CoCA Settles in the Design Center

Most of the Seattle Design Center showcases furniture and interiors. But in room 258, loud speakers line one wall and sheets hang in the middle of the room, showing video projections by artist Carrie Bodle. It’s not exactly homey, so why is it here?

When the economy went bust and the bottom fell out of the interior design business, the Seattle Design Center found itself with a lot of interior and not much design. The Center, a monolithic complex buried deep in a Georgetown office park, was watching its large showrooms empty as the furniture and fabric retailers who filled them for the last 40 years moved out.

A sort of shopping mall devoted to the needs of architects, contractors and interior designers, the Center had few options for filling the space. Then, in January 2010, art came to the rescue.

“We began with an installation from SOIL, the arts cooperative, and that was really our starting point,” says the Center’s marketing manager Craig Cross. “It’s really good use of the space. It fits the gallery setting really well and I like that it’s a little edgy. The design industry gets a little vanilla, so it’s nice to push the line a little.”

In the past two years, the Center has been growing into a visual arts pod, opening its showrooms to numerous galleries, and, for one week this spring, the building held 32 exhibitions for the 46th annual conference for the National Council for the Education in the Ceramic Arts (NCECA). The conference brought in 6,000 people in that one week, an unusual site for a complex that usually sees only 45 customers a day.

Cross hopes the Design Center’s latest long-term tenant, the Center on Contemporary Art, will continue that momentum. The 31-year-old Seattle institution celebrated the opening of a new 4,000-square-foot space at the Center last month. For the next year it will help breathe new life into the Center while also working to revive its own reputation, which has faltered since CoCA moved out of a dream space on Dexter Avenue five years ago.

“We’ve been actively looking for a home ever since we moved out of Dexter,” says CoCA board president Ray Freeman. “Coming out of that space we had some debts and obligations to take care of.”

While keeping a permanent home at the Shilsole Bay Beach Club and a smaller storefront in Belltown, CoCA has been on the hunt for another large, semi-permanent space. They briefly moved into the old Elliott Bay Book Company space in Pioneer Square and toyed with the idea of making that home. After that deal dissolved, though, Freeman turned to the Design Center, which had been on his map ever since that SOIL show. Now, in addition to setting up shop at the Center, he is working with other tenants to give it an identity in the arts world, as ART@SDC.

“A lot of people don’t realize, because the building has been around for a while, that its now open to the public,” Freeman says before Cross interjects.

“The funny and frustrating thing is that this building has been open to the public for nearly 22 years,” Cross says. “It’s just like the greatest secret in the world.”

Pictured above: Carrie Bodle’s installation at CoCA. Photo by Nate Watters.