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Peggy & John Bigelow | Family, Wine, and Everything Fine

Peggy & John Bigelow | Family, Wine & Everything Fine

In this episode of Inspired Design, we follow the aroma of wine to JM Cellars where we meet founders, Peggy & John Bigelow. This Woodinville winery is more than just fine wine. It’s a haven for new ideas, passion projects, and community. Learn how the Bigelow’s transformed old dairy farmland into the ultimate Pacific Northwest gathering place.

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Behind the scenes

EPISODE’S LOCATION

JM Cellars

VALUES

With community, family and friendship in mind, John & Peggy Bigelow’s vision for their boutique winery was to create a space that embodied these values while upholding the wishes of the land’s previous owners and preserving historic Woodinville farmland. The result was Bramble Bump, a 7-acre, organically gardened, intimate, warm and quintessentially northwest treasure.

THE WINES

Originally produced onsite at Bramble Bump, JM Cellars’ winemaking program remains focused on creating handcrafted, limited release wines. With fruit sourced from premier vineyards throughout the state, JM’s portfolio of new world wines draws inspiration from various wine regions around the world and utilizes old world winemaking techniques.

Shop JM Cellars Wines

THE VENUE

From wine-inspired events like blendings and tastings, corporate retreats including off-site meetings and team building events or the dreamiest, northwest wedding, Bramble Bump is the perfect canvas for all occasions.

Plan an Event with JM Cellars

THE CLUB

Wine tasting benefits, exclusive club discounts, private social club-only events & limited release wines are just a few of the perks of JM Cellars’ Wine Club. Celebrating community and wine exploration, we welcome you to join the JM Family!

Learn More

Speaker 1 (00:00):

When we were building this Peggy and I had gone to Europe and, and had a chance to go through France and Italy and see some incredible wineries and the common denominator of all these great wineries was really cool doors. So we had this guy called the tin man. Yep. What’s his

Speaker 2 (00:18):

Name? Doug. Doug French,

Speaker 1 (00:19):

Doug French.

Speaker 2 (00:20):

And I think he’s retired now. These

Speaker 3 (00:22):

Are giant doors.

Speaker 2 (00:23):

Yeah.

Speaker 1 (00:24):

Yeah. Very large copper doors. Um, when he made them, you know, it’s, it’s a 10 foot high, 10 foot wide space. So it was, uh, two 10 by five, uh, doors that he created. They weigh 600 pounds each. He, they were so big. He wasn’t even sure they’d stay up. So we had to hang him first to make sure that they stayed up and they were shiny, bright copper. Um, he took ’em back down, put ’em on, saw horses. He had acid spray and sprayed on the doors and then had blow torches and was blow torching it for two days. And he pulled out all this turquoise patina in the door, which is really cool. But what he didn’t realize was that I was gonna be fermenting grapes in this front room. And when you ferment, you actually blow off CO2 and the CO2 is full of acid. And so all of this purple patina that kind of weaves into the door, uh, came from our fermentations. And so when he came out to visit, he was like, how did you do that? I really want to, eh, you just gotta start a winery, Doug. That’s all they have become a moniker for us, for sure. But enough on the doors. Right? <laugh> that’s cool. Head

Speaker 4 (01:37):

On in

Speaker 3 (01:41):

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 on inspired design, Peggy and John Bigelow of JM sellers, along with their dog, Billy take us through their beautiful winery and estate in Woodenville.

Speaker 2 (02:00):

Hi, I’m Peggy Bigelow and I am owner and president of JM sellers. We have two retail outlets and a production facility, one in Woodenville and one in Malley,

Speaker 1 (02:12):

Washington, I’m John Bigelow and I’m the, uh, winemaker and owner. And I report to Peggy and have for 32 years. <laugh>

Speaker 3 (02:20):

Peggy and John have owned and operated JM sellers together for 19 years. Ever since John a former software executive decided to take the leap and pursue his passion for wine making together. John and Peggy grew JM sellers into one of the most respected wineries in Washington. The quality of their wine and the beauty of their property can most certainly be attributed to the loving and intentional way. They run their business, their 10 air business. They’re attentive to every detail on their property, which host weddings, wine club events, and weekend tastings. You pull up these beautiful iron gates and you come up the, the skinny driveway and you park, and you’re kind of in this like Pacific Northwest Oasis.

Speaker 1 (03:08):

Well, there’s a, a really incredible history actually to this whole Woodenville valley. And, uh, it goes back to the early 19 hundreds when this was all one big dairy farm. It was 550 acres of dairy farm out here and where we’re standing right now, we have, um, all these incredible trees. These days, we’ve got 120 Japanese Maples. We’ve got over 400 rare conifers on the, the property. But back in the early 19 hundreds, this was all grassland. This was, uh, where the cows would come to graze. There was a big dairy farm down in the right where St. Michelle is below us, uh, was a dairy farm. And it was actually a compound that was built by the Stimson family and the Stimsons were a timber barren family. So they had harvested almost all of the Douglas fur that was in this valley. Um, and they built, uh, houses down there. And some of those homes still stand over at St. Michelle. This area was just for cows to grace. So for close to 70 years, cows were up here, composting this soil in, uh, getting ready for all these trees to be planted.

Speaker 2 (04:16):

And the people who owned this before we did, they were in their eighties when they needed to move to more assist, you know, assisted living. And it was the daughter of one of the owners of the dairy farm after the Stimsons no longer owned it. And so this was her seven acre piece of land that she, it was will to her. She and her husband built the home here.

Speaker 1 (04:40):

You gotta tell the name. So her name was Jan McBride, but she was married to MTY Smith. And I love name MTY Smith, MTY

Speaker 2 (04:48):

Smith. And they were great horticulturalists. The, his family had a, uh, a nursery in the Northeast. So they brought back seedlings from the Northeast and planted here. And what was originally supposed to be a dwarf garden when you bring it into the Northwest and it rains a lot, and you have fertile soil from cow manure, it became this massive garden, and it is, uh, it’s a private Arboretum it’s been registered. Um, we’re bring it. It is, we’re bringing it back to registry. So it’s a, uh, truly registered private arboreum,

Speaker 1 (05:26):

It’s been amazing. So when we first saw this, uh, it didn’t look like it does today with, um, you know, all of our Japanese Maples and conifers right now are, are well taken care of. And, uh, when we first walked up here, it was very overgrown. Um, but you could tell that there was something special here.

Speaker 2 (05:46):

Oh, diamond in the

Speaker 1 (05:47):

Rock and then the house. Yeah, it was built in 1972. And if you imagine the Brady bunch running out onto the deck, that’s about the way the house looks, but it’s really beautiful and it fits the setting. And when we bought it, Peggy decided that we would not tear it down and build some strange Chateau, which we couldn’t have afforded to do anyway. But,

Speaker 2 (06:10):

Uh, thank God we had no

Speaker 1 (06:11):

Money. Yeah. But you know, we’re in Washington state with all these trees. And so she, she painted it very dark, um, gray. Do you call that dark gray?

Speaker 2 (06:20):

We call it dark black coffee

Speaker 1 (06:22):

Actually. Yeah. Okay. Dark black coffee. And, and it’s really, I think it just fits right in with the coffee

Speaker 2 (06:27):

Looks good with green. There’s a lot of green around,

Speaker 3 (06:29):

There’s so much lush greenery at jam sellers that I wondered how the property got its name. The Bramble bump.

Speaker 2 (06:37):

When we first arrived, there truly were Blackberry brambles covering so many Japanese Maples. They were just coming up this, this hill, this bump, and we had three little children. There was a watering system that wasn’t automated. So dragging hoses around to keep things alive was frightening for me. I was like, I don’t think I can. Thank God. Things were very mature.

Speaker 1 (07:05):

You don’t want to get into any more of the infrastructure here

Speaker 2 (07:08):

That we had

Speaker 3 (07:10):

That talk about a workout. Exactly.

Speaker 2 (07:11):

We figured out it was survival of the fittest. Yeah. We would do what we could and just let mother nature take its course. And so far, it’s, it’s worked out beautifully.

Speaker 1 (07:21):

Why don’t we do the outside first? Okay. And then we’ll go into the winery and the house and I’ll show you, but, uh, let’s go on down the walking path here. So, uh, this is a seven acre piece of property and, uh, uh, the top three acres are planted as the arboreum. Let me see

Speaker 3 (07:37):

A cute little walking path

Speaker 1 (07:39):

Side. Yeah. We’re going down the walking path. Now imagine a bride coming down here in her, uh, bridal gown. And that’s a good idea. This is where most of the brides get married in the summers outside, down here. Uh, when we started the winery, we had no idea that weddings were gonna be a part of our business plan. And about, uh, 10 years ago, we had a nice couple Janine and Brian ask us, could they get married here? And they really liked the way it looked. And, and we said, well, yeah, okay. And they said, well, you know, how much is that gonna be? And we said, we have no idea. <laugh> we

Speaker 3 (08:15):

Never, in 2022 weddings and events take up a lot of what they do now, as we walked, John told us about his business philosophy.

Speaker 1 (08:23):

You know, one of the things that I, I think was important, we knew that there really were three major elements to being successful in this. Um, one was environment and two was service and three was great wine. Uh, and now we have a fourth because we started a brewery last year. So great beer too. <laugh> when we found this environment, we knew we had something special and we really wanted to bring world class people in to work it. So we have a master gardener who works this every week and really manages this

Speaker 2 (08:59):

On the way out much. Yeah. That was

Speaker 3 (09:00):

Marriage Bush is when I got here. So exactly doing her job.

Speaker 1 (09:03):

And, and then, um, you know, over time we’ve been able to really evolve this into something that I think when people come and taste or they come to an event here, the feedback we get is there’s nothing like this anywhere. And I, I really app and I, I think they’re saying it in a good way. Uh, but now it’s, it’s really turned out to be amazing.

Speaker 2 (09:24):

We’ve tried to just be ourselves and not be something that, you know, it’s just authentic to this area. We were raised with really hospitable families, amazing cooks and always an open seat at the dinner table. And so that is natural for both John and me.

Speaker 1 (09:48):

I think I love hearing you explain that. No, because I, I, I actually, haven’t heard you say that before and have thought it, that was, that was really great. Cause you know, uh, so many small businesses talk about creating a family atmosphere and, and there’s a reason for that. I mean, when you’re a family you’re willing to do a little extra to, you know, make it just that much better for everybody else. And I think that’s really what Peggy has put in place with as president of the company. She has done things in that leadership role that I just think are natural to her authentic, as you said, and you are a true guide for all of us on what things should look like, how things should be when she comes out. I can tell you, uh, the whole team starts going around and making sure that every plant that is on any table, there’s no dead flowers. You

Speaker 2 (10:47):

Know, I don’t like dead flowers. I like this

Speaker 1 (10:49):

Is very meticulous about the really important things. And, you know, I think that’s one of the things that we’ve found with, uh, 25 years of doing this, that you’ve gotta do the big things. Right. But if you really want to give a great experience to somebody, you gotta do the little things right. As well. And, and you’re really on top of

Speaker 2 (11:10):

That. We just want people to have a good time. Yeah. And feel comfortable and at home here. And because it is a home, I think that that just is the way it rolls. They just walk in and they’re, oh, I don’t feel nervous. I’m at a winery and I’m not nervous.

Speaker 1 (11:25):

Right. I mean, that’s a big thing. This

Speaker 3 (11:27):

Isn’t something that crossed my mind at all. And

Speaker 1 (11:30):

It’s a, I always tell people when they’re tasting with me, if you like my wine, uh, yummy is my favorite descriptor. And if you don’t like it don’t tell me it’s very personal <laugh>. But I think it’s, it’s really true that, you know, we’re not into having to depict all of the different elements of the wine and we hardly ever get wine snobs in our, our, uh, midst. And when we do, I just pull ’em aside and take ’em on a tour and let everybody else have a good time. <laugh>, let’s go on down and I’ll show you a little bit more of the other part of the property. So, uh, as we’re heading down this way, there are a couple of trees on the property. I know we’re just focused way too much on trees, but there’s two trees here that I’ll show you. Uh, one is this tree right above us. And it’s a very tall 85 foot high it’s called sea coral crypto area. And it’s called sea coral crypto area. Because if you look at the end of the, the branches, you’ll see these clumpy things. And when they fall off, they look exactly like sea coral on the ground. This is the tallest sea coral crypto Marrit in the United States by over 20 feet,

Speaker 3 (12:44):

They loves it here. Yeah.

Speaker 1 (12:45):

They, they came out and measured and put us in the book and, and then this tree snapped right next to it and fell. And it fell right towards we, this is a warehouse that we keep all of our wine for the weekends. And, and instead of hitting the warehouse, it caught the very top of this tree. That’s called a Trident maple. And that happens to be the largest Trident maple in the United States as well. You remember all that, uh, that cow manure and the soils, well, these trees love these soils. So happy trees, very happy trees.

Speaker 3 (13:19):

You said Trident maple. And when you look at it, I’ve never seen bark really grow like that. Yeah. In little pieces, it almost does look like something out of the sea. You

Speaker 1 (13:29):

Know, Gina, you can go around this property and just, you know, focus on the different bark structures of these trees. And it’s really an incredible tour, same thing with the Japanese Maples. If you go around and you look at the different leaf structures of all these different, they’re called ARS, Japanese Maples, they’re so different. It’s really kind of fun. Who would, who would I ever guess that trees would be this big a part of my life? <laugh>

Speaker 3 (13:55):

If you wanna see exactly what we’re talking about, head to the Seattle design center website on the inspired design podcast page, and you’ll get behind the scenes images and be able to see all the little details that we cover.

Speaker 1 (14:08):

So we’re come on, Billy.

Speaker 1 (14:14):

All right. So this little trail system is open to the public when we’re, uh, open during the weekends. And it was kind of what you were saying earlier about we’re we’re in a city, we’re in the city of Woodenville, but we’re now out in nature. We’re going for a nature. Watch down past all these trees. You don’t hear the road instead, you hear a stream and, and a bunch of birds, and it’s so peaceful. And you asked me earlier where some of my secret spots are here on the property. Well, this is one of them. I’ll come down here when I just want to chill out and not have to do anything, but think about nature. And you can sit up in that chair on the side. Um, there, there’s all kinds of little secret spots in this property.

Speaker 1 (15:07):

So this, this is a great spot to actually see some of the Douglas firs that were here over a hundred years ago. So remember I told you that, uh, the Douglas firs were cleared out by the Stimson family. Well, they didn’t cut the ones that were on steep hillside so that the erosion factor would occur. And if you look up here, these are close to a hundred feet tall. Wow. And we’re right underneath them right now. Um, this is a, it’s a great way to kind of view this forest, but you don’t want to be here on a big windstorm <laugh> yeah. When we started the winery in 1998, uh, we, we started it in our house in Seattle and, uh, I built a little 15 by 15 foot room in the basement and, uh, started making wine. I made a Cabernet Sovan and a Merlo that year and didn’t end up selling. Those gave those away. Our first official vintage was 1999

Speaker 3 (16:16):

Here, a little stream

Speaker 1 (16:18):

That we have on the property. There are three natural Springs, two at the head of the property. And then one there’s an old pumphouse down here that’s, um, seen better days, but this was the pumphouse that they used to source all the water from. And it basically has a spring behind it and they just put a PVC pipe in, and that was the water that they drank and it was clean and clear. And we’re not on that anymore, obviously, but, um, you can see too, as we’re coming down here, there are some really unique plants. So we’re now out in basically a wetlands. So what,

Speaker 3 (16:54):

I’ve never seen a leaf so large.

Speaker 1 (16:56):

Yeah. This is called skunk cabbage.

Speaker 3 (16:59):

And for reference skunk, the skunk cabbage leaves were waist high on me. And I’m an average height woman. They started skinnier at the bottom and then as they got taller, they got whiter, whiter than my head.

Speaker 1 (17:12):

Skunk cabbage is prehistoric it’s. Um, uh, you know, the, I’m sure the dinosaurs love to eat this. The, uh, you can see how big the statement is on this thing. I mean, it’s just gigantic, but I’ve never seen this big. Yeah. Well and feel, feel the, uh, leaf it’s like leather. Oh,

Speaker 3 (17:32):

Wow. It does feel like leather and it’s

Speaker 1 (17:35):

Cabbage because, uh, it doesn’t smell skunky right now when it bloomed. It was stinky. So this little pond down here was created in 1955. So we’re standing in front of a pond that’s, uh, behind a small dam on this property. Uh, the dam was built basically to create a water source for the 550 acre dairy farm. Uh, and that’s what was used for years and years. Uh, and now it’s really just, uh, a dam and, and a nice pond. And we’ve got some seating down here. Yeah. And this is a great spot for people to come down. You can see too, as we’re walking along all the different ferns that are on this property, um, you know, this is a good example of what we were talking about earlier that even if you just did a little Fern exploration here, you’d find like 12 different kinds of ferns.

Speaker 3 (18:32):

As we walk, I noticed all different species of trees and bushes.

Speaker 1 (18:37):

Um, this is all horse tail

Speaker 3 (18:39):

And the different colors and textures of greenery.

Speaker 1 (18:42):

You know, most of these trees are 60 to 70 year old trees now. And so it’s a really mature Arboretum. I always joke with people when they come out for the tastings, I’ll say, you know, we have 120 Japanese Maples, 400 rare conifers and no grapes here. <laugh> and they’re like, where are all the grapes? And I always tell ’em the grapes are two and a half to five hours from here. Yeah. So everything we grow is over in, uh, Southeast Washington,

Speaker 3 (19:10):

We continue our tour and I noticed a Hawk circling above us.

Speaker 1 (19:16):

It’s pretty, pretty awesome. They’ll they’ll actually follow me. Uh, they’re kind of like, like Billy, our dog, you know, they’ll follow me around while I’m working and they just circle up. There’s lots of Eagles. Uh, the ducks just, uh, came in and they’re having their ducklings now. And we’ve got incredible hummingbird that are everywhere. I love those.

Speaker 3 (19:41):

So you can plant, watch bird, watch. Yep. Wine watch. <laugh>,

Speaker 1 (19:47):

It’s really fun to have an environment like this, where people can walk around with their glass of wine and really explore things that maybe they haven’t seen before. When we, uh, when we first bought the property in the year 2000, um, my mom and dad were living down on lake union in a little condo and they really wanted a dog and the condo wouldn’t let, ’em have a dog. So Peggy. And I said, well, why don’t you move into the upstairs of the house? We’re just gonna use the bottom half. And so they did. And they were here for my mom’s last 12 years and my dad’s last 16. And it was really one of the best parts of this whole thing.

Speaker 5 (20:32):

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Speaker 3 (21:02):

We finally made a full circle around the property, and I couldn’t wait to see the interior of jam sellers.

Speaker 1 (21:09):

This was our original tasting room. We just had a table in here when we first opened for tasting and people would come in, you know, when you’re just start, you don’t think many people are gonna show up. People kept showing up. We, we were so surprised we had

Speaker 6 (21:23):

One table and they were jammed

Speaker 1 (21:25):

In here, just jammed in here.

Speaker 6 (21:26):

So we just kept little by little.

Speaker 1 (21:28):

So that was another reason to build the winery on the side and move all the production out so we could make this whole thing, be the tasting room. And I’ll take you out there and show you.

Speaker 3 (21:39):

So now we’re walking quickly back outside, but now to the extension,

Speaker 1 (21:44):

The house is actually built into the Burma of the hill. So the upper level has an access at that level in the back. Uh, and the, uh, side of the house was just earth. So we dug the earth out on the side and the back of the house and created the winery. And it’s where I made my wine for 12 years. Uh, I loved it. It was, I got to develop it from scratch. So it had everything that I wanted drain wise, refrigeration wise. Um, we made it at that point about 3000 cases of wine a year. So this is a really good size for that. We make about 8,000 cases now. And so this was not gonna work in the, the long term, but, uh, it was really a great way to start. And one of the things that we always joke about is when we were building this Peggy and I had gone to Europe and, and had a chance to go through France and Italy and see some incredible wineries and the common denominator of all these great wineries was really cool doors. So we had this guy called the tin man. Yep. What’s his

Speaker 3 (22:50):

Name? Doug French.

Speaker 1 (22:51):

Doug French. And I

Speaker 3 (22:52):

Think he’s retired now. These are giant doors. Yeah.

Speaker 1 (22:55):

Yeah. Very large copper doors. Um, when he made them, you know, it’s, it’s a 10 foot high, 10 foot wide space. So it was, uh, two 10 by five, uh, doors that he created. They weigh 600 pounds each. He, they were so big. He wasn’t even sure they’d stay up. So we had to hang him first to make sure that they stayed up and they were shiny, bright copper. Um, he took ’em back down, put ’em on, saw horses. He had acid spray and sprayed on the doors and then had blow torches and was blow torching it for two days. And he pulled out all this turquoise patina in the door, which is really cool. But what he didn’t realize was that I was gonna be fermenting grapes in this front room. And when you ferment, you actually blow off CO2 and the CO2 is full of acid. And so all of this purple patina that kind of weaves into the door, uh, came from our fermentations. And so when he came out to visit, he was like, how did you do that? I really want to, eh, you just gotta start a winery, Doug. That’s all. Cause

Speaker 3 (24:03):

It does add another level of depth to the doors of, and if you imagine not having these extra spots, they would still be beautiful. But knowing that even the wine touched the doors is a really cool aspect to it.

Speaker 1 (24:20):

They have become a moniker for us, for sure. Uh, I mean, if you look at our website, they’re all over in that, but enough on the doors, right. <laugh> let’s cool. Cut.

Speaker 3 (24:28):

On in, at this point we walked through the tasting room and into what is now the barrel room. This is where they used to store all the wine, but they’ve transformed it into a beautiful event space.

Speaker 1 (24:39):

I had one point about 200 barrels in here. Wow. Uh, which was great. But then when we started doing the weddings, uh, the brides were asking me to move the barrels all over for each wedding <laugh> and I was like, okay, I think it’s time to look for another space to make my wine. Absolutely.

Speaker 3 (24:56):

It’s not, no, we’re still gonna have the weddings. We’re just gonna move the wine. Yeah,

Speaker 2 (24:59):

Exactly. So we left a wine wall, so that, I mean a barrel wall so that they could pretend they’re in a

Speaker 3 (25:05):

Room. Are these barrels still in use? Is there still wine in them?

