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R.I. designer Kyla Coburn creates eye-catching restaurants

By Andy Smith
Journal Arts Writer

Posted Apr 29, 2016

RISD graduate, who is being inducted into RI Design Hall of Fame, is responsible for Providence’s The Grange, Loie Fuller’s and Wara Wara, among others.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- If you’re eating or drinking in Rhode Island, and your surroundings look particularly cool, there’s a good chance it’s the work of Kyla Coburn.

Coburn, whose Kyla Coburn Designs operates out of Pawtucket, is responsible for the eye-catching look of The Grange, Loie Fuller’s, North, The Avery and Wara Wara, all in Providence, Salvation Cafe in Newport, the Aviary in Swansea, and lots more. She’s become the go-to restaurant designer in the area.

Her work is known for a hip, eclectic look, often filled with unusual and sometimes repurposed objects.

And it’s earned her induction as an “Emerging Designer” in the RI Design Hall of Fame, established by the nonprofit DESIGNxRI. Tony Award-winning set designer Eugene Lee is being inducted with her for “Lifetime Achievement.

“People have a very emotional response to her work,” said the Hall of Fame committee when she was inducted in September 2015. “Her combination of being an artist and a designer is what really sets her apart.”

To celebrate their induction, Lee and Coburn are designing an exhibition at the Jamestown Arts Center — “Setting the Stage: A Behind the Scenes Exhibit of 2015 RI Design Hall of Fame Inductees” — that will run from May 5 to June 18.

“To be in the same circle as Eugene Lee is amazing,” Coburn said. “Being able to get to know him ... he’s like the Einstein of the design world.”

Coburn said Lee recently helped her get a job designing the dressing rooms for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” in New York.

Lee, who’s the set designer for “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” the show, said that when he met Coburn, he remarked that the two of them should work together sometime. Usually, he added, that comes to nothing.

But just a few days later, Lee’s secretary asked if he knew anyone who could design the dressing rooms for “The Tonight Show,” because the usual designer was unavailable. “As a matter of fact, I do,” Lee said.

Lee said the dressing rooms are a big hit: “They’re wonderful. Jimmy [Fallon] loves them.”

Each room has a different theme.

“They’re small rooms, they’re like jewel boxes. ... One looks like the inside of a yacht. One is like a camper. There’s a Cuban-themed room, and one called ‘Mysterioso,’” Coburn said. Her team is also working on a hallway at NBC, and more dressing rooms for a new variety show starring Martin Short and Maya Rudolph.

Coburn, 42, grew up in Manhattan and upstate New York, but she’s a third generation Rhode Island School of Design grad. Coburn said her grandparents met at RISD in the 1930s, her parents met there in the ’60s, and she met her partner, Andrew Trench, at RISD in the ’90s.

Coburn majored in illustration. “It was the least restrictive of the majors,” she said. “It was a compilation of credits from RISD, Brown and Wesleyan.”

After college, Coburn traveled, spending time in China, Japan and three months hitchhiking through Central America. But she always kept a base in Rhode Island, drawn here by a burgeoning art scene. “This was during the [art collective] Fort Thunder years. There was so much edge, so many abandoned mill buildings, so much talent,” she said.

She and Trench, who is a general contractor and owner of a tech company in Rhode Island, bought a former mill building in Central Falls, which is now a live/work space for seven artists.

Coburn is a busy woman. Not only does she have her own thriving design business, but she is working with Trench on his tech start-up designing and building drones used for the survey and inspections industry.

And they have five children, ranging in age from 14 months to 8 years.

 

Coburn sat for an interview with The Providence Journal at The Grange on Broadway in Providence, walking over from Atwells Avenue, where she is working at the former Mediterraneo restaurant, which is being transformed into a new place called Massimo. She ordered a cup of tea, then put it into a different cup. “My tea will not taste good in an unappealing cup,” she said.

The Grange, which Coburn designed about 2½ years ago, is filled with found objects she has repurposed. There’s a big arch she found at the Brimfield Antique Show that forms the back bar. Arches over the bar were once gutters in a Pawtucket bowling alley. Table supports were once porch posts on Providence houses. A seating area uses a pair of old porch swings.

Coburn said her design aesthetic is not rooted in a particular period or style. Instead, it’s about the continuity of the space. “Nothing is accidental, everything is purposeful,” Coburn said. “What makes a place work? I spend a lot of time psychoanalyzing furniture.”

She said she gravitated toward restaurant design because restaurants give her the best opportunity to realize a coherent vision.

Different places she’s designed have different vibes, she said.

Loie Fuller’s, at 1455 Westminster, with its elaborate art-nouveau murals, is a great place to take out-of-town guests. The Grange, at 166 Broadway, can be perfect for a lunch meeting and the art-deco bar The Avery, at 18 Luongo Square, for a late-night date.

 

Before taking on a job, Coburn works extensively with the owner or owners, having them fill out an elaborate questionnaire that covers everything from who will be there on a Tuesday night, to what they might be eating, to what kind of music will be playing.

Once Coburn presents her vision to the client, and the client approves, she has autonomy. “They don’t get to negotiate things on an ongoing basis,” she said. Even after a restaurant opens, Coburn requests that no changes be made for six weeks, so everything has a chance to gel.

“We’re on the same team as the restaurant owners,” Coburn said. “We have the same interest in the project being successful.”

X Premwat, co-owner of Wara Wara, a ramen and Asian tapas restaurant at 776 Hope St. that Coburn designed early this year, said he and his partners had always admired Coburn’s restaurant work. (And partner Nick Mazonowicz knew Coburn from RISD.)

Premwat said they gave Coburn an idea of what they wanted — a fun, funky Asian restaurant, with a ramen bar — and then let her do the rest. “She’s very talented; the work speaks for itself,” he said.

The restaurant has a giant mural of a Japanese woman covering one wall and a wall decorated with toy Godzillas. “We’re very happy with it,” Premwat said, adding that Coburn also stayed within her budget.

 

In the process of designing many restaurants, Coburn said, she has become an expert in helping clients jump all the regulatory hurdles it takes to open a new restaurant, even though that’s not how she prefers to spend her time.

“As a practical matter, you have to throw your shoulder behind that wheel,” she said. “But I would like to see myself working on bigger projects where that is handled by someone else.”

With all her restaurant expertise, does she ever consider opening her own place?

“I’ve considered it a lot,” she said. “But I know enough to let the professionals do their own thing.”