Private Party

A Seattle karaoke joint gets the Japanese treatment

Think of Japanese design and what comes to mind? The neon pop of Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood? The attention to detail and craft of an ancient Kyoto temple? For designers at Seattle-based mwlworks, the answer is a little of both, and it shows in the heady brew they’ve brought to Rock Box, an upscale karaoke joint in the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.

“When the owners approached us, they had a different kind of karaoke experience in mind,” says principal Eric Walter. “It’s not the same in Japan as it is here, where it’s typically a small set-up off in the corner of a bar.” In Japan, he continues, the letting down of hair and the belting of tunes is done in private, as a way of bonding with friends and coworkers.

It made sense, then, to take inspiration from Japanese design, adds Steve Mongillo, another principal. “Each of the dozen private rooms is sparingly furnished but lit dramatically with a different color, while the hallways are subdued and more about the craft and the material. To unite the two spaces and to activate the corridors, we’ve allowed just a little bit of light to leak out. It’s a way of signaling the promise of the rooms.”

The idea of subtly hinting at the action is stepped up by a karaoke room placed in a corner storefront window. Equipped with outdoor speakers, its switchable glass make the windows go from translucent to transparent to reveal mike-wielding silhouettes.

An adaptive reuse of an industrial building, the 3,100-square-foot space offered pleasant surprises after the designers reduced it to a shell: 14-foot ceilings, brick walls, and old beams. “The opportunities became a lot greater all of a sudden,” laughs Mongillo. The extra large volumes also presented a challenge, and the designers tamed the spaces by inventively nesting the private rooms inside of three freestanding “blocks” within the main space that are clad in weathered cedar planks to contrast the minimalist interiors. Meanwhile the “block” that contains the entry is wrapped in wood that’s weathered and blackened by hand to evoke the traditional Japanese building method of shou sugi ban.

They addressed another challenge—the relatively narrow frontage of the building’s locale on a major street—by flipping the club’s orientation so that a side alley became the main entrance. “Seattle has a great tradition of lively alleys,” observes Walter. “Plenty of tucked-away small businesses use these pedestrian-driven spaces as their front doors. They offer a calm place to catch your breath.”

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