The LA development boom has already yielded a bumper crop of marquee openings. Even casual travelers can tick off the hot hotel openings: Freehand Los Angeles, InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown, NoMad Los Angeles and the Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills.
But, that’s just the view from the Hollywood sign. The city’s indie hits take conceptual risks and embrace the rough side of LA, whether that’s in its geography or in its brutally competitive after-hours scene where superstar owners and operators have seen their A-list clubs close in a matter of months.
Meet the innovators behind some of the city’s latest iconoclastic hotspots: Poppy, a surrealist fantasy nightclub hybrid that’s housed in the former STK Restaurant in West Hollywood; Dialogue, a world-class, 21-course tasting menu restaurant hidden behind the scratched doors of a Santa Monica food court; and Hotel: Kim Sing, a three-bedroom hotel in a historic theater in the city’s still-gentrifying Chinatown. Read on to find out how designers are radically rethinking layouts, materiality and other elements to make those risks pay off.
In the City of Angels’ crowded dining and nightclub scene, it’s hard to seduce guests into suspending disbelief. From emo-alien darkness to street art edginess to hard-to-find-by-design speakeasies, this group of influencers has seen, done and drank it all. Selling them on a surreal fantasy, as The h.wood Group ceo John Terzian wanted to do with Poppy (the nightclub that took over the former STK restaurant digs in WeHo) means design that relies on enchantment throughout the evening, not just one-and-done shock and awe.
John Sofio, founder, Built Inc., pulls every possible surface into that elaborate narrative. This is maximalism on a baroque scale—and it needs to shout just that loudly to overpower the siren call of the smartphone, contends Sofio. He wants guests to unplug, except for the occasional souvenir pic, natch. “In the library, for example, the room surrounds and overwhelms the millennial’s sense of reality compared to their cyber world environment. They are encouraged to disconnect and lose themselves in the surreal fantasy of the dreamscape.”
Drawing guests through, not just into, the space helps create a cinematic spell to counter the allure of the app world. Sofio uses layering of texture and pattern as his tools of choice for maintaining that immersive environment. It starts at the top—STK’s foot-traffic circulation patterns were less than ideal, so Sofio added new curves to the top of the interior space, offering guests visual wayfinding, along with a private room that’s topped off with an upholstered ceiling.
Moving down to the walls, Sofio contends that designers need to be more creative than just installing a great art collection—Poppy has 600 pieces—or dramatic wallpaper, even though the club has that, too. It’s texture that really makes an impression.
Case in point: the riot of blooms on the patio wall, inspired by Gucci designer Alessandro Michele’s florals. It’s not a living wall or preserved flowers. Instead, it’s an abundance of fabric cut and arranged to form a vertical poppy field saturated with color. “The challenge with the flowers was that they required a huge volume of material that had to hang on the wall in order to make it look as full and dynamic as possible, while still maintaining a feeling of being organic,” says Sofio, adding that it took a large number of team members double-checking during installation to find the perfect balance for it.
Projects like this show off a new maturity in the Los Angeles scene—it’s ready for more complex ideas that invite a cerebral, as well as visual, appreciation. Concepting is evolving, but so is execution. Think of it as a delightful cocktail that affords a smooth blend of decadent textures and arresting forms.
The h.wood Group
DESIGN FIRm/ARCHITECT/GENERAL CONTRACTOR
Built Inc: John Sofio, founder
JM Empire Design
LA is a foodie’s, not a diner’s, paradise. Great eats are available at food trucks, in malls and in out-of-the-way breakfast and lunch spots, as well as fine dining destinations. All those concepts, though, center firmly on the plate rather than the decor. Santa Monica’s Dialogue, helmed by Alinea Restaurant Group alum executive chef Dave Beran (now also a co-owner and partner in Dialogue), is the poster child for the evolution of that approach. Meet the new dinner theater, Angeleno-style. Beran is the star of the show; his cuisine takes on a co-starring role and the design provides the backdrop.
The plot twist? The restaurant serves only a 21-course tasting menu. That leaves the design doing the heavy lifting of not only making guests feel comfortable over a couple of hours, but also keeping their attention riveted on Beran, his brigade and the seasonal cuisine.
Staging that experience in an 800-sq.-ft. space in a converted Santa Monica food court whose only “windows” look into the space’s center made that an even more demanding task. (While Beran was confident the space would work, Berkin Restaurants Inc. co-owner Michael Simkin was concerned it would feel claustrophobic.) To help overcome that concern, Steve Rugo, principal, Rugo/Raff Architects, says everything had to be thought of as furniture and be part of the design.
