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A Beautiful Explosion

Elder, De Armas and Hofmann at work. Photo by Steve Korn

 

The artists of Electric Coffin are helping define Seattle’s landscape—
one giant squid at a time.

Trove, the six-month-old pan-Asian restaurant on Capitol Hill, throbs like a living thing. An energized Thursday-night crowd radiates a warm din under a ceiling painted the vivid red of an internal organ. Exposed ducts and HVAC tubes stretch through the space like arteries carrying sweet meat smoke from tabletop hibachis. Iris-colored wallpaper speckled with Space Needles and Godzillas lines the restroom hall. Hanging on the wall of the cocktail bar is a giant, gilt-framed painting that depicts Mt. Rainier spewing neon-orange lava into a bruise-purple sky. Diners and drinkers linger in the bustle.

On their way out, a couple stops to order frozen custards, served from a full-sized ice cream truck parked by the front door. They fail to notice the peephole inside the gas cap, set about knee-high. A look inside reveals a miniature diorama: Godzilla attacking the Space Needle.


This is not a place you visit and forget. More than most restaurants, Trove has 
vibe. As in vibration. Trove feels like action.

Across town, Westward sits on the shore of Lake Union like a steamship ready to push off from its gravel mooring and cruise into the Seattle skyline. Aside from its dramatic waterfront setting, the most striking visual aspect of the year-and-a-half-old seafood restaurant is a 25-foot-long model ship, its interior visible in cross-section, revealing breadbox-sized chambers that each contain a tiny, 3-D diorama—an angry yeti, a professional wrestling match, a great white shark swimming with a unicorn. Plus life-size bottles of booze, full of actual booze. Because this high-fantasy art installation is Westward’s back bar.

The food at Westward is superb. But it wasn’t the menu that garnered the place a 2014 James Beard Nomination for Outstanding Restaurant Design. It was the space, and specifically the ship that launched a thousand Instagrams. It, like the whole interior of Trove, was conceived, constructed and installed by the three-man collective known as Electric Coffin.

Patrick “Duffy” De Armas, Justin Kane Elder and Stefan Hofmann have worked together as Electric Coffin for four years. In that time they’ve been let loose on a slew of interior spaces across the Northwest with orders to tilt each one toward the unexpected. Trove is their most extensive project so far; Westward the most celebrated. They also worked on Joule, the Fremont restaurant owned by the same restaurateurs as Trove; the Hollywood Tavern in Woodinville, owned by the same restaurant group as Westward; EVO, the homegrown snow-sports store in Wallingford that recently opened a new, Electric Coffin-designed store in Portland; and Via6, the high-profile high-rise apartment towers in Belltown.

Their style explodes in three dimensions with Skittles-bright colors and meticulous, ridiculous details. It lands somewhere between the Midcentury hot-rod cartoonery of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, the salacious-but-refined lowbrow paintings of Robert Williams, the childlike handcrafted charm of Wes Anderson and the hypermodern maximalism of Takashi Murakami. Their work pulls from the restless mania of three fanatic skaters and snowboarders who’ve harbored their own iconoclastic, artistic inclinations since childhood. The trio matches its collective imagination with individual skills in fabrication—carpentry, mechanics, metalwork, screenprinting, airbrushing—a rare combination that puts Electric Coffin in the design/build category that’s highly sought after by architecture firms and marketing departments alike.

Electric Coffin’s mondo-destructo/punk-funk/industrial-artistic aesthetic is unprecedented in Seattle. Over the past 10 years, restaurants and retail spaces have sprouted an urban forest of reclaimed barnwood, corralled a menagerie of taxidermy and wrought enough blackened iron to gird a medieval prison. Owing to a devout sense of history and perhaps a sense of that history vanishing, the hunting lodge, the faux dive and the oyster shell are the traditional touchstones of Northwest design. These have been done well—over and over—and they’ll forever remain part of the regional visual vocabulary. But as the Northwest continues its inexorable march into the 21st century, those designs will be augmented by new visual cues. Electric Coffin speaks a homegrown slang that deftly describes the post-Millennial world.

