Patrick “Duffy” De Armas and his partners at Electric Coffin are in the business of bringing fine-art sensibilities to commercial spaces, and they’re unapologetic about their improvisational process and their point of view. If that display of a 1960s ski chalet turns left and becomes a pink bakery, so be it. We spoke with Duffy about his Seattle studio’s process and purpose, and we got project photos you’ll love. De Armas will be a featured speaker at the 2016 SEGD Conference: Experience Seattle!
Electric Coffin is a Seattle-based studio that has made its name creating unique, often tongue-in-cheek installations for local restaurants and retailers. "Do epic shit" is somewhat of a company motto for the studio. We reached De Armas this week as he arrived in Detroit as Amazon’s first artist-in-residence. He’ll be working on murals at Amazon offices and collaborating with Amazon about how to build the program, but took the time to chat with SEGD.
Tell us how Electric Coffin got started?
Electric Coffin was a project I started in college, in 2010. I was a sculpture major, focusing on building functional sculpture out of recycled materials. I was trying to focus more on retail and commercial venues versus the gallery/fine art world. I got some clients and projects and a couple of years later I was getting larger projects that were sometimes out of my wheelhouse. That’s when I met with Justin Kane Elder and we started working together. A year later, Stefan Hofmann joined us and we’ve been working together for four years now.
What’s your mission?
We try to bring a fine-art sensibility to the commercial world. Many of our clients have a stage or environment of their own, and they want it to be different from the four buildings next to them. With our blend of skills and styles, we can do that. Our work is very art-driven, but it’s also very functional, with a design backbone but we push it through art filters.
We generally work with architects and developers to create new spaces or to develop fine art installations on large-scale projects.
What kinds of backgrounds do you three have?
I majored in sculpture at the University of Washington. Stefan is also a sculptor. He graduated from the same program eight years earlier. Justin has a BFA in painting from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle.
I worked as metal fabricator in car shops for years, and Justin was a commercial carpenter for 13 years. Stefan actually founded a design-based clothing company and ran that for 10 years before we got together.
So together, we cover a lot of bases on both the art and making sides. We design and build just about all aspects of our projects, from original concepts to installation.
What is your process like, starting from how you work with the architect, developer or owner. How do you develop concepts?
We’re a process-driven studio, coming from our lineage in high craftsmanship and material-based making. The conceptual narrative defines each project and how we move through it.
Once we have a project in house, all four of us (the three partners and our producer/designer Taylor Reed) will brainstorm, spending 2-3 days talking about ideas and being creative, writing things on the board, looking up inspirational photos and conceptualizing different approaches. Essentially we focus ourselves on the design dilemma our client is in.
(Click here for photos and a video of the team's work on an exterior installation for Seattle's iconic Carlile Room.)
From there, we’ll finalize our process internally, building a presentation with a loose storyboard. We refine the concept, figure out how to build and install it and work out story and color and materials. Once we’re in the studio and working on it, though, we often improvise. If something turns left and starts going in the other direction, we go with it.
Are your clients OK with that?
We’ll usually let our clients know that we’re going to change things up, but from the start, we’re very
adamant that they have to understand that our process is fluid. As we’re working through something, it might want us to go left even though initially we were going right. We need to be able to adapt and what the piece wants to be, versus trying to plan it out too much ahead. Then it’s too contrived and produced. In an art studio, you allow yourself the freedom to experiment. Most of our clients are open to the idea of having it be a little more open-ended.
We were working on a display for our client Evo’s Portland store [outdoor gear retailer] and had decided to do a diorama of a 1960s ski chalet. As we pushed and started building it, we decided the ski chalet was too predictable in a ski store, so we opted to go with a pink bakery. The client showed up and said, “Sooooo, you didn’t make a ski chalet, you made a bakery. And it’s very pink.” He was cool about it because we had an established relationship. That gave us the luxury of freedom. We were gonna do a full monochromatic pink bakery, but in the end it turned into a pink bakery from Chinatown in New York in the 1960s. If we had done it any other way, it wouldn’t have been as finished as it feels now.
It looks like you have more than a passing interest in vintage signs and graphics. Where does that come from?
Taylor is the only one of us with a graphic design degree and Stefan has some background in graphic design, but all of us are very much into graphic design. A lot of our work is derived from old advertisements, signs and hand lettering… things that would have been drafted rather than computer-generated.
We don’t use recycled materials much anymore, but we tend to categorize our work as sort of cultural or visual archaeology: taking images and ideas and graphics and concepts from past generations and really trying to rework them into something that’s modern and contemporary. So we love patterns, textures, type and layout from our predecessors.
And custom wallpaper seems to be a signature of yours. Can you tell us about that?
Well, to be honest, they’re not really wallpaper in the technical sense. They’re all hand-painted and hand-screenprinted on wood panels that we cut to size to fit custom environments. We’ll generally find a wallpaper pattern we like to use as a starting point and then modify it, hand-illustrating our own take on the idea. Once we have the illustrations, we scan them, building a repeatable pattern then burning screens. We’ll lay out the panels and paint and screen on the wood.
At Trove [a Seattle restaurant where Electric Coffin also created a parfait station formed by a cut-in-two ice cream truck], the back room is all custom wallpaper. Because of the really distinct wall measurements, we pre-cut wood panels to fit and screen-printed our pattern continuously so it all looks seamless, like it’s one big image.
Why do you think your work holds so much appeal?
In this day and age, we see a lot of new, shiny, produced things. Definitely our work shows the hand of the artists. Our work is highly crafted and it’s very apparent that it was made by a person versus something machine-made and ordered from a box. Touches like custom wallpaper or the dioramas and 3D installations we do will make a new place feel not so new. We want to add warmth to the commercial spaces we touch. Hand-made elements look like they might have been there already instead of looking all shiny and new.
I think that because we’re able to blend craft and concept in an analogue form, it’s definitely given us a unique place in the market where we can create things that are large scale and can have a huge impact but that are also warm and inviting and people can relate to as opposed to something that might be like a screen or feel produced.
So what’s the craziest thing you’ve made lately?
A project we’re super excited about is an installation for Oasis tea café in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. It’s essentially a huge monochromatic rocket man taking flight. He’s cut from plywood and around him, billowing smoke fills up the wall. The smoke is made from 3D objects that we found in thrift stores, a model store and in our studio, and painted monochromatically.
We’re known for some of our 3D work including our tongue-in-cheek dioramas, and this installation shares the same sensibility and levity, but goes in a different, more refined direction.
Meet Electric Coffin’s Duffy De Armas and Taylor Reed at the 2016 SEGD Conference: Experience Seattle!