March 1, 2005
A Portland architect turns a sixties diner into a log-clad nightspot.
Jeff Kovel was consulting on the renovation of a run-down 1960s motel diner when he uncovered a Northwestern gem. The building’s one sophisticated design move—a curving laminated-wood ceiling—had been buried under drywall and mechanical systems. When the Portland-based architect found that the basement contained a music venue with a gorgeous waffled concrete ceiling—also concealed—he thought this might be more than a remodel job. So Kovel called friends Mike Quinn and John Plummer, who jointly owned a restaurant that his firm, Skylab, had designed. Did they have any interest in opening another business—one with a bar, restaurant, and performance space?
But what is most unexpected about the Doug Fir Lounge, which opened in October, is not its humble beginnings. It’s the obvious pleasure Kovel has taken in exploring two divergent idioms: diner modern and timbered lodge. “I had been doing research into roadside architecture,” he says. “I wanted to restore that sense of regionalism where a motel gave this really literal expression of the place you were visiting.” In Oregon’s case, that meant “dive bars, diners, loggers, and truckers.”
Doug Fir’s juxtapositions of high and low, sleek and rough-hewn, are both comical and lovely. Kovel uses antique mirror tile in the bathrooms but creates a cinematic moodiness with recessed lighting. The entryway’s chrome drop ceiling is set off by antler chandeliers, and whole logs intersect plate-glass walls. Anyplace the two vocabularies meet, Kovel heightens the drama with details such as chrome bead curtains.
Though the quirky materials draw the visitors in, the space planning keeps them coming back. Quinn is a music promoter, and Kovel is an avid live-music fan; both have pet peeves about bad sight lines and acoustics. “We had always fantasized about doing a music venue that was designed—that was anything other than fire insulation painted black,” Kovel says. For Doug Fir he finessed the often overlooked details: How will the musicians load and unload their equipment? How can people get a drink without disrupting the whole crowd? How can people talk without disturbing those who are listening intently to the band? Kovel makes the space work on a multitude of levels: “There are places to stand, places to sit, places to hide, places to be seen.”
Clearly a fan of unexpected connections, Kovel draws a final one between the work of the musicians onstage and his own. “Design is a lot like improvisational music,” he says. “You take in a lot of things—some might be subconscious, some might be conscious—and you blend them all up in your own way and create a sort of riff. This was my opportunity to riff on the Northwest.”