In a city passionate about good food, drinks, and design, why does Nostrana’s little wine bar stand out so starkly?

Despite opening a little over a year ago, Buckman wine bar Enoteca Nostrana is one of the least Portland-feeling bars in Portland. Contemporary and funky, the bar sports massive Champagne-cage cork stools, which somehow mesh with rich design touches that would feel equally at home in a 19th-century Milanese hotel. The walls and floor boast bold patterns reminiscent of the Saved By the Bell intro. There is a gently ’90s mix of colors, and unexpected textures pop beneath counters and above sumptuous leather booths. Then, a few steps in, there’s the hidden heart of the bar: a glowing, two-story wine fridge, futuristic and formidable with its stacks of backlit acrylic fixtures and row after row of bottles. Between the booths and glowing cellar, the place feels like a pizzeria on a 1980s album cover. There’s not a white wall in sight; those looking for the customary devil’s ivy or succulent in a tucked-away corner will find nothing of the sort.

The winner of 2018’s Design of the Year award, Enoteca stands out because it pulls most of its inspiration from a design tradition that’s hard to find in Portland bars: the iconic postmodern Memphis Group, whose work was characterized by cartoonish colors, geometric graphics, and the irreverent pairing of high- and low-budget materials. By introducing Portland to a style of Italian design unseen at the city’s many pasta shops and wine bars, Enoteca became last year’s most excitingly designed restaurant, and one of the coolest places to drink wine in town. There’s a whole lot going on, and somehow it’s all neatly gathered into a fun, polished design.

The Memphis Group aesthetic was codified in 1980 by Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass, in collaboration with a group of likeminded product designers and architects. As the story goes, one evening, while sharing sketchbooks and listening to Bob Dylan (whose “Memphis blues again” inspired their name), the friends recognized that they had enough innovative ideas to start a collection. The Memphis Group’s first catalog debuted the following year at Milan furniture show Salone del Mobile.

Though short-lived, their work serves as a design reference point to this day. Memphis members applied hyper-bold color-blocking, repeating patterns, “low-end” or mass-produced materials, geometric components, and asymmetric shapes. Within a single design, they would often employ a mix of laminates, plastic, metal mesh, or other materials found in everyday contexts like a diner or a child’s toy. As a movement within postmodern design, the Memphis Group represented a rejection of rigidity, formality, and tradition in everything from form to material choice. Teapots were shaped like multicolored turkey basters, with impractical spouts and uncomfortable plastic handles. Chairs had polka-dot upholstery and one spherical leg matched with a cube or rhombus. Office buildings, like the Portland Building by Michael Graves, featured cartoonish two-dimensional bows and a jumble of colors and tilework. The whole scene elevated incongruous pairings, a push-pull between tradition and frivolity: form pitted irreverently against function.

Now that the ’90s are very much back en vogue, references to the Memphis style have shown up in everything from graphic design to handmade ceramics. Here in Portland, harkening back to northerner Bob Dylan’s “Southern” blues and Sottsass’s “Memphis” inspiration, Enoteca borrows references from outside its immediate context to challenge what a wine bar ought to be.

Before Cathy Whims, co-owner of the pioneering Italian trattoria Nostrana, dreamed up her adjacent wine bar, the restaurant’s neighbor was a yoga studio. It featured the same enormous vault ceilings as Nostrana, but had a narrow, limiting floor plan. Despite multiple opportunities to expand into the space, it took the dream of a dramatic build-out — complete with a mezzanine and literal floor-to-ceiling wine storage — to finally tip Whims into action. Nostrana director of operations Nicholas Suhor and architect Rick Potestio, who worked on Whims projects like pork-centric bar Hamlet, collaborated to the bar’s distinctive interior design.

The overarching vision was to create a modern foil for Nostrana’s heritage appeal: a vibrant social space where friends could spend quality time together while trying new wines. The team hoped to diverge from the traditionalism of Nostrana without losing its emphasis on the restaurant group’s Italian roots.

“We wanted something that would play on that really Italian sensibility of not being afraid to put something modern or postmodern right next to something traditional,” Suhor says. “In the Portland restaurant scene, Nostrana has taken on this identity as an institution. There’s that sort of classic sensibility that is bestowed upon the space next door, and [Enoteca is] playing off against it.”

The bar is full of thoughtful design dualities to that end. Wood and brass fixtures hint at the midcentury modern style beloved by Portland interior designers, but the walls clap back with a bold indigo batik lined with a turquoise-adjacent blue-green. Rather than conflicting, the space blends old-world grace and new Portland playfulness. Near the entrance, the quartzc-topped bar runs along the left side of the room, echoed by an intimate standing bar along the right-hand wall. Behind them, the bar shelving features an abstract chicken-foot pattern, referencing the classic Italian rooster theme next door.