Speaker 1 (25:09):

No. No. Nope. They’re empty. They’re just blanks.

Speaker 2 (25:10):

You would smell it. We missed the smell. Yeah.

Speaker 1 (25:13):

Yeah. It was pretty awesome to be walking through here and, and smelly, but you know, it, it, you can go to Maltbie and see a really beautiful barrel room that we’ve created out there. We got to build a whole new winery out there and uh, it’s been really fun. It’s seven miles from Woodenville. So it’s really easy to get to. And we’ve got a tasting room there, a beautiful tasting room that again, Peggy created. Yep. Um, she designed it and it’s, she, she did shiplap in it. And I remember saying to her, it was, I called her up and I go, Hey, are, are we doing shiplap in here? And she goes, yes, we are. And I said, I don’t know, hun. I mean, that seems, and she said, trust me. And so it showed up and it was just the natural wood, uh, shiplap. And they put it up, which is gorgeous by it is gorgeous by the way they put it up. And I said, Peggy, you’re right. It looks great. It looks like we’re in, um, a beautiful, you know, outdoor, you know, out in the west kind of place a, a hunting lodge or something. And I said, you’re not gonna paint the ship lap. Are you? And she goes, yep. We’re painting it. White. Sorry. You can’t, you can’t paint it white. It looks so good. And she goes, trust me, it

Speaker 2 (26:25):

I mean, we have a cottage that has always had white shiplap and it’s just,

Speaker 1 (26:32):

And she was one of those things. It looks beautiful. You did a great job on it. Thank you. I tell people this all the time, but if it tastes good here at JM sellers, it’s me. If it’s good taste, it’s Peggy. She, uh, she has an incredible ability to look at colors and, and just make things work to the best that they can possibly work. It’s it’s awesome. And then that, uh, room in the back is a private wine library, uh, stocked with wines back there. And that’s actually concrete right up against the earth. So we’re standing what would’ve been about 12 feet below earth right now. So the temperature in here stays cool. Um, pretty much all through the year. In fact, that’s why we’ve got heaters in here. Uh, so we can, we can make sure everybody’s comfortable. Can

Speaker 3 (27:18):

I step back there? Does it, does the temperature drop? Cause I noticed it as we walked back.

Speaker 2 (27:23):

Yeah.

Speaker 7 (27:24):

I think you’ll see it in here too.

Speaker 8 (27:27):

And so that kind of acts as a natural wine cooler

Speaker 1 (27:31):

Mm-hmm <affirmative> it does.

Speaker 3 (27:32):

From there, we head out through two beautiful double doors onto the back patio. There’s a fire pit. And John told me this is where they used to come and stomp grapes,

Speaker 2 (27:42):

The fruit, he would dump the fruit into this crusher destemmer right here. So up, he was up at the upper level. Okay. He would put it on the forklift, flip over the bin and then they would sort, you have to tell exactly, but this was where

Speaker 1 (27:58):

It was super slow, but really fun. And you know, we’d have people out here volunteering to, to help out with the sorting. It, it was just a really great community kind of thing. But, um,

Speaker 2 (28:09):

Out in the elements though, I mean, it would be raining and you would be out here. So what

Speaker 3 (28:12):

Time of the year would you do

Speaker 1 (28:13):

That?

Speaker 2 (28:13):

October? That’s

Speaker 1 (28:15):

September, October. It that’s. So we had tents, the grapes we’d put up tents and you know, the biggest problem I had was this tree that’s right above us is a big leaf maple. And the leaves are about eight inches across, uh, when they’re in full bloom and uh, in October that’s when they start falling. So the first thing we’d have to do before we started making wine was shovel. These big leaves off of airs. <laugh>, it’s kind of nice to be in the new spot and not have

Speaker 2 (28:44):

It’s a, a little easier,

Speaker 3 (28:45):

I was curious if John still used the old world technique of grape stomping. I

Speaker 1 (28:49):

Always tell people that I I’m, I new world wine maker using old world techniques. I I’ve really found over the years that, you know, we talked about great experience, great service and great wine. Well, the greatest wines I’ve tasted, uh, in our travels through Europe. And, and we’ve been to South Africa are the, the places that take a little bit more time and experiment and figure out what really worked in the old days. And so this is all to build up to. I foot stomp all of my reds. I, um, use clay am forests to age and, and sometimes ferment, um, some of ’em I reds, and those are all things that are old world that I think add, uh, just another level of excitement in the wine. Uh, and I that’s what I want to do. I, I, you know, I, every year I started making wine in 1998 using a recipe and, uh, UC Davis, I took, uh, the extension courses from UC Davis.

Speaker 1 (29:52):

So there’s a specific way that they teach you academically to make wine. And I did that for five years and I thought the wines were good, but it’s kind of like cooking where you, after you make a recipe, a number of times you think to yourself, you know, maybe a little AEG would be good here and you start adding that in. And by about the 10th time you do it, it’s your own recipe. And people want that. Well, that’s kind of how my wine making evolved. And, um, I’m now 25 years 20, this will be my 26th harvest coming up. Um, but that’s also the interesting thing is we only have one time of the year to do this right. September and October. Yeah, exactly. So I always joke with people that, you know, I’ve done this 25 times. So if I ever thought I was an expert at this, I’m crazy. I’m learning every year and there’s nothing in my life that I’ve done 25 times that I think I’m, I’ve done. I’ve got it efficient. <laugh> yeah. So I, I just, I listen and I try and take in what other people are doing that I like, I try it. And if it’s good, it goes in the glass. If it’s not good, you’ll never taste it

Speaker 3 (30:58):

By this point, knew John and Peggy were creative people. And I wanted to know what they were up to next.

Speaker 1 (31:04):

I am making port right now. So I’ve, I’ve got a, uh, I started a port program three years ago and I’m making a tiny port. So the first vintage of that port, it won’t be a vintage it’s you build on it every year. So each year I make an add to the previous year’s port and it won’t release for another 17 years. So I’m, uh, I’m figuring that Tommy is gonna be the one who needs to, you know, take it for the next 17. Yeah.

Speaker 2 (31:32):

Talk about a commitment. <laugh> yeah. It’s a, it’s generational in the old country. That’s a new thing for this area. What made you want to do that?

Speaker 1 (31:42):

<laugh> you know, the fact that we

Speaker 2 (31:44):

Went to Portugal. Yeah. We fell in love. Right?

Speaker 1 (31:48):

Well, I fell in love with you way before that. No, I mean, we filling. Okay. Okay. With,

Speaker 2 (31:53):

With port,

Speaker 1 (31:55):

It was, it was, uh, you know, that’s kind of how I’ve evolved. Different wines that we make is we’ll have a great trip somewhere. We get a chance to talk with the winemakers and we see behind the scenes what they’re doing. And that’s when I do the experimenting that I was talking about and coming back from Portugal, I just thought, I wonder if I could find Portuguese grapes in Eastern Washington. And I found this really great little vineyard called lonesome Springs ranch. And they had, uh, Toga national Suza and tink, three of the primary Portuguese grapes. And they were older vine. They were planted in 1994. And so I pick those each year and I bring it in and I make my own Brandy with, um, JP trodden. Who’s in the Maltby facility that we’ve got and they make incredible bourbon. I mean, some of the best bourbon I’ve ever tasted.

Speaker 1 (32:44):

And, uh, so they allow me to bring nine barrels of wine, red wine over in the summer. And we fill there still, and we distill it down to first run 120 proof and Brandy, and it it’s raw Brandy, so it doesn’t have any color. And really it, it does have a flavor, but, uh, it it’s kinda like ever clear flavor <laugh> yeah, its and uh, and then you end up with this thing called ARA dente, which is what they Portuguese call it. And then I put it through a second still. So it ends up at between 160 and 180 proof. And you add that to the fermenting red wine and that’s how you make port

Speaker 3 (33:25):

Jam sellers practically glows with love John and Peggy pour into the space. Their Karen devotion extends far past the wine to the land, their family, their employees, and their legacy. What role does passion play for you and what would you like to leave as a lasting memory or lasting feeling for

Speaker 1 (33:49):

Kids? Yeah, I mean, honestly I think for us, um, our boys, young men have turned out to be just great human beings and I don’t think there’s anything more I could leave this world that would be better.

Speaker 2 (34:05):

Yeah. I do want to provide a positive environment and I sh and to offer guidance and personal and professional growth for some of our employees, it has been something that I came, it came late to me. Um, I was a stay-at-home mom for a lot of years and didn’t know that I could do what I do. I just didn’t know. And as I found, uh, I have a really wonderful friend who we were just talking about some issue years ago and she goes, you guys, we’re smart people. We can figure this out. And so I think that often and try and convey that to all of these wonderful kind, thoughtful, smart people around me and just help them gain confidence and sure. Footing in this world.

Speaker 1 (35:03):

And I think with the winery where I see it going in the future is we’re not getting bigger. Uh I’ve you know, we, we’ve been making seven to 8,000 cases of wine now for the last six years and I could easily get bigger. Uh, I get opportunities every year for new fruit, uh, some of the best fruit in the state. And I have to turn it down because in order to do these passion projects and I love that you call ’em that, uh, you, you can’t be in distribution. You can’t be in the rat race of the wine world where you’re just trying to get stuff into, you know, the stores and into restaurants. We sell 98% of our wine through our wine club and through being open on the weekends and our event business. So, um, that’s a real luxury because it gives me the chance to decide, I wanna buy clay M for us from Italy and ferment ganache in there.

Speaker 1 (35:59):

Like I saw in Spain when we were there. Um, I can do that. And you know, it’s a small lot and it’s super special. And the wine club gets to enjoy that with us. And, uh, I, my body, uh, concrete egg last year. And, uh, it’s so funny because, you know, there was a big push about probably 10 years ago, uh, in the industry for people to go back to concrete and all these concrete eggs were coming out and it was like everybody was doing it. And I thought, I just don’t want to do the same thing everybody’s doing. And, but then I kept tasting these wines and going well, that’s pretty good. And so I finally said last year, okay, I’m gonna break down and get a concrete egg. And I did, and I was gonna put Sauvignon Blanc in it, but I ended up tasting at Maryvale down in Napa valley, the winemaker there said, have you ever tasted Chardonnay in a concrete egg? And I said, no. And I tasted. And I said, okay, you changed my program. I’m going Chardonnay. So I’m just about to bottle my first concrete Chardonnay. And it’s really delicious. So those are the kinds of things I can do because we’re staying small and well.

Speaker 2 (37:09):

And the other advantage to stay in small is that we, we really get to know the end user. And that is what we like. That’s how we want to be conducting our business.

Speaker 3 (37:22):

John and Peggy have a robust wine club and are committed to philanthropy.

Speaker 1 (37:27):

We get asked a lot to donate and it’s a privilege. I mean, what an incredible thing to have a product that people want to use to raise money mm-hmm <affirmative> to support what is so important in their community. And for us, we, we kind of looked at each other and said, you know what? We need to turn this into a way to have JM sellers give to communities. We wouldn’t even know about the mitochondrial research Guild out of children’s hospital is our big contribution. And we’ve been working with them. This will be our 20th year. Wow. Yeah. It’s hard to believe. And they, they are just an incredible group of people who have supported research in children’s hospital on mitochondrial disease, and they are solving problems. I mean, I’m seeing children through that 20 years that were before this group diagnosed as not living into their teenage years and they’re graduating from college and going on and working. And it’s just so, so humbling. It’s really awesome.

Speaker 3 (38:33):

A big thank you to Peggy and John Biglow for their generous tour of the beautiful space inspired design is brought to you by the Seattle design center. The show is produced by large media. You can find them@larjmedia.com special thanks to mechi Suzuki, Lisa Willis and Kimmy design for bringing this podcast to life for more head to Seattle design center.com, where you can subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on social media. Next time on inspired design. Jim Olson of Olson Konig takes us through his beautiful cabin in long branch.

Speaker 9 (39:15):

My whole philosophy of an architect is integrating life with nature.

Renee Erickson & Jeremy Price | Fabulously Funky

Renee Erickson & Jeremy Price | Fabulously Funky

In this episode of Inspired Design, we head to The Walrus and the Carpenter in Ballard to meet up with James Beard Award winning chef and author Renee Erickson, and her business partner, co-founder, and designer of Sea Creatures, Jeremy Price. This restaurant was their first joint endeavor over 12 years ago and gifts them with sentimental and insightful memories. We learn how they have honed their creative process to give guests the ultimate setting for a memorable meal.

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Behind the scenes

EPISODE’S LOCATION

The Walrus & Carpenter

Values

Intent on creating a fun, lively, and approachable oyster bar in their back yard — a neighborhood place where the very best in food and drink would be served in a cozy, welcoming setting — friends Renee Erickson, Jeremy Price, and Chad Dale began work on The Walrus and Carpenter in the winter of 2009.

The Barnacle

SEE MORE OF SEA CREATURES ESTABLISHMENTS

Sea Creatures

Sea Creatures is a family of restaurants, locally owned and operated by James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef Renee Erickson and partners.

SEE ALL OF THE PRICE ERICKSON PROJECTS

Price Erickson Interior Design

Price Erickson is an established interior design firm with over 15 years experience in residential and commercial interior design. Price Erickson is pleased to offer interior design and project management services to select clients.

Principals: Jeremy Price, Renee Erickson

Inquiries: info@priceerickson.com

RENEE ERICKSON’S BOOKS

Renee’s newest book – Getaway: food & drinks to transport you

Renee’s Books

Episode Transcript

Speaker 1 (00:00): 

So I love being in restaurants. I love going to restaurants. I love cooking, but I think even more so I love restaurants. 

Speaker 2 (00:09): 

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. We sit down with chef author and restaurant tour, Renee Erickson and her longtime business partner and interior design specialist, Jeremy Price. Hello. 

Speaker 3 (00:29): 

Hi, welcome. Thank 

Speaker 2 (00:30): 

You. I’m Gina, Gina 

Speaker 4 (00:31): 

And Jeremy. 

Speaker 2 (00:32): 

Nice to meet you 

Speaker 1 (00:33): 

Renee. Nice to meet you. 

Speaker 2 (00:35): 

Renee and Jeremy met years ago when Renee was looking to bring spirits into her first restaurant boat street cafe and hired Jeremy and his dad to renovate the bar. You may remember boat street cafe originally located the very bottom of queen and hill kind of across from this martini bar called teeny bigs, which is gone now, but maybe that gives you a good reference. It was quintessential Renee at first, a little unassuming, but then you entered into this Oasis and it was so cute and decorated. It just popped. Renee now owns 13 unique restaurant spaces in Seattle, and we caught up with her and Jeremy in front of the iconic walrus and the carpenter. It’s their first joint endeavor founded in 2010. The restaurant is housed in a large brick structure. 

Speaker 4 (01:25): 

This is the Coltran building, uh, in Ballard here in Seattle. 

Speaker 2 (01:29): 

Uh, originally a Marine supply business over a century old 

Speaker 4 (01:32): 

We’re kind of in the front area, the building here where all the casting happened. And if we could get in these spaces over here, you’d see the old, like gantry where they would, um, you know, the crucible of like Moton metal would get poured in the form. So it was like very much like a working Marine space. Um, and originally when they reached out to Renee to kind of get us to come into the building to do a restaurant, they like imagined us taking all of it. Um, and yeah. <laugh> oh, you laugh about that. Yeah. I mean, it would’ve been like a 200 seat restaurant. It would’ve just been a crazy, uh, which is harder in Seattle, particularly like in a neighborhood like Ballard, which is a little quieter, but yeah, so, uh, what used to be the loading dock for that Marine castings? Um, space is now where Walton carpenter. So we just kind of took the tiny little back half. So if we head down this hallway, we’ll, we’ll find our way there. That’s 

Speaker 2 (02:17): 

Cool. Yeah. When you first walk through the door, you’re greeted by a long hallway that runs the length of the building about a half a block long. Yeah. And if 

Speaker 4 (02:26): 

We keep heading back, there’s these fun, uh, painted wood molds. So when we were talking about, um, this being a Marine casting, silly, they saved all the old wood parts and they’ve kind of made like a little decor wall ahead of us here. 

Speaker 2 (02:41): 

The building held nearly a century of history before becoming home to some of Seattle’s top restaurants, Renee and Jeremy took us through some of that history from the unusual architecture and mixed material walls to documents from the 1940s cold shoots and phone books and even bullet holes. 

Speaker 1 (02:59): 

Yeah. The space itself, when we first looked had like this cliff off the back, there was like a, like a where you could drive a truck up to 

Speaker 4 (03:07): 

Loading dock. So, so, 

Speaker 1 (03:08): 

And you going towards the Walworth and the yeah, yeah, yeah. And I remember the fir when they were taking the wall apart, they found like papers from like the forties, like talking about the war and everything that they had, like used as insulation or whatever. I don’t know, is this building’s nuts, like remember in the basement yeah. Where they had, like they had, there were these like coal shoots, I think, on the street, um, that they had filled with phone books, which I think is hysterical. Cuz do phone books exist anymore? Um, no. Right. I don’t think so, but they would shoot guns at this. And so it was all like just exploded with bullet holes everywhere and it like water on the floor. Like it was definitely not a place where you’re like, this seems like a great place for a restaurant, need 

Speaker 2 (03:50): 

A dime. If you wanna see exactly what we’re talking about. Head to the Seattle design center website on the inspired design podcast page, and you’ll get behind the scenes images and be able to see all the little details that we cover. I notice a lot of mixed materials throughout the hallway. You’ve got brick in the entryway and then some cement was this very different when you started the process, 

Speaker 4 (04:15): 

It was, it was all open. And so I think to, um, demise the space, they had to put this drywall in, which is like a burn wall. So it’s a fire thing. So we ended up with, um, you know, this drywall, but in other instances where we didn’t need the burn wall for fire safety, it’s just the exposed concrete or the original brick or what have you. But yeah, these are all, I mean, I couldn’t tell you what they all are for do, but these were all molds that were used for casting. It was kind 

Speaker 2 (04:41): 

Of fun. And you chose to keep these 

Speaker 4 (04:43): 

Just yeah. Yeah. I mean, we, it was really the, um, the building architect, which is Graham Baba that I think kind of really saw what an opportunity, all these cool little things were to be the core. Yeah. 

Speaker 2 (04:54): 

We came to a landing between Walworth and the carpenter and 

Speaker 4 (04:57): 

Barnacle and we’re standing on, um, card decking, uh, which used to have cement over it. Um, and that was roto hammered off to reveal the card decking, which is kind of a fun thing. So these are like, you know, floors that you could drive a car on, like, you know, properly thick, like wooden floors. I dunno. Just kind of a cool thing. And those, uh, carding extends into barnacle. You can kind of see it. And we used to have that in walrus for like maybe the first three or four years. Um, but because of the restaurant being so busy, the Gus between the boards started to really open up and like women wearing heels would get stuck and stuff. And so like, we were like out the water. Yeah. Oyster 

Speaker 1 (05:33): 

Made. 

Speaker 4 (05:33): 

Yeah, it was really cool cuz underneath us is, um, some mechanical spaces and storage spaces, uh, for the restaurants. And so like the light from those spaces would shine through the floor, the old wood floor. And it was, it was cool. But unfortunately, yeah, it was a safety thing and a sanitary thing where we had to tile over the decking and, and walrus. 

Speaker 2 (05:50): 

Anyway, as we head into the restaurant, Renee tells us about her original inspiration to open a little oyster bar in the back of the building. 

Speaker 1 (05:57): 

I used to have boat street cafe and Chad Dale, our, our other partner, um, started coming to boat street. He was very persistent and, and pestering to get me interested in, into a space. And fortunately like Jeremy and I worked together as well. And um, he had at one point mention like if I were to ever do anything else that he would wanna partner with us. So, or with me. And so that kind of happened. But as we were looking at this space, I remember walking in, I think off of Ballard, there was like a plywood door basically. And like, like I laughed in the front earlier. Like I laughed at the idea that like they’re envisioning this to be the kitchen for the restaurant over there. And, and, and I was just like a no way it’s enormous. And you know, if you know our spaces now you’ll know that like having a like south or Western facing experience is much more interesting to me than like this dark kind of cave, like experience of a restaurant, which is very common in Seattle, not for us. So I kind of jokingly said to Chad, um, like if you let us have the back kitchen and then give us a patio, I would do it. And I didn’t think anything. I just was like, whatever. I was very afraid also of anything. I had both street, which was 60 seats and it felt big. Obviously the idea of this was ridiculous, but I wanted something small, you know, that we could kind of get our hands around 12 years later, we’re still here, which is lovely. 

Speaker 2 (07:24): 

The space is simple, but it’s not boring. There’s a beautiful chandelier right in the middle. And then these two large mirrors on the far wall that really open the entire space up and the back of the restaurant opens up to the alleyway and it lets in some really pretty natural light, there’s even a window. On the other side that looks into the adjacent restaurant. The energy of the space creates a really nice community feel if you’ve ever been to walrus and the carpenter, the most iconic piece of the decor is that massive chandelier that I just mentioned. Renee tells us the story of how she stumbled upon it on a trip to LA. 

Speaker 1 (08:08): 

The chandelier was fun. I ended up in LA with, uh, Carrie mania who works with us. Who’s one of my best friends. And we were walking around silver lake and went to this antique store. That’s sadly, no longer there. But, um, we went in and went out in the back and we were looking for a light, but not, you know, that wasn’t our, that’s not why we were in LA. And uh, this was in the backyard of this antique store with grass growing up through it. And it was like, you know, kind of just left there. I remember thinking like, oh, it looks like it’s in, you know, underwater a little bit. And so I don’t know. I must have sent y’all a picture mm-hmm 

Speaker 4 (08:40): 

<affirmative> yeah. I think at one time I could have told you who we thought made it. We don’t know for sure, but we think it was an artist, uh, that was working in California who, um, who made Robert. Yeah. Did like a lot of this kind of sculptural sort of stuff in like the sixties, but I mean, to me it like coral, but it is little tubes of steel that are all kind of welded together in this. Like branchy like tangled sort of Brae. And it was probably originally bright white, but you know, it’s um, probably like 50, 60 years old now. And so like what was white is now kind of, you know, gray and brown into like a, a wonderful, like kind of patina and some of the rust is kind of coming through, um, that original navel. So just is a cool kind of like, yeah, I don’t know. It’s um, I haven’t seen really anything like it anywhere, so that feels kind of fun to yeah. Hear lot. 

