Standing The Test Of Time


Keeping the look fresh for years to come is the challenge for any great designer.

How does a great designer ensure that a restaurant's design is not so trendy that it has to be redone prematurely? How do you make sure that the design will stand the test of time? What kind of thinking goes into the design to make sure it is unique and special but will last a fair amount of time before it is outdated?

Standing the test of time is such a difficult goal for a restaurant. It is also one that is rarely specifically expressed by the client. Sure, all operators go into the development of a new restaurant concept with the goal of success and for that success to translate into a good run. I would consider a good run 10 profitable years. But longevity of the design has rarely been mentioned. Longevity of the materials and furnishings, however, is regularly expressed.

Standing the test of time is a tough requirement. We as a culture drift to the newest and latest concept. Customers are fickle. To catch the buzz from the critics, it must go back to the food first and/or the reputation of the chef. The buzz for the design can help attract the curious, but repeat business must depend on the food and an environment responsive to the menu and expectation of the guest.

For the design, it is a more difficult goal to achieve longevity as customers and critics so often demand something new. A common mistake is that in an effort to be new, the designer overlooks comfort. Comfort for the guest is expressed in color, temperature, acoustics, seating, sound, lighting and accessories. To risk being accused of being an old curmudgeon, I have never heard a guest request a cold, neutral, austere environment with beautiful but uncomfortable chairs so as to spend as little time as possible. Nor have I ever heard favorable comments when the noise level is such that I can’t hear the person I am having dinner with. And for sure patrons are not looking for food that looks like architecture and is served in such small portions that they have to stop at a fast-food joint on the way home because they are still hungry! Unfortunately, so many of our trendy restaurants fit that description.

If longevity is the goal, we go about it by looking to familiar materials such as stone, metals and wood, and certainly the use of light. Color and accessories play an important role in adding accent, or an unexpected splash to those traditional materials. We strive to introduce unexpected and innovative ways to use those familiar materials when appropriate.

We are currently working with a client that wants a new restaurant to feel as if it had already stood the test of time and had been there for 50 years. We start off by looking back 50 years to what was in vogue. Then add some of those materials such as a wood bartop and period lighting, and the use of leather on seating. We distress some of the materials and table tops to take on a used appearance. Signage, menu design and chalk boards add to the deception.

Don't forget to also change it up. An important factor for success of a concept can be change. The specials found on the menu can help to do this, and it also allows the chef to experiment. Some of those specials become a part of the regular menu based on demand. The same can be true for the design. The ability of a design to accept periodic change to the accessories, lighting and seasonal dressings is essential to keeping an “institution” fresh. Customers also enjoy a seasonal change in accessories. An occasional change of the colors can be more subtle or abrupt depending on the need.

Flexibility of the background structure to accommodate change is an important consideration in all the work we do.

Paint is a cheap and an easy way to make a statement and to change the look. It also presents an updated aesthetic to a tested menu. Also, renew the accessories, rotate the plants, change the artwork, add new lights, put flowers and lamps on the tables, change the music, and add or remove some drapery.

Eventually fabric wears out and furniture gets damaged. Use this need to replace as an opportunity to present an updated image.

So, to reiterate …

As with the kitchen and menu, start with a background that allows for flexibility, use known traditional materials, detail them well, use those materials in unexpected ways, and periodically change the materials and accessories to reflect the seasons or current trends.

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