Building Behemoths: Electric Coffin Talks Large-Scale Art Installations

Words by Matthew Vanatta
Photos by Electric Coffin

Electric Coffin is a Seattle based multidisciplinary design studio whose large scale artwork, experiential installations, and museum exhibitions have become highly sought after in the Pacific Northwest’s dynamic creative and business communities. This small firm is growing at a rapid clip and has recently started to garner attention well outside of the PNW, with completed and slatted projects across the country and internationally.

Having recently created projects for heavy hitters like Facebook and Amazon, Electric Coffin’s future seems to be imminently bright. We caught up with founder and partner Patrick “Duffy” DeArmas to talk about how he and the rest of the Electric Coffin team approach concepting, designing, and ultimately building pieces that transform ordinary spaces into transcendent experiences.

Who and what is Electric Coffin?

That’s a great question. In the past we identified with the individuals who founded it, which was Justin Kane ElderStefan Hofmann, and myself. We have now doubled in size to six people and are continuing to grow, so now we have more of brand identity. We are ultimately a studio that is creating a culture and work that can produce impactful results for our clients and our community. Initially, we were a multi-disciplinary studio focused on fabrication, design and installation, however, a lot of the projects we currently work on don’t necessarily manifest into a physical object, it is more about ideation and concepts. I would say we are a hybrid between a think tank, design studio, and fabrication studio.

 

But it seems like the pieces that really put you on the map where the large scale installations, how did EC step into creating these big space-defining pieces?

The condensed version is that we all had our own skill sets specific to our individual brands, but as artists we didn’t want to be stuck having only one dialogue. Coming together collectively allowed us the ability to be able to do bigger projects that we couldn’t do individually. Collectively we are stronger, more dynamic, and collaborative, which gave us different results. Initially it was very informal and very organic, we didn’t really know what we were doing, how we were going to do it, or how it was going to all unfold. We just knew that by being together there was a dynamic we couldn’t get individually, which sparked the fire that created those installations.

 

Was it initially challenging to get clients to understand the importance of the work? Did any of them balk when you pitched cutting a delivery truck in half or building out a half ship diorama?

Yes and no. We were really fortunate to have great clients who were really progressive, had great foresight, and really understood the importance of doing something to push the boundaries. They let relatively unknown artists come in and gave us money to do outlandish things. We were working in a space in time and in a region that was really focused on the experiential. We were more likely to get clients that understood, or at least wanted to understand, the importance of doing something that their clients or end users would benefit from, above and beyond the services the client was providing. If you are sitting in a restaurant for 2-3 hours, that space should evoke some sort of experience that adds to the meal you are eating. That was a big trend and we were lucky enough to sort of serendipitously step in at that time.

That being said, some of the stuff we were trying to do took some convincing. For instance when were doing Trove, where we did the tuck, we had to explain the “why” behind some of the concepts. It was actually a really good exercise for us because it allowed us to be able to hone in on the reasoning why we thought these things were the right creative solutions. Once we did it and people saw what we are capable of it became a lot easier.

When creating these pieces is there a direct narrative you’re trying to convey?

It really depends on the project. Not every project has the same punch points, but process is everything in all our projects. When we approach a project we meet with the client and try to figure out what their call for design is and how to best solve their creative problem. We talk about the client’s narrative and then look at a lot of things like their clients, their space, what region they’re in—all the touchpoints for that project. And that’s how we derive concept.

The concept will generally have two components: the narrative of the project and then the injection of our mission and principles of Electric Coffin into the overall narrative as well. We ultimately want to seamlessly weave together the two so it looks like us and feels like us, but is still unique to the client or project.

 

Obviously the space is important when doing an installation, do you let the physical space determine the project or do you concept a theme and then fit it to the space?

You know, we’ve done it both ways. Sometimes when a project lands in our laps the conceptual direction is really apparent, so we will try to massage that into what the space will allow. Other times the space will kind of tell us what it wants. Whether it’s a historic or modern building, or if the setting is rural or urban, the space will usually kind of dictate where the concept will ultimately land. Spaces often have such a strong energy, so trying to fight against it wouldn’t make sense.

Recently you guys did an installation at the Vancouver Interior Design Show that was more interactive. Is that something that you want to focus on moving forward? Is it important for humans to physically interact with the art?

Yes, that’s been our plan all along. We have always wanted to do projects at that scale and level, it just takes time to get there. That was a fun project because we got to collaborate with an amazing lighting manufacturer called LightArt. They’re an amazing company full of architects, designers, and engineers who manufacture all their goods here in Seattle. The merger of the two studios, and what ultimately manifested into the Treehouse, was something really exciting for us as studio because we are all about collaboration and dialogue. Connecting and cross pollinating ideas and skill sets tends to create unique and unconventional solutions.

We were asked by the conference to do a piece for the entrance. The theme was “explore”, which is a word we use a lot, so it was a natural theme for us to go down. IDS is about interior designs but it’s also about space and shelter. We wanted to have a dialogue about how humans and spaces and shelters have evolved. People can move through it, and think about exploring and what that can lead to. It was big step for us because it was so highly engineered.

 

The piece was a behemoth. Can you tell us a little bit about what the process of not only conceptualizing the piece but also producing the life size version?

We sat down with LightArt and came up with some sketches and then ended up doing some small mockups in our studio. Through our rough sketches, we handed it off to our 3D designers and they used digital software to make a to-scale digital version. LightArt has a digital cutter so we made a 1/16th scale version and built a smaller model to see how it would all work. We also had to figure out how the joints would work, as the whole thing is made of cardboard. Their engineers are really artists, so we all had to work together to see how we could make everything work on such a large scale.

Since it was all made of cardboard we were able to flatpack it on a trailer and drive it to Canada. We looked like the Beverly Hillbillies driving through the border. It took about four weeks to do all of the concepting and test building, then it took two days to build on site. We just used hinges and some tape. We didn’t use any tools to build it.

I think one thing that resonates with me in regards to EC’s work both in Vancouver and in its other projects is that they seem fun, and you guys seem to have fun making it, which eliminates the pretentious vibe that a lot of modern or conceptual art evokes. Is that intentional?

Yes and no. I mean we like to have fun, but it’s more organic than intentional. It’s definitely not forced but it is fostered. There are a lot of people that take themselves way too seriously, both in and outside of the art world. I think levity is not only good for the heart, soul, and mind, but can be really powerful when it shows up in the work. We are talking about a lot of things that can be seen as more provocative or serious, but if you can approach it in a playful way, it can be more accessible and impactful. The art and business world can be stressful, too, so we have to have some way to release that stress or we might go crazy and cut off an ear like van Gogh.

I know Electric Coffin is always working on something interesting, what projects are you currently working on that we can look out for in the new year?

We are going to New York City to do a piece in the Oculus train station, which is the train station for the new World Trade Center. We’re doing a 30-foot installation piece that will draw attention to the environmental atrocities of the fashion industry. We’re also doing a 14-month immersive pop-up installation in Seattle’s International District in a old Chinese restaurant that is being transformed into a temple. Were also opening a bar in Capitol Hill where we will have full creative control, from the interior to the way the drinks are curated. We haven’t done a restaurant in a long time so it will be really fun. We are also working on the new Zillow headquarters, which is a four year project, and we have an art show coming up, so be on the lookout for that.

Follow Electric Coffin on Instagram to keep up to date with all they have going on and to get a behind-the-scenes look at their process.

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