Speaker 1 (09:27): 

Yeah. It was, I mean, for sure when we decided, well then of course, like when we, I went to finally like, go ask if it was, you know, available and someone like that day or the day before had put a deposit on it. So I was like, of course. And so I asked, I was like, well, how much time do they have? And so come the end of the month, the person that was gonna buy it, didn’t buy it. So they created it up and sent it to us and we got it, which was great. Um, but yeah, it showed up like kind of in this like, okay, crate. That was a little bit, I don’t know. He was probably happy to get rid of it, but <laugh> um, we, we ended up sticking it in the back of my, it must have been my brother’s truck and took it to the brown bear car wash to get it cleaned before we took it to get, um, rewired. Cuz it, I don’t even know if it had wiring. It might have had just cut wiring in it. But yeah, it’s the best. I love that thing. 

Speaker 2 (10:23): 

Walworth’s in the carpenter holds so many personal touches for both Renee and Jeremy commission drawings from her friend and former teacher, Jeffrey Mitchell. Yeah. 

Speaker 1 (10:31): 

He’s spectacular. I adore him. They’re also, I think just so whimsical and, and layered and lovely. 

Speaker 4 (10:38): 

He like will send you like, here’s some drafts. Here’s what I’m thinking. Here’s what I’m working on. He sends you the drafts and the drafts are like absolutely perfect. 

Speaker 2 (10:45): 

He’s like salvage doors from a community space. Her brother was working on, he 

Speaker 1 (10:48): 

Worked at, um, the city of Renton. There are five doors originally and they were the entrance to this big, like community space. And I mean, they’re insane, massive doors. And for whatever reason, they decided they needed new doors. 

Speaker 2 (11:01): 

The brick lane was done by her father at age 88. He still helps with brick lane to this day. 

Speaker 1 (11:08): 

I just made him license brick for me yesterday. 

Speaker 2 (11:11): 

Even the Offwhite walls are a specific color based on a patch of fur from Renee’s beloved dog Jeffrey 

Speaker 4 (11:18): 

When Renee was, um, painting the second boat street or maybe it was the first, but anyway, like wasn’t satisfied with like the colors that were available. Like she really wanted this like warm, like sort of rich white color, sort of that glowy candle. Lighty kind of like white color and just couldn’t like find anything she was satisfied with. And so she took Jeffrey, the dog into the paint store and like had it, had his fur matched. And we used, he had 

Speaker 1 (11:44): 

These patches on his shoulders that were this like golden white. Yeah. And so I was like, I want that white. Yeah. 

Speaker 4 (11:51): 

Yeah. And so all the restaurants where you see this white color, this creamy white color, it’s Jeffrey White and we’ve used it everywhere, I think, except for westward 

Speaker 2 (11:58): 

Between the building history, the funky chandelier and the salvage doors. The phrase that comes to mind is imperfect perfectness. 

Speaker 4 (12:07): 

We’re attracted to kind of materials and spaces that feel like a little lived in. Um, I think that those spaces for us feel a little bit more alive as a result. Y you know, I think it’s like when you’re at a restaurant in like a mall or an airport, that’s, you know, those spaces can feel a little antiseptic cuz there isn’t isn’t that. So it’s, and it, and it’s also like the, um, having like the ingredients on display, I think, and having like, you know, the people that are like making your food for you, like visible, like all those kinds of things add more and more layers of like interest and like kind of just make the space feel dynamic in a way that if everything was like perfectly clean, perfectly smooth, you know, all sorted and tucked away, it, I think it would lose some of that energy in some of that life. We always, like, we talk a lot about like, you know, what our grandparents feel comfortable in a place or like, can I bring my dad to that place? And, and this is definitely like one of those places that works that way where like people feel comfortable here. And I think it’s because of all those sorts of things. 

Speaker 1 (13:02): 

Yeah. I mean, walrus feels even now, um, 12 years on like really magical in that way. Like it has this space, you know, it was like perfectly timed, I think in Seattle to have, um, I think a restaurant that felt like this where you’re like, cramed in it’s super loud, you know, the focus is on oysters, which was really uncommon back then. Um, you know, like it’s a little bit like our space too, which I think is what makes it like, you’re kind of like visiting someone’s house versus like a restaurant that’s, um, all about the guest. I mean, we are that, but it’s also like you can’t help, but like being, you know, impacted by your neighbor and you know, the server’s gonna like squeeze in between, you know, to like get stuff. So it’s, you’re kind of pushed in your comfort zone a little bit being here too, which we love. And 

Speaker 2 (13:47): 

It reminded me a lot of little cafes in Europe where everybody eats right next to each other and you have to be 

Speaker 1 (13:54): 

Social. I mean, it’s the only restaurant of ours it’s like that. So I think it’s, you know, it’s, it’s great in that way. I certainly wasn’t planned. It was just like, okay, we’ve got 700 square feet or whatever it is like, yeah, let’s cram as much in here as we can. And you know, like we really wanted the bar and the oysters to be so present when you walked in. So that kind of drove how we, we built everything around that. Basically 

Speaker 4 (14:18): 

This space is really, I think, special to Renee and I both, because it was the first space we created together and it, um, I know she mentioned like her dad and her brother, like working together to lay the brick patio, um, and the whole space, like from Jeffrey, giving us the art or ever had that kind of like community sort of barn raising kind of vibe to it, like my dad and I built the bank cat and we built the, um, that wine cabinet there and we built the prep table that’s in the kitchen. Um, and so, and that we didn’t really get to do that for other restaurants cuz like by that point it’s like we had restaurants and we were like kind of too busy to like be making the things ourselves. And um, so this one is like a, you know, like a real hands on kind of laborer of love in a way that, uh, the other restaurants that we’ve done together didn’t necessarily have the, that same opportunity to be. 

Speaker 4 (15:06): 

Um, so that’s really cool. Yeah. I used to have like crazy, uh, like stress dreams about the banquette collapsing under people like sitting on it like more than once I had this dream where like this banquette that we built, like just broke, just crushed. Yeah. Going, going on 12 ish years. Now it still, yeah. Strong, still hasn’t fallen apart yet. Yeah. Anyway, it’s a really special restaurant and I, yeah, and too, like, um, when we opened this, um, you know, this is a point in our careers where I was the GM for like the first two and a half years. And would be your host like five days a week, like greet everyone at the door. And Renee was, you know, working a station, uh, like we were briefly open for brunch and she was like our brunch chef one way or another. We’ve worked in all the restaurants, but this is I think the restaurant where we also like, I mean, I really worked here for a while, you know, for like years. So, um, it’s got that kind of specialness to it too. Like there’s that kind of a different relationship than we have with some of the other restaurants. 

Speaker 5 (16:07): 

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Speaker 3 (16:39): 

Alright, 

Speaker 2 (16:39): 

So where are walking to 

Speaker 4 (16:40): 

Now? Yeah. So this is barnacle. Um, and this opened in October of 2013, 

Speaker 2 (16:48): 

Barnacle is a thin long bar you walk in and there’s probably seating for eight people. And the shelves behind the butcher block countertops are curved and have all types of spirits. There’s these pendants that hang from the ceiling that are very angular and architectural. And then along the wall on your right hand side, as you’re walking in, it’s just this giant window looking into a hallway. So you kind of feel like you’re in a fishbowl, but with really good cocktails 

Speaker 4 (17:29): 

Between it being a casting Marine castings place, uh, to it becoming barnacle, um, it had a brief kind of like stint as a bike shop. So this was like a bicycle repair area. Um, and it didn’t coffee and coffee. Yeah. And for whatever. Yeah, totally. Yeah. Always <laugh> um, and sadly it didn’t work out, um, with the bike shop, but when they moved out, um, we were able to, um, sign a lease for this kind of little space and it’s become its own. Um, you know, it like people are coming to go to Walmarts typically, but it’s really nice to have this. So like we can send them somewhere to wait where they’re not having to walk in the rain or the cold or the dark. And um, 

Speaker 2 (18:06): 

And it’s just like a little skip hop 

Speaker 4 (18:08): 

Job almost like yeah. Like five steps, but yeah. Um, and it’s, it is super small. It’s kind of, this is, this is it. It’s just one long bar and then a little table, um, the opening crew here kind of jokingly called that little table, the champagne room, but it’s, you know, it’s, it’s so called the champagne should, 

Speaker 6 (18:24): 

Should set the champagne room, take time 

Speaker 4 (18:27): 

Very important. Um, so yeah, just, it’s a really, really sweet little space. And this was, um, you know, I think Renee had had the thought for a while doing kind of like a AVO or a TV type of bar where it’s like a lot of like little can snacks, like fishy things, crackers sort of things that are, um, you know, a lot of times are prepared. Um, and, and we’re just, we were plaing them and serving them, um, and kind of pairing that with a, with what at the time was kind of an eccentric cocktail program that was really just like, based on these, amaros just all these fortified wines and now you see those things, uh, a lot more commonly, but, um, at that time it was kind of a, like a, a weird thing. And we’d have to have that conversation with the guests. Like what, why, why can’t tomorrow? Why can’t 

Speaker 1 (19:10): 

Lots of that? 

Speaker 4 (19:11): 

Why can’t I get a margarita? You know, that kind of a thing. It was like, well, we don’t really do that here, but you know, here’s something you might like instead. And you know, we, yeah, we were really excited to just go crazy with the tile. Um, I was gonna say 

Speaker 2 (19:21): 

Yourself had your time where, you know, you didn’t really the oyster bar thing. Wasn’t cool yet. Yeah. And the, you know, floor to ceiling tile and the craft cocktails. Yeah. Where, where did that inspiration stem from travel, 

Speaker 1 (19:35): 

Travel? All of it. Yeah. Entirely. I would say like every restaurant of ours is somehow connected to travel 

Speaker 2 (19:42): 

Base of it. In light of that, I asked how travel has influenced their projects or certain locations 

Speaker 4 (19:49): 

For both these spaces. Cuz there’s some of the smaller spaces we have. Um, there is a bar and the ma that I think we’ve both been to, but I don’t know if we’ve been there together. Mm. Um, and it’s kind of like fifties, sixties, and they just like left it that way, but it’s really small. And like it, it’s got this like complete clown car kind of like dynamic to it where like the kitchen is somehow like you get to it’s fresh of all. Is that uh, no, it’s not first of all. Um, yeah, I would have to look, but it’s like, they, they literally open cabinet doors, like under a counter and they’re stairs. Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. And then they’re like, you know, to go get your food. And so it is like those kinds of like, just like kooky sort of experiences. 

Speaker 4 (20:29): 

Like we, um, don’t have a ton of that on the west coast, cuz like everything is so new and a lot of times it’s purpose built, like, you know, just knock, knock down and build the, the right thing for the thing. And I don’t think you get as weird of experience. I mean, we also have like, I think kind of tougher codes around that kind of stuff, but like those things are just so special. Like I remember that and that was probably 10 years ago that I was there and I don’t remember really too much else about it. Other than that there was like stairs in a cabinet. I don’t know. I think we really love finding the little spaces that seem like improbable. Like they feel more special. Yeah. And you just see so much more of that in Europe than you do, you know, on the west coast of America. 

Speaker 1 (21:09): 

Yeah. And a lot of, it’s not, um, visually inspired, but like ly, like we end up like whales was, um, I had been spending a more time going to England and, and become, or London, not just mostly London and uh, just the, um, experience around vegetables there was, was becoming something that wasn’t happening here. At least not in Washington where there was, um, the O hotel Linga group that everyone now, you know, has heard of at the time was had I think just one location. And um, you know, there was this like bountiful plethora of, of food that you could, you know, see when you walked in and then it became part of your meal. And so when we opened whales, we that’s how we started was not only, and that, that plus the wood oven was this, um, you know, very vegetable focused and like the meas and plus all the food that was gonna become your meal was basically these like beautiful, you know, ZUS or silver trays or whatever that were in front of you as you walked in. So you could kind of be excited about what was to come. And so like, I think it’s like kind of combination of like visual inspirations and, and also just like weird experiences that you remember or hold onto and want to kind of somehow translate into something here. Yeah. 

Speaker 4 (22:22): 

Yeah. One thing that Renee talks a lot about, at least with, with opening wall risk, is that, um, kind of at that time, like I think she had recently been to nor Albany and to Paris, um, and just had the experience, um, in both locations of oysters being like really accessible and like not fancy, there’s a really sweet little oyster bar that I remember you showing me early on called, uh Wheatie REI mm-hmm <affirmative>, um, which is even smaller than barnacle, I think. Yeah, totally. Um, but it’s like, you know, at that time in Seattle, like to go get oysters, you had to go to a steakhouse or you had to go to like a 400 seat, like tourist restaurant, um, like on the waterfront and there wasn’t really anything in between. Um, and so I think it was like kind of that inspiration from traveling where you’re like, oh, like this doesn’t have to be like a quote unquote fancy food. 

Speaker 4 (23:08): 

You can like have this like delicious thing, which we grow so many of in the Northwest and you can put it in this, like, you know, in a really a bar essentially is what Walmart is, is way more bar than it is a restaurant, put it in that context. And, um, it becomes kind of a new thing and, and hopefully a more accessible thing where like people are having to leave their neighborhood or like, you know, have like, you know, a, a huge, like $50 steak to also like have oysters or whatever it is, you know? So, yeah, 

Speaker 1 (23:34): 

It’s true. Yeah. The, um, we regime was, or is, it’s still open, um, tiny and I still like maybe one day that Seattle would be ready, but, um, you had to buy oysters by the dozen each person. Nope. Like you couldn’t share <laugh> um, you, I know, right. I loved it. Um, there was only white wine or champagne. You could get like a shrimp terrain I think, and then like poached shrimp and it was ridiculous. And the whole place, like, I mean much like walrus, I would say, like, it felt like you were like in a room that like was entirely inspired off of the colors of an oyster shell. Super cool. 

Speaker 2 (24:13): 

It’s not only travel that influences Renee’s design choices, 

Speaker 1 (24:17): 

The back bar at barnacle. I think I was watching Willow Wonka, chaga factory. Yeah. And sent you, or sent you a text if you remember the candy store in Willy Wonka, it’s like, it’s the opposite. Well, it would be like this, you know, it’s like a U shape, but I was like, oh, I think that like kind of crazy candy, you know, mania for a bar would be really fun. So that’s why the, the style or the, you know, the design is sort of inspired off of that room and that it had this like intimacy and tininess and then kind of berserk as well where it’s just, everything’s everywhere 

Speaker 2 (24:50): 

When you get that with the Chandel or the pendants handing over the bar. 

Speaker 4 (24:55): 

Yeah. Those are, um, gel day pendants, um, which is like a, uh, a French sort of task lamp or task pendant from, I think the twenties. Um, these are like new versions of the, I think it’s been in continuous reproduction, like wars aside since the twenties. And these are kind of fun ones because each pendant has kind of two of these articulating, uh, arms, like they’re just like little apparatus, you know, like they’re just fun. And like they have, um, I think a sense of movement to ’em. I mean, obviously like they’re actually kind of like a pain in the butt to reposition and to move around, but just even static. I think that they’ve got kind of like a, I don’t know, a sculptural quality to ’em mm-hmm <affirmative> like, they’re, they’re kind of kinetic 

Speaker 2 (25:33): 

As we sat in the champagne room, Renee and Jeremy told us more about how they met and Renee’s unique opportunity to pivot from art studies to running a restaurant. 

Speaker 4 (25:44): 

Renee was looking to bring spirits to both street. Cause originally it was wine and beer. So she wanted a bar and she wanted to change some of the seeding to like banquette type seating. And um, so she hired me and my dad to do that work. And, um, after that I started working, um, at bore. Jeremy 

Speaker 1 (26:01): 

Is the best, best boy ever is what he 

Speaker 4 (26:04): 

Claims to do. Yeah. I mean, I’m now retired, but I was Seattle’s easily. Seattle’s best boy for best, best boy for about two and a half years. Love that. Yeah. No, 

Speaker 1 (26:12): 

I don’t 

Speaker 4 (26:13): 

Know us now. Retired. Yeah. Now retired. Yeah. 

Speaker 1 (26:14): 

You hung up your, uh, your clogs. Yeah. 

Speaker 4 (26:17): 

<laugh> um, so yeah, working at working at the restaurant, we got to be, I think friends, um, just through working together and kind of that, that connection. Yeah. 

Speaker 2 (26:25): 

And Renee, do you wanna tell me kind of your history, you were going to art school and then kind of fell into this world or? 

Speaker 1 (26:35): 

Yeah, so I was a student at university of Washington in the, um, department of art. I have a painting degree, um, and printmaking and I needed a job. <laugh> like all college students do or should. And, uh, I drove by the first boat street and um, thought it was really charming and I needed a job. So I like walked in and um, this part of the story, I always kind of laugh. I’m like I gave him my resume, which was essentially my phone number. I got a job as a server and started waiting tables there. And Susan who started it had a full-time job in Tacoma. And I quickly realized that serving was maybe not what I was meant to do. And so I asked if I could bake or do anything else. And so I started baking in the morning before I would go to school. 

Speaker 1 (27:24): 

And eventually just like, because of the, um, opportunity that was there because, um, a lot of times Susan was managing from afar. There was, you know, stuff just had to get done. So you were able to do things that wouldn’t have been probably what was normally given to someone like me. So over the course of a couple, like three years, I ended up helping, you know, just like cook dinner or service and went to school in Rome, which has, you know, kind of been an inspiration for a lot of the other things we’ve created and came back and, um, worked again for Susan. And at that point she was wanting to sell boat street and I had at this point graduated and was, I thought I would be a, um, art teacher, cuz I grew up with the, you know, the best people that I knew growing up were art teachers. 

Speaker 1 (28:09): 

So, um, I thought that’s what I would do. And I had applied to graduate school. Um, and I wanted to go to temple university in Penn, in uh, Pennsylvania, because they had a program in Rome. I basically just wanted to go back to Rome, um, and still to this day. And uh, <laugh> I got wait listed, I didn’t get accepted. And I was basically like Susan was trying to convince me to buy boat street. I was 20, I would’ve been 25 at the time. And I was just like, you know, what am I doing? And I basically asked my family and some close friends what I should do. And they were all like, you should buy the restaurant. So I got a loan from my folks and um, bought a restaurant and that was 25 years ago. Um, <laugh> 

Speaker 4 (28:56): 

When I first started working for an a at boat street. Um, I had a day job at a biotech company. Um, and wasn’t super happy there. Um, it was like, it was, um, maybe a couple years after college and I had that experience where like everyone was working with were in like really different chapters of their lives, you know, like 20 years older than me married kids. And there wasn’t really like a community there. Um, and I, you know, I’d always been interested in and certainly furniture making, um, is something I just grew up with my dad. Um, like our houses were always torn apart. There was always like projects going on, like always remodeling everything. Um, so that was like in me somewhere. And I think when, like I started like, oh man, this is like, not what I want to keep doing. Like I started to kind of revisit some of those like hobbies as like, well maybe this could be a thing. 

Speaker 4 (29:46): 

And um, I went to school and got an anthropology degree, so it wasn’t like super applicable to, uh, to careers. Uh, so I, yeah, same with the painting degree. Yeah. So I started, uh, I started, um, going to community college to do, uh, like math, prereq, prereq, so I could, uh, apply to grad school for architecture. Cause I was like, okay, this is like something I know I like. And um, you know, maybe that could be, um, you know, a path for me and kind of at that same time as when, um, Chad started talking to Renee about these spaces. Yeah. Um, and Renee was like, Hey, I know like, I dunno if you’re interested. Um, but you know, this might be a thing we’re doing like, and I was like, oh, this is amazing. And like, I think right away, like I started drawing, uh, like layouts and kind of all that stuff and was sending ’em to Renee. 

Speaker 4 (30:34): 

And, um, it just felt like at that time, like a real, like kind of like fast track to like, oh man, I get to like draw stuff and like design it and build it. And like people get to use it and enjoy it. And like, I don’t have to go to school or like take on a bunch, take on a bunch more debt. We’ve probably designed like one or two commercial spaces a year for like the last, like 10, 12 years. And so it’s, um, I’ve got to do kind of that design work that I wanted to do with it, like in a, you know, not a non-traditional path, you know? Yeah. So it’s been cool. 

Speaker 1 (31:05): 

I was gonna say, we always kind of joke that when, you know, when people ask us about the design part, that we are like our, we design for ourselves. So we’re like the best client ever <laugh> <laugh> cause we are like, we know exactly what we want <laugh> and so much, I mean, it’s luxurious, you know, like I think that’s the kind of decadence of, of being able to do that. 

Speaker 2 (31:26): 

And each of them having their own personality and ideas. Right. Mm-hmm <affirmative>, mm-hmm <affirmative> which one you think personally speaks to, you know, you individually Renee, if you wanna, 

Speaker 1 (31:37): 

Oh man. You had pick pick the 

Speaker 2 (31:39): 

It’s like pick your favorite child 

Speaker 1 (31:41): 

<laugh> yeah. I mean, I think I would end up picking here just I think, cuz there’s so much, I like Jeremy kind of spoke to like there’s more of us here than any of them. I think our ideas are, and our aesthetic is everywhere, but like our, you know, our grit and everything ends up being here cuz we, you know, built it from ground up and, and built it like while being open too, which I think is, you know, there’s um, clearly the restaurant industry is, is, is best for, um, the younger crowd to survive the growing days. And so like the older you get, you’re not, you know, you’re not the, you’re not the team that like is standing at the end of the night anymore. So there’s, there’s camaraderie to it. That’s really wonderful. And so I think not having that in the other spaces, to the extent that we had here changes it, you know, like the, the feeling is different. 

