Today’s coolest restaurants break down design into showcases for streamlined style that’s a visual palate cleanse.
Hold the cheese. Lose the oil. Salad instead of a sandwich. Designers are adopting the same lighten-up approach to the built environment that increasingly health-conscious diners are taking to the food they consume.
Here, a trio of projects—from a Portland, Oregon haven for Zen design to an exuberant multi-venue space in Barcelona to an arty-chic absinthe bar in Melbourne—show the range of applications that thinking has now.
Ditch the sauce, special or otherwise, and head for clean, well-prepared choices. That’s not the latest piece of common-sense nutritional advice; it’s Balazs Bognar, chief manager, Kengo Kuma and Associates’ design philosophy for Shizuku, the Tokyo-based firm’s first U.S. restaurant.
For the Asian restaurant, originally a bento box lunch spot, the client (chef Naoko) had just one design request: Use sudare (bamboo fiber) screens. The restaurant’s small space, at just under 1,200 sq. ft., offered firm founder Kengo Kuma, Bognar and their team that chance to make the screens the dominant element. To do that, and not cramp the space, the screens are suspended from the ceiling in a complex pattern of loops and curves.
“I designed the restaurant as a Japanese garden. We used the screens to replace the roles of hedges and plantings to shape the space gently and obscurely,” says Kuma.
For designers, like chefs, versatility is key. Those same screens needed to perform three functions: filter natural light from the front window wall; modulate light from artificial sources; and highlight seating arrangements without interrupting traffic flow.
Making a less-is-more approach not only work but “wow” means putting in a lot more brainwork and legwork. “We had to test the balance of number of layers versus the simplicity of character,” says Bognar. “The final version does not have as many layers as one might think. In a small space, the effect is magnified. The arrangement of the screens was done by sketching within the team, then by physical model, then digital modeling confirmation, then drawn and assembled by hand onsite. It’s a full range of analog to digital techniques. But it was all guided by a hand-made ethos.”
While the rest of the space takes a back seat to the ceiling-spanning visual element, it’s not any less carefully thought out. White painted walls, white oak surfaces, a tatami mat platform and a dry rock garden by Sadafumi Uchiyama provide a backdrop for the screens. Various configurations including bar stools, two-top tables and chairs and tatami platform seating offer guests a personalized experience that’s as elegantly restrained as the locally sourced fare. Think more miso soup, less gastronomy.
Bellavista Del Jardín del Norte
Restaurant designers might need to add “distiller” to their job descriptions if they want to make magic, not moonshine. Yes, many of today’s chicest eateries have complex and sometime fanciful narratives. But as El Equipo Creativo partner Natali Canas del Pozo’s vision for this village-festival-themed dining complex—which includes all day dining, from grab-and-go to formal dinner in various venues under one roof—shows, even the biggest macro concept can be channeled into a clear, uncomplicated execution.
Step one was centralizing the food production, so that not all spaces had to be open at all day parts. The space is laid out as a mini-village, and each area references a different piece of that, from a fairground to a bar to a church.
“In the end we decided to centralize the kitchen in one big space in the center of the whole venue,” says Canas del Pozo. “Apart from that, there are two bars: the one at the entrance serves breakfast and sandwiches, and the one in the main plaza is in the ‘church,’ where drinks are prepared for the whole venue.” She and her team then needed to find a visual equivalent for that simple solution. They didn’t look far—just to the garden out back of the venue.
“We decided to use the flowers as another connecting element in the space. The flowers connect us to the big garden in the back and also give the space a festive and fresh atmosphere typical of those summer festivals in towns,” says Canas del Pozo.
The team used color, shape and density to modulate the effect. “In the entrance area, for example, where we had a double height space, we designed a colorful cascade of flowers, which becomes a very strong welcoming element for clients. Once inside the ceiling lowers quite a bit, so we decided to introduce a much lighter flower arrangement. In the upper level they are part of the wallpaper of the private event rooms,” she adds.
Her words of wisdom? Don’t be too literal. Why shouldn’t (artificial) flowers sprout from a ceiling instead of earth, or a miniature replica of a bell from the Vatican grace a bar area?
The “boutique” mentality—a small footprint and a super-specific product—has gone from retail to hospitality to restaurants. Another red-hot outpost for that niche market? Nightlife venues that eschew the idea of a basic bar, or, indeed, a basic bar menu and thrive on ultra-curated food (and drink) choices and escapist vibes.
Case in point: Absinthesalon Melbourne. As the offer revolves around the notorious (but legal, albeit with restrictions in many countries) beverage, Grant Amon Architects and interior designer Fabric Interior Exterior rethought the space flow around the experience of drinking it.
Both Amon and Fabric's interior architect Rebecca Lombardo wanted to move away from a typical bar structure. Instead, guests are welcomed into the venue with a lush display of various absinthes in what Lombardo calls a reverse bar, with glasses stored in a smaller display further into the venue.
So much for making the design “work.” Both teams also wanted to bring artiness and edge to the look of the space, without losing an industrial aura So, they turned to 2D focal points, such as dancing skeleton images on polished concrete floor and slightly trippy murals on the walls and floors to add interest, and focused on the ceiling as the canvas for playing with texture in the form of hundreds of single flower-shaped lights.
Projects like this aren’t just novelty acts. Instead, they are bellwethers for a new kind of storytelling that’s more short story than epic. Sure, the art traces absinthe’s history, but beyond those murals, Lombardo keeps the emphasis exactly where she wants it.
“Inside, the lighting is designed to have important focal features. The tables, art pieces and bar are clearly lit, leaving the remaining spaces shrouded in theatrical shadow,” she says. “This allows a feeling of mystique to be maintained while still letting customers read their menus,” she says.
Leave that green fairy out of it, already. Business might not be “usual,” but it’s still business. Sorry, designers—even flights of fancy need a GPS.