Acoustic tiles line the walls below both bars, adding crisp graphic texture to an area usually left as neutral as possible. Brass foot rests lend a pop of vintage tradition below, offset by the cork-style Domitalia stools. Even the floor is eye-catching: A bold configuration of macro-scale tiles arranged in a herringbone pattern draws the eye into the space and up the stairs at the back of the room.

The stairs were a central consideration in making the small space pop with postmodern appeal. According to Suhor, they were a nod both to the limitations of the space and to design history. “We knew those stairs [to the mezzanine] would be really impactful — you’d come through the front door and they were going to be something you’d see immediately,” Suhor says. “The colors were chosen because there’s a spot in my hometown, New Orleans, that’s referred to as the ‘World’s First Postmodern Ruin’: the Piazza d’Italia. In the center there’s a stacked stairway in black-and-white tile, and we wanted to reference that.”

Architect Rick Potestio echoed Suhor’s affection for the flooring, noting that “the tile floor climbs the stair without breaking rhythm.” As inspiration, Potestio cites Bar Luce at Prada Foundation, as well as Monsieur Bleu and Le Flandrin in Paris (Joseph Dirand Architecture).

Beyond the use of bold patterns and postmodern pastiche, the Memphis influence makes an appearance in the materials descending from the ceiling. Above the stairs, long knit steel wire curtains, with a satin brass finish, hang from the rafters, a textured visual break between the private mezzanine event space and the bar below. Originally used for military ballistics protection and made in Tualatin, Oregon, the material now makes a space-defining statement in shimmering gold chainmail.

Throughout the bar, functional touches come across in creative, visually bold ways. The back room is intended to be used flexibly, as custom inserts draw tables together into a family-style dining area in a pinch. The seating in the back room is also a bit more conventional than the front. Small tables and cafeteria-style chairs by Karim Rashid, once a student of Sottsass, face camel-tone leather bench seats — a color matched to a pair of Whims’s boots. Less conventional are the large fabric wall sculptures that hang above the benches: Both seats and sculptures make the most out of the tight space, maximizing seating and reducing noise, respectively. The abstract sculptures were made by MUT Design, part of the Enoteca team’s focus on creating an intimate and comfortable sonic experience out of the oddly shaped building. A far cry from the din at most industrial-modern eateries, the effect is sumptuous, comfortable, and playful.

The other half of the back room is dominated by the glowing two-story wine case, custom-made for the space by Axiom. Despite its massive size, the staff’s passion for wine has already overflowed into the gaps between racks. “Instead of a cave for wine storage, we envisioned a fully glass ‘cellar’ like a curio cabinet, which would properly store and dramatically display the wine,” Potestio says. “The act of getting a bottle is theater in itself.” The vision for the wine fridge was so important to Whims that she and her team undertook a serious retrofit to the building to accommodate its incredible weight.

Other design features startle as much as they invite. The bar’s bathrooms are an immersive art environment, featuring trippy light-reactive murals by Carnovsky RGB that change depending on which of the red, green, or blue lightbulbs is selected. While experientially out of synch with the calmer creativity of the rest of the bar, the element of surprise and whimsy fits.

Ironically, the most explicitly Memphis element in the whole place is a wiggle-shaped coat rack tucked out of the way. This feels appropriate, both for its needlessly silly take on a practical need in the small space and the fact that it was bought cheap on Amazon. Like the rest of Enoteca, it seems to imply that good taste doesn’t have to be snobby.

For better or worse, the West Coast is the nexus of a lot of fads. Our restaurants and culture can take some responsibility for spiking interest in kombucha, farm-to-table restaurants, boho decor, and kale as a lifestyle. We can also get stuck in our ways. A brief glance at Portland’s food and drink scene turns up design trends — like subway tiles and midcentury furniture — that have become nearly forgone conclusions in hip establishments. When a new spot opens up, Portlanders could max out a bingo card of beloved conventions: white walls, more plants than windows, shiplap, exposed industrial elements, ambiguously vintage lighting (double points if it’s by Schoolhouse Electric), or that old chestnut — reclaimed wood. As Potestio urges designers, “No more lazy copycat design.”

Portland is ahead of the curve on a lot of things here, but the city must admit to getting trend-stuck. The last few years of the Eater PDX “best design” polls show that more than half of the readers’ choice faves feature the white-walls-and-greenery aesthetic. Of the top 10 listed for 2017 and 2018, most were described with tags like “minimalist,” “midcentury,” and “bohemian.” This isn’t to say white paint and a potted plant make poor design; Hey Love and Shizuku each offer stark walls to profound and diverse effect. It’s more a reflection on the familiar notes that Portland designers — and patrons — feel comfortable returning to in order to easily convey chicness, honesty, or both.

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Enoteca feels bold and out there in a somewhat monotonous moment in restaurant design, but what makes it fit in Portland — even for all its color and jumble of patterns — is its practicality. It uses its tiny space well, creating the illusion of vastness with a smart use of patterns and a sense of goofiness that hides precision. It echoes the artistic style of so many Portland chefs: Make it look effortless and fun, but don’t forget the technique.

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