Speaker 1 (32:32): 

I mean we love them all. I think we have, we know we get asked all the time, like what’s your favorite? And I think we say, I would say largely, foodwise like, whale’s my favorite, but it’s because it’s an experience that is kind of more food that I wanna eat all every day be to is obviously like ultra fabulous and decadent, but like not something you wanna eat every day or at least not anymore. Um, yeah. I mean Wilmas is, um, this like speaking of like wild spaces to design too, Jeremy can talk more about that, but um, kind of the realization of my love of Roman food for so long and not really having an outlet to serve it, cuz we, we try pretty hard to keep really clear boundaries on uh, <laugh> on what the food can be within the restaurants otherwise, you know, we, because we really want them to, to stand on their own. 

Speaker 1 (33:23): 

And if given it’s sort of like the grocery store analogy earlier, like chefs will be like, yeah, I want that. And I want that and I want that, you know? And so like without having the boundaries, you know, like you, everyone would end up having like asparagus with whatever, you know, and that’s not a good example, but like, you know, like everyone would want salsa, matcha on everything in all the restaurants, you know, or whatever chili crisp, the thing that’s like everyone’s in love with right now. So, um, some places that’s okay. Some places it’s not. So having that kind of boundary is really helpful. 

Speaker 4 (33:54): 

I would have a really similar answer to Renee as like around favorite. It’s like, what’s the occasion like, oh, like this restaurant’s perfect for this kind of a thing. Or like, this is the night I want to have right now. I’ll go here and here. Um, you know, so it’s, it’s kind of all over the place. Like whatever one I’m eating at is probably like my favorite in that moment, you know? Um, I also think too, cuz it’s like happened over, um, uh, a span of time where they kind of like, they marked time in a way for me a little bit, like in my own life, like each, uh, restaurant is sort of like a sign post for like I yep. I remember when that was being billed and this was what was going on in my life. Like I don’t necessarily have that as much with like music, but for sure with like the spaces that we have together, like that’s like, it’s like a time telling kind of a thing. And so sure. Uh, I know, I guess that doesn’t have anything to do with like what one, it’s my favorite, but like they’re all like, I don’t know. They’re like, they’re like they’re each of their time and of like what we were excited about and interested in, in that time. And so each is sort of special in that way. They become like a little memento 

Speaker 2 (34:54): 

As we chatted. I learned something about oysters. I didn’t know before 

Speaker 1 (34:58): 

The spring is like, like prime oyster season, cuz they’re, you know, the lights come back and the oysters are feeding again after like all winter just trying to stay alive. And so they’re getting plump and juicy and so by summer they’re gonna be so plum and juicy that they’re gonna be spa and ready to, you know, they’re just very, very different. So I’m almost hard. I mean, I eat it well rest a lot in the summer, but I, I don’t eat oysters unless they’re really incredibly amazing. But most of the time they’re just so Milky and creamy that they’re kind of 

Speaker 4 (35:28): 

Yeah. Or like real thin, like, you know, they can be they’ve spawn 

Speaker 1 (35:31): 

Then 

Speaker 4 (35:31): 

They are like, they’re not Milky and creamy. They, they can be, uh, 

Speaker 1 (35:34): 

You can like see right through them. Yeah. <laugh> it’s like, 

Speaker 4 (35:36): 

Like ghost, ghost oysters. Yeah. 

Speaker 1 (35:38): 

Yeah. We don’t want anyone to stop coming, but, and obviously all the oyster farmers want you to keep eating em all year round, but it is one of those, you know, like you like slap your forehead where you’re like, why on earth are people not eating so many oysters in the winter? Yeah. Blow my mind. Yeah. 

Speaker 2 (35:52): 

With 13 distinctive spaces, I wanted to know a little more about their design process. 

Speaker 4 (35:59): 

We’ve I think approached it in both ways where it’s like, there’s a space that we really love and it’s like, what can we do here? Mm-hmm <affirmative> um, and we’ve also approached it, like we’ve got this great idea, where can it working? Can it live? Um, I think we’re most successful or at least I’m happiest with the outcome when we’re approaching it. Like with a idea, um, in search of the space, uh, rather than the other way around. Not that, not that you know, I don’t know. That’s just my preference. Mm-hmm <affirmative> um, early on we had been like kind of keeping a mental file of like, oh, this would be cool somewhere. Like this idea, like this material or this kind of approach to service, like all the like little pieces that kind of come together to actually like make a restaurant. I think we would, I think we’re always kind of like thinking of those things and like telling each other, like this would be cool or I saw this thing or like, here’s a picture I took somewhere like, oh, I was at this place last night and they did this thing. 

Speaker 4 (36:51): 

Um, and I don’t know, like eventually like that kind of aggregates into something that you can kind of get your arm around and feels like a complete idea. Um, I really like to have that and then find a spot that, that, um, yeah. Yeah. 

Speaker 1 (37:06): 

I like that lot there. I mean, to have to like, I, I, it goes back to being like our own perfect client is like, if we have this vision, it makes it so much easier versus having a thing that we have to find a vision to put in it, you know, like that’s, that’s kind of feels certainly less exciting and I think, um, maybe less authentic too. 

Speaker 4 (37:29): 

Yeah. And I think as, as we’ve done more of this, I think that process of, um, collecting all those little ideas that like will someday add up to something, um, has become like a little bit more formalized where it’s like, I don’t know. I think like early days we would go on trips and it would be like happenstance that we would see something. And now it’s like, we’re gonna go on a trip cuz we need to be inspired. And we don’t know like what 

Speaker 2 (37:52): 

It is that work never ends for Jeremy and Renee. For us, they’re just about to open a new restaurant Southlake union inspired by a friend of Renee’s Cameron who sadly passed away during the pandemic. He was a fan of fried chicken and rock and roll and his energy inspired, the design and food and they will fund a scholarship in his name. 

Speaker 1 (38:12): 

He, um, was from the south and was this like, you know, larger than life kind of human. And he had a popup called king Leroy. And, and so we ended up, I think, I don’t know, at some point I just mentioned it to you and all the like, you know, design details have come from that. But I think to have this person and also, um, a way for us to feel motivated to do it, some of his loves will be in there. And then also kind of like some ridiculous things. And I think we both are charmed by and wanna have around. 

Speaker 4 (38:42): 

There’s so much like nostalgia going into the space king Leroy, like Seattle kind of nostalgia stuff that like, uh, it feels like, you know, like the shoot box shoebox, like, and the like top shelf of my closet of like all the stuff that’s like from like 20 or 30 years ago that like doesn’t quite fit in any of this world. Like this world of like, you know, like white and blue and like, like sophistication in a way this gets to be like our like uncles creepy basement, totally like, uh, kind of in the best way and the best like kind of like things that we haven’t got to do anywhere else. Cute box. Yeah, yeah. 

Speaker 1 (39:17): 

Box anywhere, but there, which is great. Yeah. 

Speaker 4 (39:19): 

And to see that glitter glitter for days. So yeah. 

Speaker 1 (39:21): 

You had like glitter, glitter, banquettes, like the glitter that was on the like sixties gay boat, like glitter, 

Speaker 4 (39:27): 

Like your bass fishing. Yeah. Like, and like the shiny, like it’s that. Yeah. 

Speaker 1 (39:31): 

And all the like beer memorbilia and posters and where is this gonna be? Lots of 

Speaker 4 (39:37): 

Summer fan Leno. Um, so Southlake union, 

Speaker 1 (39:40): 

We just hope to, like, we need a lot of like peanut shells and maybe some cigarette buts on the floor. Yeah. For sure. To kind of fast forward it in its time of, of existence. But 

Speaker 4 (39:55): 

Yeah, but that one, um, kind of to bring it back to the, the question like that one. Um, and I think this is what Renee was getting at, is that that’s what that space wants to be. I think for that neighborhood and for the people that are there, that one feels like it’s less Renee and Jeremy really need like a wings bar. <laugh> like, I, uh, but it does like, there’s not anything like that in that area. Like it’s, I don’t know. I think it’s like adding something to what’s happening there. And like, I think once like, like Renee was able to kind of like define like this menu and this like direction, like through her friend, Cameron was like, oh yeah, this is what it, what it should be. And so that’s been pretty different for us. That’s not how it normally goes. Normally it goes like, wouldn’t it be cool if Seattle had, you know, blank 

Speaker 1 (40:39): 

Yeah. To like have something that I, you know, clearly care about to be the center and the focal point of it all and to feel really good about why it’s being opened. It’ll be good. 

Speaker 2 (40:53): 

Thank you. Renee Erickson and Jeremy Price for shining a candid spotlight on your fame space while we’re in the carpenter and barnacle inspire design is brought to you by the Seattle design center. The show is produced by large media. You can find them@larjmedia.com special thanks to mechi Suzuki, Lisa Willis and Kimmy design for bringing this podcast to life for more head to Seattle design center.com, where you can subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on social media. Next time on inspired design, we head to Woodenville and sit down with John and Peggy Bigelow at their famed winery, JM sellers. 

Speaker 7 (41:41): 

It’s really fun to have an environment like this, where people can walk around with their glass of wine and really explore things that maybe they haven’t seen before. 

Susan Marinello | Skyline Sanctuary

Susan Marinello | Skyline Sanctuary

In this episode of Inspired Design, follow Susan Marinello up forty stories to the top of McKenzie Tower where you are met with a full 360-degree panoramic view of the beautiful Seattle Skyline. From a conference room designed with an acoustic trade trick to specific seating height to maximize spatial awareness, every inch of this space was designed to make you feel like you are on top of the world. Learn about the design decisions that make this rooftop lounge more than just a pretty view.

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Behind the scenes

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Mckenzie Towers

WORK WITH SUSAN MARINELLO

Susan Marinello Interiors

VALUES

Susan Marinello Interiors is a multi-disciplinary interior design firm based in Seattle, Washington. Established in 1996, the award-winning firm provides complete interior design, furniture design and procurement for residential, hospitality and commercial projects. Our philosophy has always been to find and create a cohesive marriage between architecture and interior while respecting location, sense of place and natural views.

With a wide array of projects in locations throughout the US, our work is driven by the guiding principle that an interior must engage in the context of architecture, landscape and above all, enhance the human spirit. Since its inception, the firm has garnered acclaim for its signature approach to creating interiors as natural backdrops for the people occupying the space.

Episode Transcript

Speaker 1 (00:00): 

Rewind. This is maybe 1998. I had been asked to renovate the center court women’s restroom at Bellevue square shopping center in downtown Bellevue. And this was an exciting space for me, uh, because it’s a large restroom and there’s a, uh, women’s lounge. And so new mothers bring their babies in there to, you know, to breastfeed or to just take a moment. I really took this project seriously, and I thought about the colors and materials and the finishes, and we got all done. The project what’s constructed. It opened up probably a month or six weeks after it had opened. And I was walking down the hall and there was a mother and little girl in front and the little girl, she must have been six years old. She looked up to her mom and said, mommy, are we going to the pretty bathroom? And the mom said, yes, we’re, we’re going to the pretty bathroom. And I was behind her. And I was so touched by the fact that this six year old was excited. We reach everyone no matter what age. So, you know, to the six year old to the 96 year old, it matters. And we can move people by the work that we do. And that’s a, that’s a responsibility and a privilege all at the same time. 

Speaker 2 (01:23): 

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. Hi, 

Speaker 1 (01:31): 

Well, hi, how you doing? Welcome to McKenzie 

Speaker 2 (01:35): 

This week, interior designer, Susan Marinello takes us through her team’s latest project. The McKenzie tower in the heart of downtown Seattle. This is unbelievable. We take a high speed elevator up 40 floors and meet Susan at the top. How 

Speaker 1 (01:51): 

Did you like that? 

Speaker 2 (01:52): 

I could feel it in my 

Speaker 1 (01:53): 

Ears. I know. In fact, my ears are still ringing too. Yeah, yeah. Um, yes. And here we are. I was hoping the sun would be out because it is the most divine sunset. I think in downtown Seattle, it’s a beautiful place to sort of perch and understand all that’s happened in our beautiful city in the last, um, five, seven years 

Speaker 2 (02:15): 

From the elevators. We walked through the common area and into this board room or the EOPS room 

Speaker 1 (02:22): 

It’s, um, rich with books and art. You can see 

Speaker 2 (02:28): 

The, because of the shape of the building. It is not a perfectly square room. It kind of comes to a point, uh, as you enter, there are bookshelves along the left hand side and a large conference table with these beautiful chairs surrounding it. And then there is this breathtaking glass sculpture hanging from the ceiling. You 

Speaker 1 (02:50): 

Can see there’s a beautiful piece by Anne Gardner, who I love. 

Speaker 2 (02:54): 

Uh, they almost looked like bubbles. 

Speaker 1 (02:57): 

It’s large blown glass. And, um, even though it’s multiple pieces, mm-hmm, <affirmative> she arranges them and chooses the shapes and, uh, installs it. 

Speaker 2 (03:09): 

Right. So I quickly counted there’s eight. Yes. Eight pieces. Yes. All varying sizes from a large basketball to probably 

Speaker 1 (03:17): 

To a massive watermelon to yes. 

Speaker 2 (03:21): 

To a, a medium sized dog. Yeah. <laugh> 

Speaker 1 (03:24): 

Yes, exactly, exactly. 

Speaker 2 (03:26): 

And how did you choose the color cuz 

Speaker 1 (03:28): 

It’s yeah, we wanted it to reflect the sky. So the color is a reflection of the Seattle sky nine months out of the year. And even when it’s brilliantly sunny, it, it works with the reflection of the sky. But this is where we are. We’re up here in the sky. We’re facing west, looking over Elliot bay and looking past the new Amazon towers into, you know, the fairies coming in and out. We’re looking over at west Seattle and down through, into the port. And you know, from this perch all looks well with the world. Right? Right. Exactly. Seattle is in glorious form 

Speaker 2 (04:06): 

With such a stunning view. One might be forgiven for forgetting about the interior space, but in this case I couldn’t, the ellipse room seemed to perfectly compliment its ethereal surroundings. I asked Susan about the books. Yes. 50% of the room is covered with bookshelves. 

Speaker 1 (04:23): 

So a few walls here lined with books and we take the paper bindings off to expose the bindings chosen for color chosen for style. The big benefit is we get a real quiet room. When we line up with books, it becomes acoustically calmed down. I don’t know if you guys have noticed just even being in here, there’s a, it’s a few notches, uh, quieter than anywhere else. And we find that it’s interesting for people who use the space, they get to peruse and borrow 

Speaker 2 (04:55): 

A book. If you wanna see exactly what we’re talking about, head to the Seattle design center website on the inspired design podcast page, and you’ll get behind the scenes images and be able to see all the little details that we cover. 

Speaker 1 (05:09): 

Okay. So let’s go this way. Now we’re in the wide stretch of the elliptical OV looking direct west and, and we can see for miles and miles and miles 

Speaker 2 (05:21): 

As we walked out of the boardroom and into the common space. And you just mentioned that we’re now kind of in the middle of the longer oval yeah. Full width. Yes. There you go. The full width and there’s floor to ceiling, glass, glass, windows. And then from, you know, I look left and you can see the buildings of downtown and then I look right and you can see the space needle. Yes. And you just have this UN encumbered view. 

Speaker 1 (05:51): 

Yes. It’s very unique and special and being on eighth avenue. So we’re set back from the waterfront. I think it’s remarkable because here we are in the skyline. So at night we have all these, you know, beautiful buildings lit and then you’ve got queen Anne and you see it all you 

Speaker 2 (06:09): 

Really, you really do. And something that just hit me is you said you came into this project when the tower was only half built. Yes. So you really designed this space without actually ever being up this yes. 

Speaker 1 (06:22): 

At this point. Yes. Yes. Fortunately, today we’ve got, you know, there’s technology, so there’s drones. So we, we, we have bird’s eye views of what the views are going to look like different times of the year from this, you know, vantage point. So we know what the view will look like. And I’m a Seattle girl, so I know the color of the sky and the quality of the light. And I know this, you know, I, I used, I grew up as a kid living in west Seattle, so I know what that’s all about. So I feel like this was my pallet. I was very excited about this. 

Speaker 2 (06:59): 

There’s a beautiful fireplace. Yes. In the middle of the room. 

Speaker 1 (07:04): 

Yes. We center. We, we centered the fireplace on the elevator lobby. So it’s the first thing you see when you open the door because we wanted that welcoming, uh, sense of arrival and funny fact, listening to the canvas’s story and talking about how that fireplace is right at their entry. It’s the same psychology. Yeah. We need fire in the Northwest. We want that sense of welcome. Right. And so it’s, uh, people have really appreciated it. 

Speaker 2 (07:36): 

This isn’t your typical fireplace. It was in the center of the room and had four different sides, but you could see all the way through it. And there was this beautiful purple glass in the middle. It warmed up the space, not just physically, but it warmed the energy of the room. Yeah. And even the color of the glass that’s inside. Yes. The gas fireplace. Yes. I’m sure wasn’t by 

Speaker 1 (08:00): 

Accident. No, no, no, no. We, we, everything you see, we chose. Yes. It also acts as a really great room divider. Mm-hmm <affirmative> so, you know, multiple people can be up here doing different things. And that’s the idea. I mean, yeah. This is the extended gathering, living room, family room. Hang out for, for everyone. You wanna meet a neighbor, you wanna have a meeting. Yeah. You just wanna change a scenery. 

Speaker 2 (08:24): 

You want this, 

Speaker 1 (08:25): 

You want this view. Exactly. Yeah, exactly. 

Speaker 2 (08:28): 

So as we continue around, we’re now entering another section that is the right 

Speaker 1 (08:35): 

Shorter point of. So now we’re, we’re now we’re in the, um, the north end of the elliptical oval, which is hello, space needle. Yeah. 

Speaker 2 (08:44): 

Just had a 

Speaker 1 (08:44): 

60th anniversary. Exactly. So, so great. And queen Anne, and we start to be able to peek down into lake union. Again, you get to see more of the palette. I mean, this is what we brought inside. 

Speaker 2 (08:59): 

What were the builders and the architects and owner inspired by the space needle as 

Speaker 1 (09:04): 

It. Oh, for sure. Yes. I mean, this is, this is one of the most coveted sight lines in, in all of the Northwest. So anytime you have a way to look at the space needle, you’re celebrating it, which is why we kept things pretty open right here. You can see everything’s real low and we wanted people to be able to engage with it. 

Speaker 2 (09:26): 

And can you elaborate on why everything you said everything’s low? So the furniture, the tables, the are at like counter height, they’re 

Speaker 1 (09:32): 

All at yes. We kept things 30. Yeah. Even cocktail height. This is 26 inches, which is a, a, a proportion that I we’re kind of into right now in my office. Even let’s get it even lower <laugh> and it’s very relaxed and that loungey feeling, we want people to feel like they’re hanging out and they’re not, they’re not on. So Gina, if I sat you in that bar stool over there yeah. Where you’re raised up, you’d have a posture. But if I sat you here with, with your drink, you would be more relaxed. It’s just a feeling of like, oh, I’m gonna sit back and 

Speaker 2 (10:09): 

Relax instantly. You know, you go from standing to just sitting. Right. You kind of relax exactly. Just a little bit. Exactly. Yeah, 

Speaker 1 (10:17): 

Exactly. So all those dimensions are important. And of course we like to make sure we have a little bit of everything for everyone. Uh, 

Speaker 2 (10:27): 

You sat here at the reflect. So across the room there, there’s 

Speaker 1 (10:31): 

Lots of mirrors in this project. Yeah. And very inspired obviously by where we are by the views, by the fact that this is a story of light, the Seattle light, but the, the mirrors and all the reflective touches allow all of that energy and movement to flow around the space. And it’s a very contributory, uh, experience 

Speaker 2 (10:55): 

Cause that right. There’s it looks there’s, um, a kitchenette on the other side of the room, uh, and it there’s mirrors on the back splash all the way up the ceiling. Uh, and it is reflecting the sky. Yes, perfectly. Right 

Speaker 1 (11:12): 

Now. It’s another window. The goal with using the mirror was a to bring the light in. And, uh, also you’ll notice the glass cladding. The building is very reflective. It’s very sparkly and we wanted that on the interior. So there’s a sparkle to everywhere you look and the mirror we use just to create more windows and in aspects where there, there isn’t, and you’ll notice it in the lobby too, 

Speaker 2 (11:42): 

As you come in and it is just the color wave in the sky right now is matching perfectly with everything in our, in the interior of the space. Yeah. So we’re walking out onto the deck. Yes. As you exit the common area and step out onto the roof deck, remember that the building isn’t oval. So you get this sweeping almost 360 view of the entire city. You start from the south end where the ports are and continue along to see the space needle, south lake union. You can even see Bellevue, it’s such an amazing perspective to see the city at, because everything looks different than obviously when you’re 40 store. Yes. Lower. Yes. Uh, but it you’re right. Each building has its own personality. Right. 

Speaker 1 (12:29): 

That’s right. Which is what Seattle’s about. Right. Mm-hmm, <affirmative>, there’s a lot of celebration right here in this intersection. 

Speaker 2 (12:39): 

Susan’s love for her. Hometown is clear as we continue around the roof deck surveying this beautiful city below 

Speaker 1 (12:46): 

We’re, we’re really right. Dead end north. And we’re now veering, uh, over to the east. And it’s actually kind of, you know, like a really classic Monday night in Seattle in this point in time, because you can see the I five is slowing and we can see, you know, people are, are gathering. I’ve seen a few people walking around in that tower over there. Um, you know, there’s, there’s no question Seattle’s quieter today than it was two years ago. Right. Mm-hmm <affirmative> two and a half years ago. And so I’m always looking for these very exciting clues of things, feeling more energetic and feeling like life in our town is, is reviving. 

Speaker 2 (13:34): 

Well, it definitely feels that way right now. 

Speaker 1 (13:35): 

Yeah, it does. Up here. It does. 

Speaker 2 (13:37): 

And as we continue on, oh my gosh. I can see the Amazon spheres. There 

Speaker 1 (13:42): 

You go. Yes. We are on top of the world right here. 

Speaker 2 (13:46): 

We really 

Speaker 1 (13:47): 

Are. Yes. 

Speaker 2 (13:49): 

That is amazing. Yeah. Ooh, here comes the wind. We headed inside as the wind picked up. You definitely don’t get a view like this every day. Well, the people who live here do 

Speaker 1 (14:01): 

<laugh>. I know 

Speaker 2 (14:02): 

We now entered back into the building where we first started our tour at the elevators. 

