Skys the limit at east lounge
Skylab Design Group brings Northwest hip to Chinatown
Three nightlife impresarios, along with Portland's Skylab Design Group, have completed a most harmonious new bar, the dark and Zen-like East Lounge.
Dim sum houses and noodle shops Fong Chong and the Golden Dragon, generations old, are footsteps away. Chinatown stalwart the Republic Cafe is around the corner.
East looks fabulous inside and out. Passers-by stop in their tracks and peer in through a rectangular portal-style window or East's swinging glass doors. Inside, the room is warm and enveloping, although patrons can't help but remain aware of the city outside.
The entryway is pure '70s flash. The walls and ceiling are covered in beveled glass. At first it's hard to tell how far a second hallway, which lies beyond the eggshell-colored bar, recedes. Is it still another room? What's that over there? Who cares?
Smoke-gray mirrors give the walls a liquid quality. The room manages to somehow look different from every angle. And you? Why, you've never looked better in your life.
The whole effect is pleasantly disorienting.
For all the smoke and mirrors, East has a glossy earthiness. Hardwood beams, which run vertically and horizontally, are sturdy and ancient. New beams have been added that compliment the originals.
'We tried to design it so that there wasn't a bad seat in the house,' says Skylab architect Jeff Kovel.
East is located in a former, 2,000-square-foot tofu factory, of all places. While they never considered naming it Tofu, owners Mike Quinn, Brandon Brown and John Plummer Ñ each with storied hotspot credentials Ñ did consider calling it Rice for a minute or two. Securing the space from landlord Steven Yee was easy, Quinn says, but procuring a license from the state's liquor commission was harder than Chinese algebra. Resistance also came from those who feared that a bar would aggravate the drug activity that festers in the Old Town-Chinatown district.
And so East was two years in the making.
In the end, every detail was composed and immaculately designed. Nearly all the furnishings are custom done. Deceptively small, the bar holds just 49 people. A tiny DJ booth is accessed by a ladder inside the kitchen. The lounge area has a sheer curtain; the banquette and one wall are upholstered in gold vinyl.
For now, East is a nonsmoking lounge, so smokers stand on the sidewalk beneath a cantilevered metal awning. The concrete block exterior wall was 'really decrepit,' Kovel says, but the overhang gives the storefront a specific identity. The Portland Development Commission funded part of East's facade as part of the tax-based agency's storefront improvement program.
The bar area, Quinn says, is partly inspired by the inky black Ringside, the old-school steakhouse on West Burnside. The bar at East is sunken as well, and red gel-covered fluorescent lights hang overhead. The swivel chairs at the bar are covered in a metal fabric that flickers gold. The white bar glows like an eggshell.
The drink menu reflects a dual aesthetic. Pabst Blue Ribbon and rafters meet Momokowa sakes and patterned, Thai-inspired walls.
Kirsten Mattila and Jeff Kovel are the architecture-design team behind Skylab. They met while working for the Portland-based design firm Architropolis, which is now based in Milwaukie. After the two collaborated on a remodel project for rocker Lenny Kravitz's home in Miami Beach, they decided to form their own company. Mattila has worked on four or five projects for Kravitz and recently returned from visiting him at his newest pad, which was splayed out in a recent spread in The New York Times Magazine.
'When we get to work with cool people like John and Mike and Brandon who have a little bit different vision of what Portland might be, this is a good place to be,' Mattila says. 'But we market a lot outside of Portland.'
That's because there's not as much money or people in Portland, she says. 'People just aren't going to sink $2 million Ñ or even $1 million Ñ into a club here. Not that the people don't appreciate it; it's just that there's not enough population to support it.'
Mattila says East is something, that Portland hasn't seen before Ñ that is, a modern aesthetic with respect for the Northwest.
'We didn't want to freak people out too much,' she says. 'They wanted it to be dark and to bring something to Portland it didn't have.'
Is she satisfied with how it turned out?