in the upper bowl, it’s not that far of a hike for you to get to your seats. So that’s one thing that I think is a little bit unique and a little bit different compared to other buildings.

Gina Colucci:
So why the Climate Pledge Arena name?

Everett Fitzhugh:
The building is going to be natural gas free. It’s going to be aiming to get rid of single-use plastics by 2024. Our historic roof is going to collect rainwater in these massive cisterns. And that’s going to be used to resurface the ice. We’re sourcing, I think, 80% of our food. We’re sourcing that from within 200 miles of Seattle. One of the coolest things that I’d learned is how our game ticket doubles as a transit pass. So you scan your game ticket, you can take the monorail, you can take the bus, you can take public transportation down to our game, helping to limit that carbon footprint.

Gina Colucci:
That is absolutely amazing. Because now the Ravenna Station, Northgate, and then they’re going to keep going north. So you can use your ticket,

Everett Fitzhugh:
[crosstalk 00:08:02] pass, yep.

Gina Colucci:
on the light rail. So you could get from your practice rink [crosstalk 00:08:06]

Everett Fitzhugh:
That’s what I plan on doing. So I actually plan on parking at Northgate, and then taking the train down to games, and then hopping back on the light rail and going home. The amount of attention that’s being paid to sustainability, limiting that carbon footprint, is something that no other building in the league, in the world, really, is doing. And to be able to work here and to be a part of it has been awesome.

Gina Colucci:
That’s amazing. And do you know how many actual seats there are?

Everett Fitzhugh:
17,100 seats for hockey. I believe 18,300 for basketball. And then, depending on the concert configuration, anywhere from about 15,000 to 16,000.

Gina Colucci:
That’s amazing. And then I can see you’ve got, these are boxes?

Everett Fitzhugh:
Yeah. So this is actually our press bridge. I will actually probably be right in that press box, right there at center ice. So that’s going to be our press bridge. And then we have a ton of amazing premium areas. And I can actually pull up some of these right now. So you have the sideline suites that are going to be mid-level, all of our shows, all of concerts, for a Seattle Storm game. Can you imagine washing the WNBA from one of these areas? One of my favorite views of this lounge is actually going to be our Space Needle Club, which, when you’re inside the Space Needle Club,

Gina Colucci:
Nice.

Everett Fitzhugh:
You’ll have the Space Needle right there.

Gina Colucci:
I mean, that just stunning, because I’m sure, you know, this is a render. However, when you’re standing in at the bar, you’ve got a great view of the rink,

Everett Fitzhugh:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
and then above you is just this skylight,

Everett Fitzhugh:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
that highlights the Space Needle. And then you’ve got a window, I’m guessing, then that’s the Chihuly glass.

Everett Fitzhugh:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
And it’s just absolutely beautiful. And the materials. I can’t wait to see it.

Everett Fitzhugh:
My goodness.

Gina Colucci:
I cannot wait.

Everett Fitzhugh:
It’s going to be awesome. And then, again, we’re talking about design, this is another feature that is seen a lot in NHL buildings now. You have tunnel clubs when players come out of the locker room here.

Gina Colucci:
Oh wow.

Everett Fitzhugh:
You’ll have suites on either side of that glass there. So as they’re walking down the tunnel, and again, this is obviously an animation here. So this isn’t going to be what ours will look like. But that’s essentially going to be what you’ll have. You’ll see players walking by as you’re sitting in there enjoying a cocktail, enjoying some dinner, or whatever the case may be, again, right there. You’re in there. And Chris Driedger’s reporting for work tonight, and he’s walking right past the tunnel club, and fans are going to be able to see that. So just different ways to bring our fans and our guests closer to the action and to our players.

Gina Colucci:
That’s really cool. Talk about blending such a great sport with luxury. They’ve really thought about every level of fan and,

Everett Fitzhugh:
And you know what? That’s sports today. That is sports today, because, you know, I just got back from Boston, and I went to a Red Sox game, and I’d never been to Fenway before. And it was cool being in Fenway. It’s very uncomfortable. The seats are tight. That building was built for baseball. You go, you watch the baseball game, you go home. Nowadays, when you are going to a basketball game, a football game, you go into a Seahawks or Mariners or a Kraken game, it’s an event. It’s not just the game, it’s an event. So you’re going for dinner. You’re going to have a couple of drinks. It’s a social event. So going to sports nowadays, and really over the last 20 years, 25 years, with the advent of all of these new stadiums, luxury and comfort and an event is at the forefront of a lot of designers’, owners’, front offices’ minds. That’s where they want to live. They want to be able to have our fans and their fans and customers come in and be comfortable and enjoy things that they may not otherwise get to see.

Speaker 4:
Seattle Design Center is the premier marketplace for fine home furnishings, designer textiles, bespoke lighting, curated art, and custom kitchen and bath solutions. We are located in the heart of Georgetown, open to the public Monday through Friday, with complimentary parking. Our showroom associates are industry experts, known for their customer service. We are celebrating new showrooms and added onsite amenities. Visit seattledesigncenter.com for more information about our showrooms and our Find a Designer program.

Everett Fitzhugh:
When I found out that we had sold 32,000 season ticket deposits, and we did 12,000 of those in 10 minutes, it’s just remarkable how well this community and this city has responded to this team and to this organization and to this venture.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah. And what does that feel like to be a part of that, to be the first announcer, in that he’s going to announce from the Climate Pledge Arena and have that community around you?

Everett Fitzhugh:
Man. It’s really cool. I’ve been thinking about that for the last year, what that will mean, what that will feel like. And it’s hard to put into words, because I’ll get goosebumps, and I’ll get that, you know, when you got a big presentation coming up, you kind of get that butterfly, slightly nauseous feeling. I get that sometimes just thinking about that first game, what that’s going to look like, what that’s going to sound like, and smell like, and feel like, and I think, ask me on that day.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah.

Everett Fitzhugh:
Ask me,

Gina Colucci:
I was going to say, I was like, can we go and sit down and can we walk through your first game?

Everett Fitzhugh:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
Would you be comfortable?

Everett Fitzhugh:
I would be very comfortable with that.

Gina Colucci:
Let’s have fun with it. Okay. Okay. Ready?

Everett Fitzhugh:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
So you’re walking into the arena.

Everett Fitzhugh:
So I’m walking, I’m walking into the arena, and my first thought, I’m looking around and I’m just like, man, this building is amazing. They always tell you, act like you’ve been there before, but I can’t help but take out my camera phone. I’m going to take some photos of the building. I’ll find the press elevator. I’ll go to my press box. And then I’ll get there early. So the game’s at seven, I’ll probably show up at about four. So I’ll get there early. I’ll go to the press table, and I’ll sit down, and I’ll feel the countertop. And I’ll look. I’ll just stop, I’ll put my bag down on the chair, and then I’m just going to look at the ice. I’m going to look at the ice. I’m going to look at the building. I’m going to look at all the seats. And my wife and her sister are coming. So I’m going to try to find their seats. I put them right across from me, so I’m going to be able to see them. So I’m going to find them.

Everett Fitzhugh:
Then my color analyst is going to walk into the building, and then I’m going to meet him, and we’re going to go over our game plan for the day. I’ll probably go downstairs, grab a media meal, maybe some last comments from our coach, then come back upstairs for pre-game warmups. You’re going to hear the sticks and the pucks and the skates. For the first time in this building, hearing all of those sounds that make hockey so romantic. You’re going to hear those in Seattle for the first time in over 100 years. Then our entertainment team has done an amazing job. So they’re going to be putting together an awesome pregame show, light display, all types of sounds and videos and pictures. You’re going to have the introductions. You’re going to hear both anthems, both the US and Canada, because we’re playing Vancouver. And then the puck drops, and then they let me off the leash.

