By Johnette Rodriguez
Fashioning Unique Spaces with Artistic Flair and a Singular Sense of Style
Painter, collector, designer, mom. Visual artist and award-winning designer Kyla Coburn wears all of those hats with great aplomb. She has designed many different interiors, including those of the former Providence Black Rep, the new interior lobby of the Dowling Theater at Trinity Rep and even the dressing rooms for “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.” But for the past 20 years, Coburn’s design specialty in Rhode Island has been restaurants and bars.
She estimates she might have done four or five designs a year and that most of the establishments are still around. A restaurant/bar trio on Providence’s West Side that made the foodie crowd really take notice was Loie Fuller’s, The Avery and Ama’s (that later became North). All three featured female nudes, which to some on the Providence scene became a signature for Coburn’s designs.
But Coburn’s interests, influences and inspirations are as far-ranging as an unusual childhood in an artistic Bohemian family and her college gap-years in Japan, India and Latin America can take her. She started college at Wesleyan, transferred to Brown and ended up at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), which her grandparents and her parents all had attended and where they met their spouses, and where she met her long-time partner. Coburn met Andrew Trench at RISD and worked with him for 10 years before settling down and having five children, now ages 2 to 9.
Trench collaborated with Coburn on two West Side restaurants: The Grange and Broadway Bistro. The former has a rustic feel, with reclaimed wood, glass insulators and even a porch swing. The latter has an urban bar and dining area, all reds and blacks with scores of prints, drawings and photos on the walls. In contrast, The Aviary, in Swansea, MA, is light-filled, with a chandelier made of birdcages and a Coburn-painted mural of trees and birds. On the riverfront in Providence, Café Nuovo has a sleek modern feel with another of her original murals.
“I really do love painting the most,” Coburn reflects recently, sitting next to six life-sized spray-painted panels of 28 hip-hop stars and near a large graffiti-covered wall in the brand-new restaurant called Troop, in the heart of Olneyville.
Indeed, this two-story industrial space provided Coburn with the challenge of “having different zones and creating some intimacy.” Thus, she put a row of booths against one wall, up on a platform, separating them from the two-tops on the floor—which is painted to look like Latin American tiles—and across from the long bar and 22 barstools with skateboard decks secured as backs.
She also set off three other areas: one enclosed with three hanging rattan chairs and a metal glider-swing; another, one level up, with antique shutter-like screens on one side; and another at the entrance, a merchandising counter, with vintage lunchboxes over the door and vintage T-shirts for sale.
“The owners [Jason Timothy, Leigh Vincola and Sean Larkin] wanted an ’80s hip-hop vibe, but not a nightclub,” she explains. “So I decided to make it a surfy, skateboardy, vacation-like vibe, plus a tropical thing, like in Costa Rica at that time. I wanted a lot of it to be irreverent—nostalgia and tongue-in-cheek both.”
This space also allowed Coburn to put on her antique-collector hat—she and Trench bought an abandoned Unitarian church in Pawtucket to store their finds. The annual antique shows in Brimfield, MA, have been her mecca ever since her Soho parents moved their young family to Cooperstown, NY, to establish an antique store. One of her most vivid childhood memories is of being tucked up into an antique cupboard at the back of her father’s big bread truck, in order to ride to Brimfield with him.
You might have to make several trips to Troop to catch all the artifacts, found art and repurposed items, but here are a few to watch for: a neon “Don’t Wack” sign; a wall display of 50 antique bingo boards; hand signals that say “fully alive”; vintage lit-up beer signs with Sean Larkin’s beer labels on them; coffee-can-and-metal “tin men”; an ’80s boombox sculpture.
“Really loving an object is when it’s aesthetically pleasing, when you can envision its future and when it tells a kind of story,” Coburn muses. “You get another level if it has a history. You get three times the impact.”
On the outside of Troop’s building are four Coburn murals, paying homage to architectural images in Providence, with special meaning to artists: the underpasses and tunnels; the sprawling mill buildings; the “ruins” on Westminster; and the Skate Hut in Olneyville.
“I stayed in Providence because of all the mills,” she recalls. “We lived in the Westminster and Silver Springs mills, along with many other artists.”
“My biggest challenge right now is finding people or projects that are what I want to do,” Coburn continues. “But with Troop, I just couldn’t turn it down. These guys are part of my tribe.”
In some ways, so are the owners at Wara Wara. Nick Mazonowicz, a co-owner at Wara Wara met her at RISD and co-owners X Premwat and Kozu Kondo wanted a “fun and funky” Japanese noodle shop. With Coburn’s large murals of Hokusai-like waves, her penchant for intriguing light fixtures (these reference noodles and origami) and her extensive collection of metal toys, a diner could be sent on a scavenger hunt to win a bowl of ramen.
Similarly, at The East End—opened by The Bottles Group, the marketing and management firm behind Bottles Fine Wine—with its Victorian whiskey bar ambience, there are touches of London’s East End music halls, with player piano rolls, tintype-like photos, wood slat and green tin ceilings and rich velvet indigo curtains. A secluded seasonal outdoor patio incorporates another Coburn signature, plenty of plant life, plus tables for parties large and small. The design underscores an extensive spirits selection and unique tap system.
“We try to be a team with the owners,” Coburn emphasizes. “Working with us is a more engaged experience than what happens with a more corporate company. We pull permits, make blueprints, and I think it matters to them that we’re not just ‘guns for hire.’”
Trench now has a spin-off business that evolved from using a camera on a drone to assess the roof of the Pawtucket church. They’ve since scanned historic downtown buildings for developers and are looking to market this product and service internationally.
Last but certainly not least, what about Coburn’s “mom” hat? The family travels with all of the kids whenever they can, and they use RISD students as nannies. Coburn takes one kid at a time to Brimfield with her, sending each one off with an allowance. And she engages them directly in her projects, such as a recent “hiring” of daughter Alya, 8, to unscrew barstool backs and to paint a poster of ’80s sneakers for Troop’s decor.
For painter, collector, designer and mom Kyla Coburn, her energy seems limitless and her dream of “getting better known outside Providence” seems just within her grasp.