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2002 Annual Design Review Environments Best of Category

By: Print Magazine | March 13, 2008


Too often, adventures in retro design end up reading like an oddball collection of visual non-sequiturs. Not at The Brig in Venice Beach, Calif., where 50 years of history are served up as deftly as apple martinis and draft beers.

Jurors commended the redesign of this venerable watering hole (circa 1948), by Los Angeles-based John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects Inc., for its sleek integration of old and new. “It’s a surreal oasis, like a David Lynch movie, a bold and refreshing experiment in texture and material,” McGowan observed. Although few traces of the original building remain (save its exterior signage and restored wall mural), the spirit of nostalgia lingers in accents such as the old-style mahogany bar and speckled terrazzo flooring, reminiscent of Rat Pack-era supper clubs. Terrazzo even engulfs the Liberace-style pink and lavender bathrooms, where vanities resembling inverted hair dryers pay homage to the beauty parlors of the Eisenhower generation.

Music notwithstanding, there’s a rhythm to the space, a flirtation between objects, such as the magnetism between a velvet-draped dj booth and the diaphanous “miniskirt” of luminous fabric surrounding the bar. Similarly, the burnished sheen of a stainless-steel table is narcissistically reflected in bent-aluminum shelving and a metallic wall of toothy linoleum.

The bar’s coup de grace, though, is its smart, empathetic answer to California’s contemporary smoking law, which prohibits patrons from lighting up inside. To avoid marginalizing the nicotine crowd, the architects engineered a 14-foot-long steel table with built-in ashtray that slides in and out of a retractable garage door. In warm weather, the garage door ascends into the ceiling, allowing table, chairs and clientele to spill out onto the front patio. In colder months, the ashtray end of the table simply slips through a custom-built mail slot in the door.

“It’s the coolest place you can go to in Venice,” Boym said. “The eclecticism doesn’t destroy the original building. Rather, it adds to its meaning.”

HOW DOES THE BAR’S DESIGN VOCABULARY SERVE AS A METAPHOR FOR THE COMMUNITY? Venice is a diverse place socially, racially and economically. Our materials, colors and textures definitely reflect that. We thought of this as an environment of cultural inclusion and treated it as though it were a public space—much like an Italian piazza. There aren’t many pedestrian-friendly places in Los Angeles, but this is one of them.

DID YOU USE ANY UNORTHODOX FINISHES OR FABRICATION PROCESSES? Some walls include a running-bond type pattern of metal and Micarta, a plastic typically used as a base for circuit boards. We also used relatively new or unknown materials such as Panelite, the honeycombed plastic, in the suspended ceiling grid. Lincrusta—the molded linoleum wallpaper cladding the bathroom area—ended up looking as though it were dripping wet when we painted it silver. Outside the restrooms is an acrylic flower vase suspended in a steel-framed mirror. The holes in the acrylic were bored for us by a rifle-maker.

DID OTHER DESIGNERS INFLUENCE YOU? The front of the bar has an operable window that pivots into a boxed steel frame, thus allowing smokers outside to interact with friends inside the window. The frame contains a mirror that blurs the boundary between window and wall, thereby de-materializing the entire corner. This was our crude nod to James Turrell. He did something similar 20 years ago.

THERE’S A FINE LINE BETWEEN NOSTALGIA AND KITSCH. HOW DID YOU STRIKE THAT BALANCE? We used building materials that alluded to nostalgia, but generally avoided memorabilia (save a few hanging photos of the bar’s original owner, boxer Babe Brandelli). For example, we made the bar a dark wood, which suggests the feeling of older places, but juxtaposed it with modern materials, such as aluminum and fiberglass.

Founded in 1995 in Los Angeles, John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects has completed projects for Irolo Senior Housing in Los Angeles, Yangsan Golf Club in Korea and Club Sugar in Santa Monica, Calif. Projects currently in design or construction include a public elementary school, Hollywood restaurant, public swimming hall and several private residences. Friedman holds degrees from MIT, Oxford and Harvard, the latter of which awarded him a masters of architecture in 1990. Kimm also holds a masters of architecture from Harvard (1990), as well as a bachelor’s degree in economics from Cornell

CLIENTS David Reiss (interior) and David Paris (exterior), Venice, Calif. DESIGN John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects Inc., Los Angeles: John Friedman, principal in charge of design; Alice Kimm, principal; John Martin, project designer; Joel Chichowski and Dan Brunn, designers; Mike Payne, terrazzo; Art Mortimer, muralist; Nathan Zakheim, mural restorer; Ilan Dei, fiberglass stools and chairs, lounge table; Doug Farren, millwork; Ronnie Fujinami, metal fabrication; Brunswick Builders: Steve Forbes, general contractor

MATERIALS|FABRICATION plastic laminate, steel, fiberglass, paint, wood, aluminum, textiles, acrylic, concrete

HARDWARE|SOFTWARE AutoCAD, physical models, FormZ

Photocredit: Benny Chan/Fotoworks

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