Gina Colucci:
What is, when that hook drops,

Everett Fitzhugh:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
what do you feel?

Everett Fitzhugh:
I’m I’m already like, people have asked me that question. “So do you know what you’re going to say? Do you have a script?” And I’m like, I can lie to you and say I do, but it’s one those things where you can’t script that moment. You can’t write down, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, welcome inside Climate Pledge.” It’s not a normal game. It’s something much more. So I think I’ll have some bullet points. I’ll have an idea of what I’m going to say in that opening. But when the puck drops, you just, you go with what you feel. I’ve been doing this for 13 years, and I like to think that I’m going to be able to find the right words to capture that moment. I may have a backup script, just in case, but might drive my wife crazy, because I’m like, “All right, how does this sound? Listen to this.” She’s like, “You’re fine.” Like, “I don’t know. Let’s do it again. Run through it again.” But, no, it’s going to be a very surreal moment.

Gina Colucci:
You know, you use your voice. That is your tool. And you’re coming in, and you are live. When you sit down, it’s green light, go, and there’s no editing going back like this. Can you walk us through what it’s like to prep?

Everett Fitzhugh:
Calling the game is easy, because you see what’s happening. Right? My job is to tell you, “He brings the puck over the blue line, he shoots and scores.” That’s my job. That’s the easy part. The hard part is knowing your players and knowing your subjects. And for me, it is all about storytelling, and finding ways to connect these players to our fan base, to our community. This is a town that hasn’t had the NHL in over 100 years. So you’re now bringing in 23 new bodies, 23 new athletes who literally hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people are going to be invested in. Think about that for a second. So, telling stories of guys who just got married this summer. I was talking to one of our goalie the other day, and he’s a new dog dad. His girlfriend’s finishing up school in Boston. So the dog is actually with the girlfriend. And he’s like, “I kind of miss my puppy right now.” And it’s just, things like that that will connect you with our players.

Everett Fitzhugh:
Names and numbers and stats, that’s the easy stuff. Because, as a hockey person, you know goals and assists and how does this player play. But I want to go deeper than that. At the end of the day, it’s more than just the power play. It’s more than just how many goals he scored. It’s who is Player A as a person? What do you like to do? We have a number of players on our team who are involved in multiple charities related to mental health, and mental health has gotten a huge boost, especially in the hockey world, over the past five to 10 years. So they have now started, a couple of our guys have podcasts, and they have charities that they work on that are dedicated to mental health and improving your mental health. Those are the stories that I want to tell.

Everett Fitzhugh:
We have a pair of brothers on the team, Cale and Haydn Fleury, and then Brandon Tanev’s brother, Chris, plays for our rival in Calgary. So they’re going to play each other twice in preseason and then four times in the regular season. So, what’s it like going up against your brother? What’s it like having two NHLers from the same family? I mean, let alone more than that. So there are just so many amazing stories to tell about our players, and I think that’s where a lot of the prep work comes in. Obviously, you want to prepare for the game and calling play by play, which, again, that’s where my passion lies. But I also love telling stories. I want our fans to feel as close to our players as I am through that storytelling.

Gina Colucci:
Another important dynamic Everett is thinking about is the one between himself and the team’s color analyst.

Everett Fitzhugh:
So the relationship between the play-by-play announcer and the color guy is a really cool one across all sports. Right? I’ve actually been my own color analyst. I’ve been my own producer. I’ve been my own intermission host for the last seven years when I was in my various stops. So the fact that now I have an NHL color announcer in Dave Tomlinson, who’s been doing this with Vancouver for so many years, former player in the NHL, he brings such a unique and different perspective. I think having a color analyst is twofold. Number one, it gives me an opportunity to shut up for a bit, because, contrary to popular belief, not everybody wants to hear me all the time.

Everett Fitzhugh:
Number two, more importantly, I think what having a color analyst does is it allows that person to bring in a perspective that I’ll never have. No matter how much I study hockey, no matter how many games I watch, no matter how many people I talk to, I’ve never played the game at a high level. I played a couple of scrimmages and shinny league games and whatever. I don’t know what it’s like being in the locker room, being in an NHL huddle. He does. So bringing that element and that viewpoint, I think is huge. And it also just brings different viewpoints, because there may be things, as the play-by-play announcer, I’m following the puck. He may be looking behind the play and see something completely different. “Where’s number five? He’s not on the ice right now.” “Well, the puck was in the corner, but I saw him go long.” That position, as an analyst, the analyst brings a different view and a different way to see the game.

Everett Fitzhugh:
I think some of the best broadcasters and some of the best play-by-play announcers are the ones who can have that relationship with their color analysts. When I called him, I said, “Listen, this isn’t a business relationship. We’re going to be friends. I want people to feel that we have fun, that we- ‘wow, these guys are at a bar having a beer right now.’ That’s what I want.” I want it to feel as if we’re having a conversation. Me, him, and our thousands of best friends listening to us calling a game, talking with us calling a game.

Gina Colucci:
That sounds so much fun. I cannot wait,

Everett Fitzhugh:
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

Gina Colucci:
to tune in and be like, “Oh!”

Everett Fitzhugh:
I’m so excited. I’ve been looking forward to this for so long. And having been on staff now for a year, and seeing all of the strides that we’ve made in so many departments, now that it’s finally here, oh my goodness. It’s amazing. It’s absolutely amazing.

Gina Colucci:
That’s some prep work.

Everett Fitzhugh:
Oh, yeah.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah.

Everett Fitzhugh:
Oh, yeah.

Gina Colucci:
You have been prepping for it.

Everett Fitzhugh:
I have been prepping for it. Don’t worry.

Gina Colucci:
You don’t want to,

Everett Fitzhugh:
Yeah. I have been prepping for it, but, like I said, you know the players, you know their story, but the canvas is blank, and you have to paint it. For me, painting is the easy part. It’s getting all the colors mixed before, that’s the hard part. But once I have everything mixed, the painting’s easy.

Gina Colucci:
One last question. What was it about hockey? What kept you there?

Everett Fitzhugh:
You know, I remember that first game, and going into the press box, and you saw everybody’s in suits. They’re impeccably dressed. And it’s a very corporate, serious atmosphere. And I was drawn to that. You know what I mean? Everybody had a job to do, everybody was serious, but you could tell that they were having fun doing what they were doing. The culture of hockey is something that I fell in love with. I think it’s so unique. And I wanted to be a part of that culture.

Everett Fitzhugh:
I also wanted to be a part of trying to help change the culture of hockey. Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of people who looked like me playing and working in the sport. And that’s how I got into the game. I saw two Black players on the same team. For me, that was huge, because, historically, hockey has said that there isn’t a place for Black men, for women, for other minorities within our game. For me to be able to be a part of the hockey culture, and then work to change some pieces of that hockey culture, that’s why I wanted to stick with it. I mean, there have been plenty of times when I could have given up. You hear things, or you’re in the minors and you’re pulling into this city again for the umpteenth time at three o’clock in the morning, humping bags and unloading dirty pads, and you’re just like, “Man, do I really want to keep doing this?” But this is the payoff, being a part of something great and part of something huge. That’s what kept me going.

