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At Outliers: Sensory Design And A 'Crazy Ass Payphone'

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Outliers owner Peter Verrill behind the bar. In the foreground is a sample of the barstools.
Outliers owner Peter Verrill behind the bar. In the foreground is a sample of the barstools.

[Photos: Ted Axelrod]

Ever since July, when Portland Monthly revealed some of what was going on at Outliers Eatery, predicting a late-fall opening, those curious about the restaurant's progress would peek in the windows and see ... nothing. That's because it was all happening in Chicago and Denver. Two weeks ago, designers Paul Lewin (Chicago) and Ryan Wither (Denver), who have been friends with Outliers owner Peter Verrill since all three were at the University of Colorado, Boulder, flew to Portland to install the restaurant's interior, much of which was built in Lewin's Chicago studio, Sagen. As partners in Tivi Design (described on its Twitter page as "Oceans Eleven meets Barnum and Bailey") Lewin and Wither are also responsible for the striking interior of Grace, which won several design awards and is now run by Verrill's ex-wife, Anne.

For Outliers dining room and bar, the designers used earthy colors - charcoal gray, copper and wood tones - adding depth and warmth to the sharply contemporary space. Emphasis was placed on a sensory experience and everything has texture: the tufted banquette, wave-like wall behind the bar and the concrete bar itself; the mold was made from rough-sewn, sandblasted wood. At night, LEDs above the back-bar wall will make it look like ocean ripples, said Wither. Over the banquette, a wall sculpture crafted from strips of walnut wood may also remind some of the sea, but according to Wither it is meant to depict the journey from childhood to adulthood - sometimes the way is smooth and straight, other times there are bumps.

Outliers dining room and bar are cool, but where the real fun happens is in the bathrooms, which like the design of the entire place, were left up to Lewin and Wither. "Pete gave us carte blanche," said Lewin. The inspiration for the ladies' room was high-end hotels; it's "opulent, clean and white," Lewin said, with gold damask wallpaper a marble floor and glistening tile. The men's room was inspired by the writing of tweaked "Gonzo" journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson. "Pete and Hunter S. Thompson are similar in that they have good intentions that can go awry very quickly," said Lewin. In the mens room, "It's like you're in a really bad alley." The walls and ceiling are covered in rubbery gray roofing membrane studded with rivets, the floor tile was broken in pieces before it was laid; the toilet paper is on a heavy chain and the mirror is a mottled shard of glass. Directly across from the toilet is a "panic attack box" with a fake bottle of Xanax visible through the glass. "It's "Trainspotting" meets prison cell," said Wither, although installing an actual prison toilet wasn't an option - it wouldn't meet code. The piece de resistance is a "crazy ass payphone" as interactive art object; pick up the receiver and the creepy voice of grunge poet Steven Jesse Bernstein (who committed suicide in 1991 by stabbing himself in the neck) recites a Hunter S. Thompson poem. Created by Chicago kenetic artist Daniel Bertner, the recording is on a 12-minute continuous loop and is guaranteed to freak out anyone who's had a couple of drinks.

A third bathroom upstairs, off a large room that may eventually be used as an event space, is an "homage to Pete," according to Lewin. It's walls are festooned with skateboard decks, beer taps from bars Verrill frequented and photos of places he lived in Boulder.

Despite the quirk factor, Wither said that he and Lewin designed Outliers to last. "The biggest fear as a designer is creating something that's cool for two years."


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