Open Symmetry

Tempest Oyster Bar
Photograph by Eric Tadsen

An established space isn’t a confined space when it comes to redesign. I’m reminded of the struggles an artist friend of mine had when creating assignments for his design students. He’d establish parameters, anything from using specific techniques to approaching a select medium, and his students would initially question why he was stifling their creativity. They would learn that creativity isn’t about doing whatever you want—it’s the challenge of making an idea or a concept accessible in a defined setting through design choices that train an audience to intuitively navigate that world.

Henry Doane had a vision when he took to converting the high-repute Restaurant Magnus to Tempest Oyster Bar. He wanted the space to provide a casual dining experience alongside that of fine dining without one taking over the other. The space itself gave him limitations, but he saw the potential to work within those restrictions and develop cohesion for the two dining worlds while employing a unique take on nautical.

Upon entering the lobby, a patron finds a classic 1948 Chris-Craft boat. On the left of the northwest wall in the lobby, dark wood frames the host station that then opens up to a white room with a plank floor, brownish-red tops, and white vinyl upholstery lit by a bowing chandelier. The room measures itself somewhere between classical and ocean liner, a luxury banquet hall in the captain’s chambers. An airy touch is added with an array of antique mirrors and old ship lights.

“I tried to keep it what I call ‘nautical chic,’” says Henry. “I don’t want it to be tacky, but I want it to be fun in a way.” He doesn’t go all out with fishnets and the expected for seafood restaurants, but that’s not to say those elements don’t sneak in. Back in the lobby with the old Chris-Craft, a blue marlin hangs next to the entrance to the bar, which juxtaposes the host-stand entrance on the shared northwest wall by trading rich wood tones for some off-white curtains.

The bar takes everything from the fine dining area and tones down the classical to add industrial to the mix. It’s design choices—the exposed-duct vent covers, the lights, and the stainless steel chairs—that drastically alter the feel, but the white palette is familiar. A solid hemlock bar top, four inches thick, sits atop a base filled with empty wine bottles glowing dull from muted lighting, making them appear as though polished by sand and sea. Then there’s the clamshell stage at the far end with its semicircle booth, which creates a sort of kingpin nook.

The crazy thing about the space is that when I walk in, I don’t question the eclectic design choices the two areas share via three large floor-to-ceiling openings in the dividing wall. One ambiance almost seamlessly drifts into the other. If anything can be said about Henry “trying to open up the space to give more panoramic views of the whole interior,” it’s that it works because he knew he needed to be meticulous in realizing his vision. He went for a connection that spans the entire restaurant. “I just tried to use everything I could find that was actually authentic. … I was trying to be sensitive to the space and the historical integrity. I kept all the original windows and the woodwork.”

Beyond authenticity, Henry needed a sense of balance in each space, particularly the bar. “The stained glass was here from Magnus. … They really work well with the restaurant, but they had no symmetry.” The problem here was a support column in the bar that sat off to the side of the exterior door. A false column was inserted to center the draft tower between it and the existing column. On either side of the door hangs a blanket of silver fishing spoons behind Tempest’s hard-alcohol selection, creating a symmetry look more apparent than that in the fine dining area.

But perhaps a simpler answer exists for the cohesion that rings throughout. “There’s some rust and there’s some weathered stuff and found objects. I just kind of mixed it up, but I wanted it to have interest.” Every seat provides something that draws intrigue without feeling gaudy or gimmicky. It’s not always the pieces themselves, but the mystery of their origins. Like some of my favorite artwork, thought is guided by Henry’s design decisions to ultimately be interpreted by the individual, injecting each repeat experience with the stimulus to feel distinct.

Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Home Elements & Concepts, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.

Photographs by Eric Tadsen.

Tempest Oyster Bar
120 E. Wilson Street
Madison, WI 53703