Speaker 3 (14:08): 

Great 

Speaker 4 (14:10): 

Show. You let’s see. Do you wanna cut through here? Just real quick? Could you just 

Speaker 2 (14:12): 

Do that? Okay. Right here. We noticed the custom rug built into the floor. It was created to match the sunlight, hitting the water. 

Speaker 3 (14:22): 

And so you’ve got a runner when you get off the elevators. Yes. And then there were two large, yes. Freestanding rugs. That matches is our, this is the dog you dog slate. This 

Speaker 1 (14:33): 

Is the dog spa. 

Speaker 3 (14:34): 

<laugh> 

Speaker 2 (14:35): 

One of the amenities in this part of the building is a dog spa. It had the cutest puppy wallpaper, beautiful wall SCS, even a little kitchenette. This 

Speaker 3 (14:46): 

Is cute. How much fun did you have picking out the wallpaper on the back of the 

Speaker 1 (14:50): 

Lots of fun? Yeah. 

Speaker 3 (14:51): 

Yes. There’s there’s little 

Speaker 2 (14:54): 

Doggy wallpaper on the back of the shelving units in the dog spa. Yes. 

Speaker 3 (14:59): 

You guys really did think with everything. 

Speaker 5 (15:06): 

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’re celebrating new showrooms and added onsite amenities, visit Seattle design center.com for more information about our showrooms and our find a designer program. 

Speaker 2 (15:38): 

Susan shared with me that she had a lot of creative freedom on this project. 

Speaker 1 (15:42): 

We think of the, a project like this and at like a large home, it just has lots of rooms, you know, in between obviously when you come in off the street and you walk into the lobby, that’s really your first impression how you arrive home is, um, meaningful and something. We, we really spend a lot of time considering, right? When you walk in the door, what happens for you emotionally? Here we are up on the roof. I mean, for us designers, like let’s not mess it up because this is so spectacular. We don’t need to do a lot. Right. The view is so crazy. Good. We just need to make sure everything is complimenting the view. 

Speaker 2 (16:19): 

And as you were in the design process, you had the lobby, the roof deck. What other areas did you do and what was kind of your common theme through them? 

Speaker 1 (16:29): 

Yeah, so we’ve got, there’s a, an administrative leasing area on the second floor with a gathering space. It’s really quite nice. There’s a spa, there’s a gym. You know, anything that you would sort of fantasize about needing in your, when you think about what you want in your, in your personal living life, did 

Speaker 2 (16:47): 

You pick all the finishes in, in the apartments as well? Yes, 

Speaker 1 (16:50): 

We did. So, uh, we were responsible for, you know, the spec of the units. Uh, really every square inch of interior surface that you see is, is our responsibility 

Speaker 2 (17:02): 

With every space in the building, falling under Susan’s responsibility and vision. I wanted to hear more about her philosophy and process for making each space individual, while also maintaining a connective thread. 

Speaker 1 (17:15): 

We start out at 35,000 feet. Mike, where are we and why, and what are we looking at? And we really connect with the big picture vision. And then we bring that down to who’s going to live here. Why are they going to come live here? Jean is gonna come live here. What does she want when she walks in the door? What does she need? You know, if she’s having a bad day and coming in off of the street and what, what needs to happen in 30 seconds, when you walk in the door that makes you feel safe, comforted, proud, I’m home. This is my, this is my place and all of those considerations. So from you to, at large, how it fits into the Seattle skyline, those are, those are where we hang out. 

Speaker 2 (18:08): 

Is there anything, I mean, you said that you didn’t, everything you envisioned got to happen in this project, which is rare. Yes. Right? Like that doesn’t usually happen as you’re fantasizing about a project or, you know, envisioning it. 

Speaker 1 (18:23): 

I love working with developers. They have amazing vision. There’s always, uh, an effort and, and a, a contribution they want to make. And this was special. This is, you know, this is my town. This is, this was a, like I said, small team, uh, very involved owner who was very collaborative. And we, we were designing a home. That’s really what it came down to. So the process felt like we were designing a home. 

Speaker 2 (18:52): 

Well, it’s very comfortable. That’s good. An elevated, comfortable where that’s good. You feel? 

Speaker 1 (18:57): 

Yeah, that’s good. The elevated, comfortable. I love that term because that’s what we’re after. We want it to feel very luxurious, but very approachable. Mm-hmm <affirmative> and, and every moment where you put your eyes, like welcoming, come sit down and hang out here. We are up on the roof. I mean, it, it’s kind of for us designers, like let’s not mess it up because this is so spectacular. We don’t need to do a lot. Right. The view is so crazy. Good. We just need to make sure everything is complimenting the view. 

Speaker 2 (19:29): 

You’ve got to check out the photos on the website because my words are not doing this justice. We were touring on a cloudy day. And even then the view was stunning. And talk about a vibrant sunset. 

Speaker 1 (19:44): 

No, Seattle evening is ever the same. The light’s always changing. It’s you know, you could come up here 365 days a year and it’s gonna look different. 

Speaker 2 (19:52): 

Susan thought of everything. I mean, if Seattle had a color palette, Susan Marinello interiors would be it. So you’ve mentioned a few times you are a Seattle light. This is your home. Yes. But you went to New York. Yes. For interior design school. Yes. You worked under Victoria Hagen. Yes. What brought you back? 

Speaker 1 (20:14): 

Yes. I had a baby. 

Speaker 2 (20:15): 

That’ll do it. 

Speaker 1 (20:16): 

And life became real clear. I always knew that I would likely come back, but I just didn’t know when, and, and I can, I can share that. It really was that moment of, I wanna be back in my hometown. I wanna be back in with my people. I wanted to start my own company. I wanted to do it in my town. Really. Honestly, I’ve made several good decisions in my life that is up there with really one of the best decisions. This is my town. I’ve had been, you know, fortunate to travel all around the world. And I have many favorite cities, New York being one of them, but this is home. This is, this is where it’s happening. 

Speaker 2 (21:01): 

You’ve been an interior designer for 25 plus years. 

Speaker 1 (21:07): 

Yeah. So I’ve had Susan Marinella interiors for 25 years. And I, congratulations. I have, I have probably four years behind that. So I’m soon to approach probably a 30 year mark of, you know, career professional. 

Speaker 2 (21:23): 

So I mean, that is an amazing career. And you’ve seen trends come and go. You’ve seen styles. You’ve seen all types of clients. Yes. Tell me kind of what has changed. What has stayed the same? Yes. What do you wish would change? 

Speaker 1 (21:40): 

Yeah. You know, it’s such a good, I love that question. What has changed? I think what I’ve really seen today is people are valuing interior design. So interior design has become something that’s a very important part of your home, whether you’re the newly graduating college student or, you know, the retiring couple or you design has become more available, more accessible and, and people are educating themselves or getting involved, they’re learning. And they’re recognizing how important it is to have things that you are meaningful to you. And that make you feel great around you. 

Speaker 2 (22:23): 

What has stayed the same, 

Speaker 1 (22:24): 

The values of what we humans need. We need to feel comfortable. We need to feel enveloped. And we have a kid of parts of key ingredients that matter to us on a daily basis, lighting, soft textures, you know, surfaces that are available to us for the things we need to do and the technology and the sustainability, those things are ever changing and evolving. But what we need as humans hasn’t changed. 

Speaker 2 (22:55): 

You consider yourself a multidisciplinary design firm. Mm-hmm <affirmative> can you explain that? 

Speaker 1 (23:01): 

Yes. I love that. Okay. So, uh, we work on hotels. We work on commercial, new construction, high-rise development, like the beautiful project we’re sitting in, and we work on really beautiful private homes. The common denominator in all of that is their residential and where the hotel is. Obviously, you know, you’re staying for only two nights. It’s your home for those two nights. So we take it really seriously. Like this is home, home, away from home. Uh, this is someone’s, you know, beautiful urban home. And, um, there might be, you know, a private lake front home, or a vacation home. I have really grown into, uh, the commitment to that in my work, because the two inform one another mm-hmm <affirmative>. So the, the work we do in a private home, for instance, whether it’s, you know, sun valley or Hawaii, you name it, we are learning things in a really important, valuable way about whatever it is. That’s ahead of us with a, a particular family or couple those ideas get extrapolated and distilled into the work we do for the high rise towers. And I like that a lot. 

Speaker 2 (24:20): 

What, what is one thing that you carry into each of those projects? That’s very Susan Marinello that you’re like every project you can find. What’s your Easter 

Speaker 1 (24:30): 

Egg. That’s nice. Uh, leave the ego at the door, stay focused on who the end user is, understand where you are in the context of where you are and drop something in. That’s so special and elevated, but that it’s not loud and it’s not shiny and sparkly. And in the way, you know, nothing should ever overshadow the people that are in the space. 

Speaker 2 (25:01): 

Part of Susan’s overarching philosophy is enhancing the human spirit that care and intentionality in centering the individual rather than the design is very clear as we sit in the space, 

Speaker 1 (25:13): 

No matter what it is that you’re doing the experience of the people interacting with it or paramount, everything that we put in a room builds it. But none of it matters because it’s us sitting in here. That’s what matters this moment, live time. We’re here. This is just the backdrop for it. So let’s make it really as enjoyable as we can and let’s make it so you wanna hang out. You’re not in a hurry. You wanna stay linger. That’s that’s what motivates my work enhancing the human spirit is a mission because I don’t think there’s anything more important. 

Speaker 2 (25:51): 

Susan has worked all over the world. So I was dying to know where did she wanna work next? 

Speaker 1 (25:57): 

Okay. This is really, this is I’m gonna put this out because maybe somebody’s listening can, can make my dream come true. But I have family in Alaska. My mother was raised on a homestead on the Kenai peninsula lab. A lot of people don’t know this about me. I have never had a project in Alaska and I would love nothing more than a project in Alaska. And so I’m just putting that out there because I have a strong connection to the state, the history, and would love nothing more than something really cool. <laugh> yeah, it was my grandfather that homesteaded, when, when he claimed his land, it was in 1939. So he, and then he was in the army during the war, but there were 13 people within a 45 mile radius. And now there’s 2,500. Yeah, you guys, my mom. I mean, she snow shoot to a one room school house until her senior year in high school, you know, literally like there’s stories where she had, you know, moose following her. And it was a crazy time. They were, it was very remote. Very, very remote. Yeah. Do 

Speaker 2 (27:13): 

You think you’d take that kind of survivalist, uh, mentality on 

Speaker 1 (27:17): 

With you? Hell yes, absolutely. Being raised by a mother who was raised on homestead, you learn how to be, um, environmentalist and green and sustainable, and you never discard anything. You reuse things. There’s a practicality to how we think about interiors that is really strategic. And that has really resonated in, in everything I think about. 

Speaker 2 (27:50): 

Thank you to Susan Marinello for taking the time to give us a tour through this beautiful space and to the folks at McKenzie tower for your warm hospitality, inspired design is brought to you by the Seattle design center. The show is produced by large media. You can find them@larjmedia.com special, thanks to mechi Suzuki, Lisa Willis and Kimmy design for bringing this podcast to life for more head to Seattle design center.com, where you can subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on social media. Next time on inspire design, Renee Erickson and Jeremy Price. Take us through their iconic restaurant, the walrus and the carpenter 

Speaker 6 (28:38): 

When Renee was, um, painting the second boat street, like she really wanted this like warm, like sort of rich white color, sort of like glowy candle. Lighty kind of like white color and just couldn’t like find anything she was satisfied with. And so she took Jeffrey, the dog into the paint store <laugh> and like had it, had his fur matched. 

 

Liz Dunn | Concentric Circles

Liz Dunn | Concentric Circles

In this episode of Inspired Design, Dunn & Hobbes Founder and Principal Liz Dunn, describes the “concentric circles” of place and community that she has endeavored to build over more than twenty years through incremental redesign and redevelopment of the Chophouse Row block. She takes us to the Cloud Room, a warm and lushly appointed shared workspace and cultural venue located at the center of it all. Learn how the community is enriched by the diversity and entrepreneurial talent of its members and neighbors, many of whom are drawn from Seattle’s deep-rooted arts, music, and media industries.

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Dunn & Hobbes

VISIT THE CLOUD ROOM

Cloud Room

VALUES

  • To contribute something unique to a neighborhood while respecting and incorporating its existing fabric.

  • To express strong design values that help “raise the bar” for quality of architecture and urban design city-wide.

  • To enhance the experience of living, working, shopping and playing in an urban environment.

MISSION

Our goal is to maximize the appeal of dense urban living, because it goes hand in hand with our desire to preserve this region’s remaining wilderness spaces and to reduce carbon emissions. Attracting more people to live and work in urban neighborhoods will make better use of our transportation and utility infrastructure and ease development pressure on our region’s growth boundary.  Maintaining the character and uniqueness of these neighborhoods will help Seattle to continue to attract and retain talented new residents from other places.

Episode Transcript

Liz Dunn:
I think that’s the most interesting part of design.

Gina Colucci :
Really? Yeah.

Liz Dunn:
Is how do you create something that human beings love and want to populate and want to use and find both beautiful and functional, and that’s my basic approach to any design problem.

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.

Liz Dunn:
I bought this group of six buildings, right at the end of 1999.

Gina Colucci :
We meet up with real estate mogul and trailblazer, Liz Dunn.

Liz Dunn:
I’m not someone who thinks you plan your life out. I think just opportunities present themselves, and you have to decide whether you’re just going to take a left turn.

Gina Colucci :
Originally from Canada, Liz spent the first 10 years of her career as a software developer for Microsoft.

Liz Dunn:
Tech always felt temporary to me, but I nevertheless had 10 great years in tech and is what brought me to Seattle.

Gina Colucci :
She took a hard pivot into commercial real estate and started her own firm, Dubb & Hobbes in 1998.

Liz Dunn:
It was good that I came to it without any preconceived notions of how real estate works. You accidentally end up doing it a different and sometimes better way.

Gina Colucci :
Liz’s imprint can be seen all over the city. Her best known project, Melrose Market, opened in 2010 and sold for 15.5 million dollars, just nine years later.

Liz Dunn:
It was one of the first market hall projects in the country. People do love that concept and we’re seeing a lot more of that. Yeah. Okay. Just down a little bit.

Gina Colucci :
Liz invited us to Cloud Room, a creative co-working space at the top of Chophouse Row in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Sit here?

Liz Dunn:
Wherever you want, yeah.

Gina Colucci :
Do you want to explain where we are right now?

Liz Dunn:
Sure. This is The Cloud Room. This is a co-working space that we opened about six years ago. We really catered to kind of the local Capitol Hill based creative crowd media, lots of tech people actually here, too, and it’s kind of smaller and more intimate and more locally based than a lot of the bigger co-working chains, and because we have this lounge and the bar and the outdoor deck, we’re able to host a lot of cultural events and just bring in a lot of neighbors who don’t necessarily need a workplace, but come to the bar and hang out.

Gina Colucci :
Every corner of the loft was used purposefully. From the bar when you entered, the furniture is set up in such a way that’s very inviting. There’s a white grand piano in the far corner and this long wooden table with these teardrop chairs in a very plush velvet. It was industrial, but inviting. Liz put a lot of thought into every square inch of the space.

Liz Dunn:
Place making isn’t just about making a place that’s pretty to look at. You actually have to populate it with human beings. I think that’s the most interesting part of design is how do you create something that human beings love and want to populate and want to use and find both beautiful and functional, and I think that’s my basic approach to any design problem.

Gina Colucci :
Going through and developing this space, I instantly walked in and was like, oh, wow. You just get this jolt of inspiration and-

Liz Dunn:
Oh, that’s so nice to hear because that’s the goal.

Gina Colucci :
Yeah. I was like, “Oh, I could be here a while.” It feels comfortable.

Liz Dunn:
It is interesting, too, about designing a workspace in particular, is finding that balance between masculine and feminine and warmth and businesslike-ness, I feel like, because a lot of offices I feel are quite masculine and not very warm, and I’m not sure that, that is actually the way to productivity. I think a lot about how do you create a space? You don’t want it to be so feminine that it turns off a portion of your clientele or just that it seems too cushy to be a place where you would get work done, but I think we’ve achieved a pretty good balance here.

Gina Colucci :
I think so.

Liz Dunn:
Oh, that’s good.

Gina Colucci :
I asked Liz, how does she always have a strong vision for what she creates?

Liz Dunn:
As a commercial landlord or a residential landlord, you’re designing for a tenant, and sometimes that tenant’s theoretical. Sometimes you know who the tenant is. That helps a lot, but in most cases, it’s a future tenant, so it’s somewhat theoretical. You have to be able to pretend you are that tenant. I will also say, I’m pretty good at living in and using the spaces that I’ve designed over the years.

Gina Colucci :
What’s an example of that happening?

Liz Dunn:
The first project I ever built, which kind of all happened accidentally was because I wasn’t quite ready to jump development with both feet, was a condominium loft project at 13th and Union, and it was so inexpensive, which I was so naive that I didn’t realize it was so inexpensive because it was so small that it was almost unbuildable, like no wonder no one else had bought it. I was the only person stupid enough to buy it. 3200 square feet, which is like, half the size of most single family lots, and I built, what ended up being a seven story, eight story, well, because it was 65 feet, but we did these double height lofts, so we jammed a lot into that height restriction. Mistakes were made, but we’re pretty proud of the outcome, but our timing turned out to be terrible.

Liz Dunn:
We got our, what’s called Certificate of Occupancy from the city on September 13th, two days after 911, and we were unable to sell any of those units for almost a year. We were all really freaked out. We didn’t know what was going to happen next. My partner and I, at the time, had to move out of our house, which we were able to rent to somebody else and move into the empty project. We actually lived in three different units in that building in the end, because as the units got sold, we would move into a different unit. We lived in the front penthouse and then we lived in the back penthouse, and then we lived on the fourth floor.

Gina Colucci :
So, moving is no-

Liz Dunn:
Moving, yeah.

Gina Colucci :
You’re used to that one.

Liz Dunn:
Moving is no problem.

Gina Colucci :
Yeah.

Liz Dunn:
Yeah. I do a lot of moving. One of the things that made that project challenging to sell, too, is it was a very edgy product for Seattle at that time. It was all steel and concrete. It was a lot like this Chophouse Row building, which is steel frame and steel pan decking with concrete floors and quite unfinished. Not a lot of drywall, completely open plan, the only enclosed spaces were the bathrooms, and I really felt there was an appetite for that in the city that wasn’t being met. The problem was… I don’t want to offend my friends who are real estate agents, but the real estate agent community at the time, did not understand the building at all, so they would come in and say, “Oh, well when is it going to be finished?” And I’d be like, “Well, it is finished. This is it. This is creative space. It’s targeted at a certain kind of urban dweller who might have moved here from another city,” and they would just be completely perplexed. It was very challenging to market it.

Liz Dunn:
I knew the woman who was kind of one of the national reporters for a magazine called, Metropolitan Home, and Met Home was the magazine at the time. It no longer exists and it was the one you wanted to be in, but it took a year. These days, it would be completely different. There’s tons of websites and blogs and Instagrammers who post about design every day, so it’s a lot easier to get the word out when you have an interesting project that you want people to know about.

Speaker 1:
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’re celebrating new showrooms and added onsite amenities. Visit seattledesigncenter.com for more information about our showrooms and our Find a Designer program.

Gina Colucci :
Tell us a little bit about Melrose Market.

Liz Dunn:
It’s two old auto row buildings that we renovated to accommodate 12 businesses, and six of them were in one open market hall. You would really call them micro-businesses because they were arranged around a big open area in the center, and it was one of the first market hall projects in the country. At the time, it got a lot of attention and I think what’s great is people do love that concept, and we’re seeing a lot more of that in cities around the country, and it’s a great format for really small tenants to start out if it’s their first location, because they’re paying for such a tiny amount of square footage that they can afford it and get their foothold in the market, and so what’s nice is to see that incubate often into them then going off and doing bigger things.

Liz Dunn:
Marigold and Mint, for example, Katherine Anderson, gorgeous little shop that did flowers and plants and some homewares, she went on to establish London Plane, which is a much bigger format down in Pioneer Square. Lots of stories like that over the years of little tenants kind of incubating into bigger ones, and I’d like to say, and I think Melrose Market was an example of that, because we did sell the asset in 2019 for an extremely high price. My projects age well and the reason they age well is partly because of how we design them, and incorporating old buildings. Old buildings already by definition age well. They’ve already aged. These projects age well. If you keep them alive and people keep coming, you’re constantly actually able to improve the tenant mix as time goes on because if you’re doing enough to continue to make the place relevant, then tenants also want to be part of that mix.

Gina Colucci :
You mentioned keeping these historical buildings somewhat intact. What is it about old buildings that you’re drawn to?

Liz Dunn:
Well, it’s interesting because I think, at some level for all of us, it’s emotional, but when I’m making the case from a policy perspective, I try to make it as unemotional, unsentimental as possible. I do love old buildings. There’s no doubt that I’m biased, but what I will explain to urban planners or city policy makers is that there’s lots of data out there to prove that everybody does, and therefore, it translates into more activity on the sidewalk, more interesting tenants who want to rent those spaces from you, more interesting local businesses because they don’t want to be in a cookie cutter white box in the base of some monolithic new building. There’s all these economic multiplier effects that you can actually quantify, if you keep your older building, and more granular building stock, intact.

Liz Dunn:
In this country, we have a habit of taking these really great old main street blocks that will have five or six cool, very eclectic buildings packed onto each side of the street, and we just take those blocks out and replace them with a massive cube of blah-ness, and then wonder why that block went dead from a retail shopping foot traffic perspective. I always try to make the… That’s what I wrote my master’s thesis on is the relationship between keeping an older, more granular building stock on your neighborhood main streets and the success of those neighborhoods, which filters out to the tax base. Locally owned businesses generate something like four times the multiplier effect in the local economy than a chain store, that’s not headquartered in the same city because those chains are just sending all their profits somewhere else. The locally owned business every bit, including the owners is reinvesting all the profits and even just, they’re engaging local professional service providers like lawyers and accountants and the supply chain. Local business actually matters, not just because we love it, but because it’s actually better for our economy.