“Their creativity is born out of an irreverence to some of the stuff that was done before,” says Jim Graham of Graham Baba Architects, who worked with Electric Coffin on Via6 and Westward. “I appreciate that about those guys. Architects take themselves far too seriously. That’s not to say that we should drape the entire world in Electric Coffin—that wouldn’t work either, because then how do you judge it? But that’s why it’s so exciting. We’re starved for their work right now.”

 

There are too many chairs in Electric Coffin’s Ballard HQ. Far more chairs than people to sit in them, even when the three guys and their intern are all present. Plastic shell chairs, metal wire chairs, vintage office chairs—more than a dozen around the office, which is situated up a steep flight of stairs from a giant construction warehouse filled with paint and power tools.

“We have a serious chair problem,” De Armas says. “We love chairs. It gets to a point where they’re not useful.”

To put it mildly, the decor is eclectic. One wall is opaque corrugated plastic, giving off a mellow glow in the afternoon sunlight. Eighties action figures stand sentry on desktops next to Power Macs, beer cans and whiskey bottles. A blackboard is covered with doodles and agenda items. The disembodied hood of a Camaro leans against a wall, screenprinted and acid-distressed, a piece of De Armas’ art exhibition showing at AXIS Gallery this summer. Beside it is a big metal sign for “Squid Inc.” that looks like it was found at the bottom of a scrap heap after languishing for decades.

Turns out Electric Coffin built the sign in 2013, mixing salvaged metal letters, pages from ’70s porn mags, airbrushed paint and custom neon. Squid Inc., De Armas tells me, is a fictional company they dreamed up as an art project and then designed 150 years of backstory for, including print ads, packaging artifacts and a subtitled, French-language biographical documentary (“Their miracle-cure squid ink battled ailments from halitosis to boot rot and could be found across the nation—and the world!”). They mounted a show at Bherd Gallery in Greenwood, displaying phony vintage ephemera with painter Kellie Talbot’s photorealistic oil images of Squid Inc. signage.

The project was meant as “a discussion about the reverence for classic Americana analog,” as De Armas diplomatically puts it. Like all of Electric Coffin’s work, it was a playful discussion. It involved some nose-thumbing—a fake brand imbued with fake character via the group’s skills and an intentionally obtuse backstory. It was the gallery version of their commercial work, both of which follow the same dictate: If you can’t source the object you envision from salvage, make it from scratch. Make it look old, worn, real. And make it fun.

The design aesthetic of the moment, as seen on Pinterest and in the pages of Dwell and Kinfolk, is rather serious. Conservative. Twee. It fetishizes the old, whether vintage furniture, reclaimed wood or a dying dive bar. If it’s old, it’s beautiful, even precious. The Electric Coffin guys appreciate old stuff—the vintage chairs, the Camaro hood, the G.I. Joes—but they appreciate it as a medium, not as an end to itself. They pay it the honor of destroying it so they can give it new life.

“Recontextualization of cultural icons,” Hofmann says. “At the EVO storefront we built totems, animals stacked on top of animals. You start creating narrative out of these kinds of things, almost a pop-icon sensibility. You put it in this candy shell but it contains more expansive concepts of idealism and cultural identities.”

De Armas: “Everyone’s trying to wax their pants now instead of buying Gore-Tex. Like, ‘I drink out of a mason jar!’ Just because you’re buying a mason jar you’re still a consumer. You’re idolizing the idea of consuming.”

Elder: “We’re electrifying dead things, dead images and concepts that have been lost that we dig up, these archeological finds.”

The name Electric Coffin applies to the group’s current obsession with monster reanimation, but De Armas came up with it years ago during his time in the University of Washington sculpture program. It just sounded cool, like the name of one of the hot-rod shops in Phoenix he grew up working in. De Armas moved to Seattle at 18 with no real game plan other than to get out of Arizona, make art and skate and snowboard as much as possible—which is how he met Hofmann and Elder.

Hofmann came from small-town Arizona and Reno to study at the UW sculpture program 10 years before De Armas. While in school he won a Fulbright Fellowship that sent him traveling through Southeast Asia for three years, taking photos and surfing. He spent the next 14 years traveling back and forth from Seattle to Bali, surfing there and snowboarding here. During that time he designed a logo to attach to the hand-knit beanies he imported and sold to friends. This now-iconic snowcat logo was the start of Spacecraft, a snow apparel business that still thrives today. When De Armas arrived in Seattle, he found work with Hofmann at Spacecraft.

