In SF’s Restored Smokestack at Magnolia Brewing, A Trip Back In Time

by Sabrina Smelko

Kevin Landwehr is a husband, father and designer living in San Francisco, CA with his wife and two children, Violet and Owen — but he is more than just a dad and one-noted creative type: he is a storyteller. His array of architectural, interior and graphic design chops give his work a broader context and better informed approach to every project he gets his hands on, and his work on Smokestack at Magnolia Brewing in Dogpatch, San Francisco is no exception.

“I make relatable and communicative objects and spaces,” Kevin says, a goal he strives to achieve in every project he and his partner undertake through their design studio NOTHING SOMETHING. Started in 2001 with his college roommate, best friend and longtime collaborator Devin Becker, their services may be varied — an offering which includes interiors, custom furniture, lighting, and full-service branding and custom content — but their passion for layering, asymmetric detail, craftsmanship, big palettes and an elegant, 20th-century influence defines their work. This edgy and unique perspective is only met by their hunger for a challenge.

When they were first presented with the opportunity to invest in Magnolia Brewing Co. to build their dream bar / restaurant, they didn’t hesitate, despite the obvious long road ahead and the fact that, at the time, they were still living and based in Brooklyn, NY. Built in 1915 and gutted in 1985, the historical space was originally a factory owned by the American Can Company, the corporation that manufactured the world’s first beer can. The space had long-ago been robbed of its character, but its potential was something Kevin and Devin saw as a great opportunity. At the time (in 2013), San Francisco’s energy was building, so Kevin uprooted his entire family and they relocated to SF at the apex of the reconstruction, saying: “San Francisco’s got some kind of magic right now and I want to spend more time with it. I feel like I have something worthwhile to contribute to this city.”

“We didn’t want to restore the space as it was,” Kevin describes of their approach, “we wanted to use the space to share the larger tale of the 1930s San Francisco waterfront as it applied to food, drink and culture.” In their imagination, the story of this space was going to become that of a waterfront bar, neighboring a butchery, a brewery and a can factory that froze in time. “Our concept [was] that, years after these imagined businesses all closed and boarded up, we discovered this place untouched and decrepit, knocked down the walls, chainsawed the ceilings, brought it all together and opened for business.” With this vision in mind, designing the space involved a lot of discovery and research, something they hoped would be apparent and appreciated by future customers.

The process took nearly three years, which was longer than Kevin anticipated, and they ran into many snags along the way. “A project like ours doesn’t fit a clear mold and the city almost pulled the plug several times,” Kevin explains. “But we pushed through, and, as we came out of the last big storm, it became clearer and clearer that our project was actually manifesting [better than] I’d imagined it.” Their can-do attitude and DIY abilities got them through failing to find furniture that fit, and even running out of floor stain: “I went to the coffee shop next door and asked for their spent grinds, which Devin and I covered the wooden floorboards with,” Kevin laughs, “they looked at us like we were crazy!” The coffee quick-fix ended up creating a beautiful, antique-looking patina, and this scrappy approach to every aspect of the project combined to result in an impressive and absolutely stunning 6,000-square-foot communal barbecue, brewery and cocktail bar — all made using the same authentic processes that would have been used had it been built in the early 1900s.

The build was nothing if not a huge adventure, not just for Kevin and Devin, but for their families as well. After living in a huge Victorian in San Fransisco during the process, “Devin eventually returned to his fiancé in New York to plan their wedding,” Kevin explains, “…and my family and I decided to remain in San Francisco,” where, you guessed it, they are regulars at Smokestack.

