A new North Carolina bar gets crafty with cocktails and interior design.
For the duo behind Kingfisher Bar, innovative, locally inspired drinks are only part of the process.
“I think people like that feeling of a personal touch, that someone took the time to really think about the guest experience. I like providing a little bit of a surprise and delight for people when they discover all the different details everywhere,” says Michelle Vanderwalker. She and husband, Sean Umstead, opened the cocktail den in downtown Durham, North Carolina, this past summer. The couple built most of the bar’s furniture and decor, by hand, with the help of family and friends.
Vanderwalker and Umstead craft drinks with a meticulous focus on unique combinations made from sustainable, fresh ingredients; they put the same care and attention to detail in styling the underground bar space, too. Kingfisher’s design is intimate, and the co-owners aesthetic—and Vanderwalker’s talent as a ceramicist and visual artist—shines throughout. Handmade wooden tables and booths welcome guests into the bar, a line of mushroom photos taken by Vanderwalker’s father brings whimsy to the space, Vanderwalker’s ceramic dishes are put to use as servingware, and an origami lamp made by the couple’s son lights up the space.
Perhaps the crowning jewel of the space is the tile bar top, a glassy, watercolor maze of identical 2-inch hexagonal tiles. The project took Vanderwalker months to make by hand, and it’s now the focal point of the earthy, elegant basement. “It’s really great for me to see people enjoying it. It’s personal; I really wanted to make this a place where I wanted to be,” she says.
Kingfisher’s uber-personal design also has practical perks. By relying on their DIY skills—plus those of their friends—the couple avoided costs that could have easily taken them over budget. “My grandmother was always figuring out how to solve problems in an artistic way, and I came away with that,” Vanderwalker says.
And their creativity is good for the earth, too. Umstead and Vanderwalker often use surplus ingredients from local farmers in the cocktails; it’s all part of an effort to build a respectful, symbiotic relationship with community growers. Their design process is similar.
Vanderwalker picked up supplies for the bar at a Durham scrap exchange, and the tables and booths were built by a carpenter friend from the remains of an old barn in Maine. “It’s a philosophy of of really caring about where things come from and our community and making things from scratch, making something that is really special out of what we have,” Vanderwalker says.