Liz Dunn:
You talked about preserving these old buildings, but then bringing in the new. How do you decide what you keep and what stays to make it a functional space? Oh my God, that is such an excellent and relevant question. I’m not a preservationist and no offense to my friends who are, but I don’t buy buildings to restore them to the detail to how they were a hundred years ago, because it’s got to be functional for this future tenant that I’m designing for. I am just not shy about cutting the back off a building, cutting a hole in the roof. At Chophouse, we hollowed out an interior bay and turned it into an outdoor alley in order to create new retail frontage, and then we chopped the back off so that it could join up with this courtyard that we had created when we chopped the back off another building that came in from the other street.

Liz Dunn:
Those are pretty significant interventions, and sometimes with old buildings, that’s what you need to do to create light or air. Take an old storefront and insert a rollup door where there wasn’t one before because that’s the best way to connect the indoors to the outdoors. You can look at the old historic photos of a building and those are great guidelines, but then I think you just have to decide that the character will still be intact. The interiors of these buildings are often, especially these old warehouse buildings, the interiors are more interesting than the exteriors anyway.

Gina Colucci :
You made the exterior of this one pretty interesting, so…

Liz Dunn:
Well, when we get down to the courtyard and we can talk about it when we’re down there, it’s a pretty eclectic, I was going to say Motley, but it’s a pretty eclectic collection of styles and vintages of buildings, and I think that messy mix actually is part of what makes us love cities. I think we should be trying to achieve more of a messy mix.

Gina Colucci :
Should we go?

Liz Dunn:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci :
All right. We headed down to the courtyard of Chophouse Row and it was buzzing with life. It’s a perfect little refuge off of the busy Capitol Hill streets. The space felt collective and organic. Everywhere you turned, there was something to look at, with different mixes of building materials and different spaces for people to sit, and walking areas. All of this packed into a small urban courtyard.

Liz Dunn:
I’ve owned these properties for 22 years, so that’s the other thing. I’m a very slow developer. Maybe there’s some analogy to the slow food movement that you could apply to my style of development. It’s been a work in progress for literally that entire period of time, and in 2005, 2006, we renovated a building called the Piston and Ring building that came off of 12th avenue, but had a lower level, and that was an example where we had to chop the back off to create natural light, so we literally chopped the back bay off the building. As you can see, we left the skeleton.

Gina Colucci :
What was left of the old building were these large cement pillars and scaffolding that framed the seating area of the patio. The pillars don’t serve a structural purpose anymore, but it gives the courtyard this edgy cool factor.

Liz Dunn:
We created this little two level courtyard by chopping the back off the building, and we also restored the facade on 12th Avenue, which had been turned into parking. We actually had to rebuild the front facade of the building, and then we built that new apartment building next to it on what was an empty parking lot. That’s an example where you can take a new building and you can pair it up with an old building and you connect them and they share an elevator, they share a stair, they can share some systems, and you can just make the whole thing more cost effective. That was that big move, but we always had this idea that this building over here on 11th that backed into this little courtyard, that we would do something with it one day, but it took like almost 10 years to work my way around the block and get to it, and so that’s what we know as the Chophouse building.

Gina Colucci :
Old buildings often come with good stories, and Liz definitely uncovered bits of history when creating the courtyard.

Liz Dunn:
When we were digging around in the foundation, we found the remnants of the foundation of the farmhouse that had been here in the late 1800s.

Gina Colucci :
Wow.

Liz Dunn:
No kidding, because Capitol Hill was a series of hills and valleys. It was very, very topographically all over the map and this whole area that we’re standing on was a ravine quite a bit deeper than where we’re standing now, but they raised all the streets in 1910, so what that meant is a lot of the buildings ended up down in the ravine and were no longer accessible. They literally just did it, and most of the property owners went along with it because along with the street came infrastructure, water, sewer, street car. So, their property was going to be more valuable, but it meant a lot of buildings got abandoned. When we built the Agnes Lofts on the corner, we also found the remnants of an old frame building that had been just shoved down into the pit at the time that the streets were raced. There’s this crazy history. You just think about it, literally in terms of layers.

Liz Dunn:
So, about three or four years ago, I collaborated with my friend, Greg Lundgren. Greg is an artist, an art curator. He’s kind of an Empresario in the best possible way. Greg helped me commission this installation that we call ghost cabin, and it’s a long story of how you get from the idea of the thing to picking an artist and going with a concept, but it started with the idea of excavating the layers of history from under this project and trying to surface them to the public. So, there were tons of ideas, but finally our friend Prentice Hale, who’s an artist and an architect by the way, from Shed Architecture, in his capacity, as an artist came up with this concept. And so, Greg and I worked with him.

Gina Colucci :
And do you want to describe it?

Liz Dunn:
Well, it’s, it’s a set of two corners, an innie and an outie. It’s a one dimensional, folded onto a three dimensional space, that one dimension is rendered in Cedar and which would’ve been the traditional material that a cabin two floors underground from here would’ve been built and there’s one spot. There’s one spot that’s marked by this little brass survey marker where it flattens back into one dimension. So, if any of you stand here…

Gina Colucci :
Oh yep.

Liz Dunn:
All the edges line up. This thing that’s folded out in three dimensions, flattens back into one dimension visually-

Gina Colucci :
And they’re all perfectly-

Liz Dunn:
And they’re all perfectly aligned, and then, we love that idea and then we incorporated a stage, so that we can do outdoor concerts and have a DJ and our piano sits there all year round.

Gina Colucci :
It’s so cool.

Liz Dunn:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci :
I love that. With something that, you notice it, but then hearing you talk about it just gives another level of appreciation.

Liz Dunn:
Well, I love the fact that a lot of people probably come and don’t stand in that spot and get it. We’re pretty subtle about it. You know what I mean? Maybe we should have a QR code or something that people could-

Gina Colucci :
You got to look for it.

Liz Dunn:
… read.

Gina Colucci :
You got to earn it.

Liz Dunn:
You kind of have to earn it. You kind of have to earn it. I think it’s nice to have those little hidden surprises.

Gina Colucci :
Back inside, I got to ask Liz about her career. I’m noticing kind of like a theme of your trail world blazer in the real estate industry of having these ideas, and it might be quote unquote, too soon, like you said, but then it catches on and you’ve got this philosophy that really speaks to a lot of people.

Liz Dunn:
I think it was good that I came to it without any preconceived notions of how real estate works. I had skills from my previous career. I had project management skills and I had finance skills and I loved design, but I came with no sort of, this is how it should be done rules rammed into my head. That naivety, frankly, very helpful in a circumstance like that. It’s good to not know how everyone else is doing it. You accidentally end up doing it a different, and sometimes better, way. Now, on the other hand, like I said, I’ve made lots of mistakes, lots of rookie errors, but I think the other thing that I do is, I just take more risk and I don’t want to make it sound like it’s not calculated risk, but I’m willing to experiment.

Gina Colucci :
Even the philosophy of designing a space that you want to be in-

Liz Dunn:
Yes.

Gina Colucci :
… is huge, right?

Liz Dunn:
Yeah. That’s a tricky thing in my previous life in tech. When I was younger, I was a programmer, but then I was a user interface designer. It’s good to design for yourself because then you have a client in your head, but you also need to have enough innate empathy to also be able to design for others, and there’s always a tension there.

Gina Colucci :
You talk about your past life in the tech industry and then you went back to school.

Liz Dunn:
I did.

Gina Colucci :
What was the deciding factor? What happened to, “Okay, I want to completely pivot my career and go in this other direction.”?

Liz Dunn:
What I had wanted to do was pivot straight into a Masters of architecture program, and I was taking some courses at UDub in both grad and undergrad and urban planning and architecture to try to get the prerequisites under my belt, and I was also working on a very rough, preliminary way working on a portfolio, and I knew I wanted to do that pivot before I even went into to tech. Tech always felt temporary to me, but I nevertheless had 10 great years in tech and it’s what brought me to Seattle. I got a full ride scholarship in math, and that was in 1983 when math had just become the doorway to computer science, and then that was the doorway into tech.

Liz Dunn:
Those were great opportunities, but I always thought I wanted to be an architect. Anyway, I didn’t end up being an architect because what happened is, that crazy little lot that I built the eight condominium loft units on, came up for grabs. It happened by accident and I think life just happens that way. I’m not someone who thinks you plan your life out. I think opportunities present themselves, and you have to decide whether you’re just going to take a left turn and do something when it presents itself.

Gina Colucci :
What’s another opportunity that defined your career path?

Liz Dunn:
Well, going back to school was not my immediate plan once I started doing projects. It wasn’t until 2008 that I went back to school. I previously had done an MBA, but that was when I was still in tech. I went back to do this program at the London School of Economics that hadn’t existed previously. It was a relatively new program. I was in my forties by then. So, I was old to do this program. It was funny because I love London. I needed a little break from Seattle and I don’t know why. I’ve always been fascinated with the London School of Economics. I’m clicking around on their website and I see this program in city design and I thought, God, damn it. If that program had existed when I was 29, I would’ve gone and done it. So, I sat on that thought for a few days and then I thought, well, damn it. Who says I can’t go do it now. I don’t mind being the oldest person in the classroom and it’s so great that I did it.

Gina Colucci :
Well, I’m sure you did some travel while you were there. Is there a European city or area that really inspires your development today?

Liz Dunn:
Yeah, you know what? I’m lucky because I had previously lived in Paris for a couple of years and the build environment of Paris is like most European cities, but it’s probably the quintessential example of a certain scale, but that is very dense. Barcelona, interestingly, is one of the most dense cities in the world and if you’ve been to Barcelona, it’s all six stories tall.

Gina Colucci :
I studied actually, there, and I did an urban planning in class.

Liz Dunn:
Oh, did you? So, you know that Barcelona, those blocks, and they all have courtyards in the center, so it’s not suffering for open space. Places in London like Covent Garden or these little passageways in Paris that lead to little pedestrian courtyards. Those cities demonstrate that the intimate spaces between buildings can be some of the best urban spaces that exist, especially if you can get rid of the cars. I also think that there are lessons to be learned from the older neighborhoods and places like Beijing and Asian cities, where again, extremely dense, not high rise. Now much of, just taking Beijing as an example, most of the low rise is disappearing before our very eyes, but those Hutong courtyard neighborhoods in Beijing left a lifelong impression on me because they’re so densely populated and so functional, and there’s all these little alleys and courtyards.

Liz Dunn:
And then Melbourne Australia is actually a better known example. Melbourne’s downtown is a more modern one. It developed in the last couple hundred years, and there’s these 14 foot alleyways behind all these pretty tall downtown buildings that were always just used for garbage dumpsters. They decided to get rid of all the garbage dumpsters and let little commercial restaurants and other little commercial businesses occupy these 14 foot wide alleys, and I took a ton of pictures. I just couldn’t believe. There would be little restaurants on both sides and seating areas, and people just smushing themselves in between, and it was so vibrant. They were so packed and that became directly relevant when we were designing the alley here at Chophouse because we had kind of 10 and a half feet that we hollowed out from an existing building to create this long walkway.

Liz Dunn:
We turned an indoor bay of an old building into an outdoor arcade. We had an additional four feet just outside the building. We had a total of 15, but it’s got structure in it. It’s pretty compressed and I probably wouldn’t have had the nerve to do it, if I hadn’t been to Melbourne. I love Post Alley in Seattle because it has that same intimacy and Pike Place Market, but we don’t have a lot of other examples in this city of intimate public urban spaces, where you can get off the street, so you’re protected from the cars and wander through.

Gina Colucci :
Going carless and being more of a walking city might go against the grain of some Seattle planners. How do you navigate that and where do you see Seattle going?

Liz Dunn:
I’d love to see more street closures to pedestrians, and that always requires the city and the property owners on that street, holding hands and having a vision, and both the city and the building owners need to refine what that looks like and how it operates. I’m hoping the city will take a leadership role going forward so that someone like me can invest in more beautiful permanent structures, not being worried that six months from now, we’re going to get our permit for the street closure yanked. People love closed streets. It’s all about bringing people… it always, always goes back to getting human beings to come and populate this space, and I think that’s the other thing I would say is, I see these buildings going in and places like South Lake Union with these really beautifully designed outdoor spaces, but I worry that they haven’t found the right way to program them and get people to occupy them.

Liz Dunn:
Even before COVID I felt like, wow, gorgeous design, nobody’s here, so something’s missing, and the something can be really interactive businesses like retail and restaurants that are doing their own activities that just generate a lot of foot traffic and spill out into the public domain, but often it requires going one level above that to programming cultural events, either in adjacent indoor spaces or literally in these outdoor spaces, and I’ll tell you who’s done a tremendously good job, Scott Redman, with the 9th and Thomas building, which is in South Lake Union. It’s a beautiful Tom Kundig designed office building and Scott, from the get go had this vision of both the indoor atriums surrounded by active, active businesses, coffee shop, barbecue, rotating art shows, murals on the outside of the building, and then all this stuff in the street along 9th Avenue, he continues to invest in and it’s real money that a lot of property owners and property managers don’t want to spend, but I swear it pays off in the long run.

Liz Dunn:
I guest lecture sometimes at UDuB in the Foster School and in the Ranstad School of Real Estate, and I’ll get the hard questions from the real estate students. Well, [inaudible 00:31:49], and if you spend too much money up front on a project and then you spend too much money operating it and I just have this one thing that I always try and get out on the table, which is, I don’t care what kind of real estate developer you’re going to be, but you are building a piece of city. It’s not building a building. You’re building a piece of city. You’re building a piece of connective tissue. You have a responsibility to the context in which you’re building to somehow elevate everything around it and make it better.

Gina Colucci :
Inspire Design is brought to you by the Seattle Design Center. The show is produced by Larj Media. You can find them at larjmedia.com. Special thanks to Michi Suzuki, Lisa Willis, and Kimmy Design for bringing this podcast to life. For more, head to seattledesigncenter.com, where you can subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on social media. If you’ve enjoyed season one and season two, as much as we have, make sure you subscribe on your platform of choice to Inspire Design and stay tuned for season three later this year.

Jonathan Sposato | Gracious Gusto

Jonathan Sposato | Gracious Gusto

In this episode of Inspired Design, we visit the architecturally stunning and artistic home of serial entrepreneur, tech and media giant, and creative mastermind Jonathan Sposato. Instead of focusing on his impressive business accomplishments we dive into his other passions and discover the intriguing things he tastefully displays around every corner of his home. He shares these intimate details with us with a kind, engaging and humble presence you won’t want to miss.

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Episode Transcript

Jonathan Sposato:
… So much of our lives, I think that we have normalized to making very rational decisions and being very data driven. There was no amount of data that you could quantify that would justify a place like this, but it was very emotional.

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. In this episode, we hang out with entrepreneur and angel investor, Jonathan Sposato at his family home in Seattle. Jonathan has had a wildly successful career. He was on the team at Microsoft who brought you the Xbox. You might know him as the first person to sell two companies to Google or the co-founder of Geekwire, or as the new owner of Seattle Magazine. Despite his impressive resume, Jonathan is very down to earth.

Jonathan Sposato:
We’re super, super lucky that we live here.

Gina Colucci:
We tour his stunning home and we talk about every everything from art to film.

Jonathan Sposato:
I am a fan of even the David Lynch Dune, that I think has been somewhat misaligned.

Gina Colucci:
To family, to his upbringing.

Jonathan Sposato:
I spent summers working for my aunt and uncle down in Silicon valley back in the very early ’80s.

Gina Colucci:
Jonathan’s house sits on a corner lot with a beautiful water view and is very modern with a lot of 90 degree angles and clean lines with Florida ceiling windows.

Jonathan Sposato:
This was a total rebuild and the architect is named Eric Cobb. He’s this nationally renowned architect. And as someone who’s bullish on Seattle. I feel like that there’s so many things happening in Seattle that, that what matters here matters to the rest of the world. And I think Eric Cobb is another example of that. And as you can see, he cited this house in a way that was just really amazing, and really transports you in some ways away from the fact that we’re just five minutes from the city here.

Gina Colucci:
When Jonathan invited us in, we entered into the living room and the sun was streaming through the large windows and the minimalist modern space matched the outside of the home. The first thing we noticed was this Matte Black drum set right in the middle of the living room. You almost stumble over it walking in, and we wondered why was that right there?

Jonathan Sposato:
It is here because it is born out of a belief that possession is nine-tenths of the law, which means that if it’s anywhere else, it will not get used or played. And so, this is really my 12 year old’s thing. And it is so awesome to see a 12 year old activate on any kind of instrument, but especially on a drums. And he a smaller guy. So, it’s just that really fun for me to watch him pound way on the drums. And we want to send a very clear message to him that he’s welcome to just do it at any time. In fact, we love hearing him play even as we’re in the kitchen making dinner. So, that’s why that’s there, really less about the aesthetics and less about that it might look interesting in a living room.

Gina Colucci:
It doesn’t hurt that it’s a beautiful Matte Black drum set with really shiny percussions on it?

Jonathan Sposato:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
And when you were picking it out, I love that you made the purpose that creative liberty for your 12 year old is so important to you that you’re going to put it right in the middle of your main living space.

Jonathan Sposato:
Yeah. That’s a beautiful way of putting it. So, I think it takes just as much effort to pick out something ugly as it is to pick out something attractive. So, why not pick out something attractive? And my son truth be told he picked out this set. He goes, “Oh yeah, Matte Black. That’s going to be cool.”

Gina Colucci:
We approve.

Jonathan Sposato:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
That’s really cool.

Jonathan Sposato:
Excellent. I’ll tell him that. And then you asked a question about the artwork, and I love mixing it up. So, you’ll see Damian Hearst next to a wonderful local artist. Troy Gua, whom I’ve commissioned to do pieces both here at the house and also at my prior office. You’ll also see Warhol mixed in there with other local artists. In the powder room is a really great full motion video of peace of artwork that’s glass blown. This is the stuff you want to talk about? You want us to geek out about art?

Gina Colucci:
I want to geek out at everything.

Jonathan Sposato:
Yeah. Okay. So, yeah…

Gina Colucci:
We turn the corner and at the end of the hallway is this painting of Benjamin Franklin with the words whatevs painted over his face. And this cheeky piece of art is a great representation of Jonathan’s fun personality.

Jonathan Sposato:
With Sean Hopkins, who’s I think in Portland. And he just is an amazing, amazing painter. First when I saw it, I’m like, “Did he paint over like some…” But he does this to mimic the older style of paintings from the 1700s, and then he’ll do some cool, interesting commentary on what’s happening. So, that’s Benjamin Franklin as if he was thinking whatevs. Yeah, so-

Gina Colucci:
So now we’re going into the powder room [crosstalk 00:05:13]?

Jonathan Sposato:
Yeah. And so, this powder room-

Gina Colucci:
The first thing that you see walking into the bathroom is this cartoony looking pink crochet bear.

Jonathan Sposato:
It is a bear, that’s right, yeah.

Gina Colucci:
Crochet with a pink crochet?

Jonathan Sposato:
Right.

Gina Colucci:
[Crosstalk 00:05:27].

Jonathan Sposato:
And this artist, what she does is… And I’ll find a name. It just escapes me. We have three of her pieces, I think, where she uses found objects or old clothes that she finds. So just an old sweater.

Gina Colucci:
I love the multi-use.

Jonathan Sposato:
And again I can’t remember the artist’s name, but we have a couple of her pieces and she is a polymath in a sense that she’s a filmmaker and that’s her. She’s stars in her own fantasy videos. And then she also was a glass blower and she creates this entire 3D installation where there’s different things going on. And it is a full… I think it’s like a 25 minute loop that tells a story.

Gina Colucci:
So the piece of art hanging above the toilet is this white frame. And inside of the frame are these three clear bubbles of all different sizes. And each one has a screen and the screen plays a video that the artist filmed just for this one piece of art. And it tells a story. Each screen will play in coordination from the other. So you would see the artist in a white dress in one screen, and then she would disappear and show up in another bubble. And it’s all telling a story. And the story is a 25 minute loop and it plays music.

Gina Colucci:
Have you stood here and watched the whole 25 minutes?

Jonathan Sposato:
You know what? Weirdly I have always stopped myself short of the full loop because I want it to always surprise me. And I think I’ve owned this piece of artwork for five years. And so, I still see new things every time.

Gina Colucci:
Right. When you turned it on, and we started talking about something else. And then I heard the music and I was like, “Someone’s phone going off?” But it’s a full sensory piece of art, which is really interesting.

Jonathan Sposato:
Right. Yeah. And just there’s a lot going on that is really delightful and clever.

Gina Colucci:
The content is abstract and playful and unique.

Jonathan Sposato:
Yeah. Just [inaudible 00:07:38]. Just look at it for a bit. There’s a lot going on.

Speaker 3:
Oh my gosh.

Gina Colucci:
I know she’s covered in balloons.

Speaker 3:
Oh my goodness.

Jonathan Sposato:
So, it’s very cleverly shot, the whole thing to have three windows into the same fantasy.

Gina Colucci:
So cool.

Speaker 3:
I know.

Gina Colucci:
That’s a memorable P right there.

Jonathan Sposato:
Yeah. That’s right. So I think I was talking about how I think it’s important to just mix it all up and not be beholden to any one particular style. And I think the old cliche is true just in terms of art. Buy what you love and buy what really resonates with you, because you’re going to be surrounded by it for a long time. So, don’t buy what you’re supposed to buy, buy what strikes you. And I admit I’m not an investment buyer, as an art buyer. So, it doesn’t matter to me if something goes up or down in value, as long as I’ve enjoyed it, then that’s a win. This piece of artwork here-

Gina Colucci:
And we just walked around the corner of the living room. And now we’re in almost like a study office.

Jonathan Sposato:
Yeah, it’s a study. It’s easy. It’s low hanging fruit, if you will, to always do your modern house to have some really modern art, but this piece of art, this is from [inaudible 00:09:05] century. When I saw it, it really struck me. And this is a ghost ship that the artist saw when he was a young man in a merchant marines when he was 10 years old. So he saw the ship in 1890 something. The artist’s name is William Wright Shaw. He is one of the first of the American impressionist. He’s actually born in Germany, but came to the United States as a very young man. And as you know, the American impressionist studied under the European masters. So they were the next generation. And they were called the American impressionist because they painted here mostly in California.

