by Sarra Scherb
Published By WEAVE Magazine – Volume 2, May 2014.
On the back wall of the Westward bar is a very unusual ship.
It’s not a seaworthy vessel by anyone’s standards; the planks are distressed and seem a hundred years old, and the metal weeps rust from every bolt. No one’s sailing this thing anywhere, since half the hull is peeled away to reveal tiny dioramas set into dollhouse-like rooms, like hidden cells in a hive. In one compartment, a miniature Abominable Snowman stalks through an icy cave; in another is a cozy gamehunters’ trophy room; in the next, an oceanographer gets menaced by tentacles bursting through a vent in a deep sea lab. Bottles of gin, vodka and whiskey set into the hull make it the opposite of watertight.
But while it might not be the best vessel for sailing out onto Lake Union, the execution and impeccable workmanship in the Westward’s iconic back bar is so outstanding that it helped garner the restaurant a James Beard nomination in 2014 for excellence. The hands on deck behind this ambitious design? Seattle-based trio Electric Coffin.
Otherwise known as Patrick “Duffy” de Armas, Justin Kane Elder, and Stefan Hofmann, Electric Coffin specializes in fabricating wild installations, creating antique-looking signage, and installing dioramas, murals, and hand-pulled screenprinted wallpaper. Each of the three contributes something different to the mix, making the partnership able to realize projects far beyond the scope of what one alone could do. Their unwritten motto could be: well, it’s not going to make itself.
Duffy—the youngest in the group in his late 20s—hails from the land of custom cars and hot rods, and carries a degree in sculpture under his belt from the UW. Elder, in his 30s, brings carpentry expertise and creates kaleidoscopic paintings of animals and celebrities on the side. Hoffman, the senior member, spent a decade as a high-end graphic designer. Together, they’re the hands and minds behind the patchwork mural at the Hollywood Tavern, the aerosol panels at the Via 6 building, the faux-distressed neon chandelier at Joule Restaurant, and the ice cream truck embedded into Trove on Capitol Hill.
“We do a lot of things just to prove that we can. We have no fear. we feel like we can fabricate anything.”
The trio began as just Duffy on his own, as he created artwork and worked in a metal shop under the moniker of Electric Coffin. “The name was supposed to sound like a custom shop,’ he says, “where old stuff was given new life. That’s where a lot of my personal artwork comes from: collaging found material, making furniture and sculpture from scrap.” In 2011 Duffy received a project that was beyond his scope to fabricate solo, and he pulled in Elder—with whom he’d exhibited in the past—for assistance. After a number of successful projects, Hofmann was brought on board as well, rounding out their skill-set with a designer’s critical eye.
Duffy is quick to stress what makes Electric Coffin unique: they aren’t an artist collective, and they’re not a design firm. “Because we’re artists first and designers second, we’re conceptual, but we work to find the best way to get the narrative across. Every project has an interesting story, a core concept, and we’re always trying to bring that to light.”
With each member of Electric Coffin an artist in their own right, ideas come big and bold. Sometimes it leads to stronger narratives; other times the brainstorm only gets everything soggy and tangled. Duffy admits with a smile that some days the trio have to toss a coin and abide by the outcome to move forward. He says that he’s occasionally tempted to give up on the collaboration, that it would be easier to go solo.
“I could live in my studio, make art, and be perfectly happy. But is that healthy? Not really. Being an artist is egotistical. you’re always saying, “look what I made! I’m so great!” But it’s good to get out of your own head, even if your ego is bruised. In the end you’re growing, you’re pushing yourself.”
If embedding ships and vans into restaurants wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Duffy also runs the Piranha Shop in SoDo, with co-conspirator Matthew Vanatta. An exhibition space, rental venue and warren of artist studios, the two originally envisioned the Shop as a DIY punk rock space where anything went. They built a grindable skate-ramp inside, hosted punk shows and parties, and generally encouraged friends and collaborators to run wild for two years.
Duffy shrugs eloquently:
“But, we can’t always be crazy. Being as punk rock as possible just isn’t sustainable.”
Today, the Shop is a lot quieter, but it still hums with the energy of the seven artists and designers who rent out studio and office space there. We’re sitting on the floor in the Shop, which is stained and pitted, but clean and definitely ramp-less. Buttery late-day light streams in, washing it in a summer Seattle glow.
Bringing a little order to their courting of chaos, Vanatta and Duffy plan to fire up the Shop’s in-house kitchen with Anton Churaman– the son of Pam Jacob, owner of U-District Caribbean staple Pam’s Kitchen. He’s also planning to bring in more independently curated exhibits.
Duffy is too humble to describe these myriad projects and plans as a stealthy takeover of Seattle’s arts and design scene on all fronts. (But it is, and we should be glad of our talented new overlords.) “I just see what people are doing, and I get inspired—I think, ‘That’s amazing, I’ve got to do more!’” He points to his collaborators as the reason all these visions get realized.
“If I did everything myself, i’d never sleep. So, I suck other people in to help me. I want to make as many things as many ways as I can. Making things is just so much fun.”
Through the evening, people come and go through the Piranha Shop door, and each shouts a welcome to Duffy, or runs over for a quick guy-hug. His phone is constantly lighting up as texts and missed calls pile up, and he checks them with a smile.
“I just need people—and that’s fun, too. Oh, and money,’ he laughs. “Give us money!”
Seriously, give them money. They’ll build you a booze boat with an Abominable Snowman in it.
All installations and artwork courtesy of and by Electric Coffin.