Gina Colucci:
Now that he’s in the NHL, I asked Everett, what will keep him going in this next phase of his career?

Everett Fitzhugh:
I want to be somebody who did everything they could to tell Black boys and girls, Hispanic boys and girls, Asian boys and girls, the growing number of women and young girls playing the game, I want them to know that you belong in the game of hockey. You can play hockey. You can be a fan of hockey. You can work in hockey. You can buy hockey jerseys. Just because I’m a Black man, I’m not beholden to basketball and football. That’s what I was told as a kid growing up. “Oh, yo, you play hockey? He must be a White boy.” Oh, I played baseball rather growing up. “Oh, wow. You know, Black folks don’t play hockey. Why don’t you play basketball?” And I was like, “Because I want to play baseball. I’m a baseball player. I like hockey. I’m a hockey fan.”

Everett Fitzhugh:
So I want to get rid of all that. And for me to be able to do this is huge because, like I said, I didn’t have a lot of those positive Black influences within the game of hockey to look up to. So if I can be that for someone else, and if there’s a kid who, in 20 years, 30 years, hopefully he’s in the broadcast booth next to me.

Gina Colucci:
Inspired Design is brought to you by the Seattle Design Center. The show is produced by Larj Media. You can find them larjmedia.com. Special thanks to Michi Suzuki, Lisa Willis, and Kimmie 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. Is there an iconic Northwest creator that you want to hear from? Head to our website and leave a comment.

Tom Douglas’s Curated Kitchen

In this episode of Inspired Design, famed chef and restaurateur Tom Douglas gives us an in-depth tour around his eclectic home kitchen and yes, also his bathroom. We learn why it is essential to share your spirit when designing and how flow and function are a major priority for any kitchen.

Explore this Episode

Episode Transcript

Gina:
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.

Tom:
Somebody walks into your restaurant, you want to share who you are with them and what your idea behind the restaurant was, pretty quickly.

Gina:
You can’t talk about Seattle’s food scene without mentioning Tom Douglas. Tom has been making food in Seattle for 35 years. He opened his first restaurant, Dahlia Lounge in 1989. From there, he launched more than a dozen other enterprises and has received three James Beard Awards, including Outstanding Restauranteur in 2012. His imprint on the city and the entire Pacific Northwest is unmistakable. He helped put Seattle on the map as a food destination. I got the chance to catch up with Tom in his home kitchen, where his mark on the space is immediately recognizable.

Speaker 3:
Hello.

Speaker4:
Can we come in?

Tom:
No.

Gina:
We meet his business partner and wife Jackie, and learn how they built their kitchen from the ground up.

Speaker4:
Thank you for having us.

Speaker 3:
Yeah

Tom:
Pleasure.

Speaker4:
Inviting us in.

Tom:
When we first moved into this house about 22 years ago now, [crosstalk 00:01:17] maybe 23, 24. Well, the first day we walked in, the mountains were crystal clear out in the mountains[crosstalk 00:01:24]November. Now you can only see half of them, but it always reminds me of that day we walked in here [crosstalk 00:01:31]and then we couldn’t afford the house. We did it anyway.

Speaker4:
Do you want to give us like a little verbal tour?

Tom:
I guess the question is there’s design; there’s function; there’s flow, and so when I go through it, I guess I speak to that because in the restaurant business, on the hotline, it’s all about fluff, right? And design is a little bit different. Because design, like you have to decide, do you want to commercial looking kitchen? Do you want a home-style kitchen? I kind of went both ways with that, but flow is number one. It’s like when you’re standing at the stove and you need hot water, or you need something from the fridge or you need to get to your cutting board, how does that work? How does that feel? And are you running back and forth through your kitchen or is everything just at your fingertips?

Tom:
And then the restaurants, each station is set up for a flow for that station and for what dishes come off of that station. So it’s kind of set up so that it’s at your fingertips, everything right there. And then in the restaurant, like you see my stack of saute pans, things like that.

Speaker4:
Yes.

Tom:
A pan like this, I just said a 12 inch saute pan or 10 inch saute pan. I might use this three times a week at home. I’ll use this 300 times a night at the restaurant. And so it’s just a different thing, and I have high expectations and I still have some of my original pans, 25 years later at Palace Kitchen of this All-Clad nice heavy pan. So some people might consider that design, because it’s a fancy looking pan. But to me it’s useful.

Speaker4:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tom:
How does it function? So form and flow and function are huge issues in my kitchen.

Gina:
When you walk into their house, you’re immediately struck by the amazing view of the Olympic mountains. And then as you turn the corner, you’re in the kitchen and this kitchen is exactly what a professional chef would want. It is dialed in. It’s not a minimalist kitchen. We’ll put it that way. His kitchen is filled with everything that he loves, and there’s very little counter space left, but everything has a purpose.

Tom:
You can see everything’s kind of out and about. You might see in a restaurant, pan racks. My knives are all lined up ready for me to grab. Everything’s kind of out and about, but at the same time, I got nice wood shelves and hold up all my cutting boards and my big pots in the lids and things that you would never see in a restaurant. So that’s kind of a baseline of what I tried to do.

Speaker4:
You mentioned you bought this on 25 years ago.

Tom:
Yeah.

Speaker4:
Is this what the kitchen looked like?

Tom:
Are you kidding me? Your back is to the kitchen right now when we bought it. If you turn around, there was a shelving unit that came off the fireplace here. And so the stove was right there and the refrigerator was over here. It only had a four seat dining room. And so we just need more, we entertain a lot. And so we needed more space. So we took the kitchen and dining room, combine those, then took the TV room and made a kitchen out of it.

Tom:
And then this over here, now that’s commercial. If you look in here, I have a two minute cycle dishwasher. So every two minutes it goes through a whole load. And then I have a spray nozzle that you see in every restaurant kitchen. But I have it tucked away because I’m entertaining over in my dining room, and I didn’t want to see that in my kitchen. So I have this tucked around the corner and there’s a big enough place to drop all the dirty dishes. So you don’t have to do it till later, but that’s what that is.

Speaker4:
That looks really convenient.

Tom:
Yeah. And when you entertain a lot, it is convenient. I can tell you, I can do dishes for a party of 30 in an hour.

Speaker4:
Well, then no wonder you entertain.

Speaker 3:
Yeah.

Speaker4:
That’s the best biggest way. And I want a little bit more insight on this island because walking into what used to be your TV room is now your wonderful kitchen. This island here is a very substantial part of it.

Tom:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Speaker4:
And so what was the reasoning and the shape?

Tom:
It looks like a baseball diamond. Honestly, if you look at interior of a baseball diamond, that’s what it kind of looks like, but it’s actually very functional.

Gina:
The kitchen Island is on wheels and you can push it to the corner of the kitchen, which shakes this professional prep kitchen and turns it into an amazing entertainment space.

Tom:
Around the island. I have large drawers. Each drawer is kind of dedicated to an area of service. So I have a whole baking drawer there. I have a pasta and starch drawer over there. On this side I have all my bowls in the bottom one and all my stuff like saran, rapid gloves and stuff like that in another. The top was intended that at the time when we built it, we didn’t have Hot Stove Society or cooking school. And we would often new classes and donate classes. And so I made it so that I could get nine people around this island, and I was the 10th, so groups of 10 we could do a cooking class together.