Jonathan Sposato:
This was his fourth attempt to capture a memory of this ghost ship that he saw drifting in the ocean in a North Atlantic when he was in a merchant marines. The image haunted him so much that he really needed to get it right. And so, on his fourth attempt he got it right with this very painting. And he was probably in his 40s when he painted this. And he kept it in his studio, his entire life until he passed away. I think he was in his 80s. I think the second owner as it came out of his estate, but it struck me again very emotionally, because it’s about the spirit of being indomitable. As it turns out, this ship washed the shore many years later. I can’t remember what year, maybe 1910 or something like that, somewhere in Northern Europe.

Jonathan Sposato:
And when scientists were examining it, they discovered that it was one of the lost ships with a Spanish Armada, and it had been a drift at sea for 275, almost 300 years. So, this idea something could be out there for so long and not sink is highly emotionally resonant for me.

Gina Colucci:
The ghost ship in Jonathan’s office was enormous. It took up the majority of the wall. It was an oil painting with rich, dark colors and gave off this haunting vibe. It was such a contrast to modern and bright art everywhere else in the house.

Jonathan Sposato:
Some people look at it and they see something dark and foreboding, but I look at it and I see survival. Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
Have you worked on something that takes many turns to get it right? Do you find something similar in yourself?

Jonathan Sposato:
That’s a really great question. I feel like that I have, but admittedly few of us, myself included have that rigor and discipline to pursue something so doggedly that you would do it for four times. But I know that there have been entrepreneurial endeavors where it’s taken me a cop three, at least three times to get something right. And it can be really hard especially if that’s what you’re focused on for that period of your life. And especially because the not getting it right is because you’re getting feedback from the very people that you’re trying to please such as potential users or readers. And they tell you like, “Oh, this is no good.” Right? So, I think that you’ve got to just hang tough, just like the ship, not let it sink you, and keep at it.

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’re celebrating new showrooms and added onsite amenities. Visit seattledesigncenter.com for more information about our showrooms and our find a designer program.

Gina Colucci:
Tell us about these leather vests. Leather jackets next to book casing?

Gina Colucci:
The leather jackets in Jonathan’s office weren’t your average leather jackets. These were pieces of art. They were punk rock jackets with this vintage vibe. Some of them hand painted. Some of them were covered in pins. Each pin or patch came with a story. They encapsulate this specific cultural moment in time.

Jonathan Sposato:
Right. So, I think maybe a unifying theme here is that, it’s about celebrating real things that have been in our culture and have been around for a long time. And that what is old is new again. Really a lot of times new things that we celebrate are inspired by things that came before it. So, before the punk rockers of the ’70s, and I also have a collection of punk rocker jackets just for similar reasons. But before the punk rockers, there were the rockers, where they were English motorcyclist. And they would be superficially. They would seem like that they’re the greasers of our countries mid-century pass. But the rockers were English motorcyclists who were total rebels. And they were listening to music that nobody else was listening to at the time.

Jonathan Sposato:
And they wore these leather jackets that were primarily a veer kit or Louis leathers, very high quality motorcycle garments. And oftentimes… In fact, all of the time they were highly customized. But I would pause at this as a really interesting artifact of really the way of the history of that culture. And then this jacket belonged to Chris Vincent who was one of the most winning ’60s motorcycle racers, and won a ton of championships. And this jacket was actually made by one of Chris Vincent’s friends for Chris. And it has a lot of the badges from his winnings, but importantly, it has this beautiful hand paint, a detail of his motorcycles.

Gina Colucci:
Wow.

Jonathan Sposato:
You just don’t see. And later when I show you my World War II flight jackets that have similar hand painted artwork on the back, you’re in theater in Italy or in Europe somewhere, you’re just not taking this time to paint this, I would pause it. This has a really amazing example of something done in the ’60s as jacket art that’s just really beautiful.

Gina Colucci:
At this point we head downstairs. The floating stairs added to the modern feeling of the house.

Jonathan Sposato:
Eric Cobb likes to do these floating stairs, and he’s iterated on this. But this is common to him. He likes to mix both wood and metal. And he did that pretty successfully here. There are days when just for the silly things that we do on Instagram, I’ve definitely geeked out on these stairs and posted a few photos of some of that. But the interplay between the light and the sun coming in and how it creates these amazing shadows on the walls. That’s a great mid-century key [inaudible 00:16:01] piece that honestly, I don’t know what to make of. I don’t know how to respond to it other than viscerally. I don’t think it means anything. I don’t even know what the title of it is, but it’s just-

Gina Colucci:
The size of it is what really strikes me.

Jonathan Sposato:
Yeah. That’s where the scale of it…

Gina Colucci:
Yeah.

Jonathan Sposato:
The contrast. And I like the dialogue between it and the rest of the house. But you want to see more jackets? So, I’m going to go down to here and watch your step, it’s a little dark, I’ll flip the lights on here.

Gina Colucci:
Along the back wall, were seven to eight brown leather jackets that you could sense the passage of time. These jackets were not as ornate as the collectible ones upstairs. These were functional jackets worn by actual military personnel in World War I, World War II, Vietnam. They all came with a story. They all came with the heroism that Jonathan idolize.

Jonathan Sposato:
Who knows really why and how some of our random affectations occur? But again, as someone who’s really fascinated by history… And I think to make this a little more personal, I didn’t grow up with a father. I had an adopted father from my mom marrying when I was about nine years old, and he was great and he raised me. And then I met my real birth father when I was around 50. But prior to that, I think definitions of manhood or masculinity were things that I think I really grasp for. So, if I was to unpack my own psychology, it’s 100% possible that I have an attraction to traditional symbols of heroism and traditional iconic masculine imagery. So to me, what’s more badass than World War II fighter pilots. And so, most of these jackets, they are all real pilot jackets belonging to different armed forces.

Jonathan Sposato:
So, here’s one. You’ve heard of Black Sheep Squadron, that TV series with Robert Conrad called Baa Baa Black Sheep. This was one of Pappy Boyington’s squadron mates. So, in that very squadron, this guy flew Corsairs. And so, this is a jacket that’s like 60 plus years old, 70 years old.

Gina Colucci:
Love the property of US Navy.

Jonathan Sposato:
Yeah. Property of US Navy. And it’s really interesting, right? Because it’s actually a Marine squadron, but the Marines of course flew off of aircraft carriers. They’re really in some ways part of the Navy. And so, this is called a G-1, which was what the Navy pilots wore. And this is what’s called an A-2, which was what air force or army air corps pilots wore. And so, a lot of the hand painted artwork that I mentioned earlier is super interesting. I think I’ll flip one around to show you. The detail’s different than the motorcycle jacket that I showed you, but that’s a way I’m sure they had their last cockpit trouble. It was a way to make light of the fact that you could die at any minute from-

Gina Colucci:
You seem to have that sense of humor.

Jonathan Sposato:
Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
Do you have one that really speaks to you that you would say it’s your favorite?

Jonathan Sposato:
Honestly, they’re all… I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite. I actually do. We probably don’t have time to get into each and everything. With each jacket is usually like a set of log books or some history from the family about who the pilot was and their career history, full disclosure. I was never in the military. My adopted father was a Vietnam veteran, and then he doesn’t necessarily like to talk about it. And he’s one of that generation. And I’m not into war per se, but I do for feel like that these men in this case were heroes, and they were asked at a very young age to do some incredibly heroic, incredibly difficult things in service of their country, politics aside, believing that they were the difference between right and wrong. And so, there’s something very powerful in that. And so, each one has a really great story.

Gina Colucci:
And then I see this wall of photos and family photos, and how is your father on, obviously?

Jonathan Sposato:
My birth father’s not here. And neither actually is my adopted dad. This is actually… There’s no deliberate reason why… It’s a lot of grandparents being shown here. So, my wife’s grandparents, and he was a bronze star recipient and was part of a B-25 crew stationed in Italy. Some pretty incredible stories there. He’s no longer with us. Here are my grandparents and some incredible stories there too, in terms of their own transition from peace time to occupied, that they were in Hong Kong, but that whole area was occupied by the Japanese during the second World War. And so, they spent some time in a POW camp, and then at some point the world returned to normal and they thrived after that. So, I think this is really just a reminder of how much those who came before us, that their connection to those ahead of us, such as my son.

Gina Colucci:
Yeah. And I love… Here, is that you?

Jonathan Sposato:
Yeah, that was me. So as I said, I was raised by a single mom who couldn’t really afford to take care of me at some point. So we were in the really poor part of Brooklyn when there was a poor part of Brooklyn. And she just couldn’t have me anymore. And so, when I was three she sent me to live with my grandparents in Hong Kong. And in Hong Kong, we lived in… There were four of us in a two bedroom apartment. And so, this was all the stuff that I had in the world was… And this is an interesting. Everything that I owned fit on this table. And this was I think my seventh birthday. And I just think it’s a funny photo, but…

Gina Colucci:
And then from there you came back to the states?

Jonathan Sposato:
Yeah. I came back to the states when I was nine. So, when my mom married to really lovely Italian American man named Don Sposato, and that’s how come I have an Italian American last name. And he raised me like I was his own, which I appreciated. But yeah, I guess I’ve always felt like that perhaps I’ve always had a bit of an outsider’s perspective on things generally. So, as a result of all this moving around. I’m always the outsider that’s not fitting in or something.

Gina Colucci:
But do you think that feeling then you came here to Washington? And I also read you were the only Asian kid in your school?

Jonathan Sposato:
Yeah, I was. But actually technically, I think there was one other, but we didn’t have too much to do with each other, which is not uncommon in any minority group. That’s double deviated. And it’s true. I’ve heard this from women as well. If you’re one of two women in an entire all male organization, sometimes you don’t necessarily become best friends with the other person. You’re so worried about making sure that you’re not getting stepped on. So, that was definitely a very galvanizing experience for me. And I learned a lot of lessons about what the right currencies to activate are, socially in that kind of environment. So, yeah.

Gina Colucci:
And do you think that upbringing, feeling like the outsider, we can all maybe identify with that a little bit, but how has that made you into the man you are today?

Jonathan Sposato:
I think it makes me hugely sympathetic to people who are marginalized. And so, I would try to use as few of the current buzzwords as possible, but it really is important, I think for us to always understand the dynamics, the power, and privilege in any room, whether you are just at a meeting with work colleagues or you’re a member of a board, or you are a faculty member, or you’re a CEO, whatever it is. And to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table and that you help those who for whatever reason, have a little bit less of a voice and try to equal a playing field. And so, I felt the pain growing up oftentimes feeling less than. And I don’t want to overstate all of that while those statements are true, they certainly don’t define me now, precisely because you learn to adapt and to, well, hack your way out of those situations.

Jonathan Sposato:
And those are important lessons that I hope that my son learns. He has a pretty darn good. And sometimes I ask him, what’s it like to be you? But my wish is for everyone to always take stock of what’s happening and to help others who might need a little bit more of help.

Gina Colucci:
Jonathan’s basement was this big open, great room that mixed multi-use space. And there was a really cool modern ping pong table. And then right by the stairs, is this old phone booth?

Jonathan Sposato:
Yes. That is one of the lasted of Mohicans. It is a phone booth that came out of, I think, Grand Central station in New York city from either the late ’40s or ’50s. And I bought it when I started PicMonkey and we moved into these offices where it was an open space. Everybody had a desk in an open area, and I wanted a phone booth to be… I made the phone… The phone actually works. It is dial tone and you pick it up. And then people can go in and they would make phone calls, not on that old antique phone, but on their cell phone. And they could have privacy. But then the phone does ring and so, I got a real number for it. And so, it would ring and that’s how we signal to each other, “Hey, maybe it’s time to gather and have a team meeting.”

Jonathan Sposato:
So, when we moved out of that office and there was not room for it in the new, new offices, folks were kind enough to gift it to Jonathan.

Gina Colucci:
As we concluded our tour, you could tell that Jonathan and his family’s house held a lot of stories and a lot of life had been lived there. And it was an interesting setting from the magnificent art on the walls to the fun ping pong table, downstairs to the drum set in the middle of the living room. And I wanted to know what was his favorite part of his home?

Jonathan Sposato:
I know. I think I will always value very highly the vestiges, the signs, the little details that are a result of living and growing our child in this house. There was a time and I’ve been completely 180. There was a time when I would worry about things breaking down or getting worn out or getting dinged or scratched and things like that. Now, I look at every ding and scratch, and every mark that my son caused when he was a toddler, or when we had our beautiful two dogs here, two puppies that we rescued, they were just a garbage mound dogs in Puerto Rico that we rescued that they passed away both at the same time at the age of maybe 15 during the pandemic. I look at every paw mark that’s on the stairs and I miss them.

Jonathan Sposato:
And, and I don’t think that I would ever want to refinish the floor as a result. Sometimes I look at certain well worn areas of the hardwood floor and I reminisce about the beautiful parties that we used to have here, pre-pandemic. I used to host a wonderful party for Geekwire. That was our annual summer party. And we would have all kinds of amazing people here that were so fun to talk to. And it was such a neat confluence of individuals. And those are times that you don’t know when they end until they do end. And when they do end, sometimes you can recapture those moments again and reconstitute them, but sometimes maybe not. So in that way, my answer to your question, what do I wish doesn’t change or that stays, would be those Signs of life.

Gina Colucci:
A big thank you to Jonathan for inviting us into his home and having a wonderful candid conversation with us. Inspired Design is brought to you by the Seattle Design Center. The show is produced by Large 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 or 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, we sit down with real estate trailblazer, Liz Dunn at her thriving project, Chophouse Row.

Liz Dunn:
I’m not someone who thinks you plan your life out. I think just opportunities present themselves and you have to decide whether you’re just going to take a left turn and do something.

Jean Thompson | Sweet & Savory

Jean Thompson | Sweet & Savory

In this episode of Inspired Design, get a mouthwatering education in all thing’s cocoa as Owner and CEO of Seattle Chocolate Company, Jean Thompson, gives us an inside tour of their newly renovated headquarters and factory. To top it, off she infuses her entrepreneurial wisdom leaving us ready to make the world a better place one small decision at a time!

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Seattle Chocolate

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VALUES

At Seattle Chocolate Company, we’re endlessly inspired to evolve, to be better to each other and the planet, and to leave the world brighter (and more delicious) than we found it. What matters most to us is how we source our chocolate, the environmental impact the production of our chocolate has, and how, with your help, we can give back through chocolate. Read on to learn more about the journey each of our products takes, from the cacao tree to you.

MISSION

To put it simply, we just want to make the world a little sweeter. Nothing leaves our factory until we’ve stamped it delicious, including a smooth truffle mouthfeel and an imaginative flavor combination (Mexican Hot Chocolate, Pink Bubbly, and Neapolitan, just to name a few). We’re obsessed with color and know that collaboration breeds creativity in the best way, so we work with independent artists around the world to illustrate our whimsical chocolate bars and gifts – all in hopes of making you smile.

We’re risk-takers and chocolate-makers, here to brighten your day. Join the fun.

Episode Transcript

Jean Thompson:
So somebody had like one of those security camera at their front stoop and they had a delivery of Seattle chocolate, and a squirrel got into it. He caught the whole thing on video and sent it to us. And he burrowed his way in, pulled the one pound bag out of the carton and then he dug into that and unwrapped a truffle and eat it. I’m like, “See all creatures, big and small love chocolate.”

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. On this episode of Inspired Design, we head to Seattle chocolate’s headquarters and factor and meet up with owner and CEO of nearly 20 years, Jean Thompson.

Jean Thompson:
So these are lab coats and then for all hair, up in the hat.

Gina Colucci:
We begin our tour of the factory by suiting up.

Jean Thompson:
If you want to simulate the experience that they go through.

Gina Colucci:
Jean handed us big white lab coats, and then we had to put on hairnets. We had to wash our hands and put on gloves.

Jean Thompson:
Seems funny you have to wash our hands before you put gloves on, but apparently germs can make their way through this barrier.

Gina Colucci:
We couldn’t wear open toed shoes, and we were advised to wear a warm jacket because the factory floor was chilly.

Jean Thompson:
We even have a little mirror so you can check.

Gina Colucci:
Once we were suited up, I checked myself out in the mirror, but Jean reminded us that that mirror wasn’t actually glass because if any glass got in the factory, it would be a huge issue.

Jean Thompson:
Glass is something you really can’t detect when it breaks and it literally could kill somebody if a piece of glass broke, so zero glass in our facility, so even that’s just a reflective metal.

Gina Colucci:
Once we were suited up, we stepped out onto the factory floor.

Speaker 3:
This is a milk chocolate, and so they pipe in tempered chocolate. Tempers is a process, as part of chocolate making that is done by those machines, heating and cooling it to give it a particular crystal structure. And then they put it in here and this becomes the center of our truffle bar, so that happens here in the kitchen. And then it gets piped over the side into the bar moulds, which we’ll show you downstairs.

Gina Colucci:
This was a huge warehouse and you could smell the chocolate and the ingredients. It’s like an orange back there?

Speaker 3:
You got orange, you got a little something like a cinnamon or clove or something. Yeah.

Gina Colucci:
There were machines and tubes and refrigerators, workers moving about in a very systematic way, and there were conveyor belts, and used moulds for the chocolate. Everything was very orderly and intentional. Each worker knew exactly what they were doing. You could tell that the systems in place were working very well.

Speaker 3:
What I’m going to show you now is our bar line where we make our bars.

Gina Colucci:
I almost felt like we were in Willy Wonka.

Speaker 3:
So this is a jcoco mould, in fact, so there’s nine bars up on a single molds and it goes through the line. Basically what happens is, there’s a deposit of chocolate here. This plate comes down and compresses it into a shell, and then here, they put the center in that we saw upstairs in the kitchen. Whoever’s standing in this position will put like nuts or what we call inclusion could be raising, could be cherry or something go in here by hand. And then the centers go in. They make their way through a cooling tunnel and get bottomed. So there’s three layers that are made on this line. And then they go back through the cooling tunnel, you can see the robotic arms, take the bars out of the moulds and put them on a conveyor belt. I think this is the quinoa sesame bar for jcoco.

Gina Colucci:
We headed over to the production area and it was a combination of some state-of-the-art machinery and some old machines. And you could tell the people working there have had a lot of experience maintaining these old machines. They didn’t even skip a beat when something broke.

Speaker 3:
A lot of them have been here 15 years, 10 years. They’re really good at keeping these machines working. And so she’s literally fixing it right now, she’s not calling over the engineer. She’s like, “I know how to do this.”

Gina Colucci:
How many different flavors are in production at once?

Speaker 3:
Well, we have two machines. One that makes the truffles and one that makes the bars and they’ll run at 300 pound batches so just one at a time.

Gina Colucci:
Both machines produce 300 pounds of chocolate per batch, which seems like a lot. But when you think about it over a year, the whole factory produces a million pounds of chocolate.

Speaker 3:
And this is the quinoa sesame bar that I thought it was.

Gina Colucci:
The two brands are very distinct. Seattle chocolate is your classic chocolate bar with a variety of fun flavors and colorful packaging and partners with talented artists. And then jcoco is the luxury chocolate bar, which can be more adventurous with the flavors.

Jean Thompson:
Basically our purpose in life is to brighten people’s day with chocolate. So Seattle chocolate is really how we do that. And jcoco goes in a little bit of a different direction for chocolate. 10 years ago, we’re in our 10th year of jcoco and I wanted a product that wasn’t regionally named so we came up with jcoco and J is for Jean and cacao is for chocolate. And this one is kind of going more in the, I’m going to say, foodie, artisan food kind of direction, where we’re really celebrating chocolate, like a cacao product.

Jean Thompson:
So this is what has happened in wine and beer and in the spirits and coffee even. We’re trying to be part of a sort of a renaissance for chocolate, for cacao. Cacao been around for millennia, literally. And then somehow it got sort of relegated to the candy aisle and what happens in the candy aisle, I love candy, but there’s only a certain amount people are willing to pay for it.

Jean Thompson:
All chocolate is extremely labor intensive. It starts in some sort of equatorial nation very far away, farmers, fermentation, drying, roasting, winnowing, refining and then it gets to us. And then we further temper and mould and wrap and sell and market and goes to the brokers. I mean, there’s 15 people that touch that chocolate bar and everybody’s adding a lot of value, and yet you’re only charging $2 for it? I mean, it’s just not there.

Jean Thompson:
So what’s happening is, with the farmers are not eking out a very good living and it’s a real problem for the whole industry. I feel what needs to happen is that we just celebrate chocolate much like you’ll pay $4.50 for a coffee. That’s literally a steeped bean and some milk added to it, I mean, I know there’s a lot of art there, but it’s not an expensive. And you don’t bat an eyelash at it but then you’re like, “Oh my gosh, $3 for chocolate bar?” Because you don’t understand. And you think of it as a cheap bar or cheap candy.

Jean Thompson:
So jcoco is all about sort of furthering the chocolate renaissances, I’ve coined that. I did a Ted talk in 2019 on this. And at the end of the day, I believe it’s the low prices on chocolate and this artificially low ceiling and low perceived value of chocolate. We think of it as a candy at Halloween and Easter that kids should eat and it’s cheap, but it’s not. It can be an amazing delicacy, but the chocolate makers are pinched by this situation. Because if you can’t charge enough for the chocolate, then you can’t afford to pay more for the chocolate. And here we stay in this catch-22.

Jean Thompson:
The chocolate industry just needs people to understand the nuances of the cacao bean. Do people know it’s a fermented product? Do people know that it’s grown on a tree and that the pods look a certain way and that there’s 10 different varietals, like there are varietals of wine. So there’s so much knowledge that that’s kind of our mission here at the tour. You can come on a tour and we educate you a little bit about the history of chocolate and how we make it, and then there’s the tasting wheel that you’re looking at here. It looks familiar if you’ve ever gone on a wine tasting. Of course the adjectives are different for chocolate. Chocolate is stringent, chocolate is bitter, chocolate is acidic, that’s part of the beauty of it. But the balance of those things, you’re going to have a personal preference on.

