Let's go on a scavenger hunt. But first: If you've never been to Row House Cafe in South Lake Union, you should know it is aptly named. The three connected small cottages were built in 1904 as housing for immigrant workers and remodeled in 2010 to become a cafe. The furnishings are so precise, they're almost precious—burlap curtains, exposed lightbulbs, unfinished wood, a mantel against a (fireplaceless) wall. It's nice to look at but inspires a bit of skepticism—how authentic can this old wood, old cloth, old metal be in a brand-new cafe? Do I want to come sit here and dream about the past or do I shun this as an affectation? It's difficult to decide. (Pros: super-friendly waitstaff, a warm windowed and lightbulb-lit feeling. Cons: a $3 Americano, the sentence on their website "Having a history is part of Row House Cafe's brand story." You decide.)
On to that scavenger hunt. Local artist Yoona Lee fell in love with the space and designed a site-specific show, Genius Loci, within it. Bits of art are everywhere, forcing you to go hunting—under that mantel, for example, you will find paintings of faces on white bark, called The Emigres. Hung at torso level, you might walk by them repeatedly before you see them, and the faces themselves blend into the bark. Both male, their ethnicity indeterminate, one smiles softly while the other's face is partially made of holes in the bark. Above the mantel are two red tiles painted with moons. One is straightforward, a large moon over a burst of trees. The second is mostly air, with only a tiny moon dotting the sky above the very tip of a house's gable. (The tiles came from Row House's basement.)
Discover in a far corner a tiny pen-and-ink sketch of a table and chair. It'll take a second to register, but it's the table you're sitting at—or the next one over? Stare carefully and compare tiny details. It may not be exactly here; the light fixture is right, but the furniture slightly different. Nearby are two paintings, black and white and gray acrylic on canvas, stripey and tall and thin. If they weren't surrounded by so much wood grain, you might not see it in these paintings, but woodiness is definitely in there, knots and all, once you want it to be.
Less successful is an installation of mirrors on facing walls, with words written in the corners. The hall of mirrors is lovely, as is the room it inhabits, but the words are stiff and professorial: "liminality," "interstice."
Also lovely but frustrating is Inhabitant, a woman painted on burlap hanging from a sort of towel rack. Positioned behind a table, you can either stand a few inches from it, in which case her face will become a mess of ink and cloth, or you can stand a table's distance away, some three feet or so, and long to be closer. It's a delicious conundrum, and one worth spending time in.
You can spend lots of time and still be finding new tucked-away sketches. As I left, the barista called out, "Did you find them all?" I had to answer, "I don't know," which is delightful, and an excuse to go back.