Tom:
And then we put it on wheels, which is unlike most islands. And if you look at the shape of the island, it fits right back into the corner there. So that when I have a party, I will put all the buffet out here, shove the island, then back when I’m done cooking and the lights go right over top of the buffet then. And so it’s well lit and it opens up this room for more traffic.

Tom:
And of course you can see the big hole in the island too. That was featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show. But yeah, that’s just a simple little garbage.

Speaker4:
Well, yeah. I was like, there’s a hole on it. Did you know that? And so speaking, I mean, you’ve mentioned that you have parties and you entertain. Is that a source of inspiration for you?

Tom:
Perspective, absolutely. There’s a couple of things that go on there. One is I had 15 restaurants, right? And so I’m always thinking about new menu items, this and that. Maybe a new restaurant, this and that. So I keep a set of china from each restaurant here. And so if you look on this wall over here, I have maybe a dozen sets of china over here and I have more in the garage so that when I played something that I’m dreaming up for Lola, I can put it on a style of plate that matches Lola’s food and thought process.

Tom:
And that’s kind of why I do that. Plus there’s just fun to have. And then on the platter side down there, I have a whole collection of platters and I try to buy one, when we travel around the world, we try to buy a platter from each place as a memento so that when we’re passing around the table, it’s a conversation piece.

Speaker4:
Oh, shot glass.

Tom:
Exactly.

Speaker4:
So, I mean, going back to the different plates, would you say that each one of your restaurants obviously has its own personality? Is that part of your creative process? Do you kind of think of your restaurants as maybe people.

Tom:
Not necessarily people, but individual places, yes. I sure do. And they end up taking on my personality, Jackie’s personality. They end up sometimes if a chef has been there long enough, they’ll take on the management personality, especially in the service side of things. And it’s a gentle way to share your spirit, right? When you think about it, it’s like when somebody walks into your restaurant, you want to share who you are with them and what your idea behind the restaurant was pretty quickly.

Tom:
You don’t want it to be something that they have to come back six times for it. You want to kind of show that right away. And that comes across in the light fixture that you choose and the color of paint that you choose. And it comes across in your access to visual with the kitchen, like serious pie. I always wanted everyone to be able to see the wood fire in the oven. When I set up the dining room, I kind of worked it so that every table could see the wood fire. And so that was an energy that I wanted to bring to that customer. And just an immediate, oh my God, that looks delicious, or fire, people love fire.

Speaker4:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tom:
Some people love it a little too much. They’re called pyromaniacs.

Speaker4:
Don’t we all? I know a few of them were past child. What would you say or which restaurant hits closest to your own personality?

Tom:
I don’t really think about it. Probably this kitchen does more than any of the in particular restaurants, I would say, because of the functionality of restaurants like Dahlia Lounge has 170 seats. You can’t get anywhere close to what you might do here, because you have to service a lot of people all the time, three meals a day, seven days a week.

Tom:
From the menu was probably more close to what I would relate to than the restaurant itself. And I would say that all of them are a moment in my time at Palace Kitchen, probably the closest if I’m in another city and I’m going out for one or two meals and I’m in a hotel, or on business, and I want a sense of place. I look for a place that has windows. I hate places that have no visuals to the outside world that you don’t know if you’re in Seattle or Paris. I hate that. So I looked for a place that has windows, activity and gives me a sense that if I’m in Seattle for two nights, that I’ve been there; that I didn’t miss a thing.

Speaker4:
So I want to touch back too on, you said, the menu is kind of closer personally to you,

Tom:
To my personality.

Speaker4:
Yeah, to your personality. Can you walk us through what it’s like for you to create a menu through that process?

Tom:
Yeah. You never know Where it’s going to come from. That’s so funny. We’ll take Lola for example, Jackie’s grandfather immigrated from Greece when he was 17, married a woman from Kentucky in Eastern Washington when he was working on the railroad and never had a chance to go back. She wasn’t interested and he just never had a chance. And one time when we were at Dahlia, I don’t remember why it happened, but we did a Grandpa Louie’s Greek vacation, dream Greek vacation plate. And it was just I did some Greek things, because I was in the mood for that or whatever. And so out of that came my book Tom’s Big Dinners. And so we took that one step further and made it like a five course meal out of that. And out of that big dinners came Lola, the restaurant, because we love that chapter, and we love the energy of that chapter. And we loved that she’s part Greek, and that word has a story all of our restaurants, so need to have a story behind them why they’re there. So I love that about it.

Speaker4:
Did you get to meet him?

Tom:
I never did meet Louie. No, never did. Jackie just was so embarrassed by me that she never took me over to him. Was Louie even alive when we met?

Jackie:
He was long passed.

Tom:
He was dead. Louie is dead to me. [crosstalk 00:12:55]

Gina:
One thing that surprised me, Tom is quite the collector. And we got a tour of his favorite treasures sprinkled throughout the kitchen.

Speaker4:
Little bus or what would you call them? Faces?

Tom:
I think they are. I have a $5 dough right here. The jar spice rub with love spice rub, if you can tell me what they are.

Speaker4:
Well, they all have a hole in their mouth.

Tom:
Yes, that’s true. Those are butcher string holders.

Speaker4:
I would not have guessed that. [crosstalk 00:13:23]

Tom:
I know you wouldn’t. So if you look at them in the back, they’re hollow and a ball of butcher twine fits in there, and you hang this in your kitchen and the twine comes out, so when you need to put your string, you just pull on it. I collect now post-World War II, Chakra Wear, vintage.

Gina:
Chakra Wear got it started in the 1800s, as a cheaper and more accessible alternative to ceramics coming from Europe and China by boat. The pieces were made from plaster of Paris and then hand painted. Chakra Wear surged in popularity after world war II. There were fewer ceramics coming from Europe, which was ravaged by the war and slowly rebuilding. Chakra Wear from this time period is known for its kitschy patterns and outrageous colors. By the 1960s, it had fallen out of favor as more durable ceramics became affordable in the US.

Tom:
I collect them. These are little wine stoppers of the same kind of vintage. And what’s cool about them, there’s only eight in the series, but because they’re hand painted, every one is different. So here’s four guys of the same series, but each one is a little bit different. And so I just always kind of thought they were fun.

Speaker 3:
Little bottle stoppers.

Tom:
Yeah. Bottle stoppers.

Speaker4:
What about the post World War II time period speaks to you?

Tom:
Well, it wasn’t so much the date specifically. It was more the energy of the items. And at that time I was a big E-bay guy and I was finding little bits and[inaudible 00:15:04] that I kind of enjoyed looking at. And I thought made a good collection, so that’s how that happened. I mean, if you look in my bathroom, I have a collection of shadow boxes or tribute boxes from a guy. He made them in his garage and in the Carolinas and his name is Jim Charles. And I got one, I saw it on eBay and I got one, I got to here. It was $20. And it’s like, this is goofy, but I kind of like it.

Tom:
I liked that American folk art kind of genre and not just American, but folk art. And I got it here and I fell in love with it. And now I have 50 of them and he just stopped posting, and I don’t know how to get any more. I don’t even know how to contact the guy. So it was kind of sad in a way.

Speaker4:
Yeah.

Tom:
Let’s go take a look at him for a second.

Gina:
Next thing I knew I was standing in Tom Douglas’s bathroom.

Tom:
Each one has got its own little story. So here’s James Brown, Say It Loud Soul, and then he puts a little story on the back and signs it. And that’s what they’re, and they’re $20. And they’re like the sweetest little deals. And so this is post World War II chocolate, that’s the kind of thing you would get at a carnival. It’s a King Kong statue. And I put a bunch of Jim beam bottle space needles around it, and I have to make a pedestal for him, but I have little Washington knickknacks and stuff like these as all, but I love these, these speak to me.

