Let’s paint a horse’s body where the host stand will be, visually transforming the employee into a centaur, a mythical half-human, half-equine creature from Greek lore. Griz Dwight rolled the idea into discussion without any serious expectations. If he’s being honest, it felt like one of those brainstorming moments where everybody laughs, questions how crazy is truly too crazy, and then steps back into reality.
“But hey,” says Dwight, of GrizForm Design Architects, “sometimes they stick.”
The whimsical artwork draws diners into the sprawling 12,000-square-foot Founding Farmers Tysons in Virginia, the latest concept from the restaurant group owned by members of the North Dakota Farmers Union. Not surprisingly, the farmhouse theme permeates and threads throughout the concept, accenting the different “microclimates” from one room to the next, all the while offering guests a trip around a countryside that changes quicker than a crop rotation.
“We always try to design our restaurants so that if you’re sitting in one area, you kind of want to come back and experience it from a different angle,” Dwight says. “Each time, it sort of feels better, it’s more entertaining. There’s a lot to look at with the detail.”
There are areas that represent a barn, front porch, kitchen, dining room, formal space, living room, and bedroom, among other, more subtle concepts. Perhaps none more imposing than the barn, however, where the team brought in a group of builders from Vermont to engineer a structural frame comprised of wooden beams. Dwight says they treated the project like it was intended to protect livestock. “It’s of one of those things that has to be authentic. It can’t be a movie set made of cardboard,” he explains. “It has to be real and true. … They put this thing together, they laid it out on the floor, they built each rib, they tipped it up with this huge rigging, and the guys climbed on top of it like squirrels would. It was pretty amazing.”
The pitched roof covers bar seating modeled after porch benches and swings. Moving on, there’s hand-whittled creatures, like a rabbit suspended in motion hanging from the ceiling, murals made of cookie cutters, a quilted colonial flag, and even a phone booth. Brooke Loewen, the interior designer, says the restaurant asked for a quiet space in its bustling interior, which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and “is always packed.” There’s no actual phone attached in the wooden, hand-built structure, but guests can close the door and charge their mobile devices hidden from the outside clamor.
One of the more trying and rewarding pieces is the 10-foot, double-sided “family tree” that divides the living room, or main dining area. It was laser cut from steel after Dwight drew the image into a CAD (computer-aided design) program. There’s two large banquettes that resemble a living room sofa, with carpets and upholstery to lend a warm, homey feel. The details were focused down to every material, which meets LEED Gold standards for sustainability.
“We kind of had a language where we generally worked with two woods,” Loewen says. “We had a light wood, which was our hickory. It has a lot of depth and character, it has a lot of movement and a lot of graining, and it goes from a really light blonde to at times a really deep golden color. We also had a really dark brown rustic wood. And we would use the two together. For instance, if we had the hickory, as in the living room, it’s on the floor and on the ceiling, and we also have accents of the dark wood throughout to balance it.”
Many of the materials are sourced from reclaimed, recycled, or post-consumer content, but Dwight says it doesn’t show in a starring role. He also wanted to drift away from the reclaimed look that’s popular with many designers. “The reclaimed look of things has seen it’s day and we’re trying very hard in our designs to not kind of come up with that typical reclaim thing that you’ve seen around,” he says.
No matter the overall feeling, which can, as mentioned before, morph from a sun tea room to a pantry before reaching the exit door, Dwight and Loewen agree that it all begins on the proper, just strange enough, footing.
“The [centaur] is just really, really beautifully done when you see it in person,” Loewen says. “And then there’s that juxtaposition that this is a really whimsical piece; this is a centaur, it’s really silly, but it’s so beautifully executed, and it looks amazing. I think it really sets the tone for a very interesting experience."