Jean Thompson:
So when you taste the chocolate, you’re going to think about, oh, this one’s very acidic, it tastes like fruit, it tastes like whatever, it tastes like malic acid, or like an apple, or it tastes like acidic acid, like vinegar, or it tastes like other acids, but you’ll be able to sort of put words to it. And I think then you’ll start developing your own preferences. So we’re all about furthering this and jcoco is how we do it. That’s kind of the difference and the reason why we have two brands.

Jean Thompson:
So we have, I think 11 flavors in the line and these gift boxes have 10 of them, so I’m going to use those. They’re missing the Alaskan smoked sea salt is not in these boxes so I can use the box as a cheat sheet. So we’ve got a 72% dark with nibs from that bean in Peru. All this chocolate is from Peru, by the way, I forgot that key part. And then next we have white chocolate with orange and cayenne pepper, which is an amazing accompaniment to a smoked whiskey.

Jean Thompson:
And then you have the mango plantain, which are first dried chunks of mango, and then crispy plantain chips in a milk chocolate. And our milk just to point out is 47% cacao. So by contrast, there are everyday chocolate bars in the grocery store that the darks are 45% and a milk chocolate for some of our products that we won’t name are less than 20% cacao, the rest of it is all fillers and sugar and stuff. So this is a very interesting milk chocolate, because it’s got a lot of cacao in it.

Jean Thompson:
The orange blossom espresso is a milk chocolate with orange and espresso. People love that sort of classic European. This one’s my personal favorite because it’s 85% dark, so only 15% sugar like healthy on almost any diet and it’s from a single varietal bean. So it’s not a blend, it’s like Amarillo or a Cabernet grape, where it’s one cacao bean. And there’s only 10 different cacao beans that are identified in nature so far, despite the fact that there’s probably hundreds and they’ve been around for millennia. It’s just lays way behind the other sort of artisan foods. Smoked sea salt, which is milk chocolate with sea salt and toffee that became popular because it’s given away on Alaska airlines to the frequent flyers.

Gina Colucci:
That was so good.

Jean Thompson:
So you’re frequent flyer. The Coconut pecan and then the fig pistachio which is our best seller. And I know I did miss the Edamame sea salt, because I can see that. And then you saw this one being made today, the quinoa Sesame.

Gina Colucci:
I snuck bite.

Jean Thompson:
Snuck a bite, and what did you think?

Gina Colucci:
It was so good. The Sesame, it was so distinctive.

Jean Thompson:
So we wanted to do something with quinoa. We crisped this so it’s like a Nestle crunch bar if you will, but instead of rice is quinoa, but missed a little something. So we added a little Sesame and it rounds the whole thing out. It’s one of my faves.

Gina Colucci:
How many versions do you go through in trying to create one flavor?

Jean Thompson:
Like the R&D process? And the R&D process is one of the most fun things that we do at this company and it’s actually been impacted greatly by COVID where we’re not all in the office. But when we have an idea, so anybody, someone from manufacturing, retail, everybody has ideas here. I was out and I had a salad and had fig and pistachio on it, next thing you know, you got an idea for a bar. So you go in and Ruby I was mentioning, she goes into the lab and she tries it in milk. She tries it in dark, she tries it with this much, that much, what if I add a little bit of cinnamon, what if I add?

Jean Thompson:
And she tries all these different things and then we taste some as we just all sit in the same conference room and privately, quietly, no one talking, take notes so that nobody was influenced, till everybody had an opportunity to be heard. And then we’ll be like, “This one’s good, but we need more figs or whatever it might be.” Or “We liked this one, but could you do it in a darker dark?” Because it really matters especially with this Peruvian chocolate, this 72% dark from Peru has a lot of cherry notes in it or fig notes, I would say.

Jean Thompson:
So what happens when we paired it with the figs and the pistachio because we had done it before in a sort of more Belgian chocolate that was more fudgy in flavor profile and it was good, and it was our most popular. When we put it in this one, the figs were two X in terms of their flavor impression because it complimented and it was like sort of accentuated by the natural cacao notes. We had tried it in a 72 from Nicaragua, which was delicious and it completely obscured the fig. You couldn’t taste the fig at all. It really matters which chocolate you choose. And that’s sort of what we do here, we’re like the chefs at the end of the line, we’re the ones that are like, “We’ll take this good ingredient, this good ingredient, but these are the ones that go best together.”

Gina Colucci:
So your favorite is the 85?

Jean Thompson:
The 85, yeah. Not a lot of sugar in it, but a lot of energy, good quality energy that I don’t get any kind of a crash from, and it’s delicious and I just need a little piece.

Gina Colucci:
And then do you have any new flavors of this one coming out that you haven’t finished?

Jean Thompson:
We just came out with the mango plantain and the orange blossom espresso last year and then all new chocolate, just two months ago where the fact that it’s in a 47 and a new 72 and a new 61, all four flavors, except for the 85 we had last year, are brand new. So everything’s really, really different. So we decided it not to muck up the message with another flavor, but I have a little of idea brewing for a bit of a line extension.

Gina Colucci:
I’m curious to know about your personal career path.

Jean Thompson:
I mean, my story is an example of there is no straight path in anyone’s career and I always tell young kids, don’t worry about it. Just the next job that’s interesting to you and you’ll end up where you want to be. So for me, it started in technology, that third of my career ended at Microsoft which was such a fun place to be in the late eighties, early nineties. So lucky, right place at the right time, a lot of the reason why I’m able to even own a company like this was thanks to Microsoft. And then I took 10 years as an at home mom, so I have two kids and one is 30 and one is 24.

Jean Thompson:
And when he was born, my 30 year old, all of a sudden, it just didn’t seem that important to me. Excel, advertising or SQL server, white papers and the stuff that I was doing, I was like, “It’s boring.” Or it’s not really even boring, it just doesn’t seem as important. So I stayed home and volunteered in schools and in this towns and that kind of thing. And then when my girl who’s now 24 went off to kindergarten, I wanted to do something. And we were already investors in this company and it was failing just year after year, I just wasn’t able to pull it together and it was in probably its ninth year of existence and still not able to cover payroll.

Jean Thompson:
I will add that it was a little difficult because in 2001 there was an earthquake that leveled the building that we were renting. We didn’t have earthquake insurance. That was the Nisqually quake and it didn’t do a lot of damage, but it completely destroyed the area of SoDo, was kind of landfill or something and it just had this ripple effect and it destroyed this little brick building that we were in. So it was a real turning point for the company in its history and it would’ve gone out of business if my family didn’t step up and say, “All right, we’ll pay for you to move the equipment and we’ll retrofit the facility,” which we did in South Park.

Jean Thompson:
Then the very next year they still couldn’t cover payroll. So it was like, “Oh my God, how hard is this?” And I think I said that to my now ex-husband and he was like, “Well, if you’re so smart, why don’t you give it a shot?” And I was looking for something, I thought what I would do is just pitch in with sort of marketing and sales, because that was really where I thought that they were hurting. Within three months, the person who was running the company quit.

Jean Thompson:
Because I was the owner at that point after having invested in moving the facility, I became the majority owner and so I had opinions. I’m like, “Why are we not doing a Valentine product? And this is not appealing to women, the people that I know and me because I am the target audience.” So as at that point, we’re not always gifting chocolate sometimes we’re just buying chocolate to eat it because we want the mood enhancer or whatever. And so we just clashed and he quit three months into the assignment. And I was the owner, so I had to face, oh my gosh, now what do I do? I have no idea how to replace, we don’t have the money to replace a CEO. So I thought I had just gotten a bit of a taste of it and I also thought there was so much we could have done better. And I thought, well, I’ll try I don’t have anyone to answer to but myself.

Jean Thompson:
And that ultimately was the thing that gave me fortitude because I thought, well, I don’t have a board of directors, I don’t have investors, I really just have to please myself and do what I think is right. And that’s basically what I’ve been doing for the last 19 years. The learning curve was incredibly steep. I knew nothing. I was truly the first manufacturing facility I’d ever stepped foot and like the second warehouse, the first one was Costco. So I mean, I just didn’t know anything about it. I’d never run a business before. I just have a bachelor of science and psychology and a background in communications and marketing. So not very well equipped to take on a job of a CEO.

Gina Colucci:
Rewind really quick. Why did you even invest in Seattle chocolate?

Jean Thompson:
That just is the chocolate love, like “Oh, this is cool. We like this chocolate and the machines have a lot of untapped potential.” We thought that it would be a good investment. So we’re one of maybe a dozen investors and it’s been a life changing thing for me.

Gina Colucci:
What do you think giving into that position, not having any experience, what was the one thing that really kept you moving forward?

Jean Thompson:
I think proving to myself and my family and friends and the community at large that I could do it, because I really didn’t think I could for many, well, at least a decade. I didn’t think I could. I was like, “Oh, I’m not the right person for this job. Maybe it’s not even a viable business.” It’s just that hard. And I think this is true of really all small companies. It’s this journey or a series of one step forward and two steps back. Sometimes it’s two step forwards and one step back and that’s been a good year. And it’s a string of 19 of those together that gets you where you are today.

Jean Thompson:
And I don’t even know who it was some funny baseball quote of like, we could have won, we just needed more innings. And I feel if you are willing to stick it out for as long as is needed, you’ll probably be successful, you’ll probably figure it out. But sometimes you run out of funding and you run out of whatever and I’ve been that’s where it’s thank to Microsoft for having given me that foundation where I could just keep sticking with it.

Gina Colucci:
When was the turning point where you were like, “Oh, wait, I’m good at this. Now it’s starting to be successful?”

Jean Thompson:
I think I’m sort of an undying optimist. There were times where I had a crisis of identity where I was like, “I think maybe I’m the wrong person for this business. It’s a good product and I don’t understand why we can’t succeed.” And then I had this group that I’m still a member of called Entrepreneur Organization, basically other entrepreneurs who were my peers, business leaders and I asked the question one day I’m like, “I just need to know if I should replace myself. I mean, it’s my money, my investment. Am I being foolish trying to be the person who runs it?” And they had the best stories to tell me where basically my takeaway was, I am the best person for this job by definition because it’s my company and I’ll take it in the direction that only I would take it in and no one else would take it in that direction.

Jean Thompson:
And it’s not necessarily the most lucrative or fastest growing, whatever, but it’s my company, an expression of what I love. That was a turning point for me where I was like, “I’m just going to forgive myself.” Maybe it taking a little longer than somebody else would’ve taken because as long as you’re enjoying it. I guess what’s always been my north stars, are you doing the right thing? Never compromising on the quality, even though maybe it would’ve been better to have a bigger profit margin, just, no. I’m going to do what’s right and I’m going to use recycled paper and I’m going to because even as for costly it’s better. And then you feel good about yourself. Now I’m 20 years older, and what’s important to me has changed because when I first joined, I had two relatively young children and they were the center of my universe and education and that kind of thing. And then as you get older, now the whole world is something that I feel I need to make difference in.

Jean Thompson:
And so environmentally, what am I doing as a company? And even little things like as a consumer, try to go even a day without using something plastic, you can’t, your toothpaste is in plastic. So I feel like if every company took it as their own personal objective to provide products that are environmentally friendly, then gives consumers a choice because you can’t do it as a consumer. You don’t have the ability, you still have to live your life. So we have the compostable twist wraps where they used to be plastic and big effort is only one vendor. And they’re in France that provides this outrageous expensive, doesn’t work that well in our machines, my operations vice president is like, “Really? Ah.” And I’m like, “Yeah, because if we don’t do it, it’s not going to get better than the world stays where it’s at.” So that fuels me because I feel like I’m making a difference in my little corner of the world.

Speaker 4:
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Gina Colucci:
What’s your vision for the future of the chocolate industry?

Jean Thompson:
I would like to see chocolate treated as a craft food that gets a tremendous amount of respect for the complexity and the variety and the craft of producing it, whether it’s from the farmer, what they do on the ground there to the maker who’s roasting and bringing forth the flavor profile and then delivering a great confection. There’s so many people that work hard, and I want people understand that it isn’t an inexpensive junky food. It needs to get respect along the lines of honestly wine and coffee and I mean, it should be commanding the same price because when that happens, everything will fall into place.

Jean Thompson:
Nobody’s trying to keep the farmers down. Nobody wants them to be suffering and struggling, but if we want to pay $2 for a chocolate bar, I don’t know how you’re going to do anything else. Honestly, you have to pay them more money so that they can have better lives. So that’s my dream of the future for chocolate, and I believe that if you educate them and they’ll understand and they taste and see, wow, no, two 72% dark taste the same. The one from jcoco tastes different than the one from name the competitor. And they’re all interesting and they’re all good. Go on that journey and taste them all and bring them into your life and come to understand what makes them unique.

Gina Colucci:
I didn’t know that they were just 10 cacao beans.

Jean Thompson:
This is new. It’s literally in the last five years that the scientists at universities all around the world have tried to put some genetics sort of testing into cacao and have identified and named 10 different varietals. That’s new.

Gina Colucci:
And we all kind of know the health benefits of chocolate, but what are some that, I mean, you’ve said, kind of is a natural pick up. What are some other benefits that you’ve kind of noticed yourself?

Jean Thompson:
I guess for me, it’s a mood elevator too, but it is the number one food that’s highest in antioxidants, double the next closest one, which I think might be walnuts and blueberries and all these things get such a, “Oh, so many antioxidants.” Nobody has more antioxidants than cacao. But usually comes with a lot of sugar so people feel guilty and there’s this like a lot of sort of baggage around chocolate for generation after generation of, “It’s so fattening.”

Jean Thompson:
But the reality is that 85% dark bar is the most fattening bar in our line because it’s loaded with cocoa butter which is such a hard, healthy fat. And yet it’s only 150 calories for that little bar. I mean, a muffin or whatever you’re going to buy at Starbucks that’s like carrot or zucchini is 450 calories. So it’s really not that fattening and it’s such an intense energy source. So it’s a source of magnesium, it even has protein, it has fiber, it’s a very healthy snack. I’m going to go get one of those 85s for you to taste right now. Because if I talk about it again, without you having a chance to taste it.

Gina Colucci:
Okay, we’re going to try this.

Jean Thompson:
So kind of let it melt in your mouth when you’re eating chocolate, it melts at like 90 degrees. It’s very similar to the human melting body temperature. Sorry. And I think that’s part of the magic of it is that it does melt in your mouth, but you do need a minute. And when you’re tasting chocolate really tasting anything, the nose plays a really integral part. You smell it. And then you have to let it kind of, you breathe in either hard or soft and you’re going to get a different flavor notes, because there’s a lot of volatiles in chocolate.

Jean Thompson:
There’s tons and tons of layers of substances that are in there. And so if you give it time and if you get the slightest little inkling like, “Did I just taste a banana? Couldn’t be.” It was in there but it doesn’t necessarily last. It just comes and goes and there’s this big party of flavors going on in your mouth with a piece of chocolate that really has been well processed to deliver the cacao. Tell me a little bit about the flavor notes you’re experiencing as you-

Gina Colucci:
For me, when I think of dark chocolate, I think of bitter and you do get that first kind of bitter bite, but then when it’s starting to melt, you experience all these other flavors and kind of leaving it on your tongue for a little bit longer than just like chewing and swallowing really quick.

Jean Thompson:
That’s so interesting too, because you should have bitter notes in chocolate. Certain things are bitter and certain things are stringent and you know them and chocolate is a bitter, a stringent and acidic product. And so when it’s well processed, it has a balance of those three. You’re not like, “Oh my God, it’s so stringent I can’t stand it like dry mouth kind of thing.” Or too acidic. I happen to like acidic is my favorite. But when you balance the three, that’s what it should be, very satisfying. Need a lot of that.

Gina Colucci:
You still watering from it and [crosstalk 00:26:07]

Jean Thompson:
You’ll still have a link lingering aftertaste, which is actually good. You don’t want it to dissipate right away. I mean, you want it to linger on and it’s going to change. And just like with a glass, a sip of wine, you want that lingering.

Gina Colucci:
What else? So when someone sits down and they’re not maybe well versed in the chocolate industry, what’s the first thing that they should know when choosing a chocolate or off a shelf or when they eat it, what’s that kind of like, “Oh, this is quality.”

Jean Thompson:
If it’s not gritty, you don’t want it to be gritty and you don’t want it to have any kind of, I wouldn’t say chalky kind of consistency, it should be creamy. And it should have a certain snap, like you put the microphone up against the bar when you first opened it, it does need to have a snap that says it’s in temper, it should have a sheen to it and then smell it. If it doesn’t have much of an experience, that’s not that interesting.

Jean Thompson:
And then when you taste it, it shouldn’t have any kind of bizarre off notes that tastes like garbage or something. And not being facetious, I mean, if it got a little moulds in it or something, it wasn’t properly dried or fermented, there’s so much that can go wrong really and you can taste it. So if you taste those off notes and also don’t give up on that manufacturer, because it could be that they just had a bad batch. I mean, this is an art just as much as a science, you’re going to have some good batches maybe and bad batches, the ideas to try to be consistent. And that’s why we have the automated tempering equipment and everything, because it does make it more consistent. And then it’s just whether you found it interesting, there’s no right or wrong.

Gina Colucci:
What should customers consider when buying chocolate?

Jean Thompson:
I think the thing people really look for at the end of the day is the flavor. This is an indulgence, this is something you’re doing to lift your spirits. It tends to be kind of a mood oriented thing so it should be something that’s delicious and that you enjoy. And it’s a very subjective thing. So you just have to kind of know that. But then I think you do have an opportunity with any brand and anything that you buy to selected based on sort of the values of the company. So you align yourself. If you care about the environment and they do good things there, you like that. If they have a sustainability story that appeals to you, that you feel is good and clean, that is important to you. So we just tell our story and then I know that the consumers that think similarly about these things will come our way.

Gina Colucci:
Are there any other chocolate facts that we should know?

Jean Thompson:
Let me think about that a minute. A lot of people are confused, is white chocolate chocolate, or they’re quite sure it’s not. And actually it is. If it’s made from real cocoa butter, because when you have the cocoa bean and you grind it down, you get two parts, one is brown and it’s called cocoa liquor or cocoa solids. And the other is kind of white-ish and that is the fat, very high in fat chocolate.

Jean Thompson:
And fat is good, that’s what you’re supposed to be burning. I mean that’s what these keto and other diets are all about. Cocoa butter is really quite a premium lux ingredient. It’s used in pharmaceuticals, it’s used in cosmetics and it’s used in chocolate. The white chocolate bar is that, it’s just the cocoa butter. It doesn’t have any of the cocoa solids. Now it doesn’t have the antioxidants that the cocoa solids give you. But the cocoa butter is one of those rare saturated fats that is actually good for your heart like an avocado. It’s solid at room temperature, but it’s still good for your cardiovascular system. So it’s just healthy in every way. And white chocolate is chocolate.

Gina Colucci:
Good to hear. I realized, I didn’t know anything about chocolate. I didn’t know where it came from or how it was made or even the history of it.

Jean Thompson:
It’s one of the oldest crops in the world. Early, early on the Aztecs and the Mayans used it, 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, it got to the US and became kind of the candy that it really didn’t get the respect that it deserves.

Jean Thompson:
And it’s interesting because people will be like, “It tastes like fruit.” and they can’t figure out what fruit and it’s because the fruit they’re tasting is cacao and they don’t have that in their database. They’ve never had it before so they don’t know how to identify that flavor. So they often will, I didn’t know, kind of plum or cherry and they’ll find a fruit in their vocabulary that they’ve tasted. So if you go to an international tasting, people from other countries will use different fruit. I don’t even know what they’d say, bread fruit, just like a bread fruit. We’re like, “What’s a bread fruit?” So we can’t describe it that way. But you know, we can use the word plum and understand it.

Gina Colucci:
And so is cacao really considered a fruit?

Jean Thompson:
Yeah. So it’s grown on a tree, it’s grown in a pod, that’s the fruit. When you open it up, it has beans or seeds inside and the seeds which we call beans, I don’t know why they should just call them seeds because they are seeds, that’s the basis of chocolate, cocoa beans.

Gina Colucci:
I just didn’t know it was a fruit. I wondered if Jean always had a sensitive palette.

Jean Thompson:
I ate chocolate my whole life and my mother used to hide chocolate that I would discover. And so chocolate’s always been part of my life, but it was a different chocolate. I mean, my palette has really changed as I go around the world eating chocolate. I mean, I love eating chocolate. So I go wherever I am. I was just in Lithuania and Estonia a couple weeks ago looking for chocolate. It’s not a big chocolate culture by the way and was like, “where’s the chocolate?” But so I think I’ve just developed my vocabulary based on being 19 years in the business. I don’t think I came to the table. My mother used to literally boil vegetables. I mean, boil for 20 minutes from a can. So it’s not like I grew up in a culture that was very sophisticated but I’ve gotten better at it.

Gina Colucci:
And I loved it when we were in the other room where you were like, “This actually goes really well with whiskey.” So do you do any other pairings?

Jean Thompson:
There’s a whole section on our jcoco chocolate, the jcoco section of our website, discover jcocos what’s called, and each product we’ve got restaurateurs, chefs and like sommeliers to take our chocolate and recommend pairings and recommend recipes, so there’s all kinds of good content there. I mean, there’s so much you can do with chocolate it isn’t just for dessert. It’s food.

Gina Colucci:
Thank you to Jean Thompson for a riveting tour and lesson on chocolate. If you want to learn more about Seattle chocolate factory tours, head to their website at seattlechocolatefactory.com. And here’s one final reason to love Seattle chocolate, they have now partnered with Girls Inc. a nonprofit organization inspiring all girls to be strong, smart, and bold through direct service and advocacy.

Jean Thompson:
We’re partnering with Girls Inc. which is a national nonprofit that’s all about helping girls find their voice and giving them opportunity to discover what it is that they want to do with their life. And so we’re going to donate 10% of our net profits to that organization with the sale of every Seattle chocolate product and that’s our way of saying, “We’re going to invest in the future of girls and women.”

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 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, we meet up with GeekWire chairman and angel investor, Jonathan Sposato at his family home in Seattle. I

Speaker 5:
I would try to use as few of the current buzzwords as possible, but it really is important I think for us to always understand the dynamics of power and privilege in any room, whether you are just at a meeting with work colleagues or you’re a member of a board. And to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table and that you help those who for whatever reason, have a little bit less of a voice and try to equal a playing field.

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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Canlis Site

MAKE RESERVATION

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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.

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