Speaker4:
Oh yeah. You got Michelle.

Tom:
Michelle and Barack and Jackie Robinson. And like I said down at canteen Alania and they’re kind of the decor on my back bar. Even stuff like this guy right here. That is a Tim Wolf. My guess is it came out of a pub in England somewhere. And it’s just been hammered around a piece of plywood and it’s just spectacular. And when you stand there to pee, you got to have some serious need to pee, because that guy stares at you right in the face.

Gina:
The tour continued back in the kitchen.

Speaker4:
You put so much of your collectibles into your restaurants.

Tom:
Not just into them, but the restaurants really are heavy with them. But I think, I did this over the holidays at hostels, show people how to take that very same butcher twine holder and put it on your cheeseboard. And kind of decorate around it. And when you have people over, there’s something to talk about. It’s like, it just is part of who I am. And so now we can have that conversation and I like taking your own individual designed pieces and having that conversation with people.

Speaker 3:
That’s amazing.

Tom:
Like this guy right here, the weenie man [inaudible 00:18:01] it’s like the goofiest thing you ever saw? It’s a framed paper marionette of a man holding a tray of weenies sausages. And why is that here? I don’t know. [inaudible 00:18:16] Exactly. It’s the same goofy little stuff.

Speaker4:
And what about these? Are they soap?

Tom:
These are sardine tins. And I like the boxes more than I did the sardines. So I kept the boxes, but I just found them in a grocery store. They’re still out there, out and about. And they’re really nice artwork. Martha Stewart loved these. She called me and asked me where I got those. I said, “Martha, I made them”. Just tins, and I put a washer on the back. That was magnetic. And so that it goes to my knife bar.

Gina:
This got lost in the conversation, but now he uses the tins to hold all his spices.

Speaker4:
What’s your favorite spice?

Tom:
Oh, posh. Oh my God. That was funny stuff.

Jackie:
It was a spice girlfriend back in the day. Oh yeah.

Tom:
Yeah. I started these, I think it’s just a beautiful fragrance and little goes a long way from a spice perspective.

Speaker4:
Does it remind you of anything?

Tom:
There was a restaurant in San Francisco called China Moon and Barbara Tropp was the owner. She’s long gone, but it reminds me of walking in there and walking into an old grocery the Viet Wawa in our international district or [inaudible 00:19:36] grocery, which was the first Asian grocery I used to shop at. And Stan was the owner there, and just had one of those long black hairs hanging out of his chin. And he was just the coolest guy and the Wing Luke Museum is where that is now. But yeah, I just love the smell of those stores and they all were fragrant [inaudible 00:19:56].

Gina:
We were coming to the end of our time together, and I wanted to know more about the inspiration and design behind some of Tom’s other iconic restaurants.

Speaker4:
Where do you begin when we touched on your process how you found a Lola, but when you decide you get that spark of I’m ready to open another restaurant, where do you usually find that inspiration?

Tom:
Well, Jackie and I design them and then we just kind of build off. I think the Carlisle room is a good example. I had one piece of folk art that I had. It’s a Bob Dylan. It was 12 feet wide and about almost 10 feet tall. And I saw it at a curiosity shop and I really spoke to me and I liked it. And so we designed the Carlile room, literally around that piece of folk art. It turns out we found on the back of it, it was part of the 1972 Grammy set. And so apparently there are four matching pieces to it somewhere they’re probably all gone, it’s my guess. It’s just on plywood and it’s just done with a brush and a roller. So it’s nothing like fine art, but that was the Grammy set of pieces. Like when you would see an act, those are the kinds of things they would make. And that survives somehow all the way to me finding it at Kirk Albert collectibles down in Georgetown.

Speaker4:
And can you describe a little bit more what it looked like?

Tom:
It’s just gray and all the features that you could tell that it was Bob Dylan were in a black paint, he’s smoking a cigarette and to me, it was so obvious right away. Some people don’t see it, but that’s how that happened. And we ended up with Marshall Amp speakers and we ended up with 1960s’ videos playing on the wall and the whole restaurant became kind of that 1968 flower power. And I had the whole installation of gerbera daisies in glass vases, kind of representing that. I just built from there. You never know when you’re going to get an inspiration, you might be walking through an art gallery and the painting talks to you in a way that just says I’m an opener diner. I don’t know what it is. I mean, those days are probably passed for me from the style of going about opening new restaurants in that way.

Tom:
But the idea of why this restaurant happened, it’s a flicker. And then all of a sudden it starts to build, it’s walking through a market in Spain on the Ramblas and saying, Jesus, we could do this. This is so good. It’s so fun. Well, let’s try something like this. And then my natural inclination is to start trying to be more authentic about the way it looks and the way it feels. And I try not to do it unless I have a real story around it. Like for example, Lola, to me, the story is Jackie’s Greekness, and Jackie’s grandfather. I feel good about that. I’ve never called it a Greek restaurant. I called it a Greek spirited restaurant. It’s what I would think of as what I would do now in a modern Athens restaurant. Never tried to say I was Greek. Nothing like that. And that’s the way I look at all my places, their inspirations, and not necessarily anything more than that.

Speaker4:
You have a very successful career, and it’s all centered here in Seattle. Is there a reason behind that? Why stay in one place and cultivated there?

Tom:
Well, I don’t know if you’ve met her, but I only have one daughter Loretta who’s about ready to have a baby boy named Hercules on the 4th of March. Theycan’t land on a name. So I named it for them. [crosstalk 00:23:45] We did, we had two names with Sage or Loretta. Her middle name is Rhoda Faye after her grandmother’s name, the Grandma Dot was Rhoda Faye. So what was your question?

Speaker4:
Why Seattle?

Tom:
Oh, why Seattle? Oh, why stay here? I just never had much interest in being on the road. I had a lot of friends, my peers of that age group did all of that. Whether it was Marcus Samuelsson, Mario Batali, Todd English, Emre, Wolfgang, you name all these people, they all did the national restaurant thing. And I never saw a whole lot of happiness there. I just saw people doing something like they felt like they needed to do.

Tom:
And I almost feel the same way about me. It felt right to keep expanding. Didn’t necessarily have to be that way. I’m a ADD. I don’t know what I am, but I just kept building. And for us, the inspiration had to go with having the money to do it. We didn’t borrow money from banks. And so for us, it was always like, if we have enough money, let’s try it. Why not? I’m an entrepreneur that way.

Speaker4:
Yeah.

Tom:
I’m not scared of risk. And in the restaurant business, you have a lot of risk.

Gina:
Hey, do you have a special memory from eating at a Tom Douglas restaurant? Head to Seattle Design Centers Instagram posts for this episode and tell us all the details. 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. If you’re looking for inspiration, come check out the Seattle Design Center in Georgetown. We’re open Monday through Friday from 9a.m. to 5p.m.

The Moriguchis’ Glorious Grocery

On this episode of Inspired Design join us as we get an inside look at one of the most iconic PNW family-owned establishments, the Flagship Uwajimaya Market. Denise and Miye Moriguchi, the 3rd generation powerhouses leading the business, tour us through the much-loved store while teaching us about its less-known past. Uwajimaya is synonymous with the Moriguchi family’s history, a macrocosmic look at how the market has both changed and stayed the same throughout its existence.