A scattering of tables was out of the question for the 18-seat restaurant. To maximize space, Rugo designed a seating mix that takes advantage of every possible square foot. Most of the seating is at the bar, giving guests the chance to watch Beran and his team work and get the inside info on the food (hence the restaurant’s name). Tucking a single banquette against the opposite wall clears floor space for two four-top tables and one deuce. Each table has chairs on one side, which also ensures room for ADA-compliant seating, and either have the bar or banquette on the opposite side.
The finishing touches are equally practical—with a few exceptions. Open storage above the banquette is filled with jars of flavor essences, misos and vinegars used in the various courses. The range hood doubles as a gleaming accent piece. Two small artworks, however, were specially created by an artist Beran admires.
“I used to always complain that LA didn’t have the notable restaurants of a New York or San Francisco or Chicago, but then I realized it wasn’t an issue of the talent not being there, but more an issue of the idea—which I think was false—that Los Angeles wouldn’t accept a certain type of experiential restaurant/dining concept such as a tasting menu restaurant,” says Simkin.
While Dialogue might only be at this address for a few years (and another restaurant from Rugo and Simkin is in the works in LA’s Arts District), projects like this show that the city is ready for next-level cuisine. Do eschew the white linen, though—it’s still California, not exactly the land of suits and ties.
Berkin Restaurants Inc.
Rugo/Raff Architects: Steve Rugo,
principal; Lindsay Graham, project architect and designer
Valley Forge Fabrics
Sossego Modern Brazilian Design
A 1920s vaudeville theater is a dark horse candidate for LA’s coolest micro-hotel. That didn’t stop Ash Pathi, founder, Indra & Co., and design firm ETC.-etera founding principal Sally Breer—with superstar Katy Perry’s help—from transforming an apartment formerly occupied by Willard Ford (that’s Harrison’s son) into a three-bedroom hideaway.
Even without the celebrity connections, projects like this—especially in film-centric LA—have to be designed for a new target audience: video. “I think our biggest challenge was designing for the camera. Most of the folks seeing Kim Sing Theatre for Katy’s project (the singer livestreamed three days of her life from there to promote her album “Witness” in 2017) were going to be doing so through their computer/phone/TV—which is not typically how spaces we design are experienced. Lighting, color and placement of furniture all had to be considered with the cameras in mind,” says Breer. Figuring out how to make the design work from 41 different perspectives—the number of cameras on the Perry project—requires a different mindset for designers than creating a single selfie spot.
Ford left Breer and her team with an airy, open-plan venue. While that might sound ideal for a modern layout, she knew she’d have to take a firm director’s hand toFord left Breer and her team with an airy, open-plan venue. While that might sound ideal for a modern layout, she knew she’d have to take a firm director’s hand to guide guests to the hotel’s Instagram-and YouTube-ready destinations. It helps that she’s not one to buy into the residential craze sweeping hospitality.
“The whole point is that it is NOT your home. It should take you somewhere else, somewhere grander, somewhere bolder, because you don’t have to live with it every day,” says Breer. So, she and her team went for a few very focused showstoppers. guide guests to the hotel’s Instagram-and YouTube-ready destinations. It helps that she’s not one to buy into the residential craze sweeping hospitality.
A sunken conversation pit draws guests in for longer chats or more relaxed evenings. An all-white meditation lounge, partially covered by a geodesic dome-like installation, magnetizes anyone in search of a calmer zone. Omitting an abundance of seating options from the living area helps focus traffic at the bar and table. In addition, it encourages people to socialize; they can’t go all cocoon-y and hunker down with their smartphones in a corner.
Keeping that careful curation is key in high-traffic projects like this. Intriguing wallpaper patterns, bright colors (including the blue accents around the kitchen, a leftover from the space’s previous incarnation) and tapestries keep the focus on the walls, allowing Breer to choose more durable materials for furniture, carpets and linens. After all, interior design doesn’t often get airbrushed in film.
Indra & Co.
ETC.etera: Sally Breer and Jake Rodehuth-Harrison, founding principals
Fly on the Wall Productions
Level 42 Construction
Alex Israel (art); Kim Swift creative director
For more on these projects, join us at Boutique Design West (BDwest), April 4 and 5 at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Beran, Pathi, Simkin, Sofio and Rugo will share their insights on panel discussions.