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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 | 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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