Explore this Episode

Episode Transcript

Denise Moriguchi:
In 1962, when the Seattle World Fair was in town, my grandfather really wanted to have a presence there. Even though we never got to meet our grandfather, I feel like that was his moment where he decided he wanted to sell to more than just Japanese customers, but really share Japanese food and culture with everyone. I think that’s a moment I think about often and how it’s probably changed the course of who Uwajimaya is today.

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

Mia Moriguchi:
We are at the Seattle flagship Uwajimaya store. This is actually the third physical location in the district.

Gina Colucci:
This week, I met up with Denise and Mia Moriguchi, the powerhouses behind Uwajimaya. Their grandfather started the business out of the back of his truck in 1928. And just last year, Mia and Denise led the company through a $10 million remodel.

Mia Moriguchi:
This latest effort that just completed in October of 2020 was our first major refresh of the store since 2000.

Gina Colucci:
Their story spans generations and decades.

Mia Moriguchi:
This is Denise’s dad and my uncle, right there and another uncle of ours so there were seven siblings.

Gina Colucci:
It is a triumphant one, but not without heartbreak.

Mia Moriguchi:
My father, Denise and the whole family just worked so hard.

Gina Colucci:
Let’s start from the top.

Mia Moriguchi:
We did just enter through the new entry. This is brand new to the store. It used to be part of the produce department and just a rotunda, but we really felt this more grand entry into our produce department was something that would really excite people as they walked in.

Gina Colucci:
Mia studied architecture and design at Yale and worked at a Seattle design firm for 11 years before joining the Uwajimaya leadership team.

Mia Moriguchi:
We really are proud of our produce selection, especially the Asian greens and gingers and mushrooms and all these types of varieties. It changes seasonally so that’s really exciting. And then, if we walk that way, so part of it was really trying to orient customers as they’re walking in. So when you do walk in, not only do you see the produce department, but you can see our meat department and all the way back to our seafood department, which is one of our most proud departments for sure and just the unique kind of character of Uwajimaya itself.

Gina Colucci:
I have to stop here for a second because in that moment, I realized that I had one foot in the present store, a beautiful modern space with thoughtful design elements, but I also had one foot in the past. Uwajimaya has so much history if these walls could talk. I mean they were talking. The backstory of this space and business and this family just pours out of the walls and creates the energy in the air. As we go on our tour, we keep jumping back and forth through time to tell Uwajimaya’s whole story and how these two powerhouse women are at the helm of this company’s next chapter.

Denise Moriguchi:
Uwajimaya was started by our grandparents, Fujimatsu and Sadako Moriguchi.

Gina Colucci:
This is Denise, Uwajimaya’s CEO. She got her MBA from MIT and returned to Seattle to join the family business in 2013.

Denise Moriguchi:
Our grandfather came from Japan then like many immigrants, he was looking for job and better opportunity. So he arrived in Tacoma in the 1920s by boat. There were Japanese bachelors working in mining and fishing and logging camps and he went to where they were and sold them fishcakes. That was his kind of like specialty. So Japanese [foreign language 00:03:40], and then he’d sell them rice and soy sauce. Then as these bachelors started getting married, he opened a store because it now was a different customer shopping. It was the wife. So they opened their first store in Tacoma in the 1920s.

Gina Colucci:
Uwajimaya’s humble beginnings are in sharp contrast to the large team responsible for the multimillion dollar renovation that Mia is telling me about. I used to come here all the time and I had my office right down the street. One thing I do notice is the update of colors.

Mia Moriguchi:
Yes.

Gina Colucci:
How much thought and planning went into picking the right green and the right blue and the right yellow?

Mia Moriguchi:
No, very good point. We worked with a very talented team of designers, and starting with our kind of our new brand expression. So we have some updates on that. Then Hoshide Wanzer Architects were our main architect firm, and then we worked with Cushing Terrell for kind of layout and grocery store layout and design and such, and Bruce Hale for our brand and imagery. It was a very collaborative approach to all of that, but really the overall is we kind of neutralized the palette that used to be here I would say, but wanted to really bring to life some of the certain departments and kind of distinct areas, but in a more intentional way. So we do have a pretty bright green in the produce. We have these large banners. This is an artist from Japan that we found and he had these amazing, beautiful illustrations, so much texture, but also really just it felt right when we saw his work and so we commissioned some of these pieces for this store.

Gina Colucci:
So when I look at these four beautiful banners up above the produce section, you nailed it. They have this great texture to it with these designs. They’re beautiful, but I wouldn’t know that’s an actual Japanese artist. That’s really cool.

Mia Moriguchi:
So you continue through the meat department and you really see all of this beautiful meat, all the cuts. There’s Jesse. So we have much of a more defined meat department, but we do offer a lot of specialty cut meats, so the thin slice meats, pork and beef, and then of course our really high-end Wagyu style beef over there.

Gina Colucci:
And that’s something that you can’t get in a normal grocery store?

Mia Moriguchi:
Nothing up to that amount of it, for sure, or variety I would say. Yeah. [inaudible 00:06:23] … some seasoned pork, so already made for dumplings if you wanted to make the dumplings. It kind of skips a step, which is really nice for [inaudible 00:06:33] … very busy. So our sashimi department, we have restaurant grade quality sashimi fish here, and we really wanted to distinguish it from your experience buying it there at this counter versus buying it at the more fish market type of environment. So we enhanced this, we call it our sashimi island, and it features a house-made poke every day. You can see the sashimi cutters at the corner here cutting expertly, these pieces of fish, and then you can pick them up to go home on all the way around it.

Gina Colucci:
As we’re walking by, people know you. Your workers know you. They’re waving. They feel comfortable. They’re excited to see you. How does that make you feel?

Denise Moriguchi:
Oh, it’s fun because we’ve kind of grown up in the store. So actually some employees they’re like, “I remember when you were this tall,” and it’s to their knee, but it’s just been fun seeing people just be here for so long. We’ve got people who’ve been here 10, 20, 30, 40 years. So we just got to know them and they’re like our family. So it’s nice.

Mia Moriguchi:
They also run into about five family members a day if you were here. We’re moving into more of our deli offerings. I would say our [foreign language 00:07:51], 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 the curries and all of the different dishes. That’s what I remember her. She would be in that back corner of the store making lunch. So now, it’s really this place to find all types of different foods ready to eat. We have our sushi, our… Let’s see. We have noodle bowls over here. We have all the kind of, a lot of the traditional side dishes that you find in Japan and different… We have shumai and Vietnamese spring rolls. Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
And back to your grandmother. What do you think she would say?

Denise Moriguchi:
[crosstalk 00:08:49] I think she’d be so proud and just amazed at the volume of products, but also how diverse our customers, employees have become, and that the business has grown since my grandfather and grandmother first started it.

Gina Colucci:
After starting the company, me and Denise’s grandparents had a relatively quiet season of life, about 20 years spent growing their business in the original Tacoma location.

Denise Moriguchi:
With the outbreak of the war, my family was sent to Tule Lake internment camp in California. So they had to leave their business in Tacoma and went to California.

Gina Colucci:
Tule Lake was one of 10 concentration camps built to imprison Japanese-Americans forcibly removed from the west coast during the World War II. It was also the biggest. By the time it closed on March 20, 1946, more than 18000 Japanese Americans had been incarcerated there during the war.

