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Arthur Chin and Yu Yah-Leng
Founders, Foreign Policy Design Group
ARTHUR Chin makes it clear that even though nearly half of his clients are restaurants, theirs is not an F&B-only design agency.
"It just so happened that we started with a few good ones, then more and more F&B clients come to us," says Mr Chin, 46. "But we do other work as well."
Foreign Policy Design, started in 2007 by Mr Chin and his wife Yu Yah-Leng, is a design studio with multiple strengths ranging from art direction and design to branding and marketing. They have done work for luxury fashion and lifestyle brands, fast-moving consumer goods brands, arts and cultural institutions as well as think-tanks.
Their foray into F&B started when hotelier Loh Lik Peng hired them to brand his Shanghai property, The Waterhouse At South Bund, a boutique hotel housed in a crumbling 1930s army headquarters.
The couple also had a hand in branding the hotel's restaurant, Table No. 1. The interior is an informal space featuring wood and grey bricks and is flooded with natural light. Four communal-style dining tables of unfinished wood add to the sociable environment and make the space conducive for shared dining.
That collaboration with Mr Loh led to them branding more of his restaurants, including Esquina, the former Sorrel and Meatsmith. The company also did the branding for Japanese-inspired steakhouse Fat Cow, Mexican restaurant Super Loco; and the branding and interiors of seafood bar and grill The Pelican, and sandwich shop Park Bench Deli. They are also the designers behind Gallery & Co at the National Gallery Singapore, which comprises two F&B areas and a retail space.
Ms Yu, 43, says that in the past, restaurateurs would first find an interior designer to do up the space, then hire designers to come up with the restaurant brand. Now, they do both hand in hand. "There is more synergy when you have branding and spatial design come together early on in the project," says Mr Chin.
For each project, Ms Yu, together with her team, comes up with a concept or direction. The team does brand research, put together ideas before presenting them to the client. "One set of designers is in charge of the branding, while another does the interior design," she says.
For Park Bench Deli, Ms Yu wanted a place for tasty and satisfying sandwiches. "The kind that you crave after a long day in the kitchen or at work," she says.
She created a brand that has an endearing and friendly persona, which also alludes to the kitchen team: former Lolla head chef Tan Huang Ming; Andrei Soen, of seafood boil restaurant The Cajun Kings; and managing director Aamir Ghani.
"They are loud, boisterous and fun boys who've got a bit of a potty mouth, a little over-the-top, but a whole lot of good," she says.
The Deli's storefront and interior is styled after the All-American Deli, "a friendly neighbourhood fixture that welcomes you every time you push past the swinging doors".
Earnest, friendly and wholesome, the space is a visual explosion of beloved vintage textures, think intricately patterned floor tiles juxtaposed against vibrantly painted wooden panelled walls.
Reminiscent of an all-boys den, personal items of the shop owners such as family holiday photos and pre-loved items line the walls, each a physical representation of the hands behind the sandwiches, who are always ready to dish out a fist-bump or two.
The couple say there is no science or a template to designing a space, rather it is more of an art that they have mastered. But one thing that restaurants they have designed have is a balance of a memorable dining experience and being operationally efficient.
For example at Park Bench Deli, the open kitchen is purposely made big, so that the staff don't have the misery of working in a constrained space. "At the same time, customers can also see their sandwiches being made, while enjoying the chill vibe of the restaurant," says Ms Yu.
The couple make it a point to stay on top of trends, but not to follow them. Mr Chin says: "At every touchpoint, we want to be better than what people are expecting. It doesn't have to be much, but even a little bit better is enough."
While the couple have a knack for branding and designing restaurants, running one is not on their minds. "Operating a restaurant is a whole different ball game," says Mr Chin.
Tying everything together
Marc Webb and Naoko Takenouchi
Directors, Takenouchi Webb
RESTAURANTS The Black Swan, Whitegrass and Empress all serve different cuisines, but they have a common underlying theme. The interiors of these restaurants are as beautiful as the plating of the food served.
No wonder, as these three restaurants are all designed by Takenouchi Webb, headed by married couple, British architect Marc Webb, 47, and Japanese interior designer Naoko Takenouchi, 42.
Despite each restaurant having a different look, the spaces feel comfortable, uplifting and elegant, the way that the couple had in mind. "Everything ties in together, so there is no one element that stands out," says Mr Webb.