Elder was raised in the rural woodlands outside Arlington, Wash., the feral child of survivalist-hippie parents who eventually moved the family to Seattle for a more conventional lifestyle. He graduated with an MFA in painting and sculpture from Cornish College of the Arts but found more practical work as a carpenter. After painting on his own and skating with De Armas for years, he gave up his day job and the three went all-in on Electric Coffin in 2011 with no strategy other than working on cool projects with friends, starting with a tentacle-creature disaster-scene coffee table installation for a pop-up shop in the New York Nordstrom.

“We don’t live in the real world,” De Armas says. “That’s one trait we all share.”

“None of us knows where we’re going,” Hofmann says.

“That approach has helped us,” Elder adds. “There is no Plan B.”

They clashed at the beginning. Three artists, three egos. One guy would spend hours working on a segment of a piece only to have another guy come in and, without so much as a blink, paint over it with a giant roller.

“We got into a lot of fights: ‘Dude, I just painted that and you just destroyed it!’” De Armas says. “People were leaving and yelling. We drank a lot of beer and talked about it. We’ve come to terms. You just do it and trust that we all know what we’re doing.”

“We were almost challenging each other, like we were children trying to understand the realm of truly collaborating and what that meant,” Hofmann says. Time and practice solved that problem. Overlap is now an intentional part of the process, a sort of interpersonal geologic layering of paint and paper and metal and plastic that gives their work physical depth and creates the illusion of the passage of time.

Snowboarders know the butterflies-in-the-belly feeling of carving a fresh line on a virgin run. And they know the feeling of following a friend’s fresh tracks, helixing them with your own, side by side, simultaneous but individual. The crossover between action sports and Electric Coffin’s gestural art is uncanny. Elegant chaos, controlled just long enough to finish the run.

“Creativity in motion,” Elder says. “Instead of using a canvas to express your creative vision you’re using the environment, whether it’s a bowl in a skate park or an open field of powder.”

“We made a conscious choice to let go,” Hofmann says.


Everything is up for grabs these
days—the way business is run, the way we brand and market, the way we run restaurants,” says Matthew Parker, lead designer of Huxley Wallace Collective, the restaurant group that built Westward. “We’re constantly changing old models and flipping them around and creating new ones. The design style those guys carry fits perfectly with these contradictions. And within contradictions things get exciting.”

Electric Coffin’s latest, greatest canvas is the city itself. As its population explodes, Seattle is building its own future to live and work and play in. Developers mostly hew to a bottom-line principle, wary of expenditures on risky design—which gives us the low-budget, low-concept eyesore architecture that’s turned swaths of the city into the urban equivalent of Ikea furniture.

Since their involvement with the Via6—one of the more visible projects in the city—Electric Coffin has been fielding more calls for commissions on large-scale commercial projects. They built a winter forest inside a yurt at the downtown REI that’s on display through the spring; REI corporate has since requested custom installations in each of their flagship stores nationwide. A new W Hotel is going up in Bellevue with space for a three-floor-tall mural in its lobby.  And they’re negotiating a contract to design the interior of a new high rise in South Lake Union, a two-year project that would involve creating multiple installations and art pieces for the entire building.

“We have an awesome opportunity and a legitimate responsibility to work with these people and make things that are progressive, thoughtful, interesting on multiple levels, not just to look at but also functional,” De Armas says. “Seattle is a weird little city that should’ve been bigger years ago and now we’re having this boom. Development’s happening regardless. We can affect the face of that development by infusing it with art.”

Ready yourself: Tomorrow’s Seattle will be airbrushed raspberry red and wrapped in giant-squid wallpaper. It will be expertly constructed, scaled mini to macro and rich with subtle visual humor. It will be brand-new but look ageless. It will be distinctly American—but an America that’s been blown up, reconfigured and reborn for a new era.

“There’s something intrinsically beautiful about an explosion,” Hofmann says. “Aside from the destruction, it represents rebirth. What comes from this? What’s the next new thing? And it’s hopeful in the sense that whatever it is, it might be better.”

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