Denise Moriguchi:
And then after the war in the forties, they had to start all over again. So my grandfather heard more people are moving to Seattle versus going back to Tacoma. So he went to Seattle and he opened his first store we mentioned on 422 South Main Street, so just not too far from where we are today. They rebuilt their grocery business, started with a little kind of hole in the wall store. When the next door business moved out, they kind of lease that space, knocked down a wall and expanded their business.

Gina Colucci:
And they kept expanding their business one project at a time.

Denise Moriguchi:
Our first store was in Seattle. We opened a store in south center in the, I think it was seventies or early eighties. We opened a store in Bellevue also in the seventies. We opened a store in Beaverton, Oregon in 1998. We opened a Renton store in 2009. We moved our Bellevue location 2011 or ’12, so where it is right now. Yeah, we remodeled the store recently. So I don’t know what else. Let’s see. [crosstalk 00:11:05].

Gina Colucci:
I was captivated by the whole… There’s just so much history. It’s a quintessential Seattle base, but what really caught my attention was back in the 1920s with your grandfather being a very smart businessman, realizing, “I’m selling these cakes, but now my base is growing,” and I can kind of see that that’s genetically stuck with you, now both of you very savvy business people.

Denise Moriguchi:
Yeah. Definitely, I think we’re proud that our grandparents had insight to really want to appeal to a diverse customer base. But I think another thing we’re really proud of is that our grandparents always made sure the community and the customer were really… They were the most important thing that they wanted to focus on.

Gina Colucci:
I asked me and Denise how they think about their customers today.

Mia Moriguchi:
We talk a lot about our two kind of groups of customer base. We call them the loyalists. The ones that I’ve known as grown up with us, kind of know the cuisine and we know exactly what they want to be buying, and maybe they’re very loyal to certain products like you said. Then we have the explorers who really are discovering new things all the time. Frankly, you can have somebody that does both. They may know very much about Japanese food, but are learning about Vietnamese foods or something like that. But for the explorers, we really want to make sure that they’re getting information and understanding and learning about new products and seeing new things. Then for the loyalists, we want to make sure they have their staple product for a good price, good selection, make sure it’s in stock, but also maybe introduce them to some new things.

Mia Moriguchi:
We talked a lot about customer flow. We recognize we’re in a very urban environment being in the heart of the Chinatown international district, but we are a grocery store. So to the south, we have the parking lot, and a lot of people park and get their shopping cart and go shopping. To the north it’s South Weller, which is a very more intimate pedestrian street. That’s where all of our food hall vendors, they have small store fronts that open up to that neighborhood. So a lot of the customers coming from that way, maybe they work in the neighborhood, they live in the neighborhood and they’re on foot, and maybe they pick up a smaller shopping basket and getting their food for lunch or snacks for tonight or something like that. So they may have very different needs.

Mia Moriguchi:
That’s a lot of the impetus of why we put the entry there and then had that really straight shot. We call it the spine of our store, which is really connecting produce, meat and seafood together in that kind of one environment. Then connecting from the Weller side a little bit more is from the food hall, all the shops, the small shops there kind of snaking around to the sake and beer to that street and continuous of that. So definitely setting off kind of those two experiences within the same store was a lot we talked about.

Gina Colucci:
If you could have a shopper feel like one emotion or one thing when they walk in here, what would that be?

Mia Moriguchi:
Be transported. Too shocking. I don’t know.

Denise Moriguchi:
We talked internally a lot about East discovery and delight. So in discovery, especially for the explorer and making it easy for the loyalist and we want the whole experience to be delightful for all customers. So we really do, we like that discovery feel. We hear stories about our grandparents. So when new would come to town and they didn’t have a place to eat or sleep and they’d be like, “Oh, go see the Moriguchis at Uwajimaya,” and my grandparents would give them a job and let them sleep on the couch and feed them. So I think taking care of customers and being part of the community is something that was really important to them that’s been passed down. So even though we didn’t meet our grandfather, we just know the values that were really important to him that we feel have made Uwajimaya continue to grow and be part of this community.

Mia Moriguchi:
Being in the Chinatown international district is especially important in the city of Seattle, but also our family. Really it was place of our business for so long. We spend so much time down here looking at design and development and how the neighbor has been changing. It is really being part of that conversation has been really important to me especially, just have such a big stake family wise, community wise, and the city is changing so much that I think it’s really important to be in the middle of those conversations. It’s such a diverse community and clearly with lots of different ideas and thoughts and direction and such, but that’s what makes it so interesting and so vibrant. Going through this project and other projects in this district, you realize there’s no other district like this in Seattle. I would say even across the country.

Gina Colucci:
I know that you’ve gone through the larger part of the renovation. Are there still things that you’re going to add?

Mia Moriguchi:
For sure. Yes. We’re working right now on a more, we call it kind of the secondary signage elements, really trying to connect people with food. So there’s a lot of overwhelming products here. A lot of the questions are, “What do I do with this? How do I cook it? Do I eat this raw? Do I cook it? How long?” So trying to connect people with those foods, and we think we can do that in a variety of ways. One being signage components. There’s some way finding signage, but also here’s so-and-so’s favorite sake, or this kind of tastes like chicken. You should try it, or that kind of thing. So we’re working on that. Some of the signage could be showcasing our local vendors. A lot of our bakery items come from Seattle based, born and raised kind of bakery items. We have the Cakes of Paradise, the hood famous bake shop in here. I don’t know. Do you want to go check out that way? [crosstalk 00:17:11]

Mia Moriguchi:
So we’re in our, what we deemed as our retail street. Here, this is all the products that are much more exciting in a way. We have snacks to our left here with just the tons of varieties of different Asian snacks, rice cake, rice crackers, mochi, all those different flavors, Pocky. This is a more fun environment. I think you talked to lots of kids who grew up in Uwajimaya and this is what I remember. You go to the snack department and you pick out all your [foreign language 00:17:42] and your rice crackers. [crosstalk 00:17:44] Yeah, exactly. So we really want this to be a kind of a very different feeling than when you’re buying snacks and say, you’re buying your fish. So we call this kind of our retail street. So it starts with the Saki and beer and beverages, all of the Japanese teas and different specialty beverages there. It moves into our snack selection, which is piled high with products and a little bit on the messy side where it’s just a different feel.

Gina Colucci:
I definitely get that. Kind of you’re feeling almost like you’re at a street market with the lights and the variety and the colors. Do you have one item that’s still here that you just remember as a child?

Mia Moriguchi:
Oh, yeah.

Denise Moriguchi:
Well the [foreign language 00:18:28], that one right there. This is from… I don’t know how long they’ve been making this. It used to have a toy in it. Now, it has a sticker, but I remember getting this all the time when I was a kid and now I buy it for my kids all the time. I think it’s been around since, oh gosh… I should look it up. I feel like at least over 50 years, if not a hundred years. I don’t know.

Gina Colucci:
Is there anything else that really just like transports you back to your childhood?

Denise Moriguchi:
Oh, that one. This drink over here, it’s like a very popular drink in Japan at fairs and festivals. There’s a marble on the top that’s holding it kind of together and you pop the marble down and it releases the carbonation. So this is a really fun drink we’d have when we were a little.

Gina Colucci:
So when you bring your kids here, they’re kind of experiencing kind of what you did just in a different generation. So what is that like?

Denise Moriguchi:
They’re always so excited to come pick out snacks. My dad used to make me pick up garbage and stuff when I was here, and I make them and I make them do that. So it’s just fun to see them kind of understand this is part of their family and who they are, so they can take pride in it and also help keep it clean. I don’t know. But they just love coming here with me and finding new fun products. They always want candy or some kind of cookie snack. [crosstalk 00:19:53].