"For diners, the restaurant interiors should look effortlessly done," says Ms Takenouchi, who worked at a restaurant design firm in Japan previously.
While the spaces look effortless, what goes into achieving that is not. "Often, we are tearing our hair out," says Ms Takenouchi.
Mr Webb says: "Even after the design is drawn up, we are still refining it up till the moment the restaurant opens, so it is a constant development."
The firm, which was established a decade ago, has become the unofficial go-to firm when it comes to designing amazing restaurant spaces.
Mr Webb says they didn't start out specialising in F&B projects. His experience was in hotels, but he had an interest in restaurants too.
"Somehow, the firm gravitated towards doing restaurants, which we really enjoy," says Mr Webb. "But we don't just do restaurants exclusively. If a client has an interesting project, we will take it up." By that, he means they also do private residences and resorts.
Their first F&B project was The White Rabbit, and since then they have gone on to design several other F&B outlets for the Lo&Behold Group including Overeasy, Tanjong Beach Club and The Black Swan.
Their clients tend to be seasoned restaurateurs, which makes the job of creating the right restaurant ambience somewhat easier. But still there are basic details that they need to find out first.
"It is usually the practical stuff - such as the type of food, the number of seats, the number of service stations needed . . ." says Mr Webb.
Ms Takenouchi says that their inspiration for each project comes from the site. "At our site visits, we know how the diner should feel when they are in this space," she says.
Their most recent project is the contemporary Australian restaurant, Whitegrass, at Chijmes, led by Australian chef Sam Aisbett.
The historic Caldwell House was originally built in 1840 for a magistrate's clerk and then later became part of a convent complex.
"We envisaged the restaurant as a series of domestic dining rooms, each within a similar style but with subtle differences in the colour palette, furniture and materials to differentiate each space," says Mr Webb.
Each of the dining rooms has a wall colour that slightly varies in subtle shades of blue, green and pink. This is complemented with a thin gold border around the wall edges and openings, together with a strong complimentary skirting colour to emphasis the architectural features of the rooms.
Often, the team customises furniture, lighting and even rugs to get the right look for the project.
They too, inject elements of the restaurant's cuisine into the design, "but very subtly; there's no need to make it so obvious", says Mr Webb.
In the case of Chinese fine dining restaurant Empress at the Asian Civilisations Museum, the presence of specially designed geometric patterned screens are the Oriental highlights.
The project came with restrictions, says Ms Takenouchi. The museum's original wall had to be retained, and the architects of the restaurant wanted to preserve the ceiling and the flooring. "Usually when we design a space, we can play with walls, the ceiling and the flooring, but in this case, we couldn't," says Ms Takenouchi.
Still they managed to turn the restaurant into a space that has the perfect balance of Chinese elements and a historical reference to the museum's facade as its backdrop.
The couple say their training as architects gives them an added edge over other designers. "We don't just look at surfaces," says Ms Takenouchi. "Designing a space is not just about wall finishing but also about other aspects, such as spatial volume and ceiling heights."
They do make it a point to return to restaurants they have designed, but Mr Webb jokes that "it is not a relaxing experience, as we would be noticing the changes made".
He adds that they generally like dining out as part of research. Mr Webb hopes one day, to not just design a restaurant but to run his own as well. "Right now, I only have control over the design, but my own restaurant, I'll have control over everything else."
Co-founder, The Strangely Good
FROM designing a store that looked nothing like a conventional shoe shop, The Strangely Good has since gone on to design three restaurants, all in a span of just three years.
"Our F&B clients were so impressed with what we did for PVS shoe store, they got us to design their space," says Michelle Lin, 34. She heads the five-year-old interior, branding and graphic design firm with a sleeping partner.
Inspired by the name PVS, short for Provisions, Ms Lin created a store front that resembled a provision shop, filling the shelves with bottles of Morello cherries. PVS is at Orchard Cineleisure. Shoppers walk through a tunnel lined with handmade props ranging from aftershave bottles to soap boxes and biscuit containers, before entering the proper retail space where the women's footwear are displayed.
She also designed the PVS's print collaterals, from the shoe-box tags to its paper bags and cash vouchers. "It was all about coming up with unexpected design solutions," says Ms Lin, who had previously worked in advertising and design company, Kinetic.
The unusual looking shoe boutique caught the eye of Spa Esprit Group's brand director Jerry De Souza, who hired the firm for its revamp of the Argentinian restaurant Bochinche, and again for its Skinny Market restaurant at Raffles City.