Photography by Louis Petrucelli and Eric Wolfinger

The bar may be loaded with detail, but it's free of any props or nonessential decor. The team did not want to simply pay homage to antiques, but rather, they aimed to create a truly antique space. This meant steering clear of vintage trends. Kevin explains, "[no] subway tile -- rather, we hand-chip wet-fired Japanese tile--, no Edison bulbs -- we hand-dipped our bulbs in rubber and tinting--, no white Carrera marble -- we use a subtle Seagreen Pearl Quartzite -- and it meant avoiding anything reclaimed or repurposed, opting instead for items that would truly have been in the space and have survived for nearly a century."
The historic space before had been completely gutted and robbed of its character when Kevin and Devin got their hands on it.
To balance the ample visual interest of the space, they wanted the bar to be as elegant as possible. "The bar is cut from mahogany and topped with a Seagreen Pearl quartzite slab," Kevin explains. "It's great to drop a clean, beautiful centerpiece in the middle of all the mayhem."
A close-up of behind the bar showcases the rich wood, authentic finishes and attention to detail. "I can’t count how many times I’ve been told 'Nobody is going to notice that, Kevin!'" Kevin begins, "I do it anyway, because if I can get lost in it, someone else can, too!"
Pictured in the newly finished space is Lead Designer Kevin Landwehr, standing proudly beside the bar.
Kevin made most of the lights by hand, something he does often on projects. These, in particular, were a lot of fun for Kevin to make. "I imagined people working in large industrial spaces with very high ceilings would have reason to hang lights with lengthy cords, to get lights where they need them," he says. Lots of odd labeling and asymmetry add character.
After the team drew out the plan, Devin fleshed out the concepts in SketchUp. "We use digital tools as a framework," Kevin explains, "but then react to color and shape in real time -- inventing, fabricating and having a lot of hands-on fun with each opportunity."
This picture shows a digital rendering of the bar as it was being planned out. Despite the project taking a bit longer than anyone anticipated, the result and reality of the finished product blew everyone away. "Creating immersive, story-esque moments that feel real requires burying the existence of anything computer-derived beneath organic, timeworn detail," Kevin urges.
This photo depicts the work in progress. "My wife would kill me if she knew all of the ways we risked our lives just to polish this or patina that," Kevin jokes, "Here I am rusting our custom piping, which carries our beer lines into the tap system."
The result of the backbreaking work. "For those consulting the Internet these days, we know beauty and trend[s] can be found everywhere," Kevin begins, "I'm looking for something better than beauty; something much harder to find! I want that rare, surprising encounter that somehow pauses time. I want to discover a mystery, and pick through its charms."
An old fire door that they found from elsewhere in the building separates the main dining room from the bar's large loading dock, which doubles as an indoor beer garden and private event space. To the right, a little side bar lets customers eat and look out onto the loading bay.
For many years, wallpapering technique involved laying down newspaper to ensure a flat surface, and to help tell the story of the space, Kevin salvaged 1930s San Francisco newspapers and had them protrude from beneath the decrepit wallpaper to nod at history. "The pages feature Einstein as a 'German savant' still unknown in America," Kevin says, "articles noting the end of Prohibition and grocery store dailies advertising bacon for ¢0.12. Everything's hopeful in this moment; there's no talk of war, meats are cheap, the depression is over and booze is legal again."
The result of all the tedious wallpaper work in the dining room. Much of this room revolves around what Kevin calls “ghosts,” inspired by the absence of things. "The marks on the wall where a frame once hung, missing paint on a column where a wall once stood, a curious second-floor door that nobody can enter." This space is directly to the left of the bar.
"After brainstorming over possible clever tap handles, we agreed that clever tap handles have seen their day already," Kevin says, "If everyone's clever, nobody is, right?" The team decided they'd just make them really nice -- something hard enough to make that nobody could copy it. Devin made the craft beer tap handles out of mahogany and brass, and Kevin designed an eye-catching tight grouping of mixed handles that pour wine, sherry and vermouths (pictured).
A piece of glass perched on an antique table saw serves as a menu as you enter the bar.
Filtered, carbonated water from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir is free on tap and self-serve, and like many details in the space, was an opportunity for Kevin and Devin to create a very special moment. They used an old San Francisco water-main manhole cover to communicate the function.
This is the food counter which, again, boasts a clean and elegant island in a sea of glorious decay. In the foreground are three large communal tables. The first one was a vintage find at Big Daddy Antiques, and they modeled the other two from it. "I originally studied to be an abstract painter, and those skills benefit me every day," Kevin says, "When I get in front of a big wall I plunge in with color and texture." Beyond the communal tables is the kitchen. Bright lights from within break through the steel-plated wall flooding the hallway.
Some of the food offerings guests can enjoy while they wait for their meals, or sip a cocktail.
Whiskey, sherry and wine barrels with Magnolia beer are stacked high and strung with lights.
The view from within the loading dock towards the bar. Bay windows are a popular feature of many San Francisco Victorians, and the team thought it would be a great twist to build one into this mammoth steel wall. "This is something you would simply never see, and yet it feels familiar and right," Kevin says.
Peeking through the window wall into the bar.
This is a gigantic walk-in fridge which they disguised with hundreds of sticks of lath. This photo shows the work in progress.
And voila! The finished product may be new, but still looks old thanks to their authentic approach to everything they did. "All paint had to be applied with a brush since rollers didn't exist, and all sealant had to be oil or wax since urethanes hadn't yet been developed," Kevin says of the space.

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