Cuisine may make the restaurant, but art certainly adds to the ambiance. Operators are commissioning artists, many local, to add a personal touch to their establishments.

“The artists we feature live here in Columbia, so a lot of customers know them and recognize their work,” says Bobby Williams, chairman of the South Carolina-based Lizard’s Thicket, which displays local art at each of its 15 locations. “One of our main goals in the business is to support other local businesses. Artists, god bless them, they need help.”

Art on walls is not new for restaurants, but the length to which they are going to commission exclusive and local art marks a change in attitude, as owners seek to individualize their restaurants. It can also be cost-effective. “ It might actually have some economic benefits since the middle man is out of the equation,” says Juan Carrtero, principal of interior design firm Capital C Interiors.

To commemorate its 35th anniversary in 2012, Lizard’s Thicket commissioned local artist Lana Garner to create custom metal sculptures for each location. One sculpture, at the store near the state fairgrounds, features a Ferris wheel while another invokes the area’s collegiate spirit with a trio of chickens and a University of South Carolina gamecock.

Lizard’s Thicket includes pieces from other local artists, such as paintings of Southern vegetables by Jamie Blackburn and scenes of early 20th century American life from local favorite Jim Harrison.Rather than rotating artwork with new pieces constantly, each Lizard’s Thicket location seeks to hyper-localize its collection to reflect its neighborhood.

The price of the artwork was “a cut above” generic pieces, Williams says. Each of the 15 sculptures by Garner was $500, and the restaurant paid full price for all pieces by local artists. Nevertheless, Williams believes the extra investment strengthens the brand’s identity.

Ulele, a three-month-old establishment in Tampa, Florida, boasts about 60 pieces of art, including local works. Named for a Native American princess who saved the life of a Spanish youth, the restaurant embraces the 500-year-old narrative as an integral part of its identity. It even commissioned Peruvian artist Vala Ola to create a 7-foot-tall bronze statue of princess Ulele.

“I’m hoping it will be a symbol of pride for the community of Tampa Bay,” says owner Richard Gonzmart. “When you commission something that’s special, people appreciate it.”

Similarly, Gonzmart employed Amsterdam artist Erik Renssen after visiting his gallery, which he found reminiscent of Picasso. Renssen painted abstract interpretations of five of Ulele’s signature cocktails, though the commissioned pieces fetched a steep price; the Ulele statue alone topped six digits.

For the interiors, Gonzmart hired six artists who all have studios within 2.5 miles of Ulele. One, Dominique Martinez, repurposed motorcycle parts, car parts, and the like to create the front door and wine cellar.

Martinez has also been commissioned to do a piece depicting Juan Ortiz, the Spanish explorer Ulele saved.

Feature, Restaurant Design