Daniel During on the evolving art of restaurant design.
Fifteen years ago, Asian design informed and influenced global restaurant design, starting with a Thai-inspired vibe and moving onto the very clean, minimalistic lines of Japanese design. This was the age of mind, body and soul. Spas proliferated and yoga became very popular, along with candles and incense. We became fixated on the quiet and calm beauty of Asian spirituality.
A lot of restaurants actually ended up looking like spas and the hush in the room allowed one to almost hear their own hair grow.
As the world got richer, brasher, louder, more confident and more global, design followed this trend with graphic prints and themes that were very brand oriented. Hip hop, bling bling and hedge funds were the buzzwords. And it wasn’t just restaurants, either… remember the top-to-toe Burberry babies?
Then came environmental and social concerns. There was a backlash against the ostentatious and a much-welcome movement towards the authentic. We wanted to feel again; to be cloaked in warmth and security, and perhaps experience a bit of nostalgia too. Restaurant designers began to source more natural or even tribal materials. Chefs returned to a less flamboyant food ethic, to one of comfort food with a modern edge and artisanal ingredients.
But whilst seeking for this new design ‘trend’ of authenticity, we seem to have contradicted ourselves. After all, authenticity is not a trend or a design direction – it stems purely from the soul.
The actual design process is the soul of any concept. It involves the research, the joy of creation and collaboration, and the sourcing of materials to create an end product that is also joyful for the customer to behold and experience.
If we look at some of the UAE’s latest restaurant concepts – without naming names – the designers have managed to achieve a warm ambience with soft lighting and appealing seating areas. The food is always great, and they have excellent service, but in their search for the authentic, they have all melded into quasi-sameness.
I call them ‘comfort zones’ in a restaurant package, with their low yellow lighting and monochromatic tones. They are all very seductive – but not very striking.
They all have nondescript interiors with very little architectural personality. Whether inspired by China, Japan or the USA, they all offer the same vibe and feel, and these generic spaces could easily be transformed into hotel lobbies, upscale real estate offices, spa receptions and boutiques. The fact that they can so easily be replicated is worrisome indeed.
I see this trend worldwide and it causes me to wonder if we have become complacent about our customers, our industry and our product. Or are we just fearful of taking a risk in these uncertain times? That would truly be odd since the best art and innovation tends to stem from difficult times – times when we seek to reconnect with values.
Remaining with the group of restaurants I mentioned earlier. They offer similar experiences in terms of service and product, but where they could make an impact is in the design differential. From the hotel sector, we can see how design has leveraged profitability – so it is not all about ethic or aesthetic.
I believe that a designer is an artist, and it should be their responsibility to introduce and seduce a society with the new and the unimaginable.
At no time in history have we had such a global explosion of design innovation – simply witness the exponential expansion of venues like Art Basel Miami and The Biennale in Venice. Not to mention the elevation of architects to ‘star-chitect’ status – Gehry, Koolhaas, Hadid, Foster.
Perhaps the best example I can offer today is of the recent Shanghai Expo. There were over one hundred country pavilions, and China’s citizens lined up for blocks and waited for hours and hours to see them. Exhibits were greeted with gasps of delight. These were ordinary people living ordinary lives, but in those two or three hours, they experienced the extraordinary.
Most of our customers lead pretty ordinary lives, and we should want them to be enchanted and delighted. We should aim for ‘little gasps of excitement’ and want to impart a feeling of warmth in their hearts and electricity in their brains. In essence, to have all of their senses engaged.
So the question remains, what will be the new trend for restaurants? Quite simply, I don’t foresee a trend, as such. I think this is the era of the anti-trend, and I think that is good. The slate has been wiped clean and we can begin in a more organic place by allowing our projects to be led by art, design and our own milieu.
In the Middle East, designers seem to be focused on replicating ideas from the west. We must challenge that. I cannot believe that the talented designers and artists that we have here have such limited imaginations that they can only produce simulations of design concepts from Las Vegas, New York or London.
Are we not good enough to be inspired by our own ideas in order to create homegrown concepts? After all, here in the UAE, we are known to take risks, certainly in architecture.
To become a true 21st century leader, we must carry that design ethic through all that we do. As business leaders, it is our job to support artists and designers and convince investors to take a risk and let us leverage that risk into profitability.
I have been approached on many an occasion by a client who wants a cookie-cutter copy of a restaurant he has seen abroad. I take the time to explain to the client that while that restaurant can serve as a design inspiration, I believe we should develop our own product which can compete anywhere in the world.
As restaurant developers, we may work on a smaller scale but we should strive for creative expression and the realisation of our ideas. Budgets come in all sizes, but that should never limit our capacity for innovation.
It seems to me that I would rather face a world where the design trend is one that I dislike strongly, rather than one that elicits very little feeling.
Daniel During has been based in Dubai since 1997 and is the principal and managing director of Thomas Klein International. The food and beverage consultancy has been operating from Dubai since 2001 and covers the entire Gulf region and Middle East.