Graphic designer and restaurateur Jeff Motch is forever connected to the massive cast-aluminum gates standing at the entrance of Panama 66, the new café and bar that inhabits the outdoor courtyard at the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park.
Motch, who runs the restaurant with his partners—the same team behind Blind Lady Ale House and Tiger!Tiger!—has a large scar on his noggin, the result of knocking the top of his head against the edge of one of the 8-foot-tall gates as he was loading it into a van.
The eye-catching gates are essentially functional sculptures designed by modernist artist Malcolm Leland, who had a studio in Potrero for many years and is best known locally for his "Bow Wave" sculpture and fountain at San Diego Civic Plaza.
Motch was doing research for a name and logo for the new spot and discovered that more of Leland's entryway gates, which have an organic design mimicking a twisting vine, were sitting unused in the museum's storage. All the gates had been in use from 1966 through the early '70s, but about half came down when it was decided that the empty patch of land to the west of the museum's courtyard would become a sculpture garden rather than an additional west wing.
Motch got permission from the museum to use a few of Leland's gates in the design of a new bar for Panama 66.
"The bar that was here before looked like an Ikea bar just dropped down in the middle of the space," Motch explains. "It never felt right. We thought there had to be a better solution, design-wise, that makes it feel like it belongs here."
The challenge was to somehow keep the large bar mobile, because the space is often rented out for private events, while also incorporating the extremely heavy gates into the design. Motch collaborated with architecturally trained designer Jonathon Stevens and metal fabricator Ty Meservy, who suggested putting lead into pipes inside the bar to keep it from tipping over from the weight of the gates, four of which are mounted on the front.
The result is a much more aesthetically integrated, site-specific structure that breathes new life into Leland's design. Motch is working on building a mobile food cart with some of the extra gates, as well.
"I think the artist would have enjoyed knowing they were being put to use again," says art historian and SDMA's archives manager James Grebl, adding that Leland is 92 and unable to communicate well. "They're just such works of art... It's nice now that Panama 66 has found a new use for them."