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A new spin on retro chic

Here we are sitting at Spin Milwaukee, 233 E. Chicago St., and the play tape just spit out the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun.” Somehow it pierced through the popping noise of the ping-pong balls and general chatter of a mostly filled house. From the comfortable perch of the aluminum bar stools, we count five flat screen TVs mounted near the ceiling and two projections of a football game.

Spin Milwaukee opened three months ago in the Historic Third Ward. It is one part college union, one part snazzy basement rec room, one part semi-upscale eatery, a little Chucky Cheese, a little high-designed pool hall. The first Spin opened in New York City’s Flatiron District last year. It was funded by actress Susan Sarandon and other investors and designed by ubiquitous hipster Todd Oldham. The second one landed in L.A., and the third in Milwaukee.

The local investment group behind the Milwaukee venture includes Scott Mayer, Lance Allen, Doris Mayer and Dan McNulty.

Spin is basically a Mecca of ping-pong play. But more interesting, it is a window into how we frame our recreational experiences: What excites us? What makes us feel like we are having a good time? What does it take to lure us out of our homes or familiar patterns? What helps us commune with others?

In a capitalist society, the answers, of course, all lie in design: How do we fabricate the experience?

Oldham (L-7 Designs Inc) was hired to turn these large, vacuous spaces (16,500 square feet) into alluring, stimulating high-energy entertainment. It is no surprise that he has produced a line of dormitory accessories for Target and served as creative director of Old Navy and host of Bravo’s “Top Design.” And he actually created pretty cool chairs for Lay Z Boy (if that’s possible).

Architectural firm Engberg Anderson executed Oldham’s design concept in Milwaukee.

We enter Spin through a glass vestibule and are greeted by a large angular dividing wall with a George Nelson ball clock in orange. The nod to mid-century design signals the retro-familiar yet shined-up experience we are about to have. Oldham’s palette of orange, teal and chartreuse begins to dance between horizontal strings of phrases on the wall: Adjacent to the entry wall are life-sized photographic portraits with ersatz baroque framing of local folks holding ping-pong paddles. These portraits have been crafted to look like Kehinde Wiley paintings, a contemporary art reference for the knowing, or perhaps just a blatant rip-off.

In all things, including the erotic, the “reveal” is important. We all know that a naked person is less sexy than a clothed person slowly undressing. The same holds true in design. Even Gothic churches used the Narthex or vestibule to guide the transition from the earthly to spiritual world. So the entry wall blocks our entire view of what lies within.

If we travel to the right, the admission desk and gift shop area greet us. Drift to the left and you find yourself released into the epicenter of a large room with 10 or so blue-topped ping pong tables, orange and citron oversized ottomans, a quieter corner eating area and a long bar, where employee Noah’s shirt announces, “We’ve got Balls.”

This big room has a frantic intensity of shifting stimuli. It feels like you’ve entered a private club of sorts, and if you are over 40, you may have trouble finding comfort here. But not to worry. Spin tucks two antechambers into the main floor plan that offer a quieter, nearly intimate experience. Each has a few ping pong tables in it (now topped with fake wood grain) and a small bar. Welcome to Uncle Bert’s ‘family room’ via about 20 years of enhanced style market research.

Because Spin is meant to meet all needs and demographics – exercise, competition, fun, food, drink (there are even small locker room areas with showers in the rest rooms) – its menu strives for cross-over appeal: burgers for the youngsters and pear salad for the professional set.

The small eating areas sport framed silkscreen prints of funky illustrational mid-century bird imagery, which Oldham produced once he received licensing rights to the estate of Cincinnati illustrator Charley Harper (1922-2007). Harper’s stylized, modern designs seem like they’ve been appearing on everything. Now we know why.

It’s hard to be skeptical of a place that hosts ping-pong matches. Ping-pong carries the sweet nostalgia of innocent family fun. Anyone can function at it, sober or drunk, young or old, in Manolo Blahniks or Adidas. Families on the Spin floor chase little orange balls right alongside kids on the make, so we must cheer Spin’s attempt to break down some of the walls that segregate our night life, even if it is doing so in a manufactured, mediated, artificial way.

Spin Milwaukee does provide us with an arena in which to watch one another act a little stupid while still assuring us of our hip, ironic stance as we engage in a “Leave It to Beaver” activity.

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