Mia Moriguchi:
That’s why I don’t bring my kids here.

Gina Colucci:
A quick lesson in the Moriguchi family tree. Denise and Mia’s kids are the fourth generation. Besides stocking up on candy and picking up trash, they’re too young to be a part of the family business. Although, both Denise and Mia told me that they hope the fourth generation wants to get involved. They feel a sense of duty to keep growing and innovating the business. So the fourth generation is excited to step in and doesn’t feel burdened. Back to the family tree. Denise and Mia are the third generation. There are nine cousins and spouses involved in the company in some way. Denise becoming CEO was the official transfer of power from the second generation, their parents, aunts, and uncles to the third generation.

Gina Colucci:
You have some very powerful women in this family.

Denise Moriguchi:
Yeah. I chuckle often our grandfather was more traditional in the sense that when he did leave the company, he left it to his four sons, even though there were three daughters and four boys. He gave each son 25%, which that was actually kind of progressive for his age because usually it just went to the eldest son, but it did end up with the girls. So I kind of left some days thinking about now how his youngest daughter ended up running the company for several years, and we have a number of strong women at the company from our family.

Denise Moriguchi:
We should note, so our generation there’s 19 of us and then 15 of us are female. The numbers just kind of fell in our favor. So it’s not really that surprising that we have so many women cousins working in the business, but I don’t know. I feel the family is very supportive of it, and especially our aunt Tomoko who’s the youngest sibling who ran Uwajimaya for many years. She’s just very outspoken and won’t take crap from anyone. So I think she really paved the way for us. It’s not so surprising now because she’s already like put them in their place and told them, “Shut up.” Females are here to run the company. So she blazed the trail for us.

Gina Colucci:
Also, you said that was your aunt, but your grandmother who said she was pretty elderly and still getting on the bus coming here to work. That’s dedication. That’s a powerful woman. [crosstalk 00:22:23] Yeah.

Denise Moriguchi:
Yeah. She was really the backbone of Uwajimaya, just kept the place running. When the siblings were running it, there’d be little squabbles, but she would make sure that you remember it’s family and everyone still loves each other. So she was definitely a very impactful force and driving force to the growth of Uwajimaya.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah. Speaking of her, and this is something… She had four children in a Japanese internment camp. [crosstalk 00:22:55] Your grandmother- [crosstalk 00:22:57] Oh, she gave birth to- [crosstalk 00:22:59]

Mia Moriguchi:
Two children.

Gina Colucci:
Can we go a little bit into- [crosstalk 00:23:02].

Mia Moriguchi:
Sure. Yes. My grandmother gave birth to two children in Tule Lake in the internment camps. One, which was my father in 1944. So, yes. Talk about a very strong woman. But she did have four children when they went to Tule Lake- [crosstalk 00:23:24] … and then she had two more.

Denise Moriguchi:
Well, there’s seven total. [crosstalk 00:23:28].

Mia Moriguchi:
No, because [inaudible 00:23:30] Japan.

Denise Moriguchi:
Yeah.

Mia Moriguchi:
Yeah, so they had another daughter who was in Japan at the time and then came back and joined. So there’s seven total siblings, all of who grew up in Seattle, went to Garfield High. So we’re very rooted in Seattle.

Gina Colucci:
Wow. Japanese internment camps is not something I learned about until I was older and it’s not something that’s talked about that much, which is very unfortunate because we need to learn from that. How do you feel about it and how do you kind of… Have you told your children about it yet?

Denise Moriguchi:
So my father went into the camp, I think when he was around six and that’s the age my son is now. So I look at my son and think, “Gosh, how would he manage it?” But we have talked about it. There’s been a lot more awareness. I feel like in the past several years, but it’s something my grandmother never wanted to talk about. It was kind of a period she just wanted to put behind her. So I learned about it in school as well, really.

Mia Moriguchi:
Tule Lake’s really interesting. It’s the No-no group. From what I remember, you had two questions you were asked. Do you pledge allegiance to the U.S.? And if you had the chance, would you go back to Japan? And if you answered no to both of those… Would you stay in the U.S. or something like that. So it was like if you said no to both of those, they sent you here. So really, I think if the war extended, many of those families would have been probably sent back to Japan. So they were treated in a different way too.

Gina Colucci:
The No-no group that Mia mentions, that’s based on inmates’ answers to an infamous, “loyalty,” questionnaire. The survey was flawed from the start. The questions were ambiguous, and just about any answer got you labeled as disloyal. Because of this, Tule Lake became a segregation center and was then under maximum security. It was ruled under martial law and occupied by the U.S. Army.

Mia Moriguchi:
I remember going to California with my family trip to Tule Lake, nothing to see, a barbed wire fence and dust. And I’m sure that’s exactly how it was back then, too. So we did talk about it. I know it wasn’t a intensive conversations by any means, but I think it was something that always he clearly doesn’t remember much as being just a baby, but IT for sure shaped the family and everyone for sure.

Gina Colucci:
I asked how their relatives’ time at Tule Lake shaped their family. Denise and Mia told me that the whole family just worked so hard. It was always about work and family. They saw the impact this had on their parents, aunts and uncles, even though they were largely sheltered from the peaks and valleys of running a family business. Denise and Mia both took on their roles at the head of the company knowing how hard a family business can be. They both agreed the lows are low, but the highs are high.

Denise Moriguchi:
One of our family traditions used to be making mochi. Mochi is like a rice cake, but you have to eat it on New Year’s in Japanese in culture. Now, we can buy it and it’s easily available from other places. But before that, we used to get together the week before… I guess in between Christmas and New Year’s and we come after the deli was closed and we’d all have different roles. Our uncles would be pounding the mochi, so the rice would get into a kind of… I don’t know. What do you call it?

Gina Colucci:
Paste?

Denise Moriguchi:
Paste, yeah. Then some people would cut it. Some people would flip it. I was a young kid, so I just kind of flipped the mochi to help it cool. Then we got older, we would wrap it, put it on the trays and wrap it. So we did that for several years. So we’d do that, we’d eat dinner, we’d stay. I don’t know. It felt really late. It would probably was only like 10 or 11, but we were young. [crosstalk 00:27:30].

Denise Moriguchi:
Then we’d get together for Christmas Eve dinner. We’d get together for Christmas morning brunch. We’d get together for Christmas dinner. Now, since our family’s grown so much, we don’t do it to that extreme. But I just remember those times fondly of everyone being together, making the mochi and working in the store. I remember Mia’s dad out in the parking lot directing cars with his high vis vest and my dad would be pushing carts. The holiday is definitely our busiest time and we all just kind of come and help. My brother works in the fish department in the holidays and it’s a fun time.

Gina Colucci:
Hey, what’s your favorite item you can only get at Uwajimaya? Head to Seattle Design Center’s Instagram post for this episode and tell us about it. 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 Kimmie 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. On the next episode of Inspire Design, we get a look at Tom Douglas’s favorite place to cook, his home kitchen.

Speaker 4:
Well, the first day we walked in, the mountains, it was crystal clear out there. [crosstalk 00:29:03] The mountains were snow capped. It was November. It always reminds me of that day we walked in here and then- [crosstalk 00:29:10]. We couldn’t afford the house and we did it anyway.

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.

Explore this Episode

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.

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