Anyone who writes for a living regrets that certain topics escape him, that he fails, with no good excuse, to write about them. For me, one is the Central Falls interior designer Kyla Coburn (Kyla Coburn Designs). I’ve been familiar with her retro designs for restaurants and bars ever since slinging back a few before performances at the late Providence Black Repertory Company, in the Wit Building on Westminster Street in downtown Providence.
I was reintroduced to her work later at The Avery, at Luongo Square in the city’s West End, and then again at the restaurant Loie Fuller farther out Westminster near the Cranston Street Armory. (A scene from Woody Allen’s Irrational Man was filmed at Loie Fuller’s.) More recently I ate at the Grange, at Broadway and Dean, where her aesthetic presence was unmistakable.
In fact, drinking partners have often heard me pledge to do a piece on her work and pronto, even when I am not “under her influence.”
I never write about the design of the insides of buildings. That is the business of their owners and occupants. I am a tribune of public space, and if I cannot see it from the street I have no reason to praise it or deplore it. That’s true even though interior design and exterior design are based on essentially the same principles. Traditional interiors get it right. Modernist interiors almost always get it wrong. Still, if it is inside, who cares? Only the people who are inside, right? Which makes it important. At least to them.
Anyway, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.
Kyla Coburn is no modernist, generally speaking, but her interiors are certainly the farthest from sedate classicism. Yet, because so much of her work is centered around old stuff that she finds in odd places, and since old stuff forms much of the detail of her work, her interiors have a sort of – well, yes – retro look to them. Art Nouveau. Her more minimalist interiors do not, in my opinion, succeed quite as well in the job of enchantment.
I was reminded of Coburn lately by an email exchange in which Buff Chace, who has done so much to revitalize downtown Providence, was raked over the coals for removing Coburn’s interior at the Black Rep after buying the Wit for an event space called Aurora. It was Roots Café for a while but Roots seems to have kept Coburn’s decor and one of the place’s nicest features, the balcony overlooking the stage, which Buff has removed. Bad move, Buff! Just because a place is new doesn’t mean it has to be redecorated – if you go that way, at least make sure that the change is an improvement. In this case it is anything but. (If I am wrong and Buff did not make these changes, I hope that someone will let me know so I can correct this.)
In “Kyla Coburn: The acclaimed restaurant designer’s interiors are the epitome of good taste,” Andrea McHugh got some really great quotes from Coburn for an article in the Feb. 29, 2012, issue of The Bay. Here is one:
The way a room is designed and feels is tremendously important to experiencing the space. People have a hard time really enjoying good food under florescent lights, or seated near a bathroom door. For me, along with great music and amazing food, beauty in our surroundings is part of what makes people present in their lives.
The city, the state, the nation and indeed the world are made richer and more joyful by Coburn’s vivid, evocative interiors. To be sure, one must go inside … inside a restaurant? Hey, me first! Let’s go!
Some Providence whiz should put together a bottom’s-up evening tour of Kyla Coburn’s local spaces.