For Bochinche, a new retail area was created at the restaurant entrance. Ms Lin created the restaurant facade that looked like a closed roller shutter with a side opening, to resemble the backdoor to a storage unit. In the retail area, air-flown Argentinian beef and other items are displayed on a specially constructed wooden train. "Through our research, we learnt that the introduction of the refrigerated train led to a boom in the Argentinian beef industry, as fresh beef could now be delivered throughout the country," says Ms Lin. "So we reinterpreted the train as product display shelves."
Ms Lin says that as this was the firm's first foray into F&B design, she picked up many tips from Mr De Souza. For example, she learnt that she had to work fast for F&B projects, know who the key decision makers are and the importance of presenting and selling concepts to them. "The one advice Jerry dispensed that I find myself still following is to enable a different dining experience for returning customers," says Ms Lin. "This is done by creating different atmospheres or 'scenes' within the restaurant by playing with different seating heights, dining style, such as bar counters or communal tables, and views for diners to take in."
For Skinny Market, in line with its name, Ms Lin created a market-like eatery where food is sold behind counters, with weighing scales as props, and fresh fruits displayed in sinks. Here, pizzas are sold by weight, besides pastas, salads and juices.
Her third restaurant takes diners into a "home". Noshery is a cafe by day, and a bar by night housed in a black and white colonial bungalow in Rochester Park.
"For Noshery, we created a space that is filled with comfort, ambiance, informality, personality and a welcoming spirit. Stepping into Noshery is much like stepping into someone's home," says Ms Lin.
She imagines the homeowner to be someone who enjoys hosting, loves travelling and reading, and with an interest in gardening and culinary arts.
The interiors pay homage to the colonial heritage of the building. The botany printed wallpaper brings the outdoors in, while the knick-knacks, such as vintage books, timepieces, postcards and posters, and the heavy use of warm wood creates the feel of a rustic travel lodge in the middle of the wilderness.
The rattan chairs are reminiscent of a Balinese holiday, while French country bistro chairs and marble table tops complete the homely look.
Ms Lin says that showing mood boards to clients helps ensure that both parties are in the right direction. Ravin Bajwa, owner of Noshery, knew that he didn't want something run of the mill with this cafe/bar. "I wanted to celebrate and showcase the space along with its heritage," he says. On her part, Ms Lin says that her role is to sharpen Mr Bajwa's vision. "I understood that Ravin wanted a cosy dining environment, and he was particular about details, down to the temperature of the lighting."
Being fairly new to interior design, Ms Lin makes it a point to head out with her team to check out new eateries. "I take note of various aspects, even down to lighting and acoustics," she says.
Her pick of well-designed space is Odette. The restaurant designed by Singapore-born, London-based Sacha Leong, a lead designer at Universal Design Studio, has flooring made of cracked marble but with pale pink grout in between the pieces and curved vinyl panels lining the walls.
"It is a place you don't want to leave after sitting down," says Ms Lin.
Global managing director, greyMatters
DEPENDING on how you see it, being told "you are not a normal designer" could either be a compliment or an insult.
Alan Barr, global managing director of interior design firm greyMatters, takes it as the former. Indeed, he is not your normal designer as he does more than just make a space look pretty.
Mr Barr thinks about details such as the length of a bar, and where the food for the restaurant comes from. He explains that a bar has to be at a precise length so that the bartender can work at a more efficient pace. And as for where the food comes from, Mr Barr explains that if it is being imported from overseas compared to being sourced locally, there is a higher chance that the restaurant will need more cold storage space. Ultimately, these little design details can affect the operations side of a restaurant, he says.
Having both design and business skills has made Mr Barr and greyMatters, which he founded in 2012, a force to be reckoned with for creating an all-inclusive dining experience. greyMatters was ranked 68th in hospitality design by Interior Design magazine in 2015, the only Singapore-based firm to make the list.
Mr Barr also runs skin+bones, a restaurant development and management company, which owns eateries such as Sarnies, Pimp My Salad and Jar'd.
The New Yorker's break out project in Singapore was the Tippling Club on Tanjong Pagar Road. "This was Tippling Club version 2.0, and I wanted to create something edgy and gritty. It is a raw environment with touches of elegance - an environment that showed chef/owner Ryan Clift's personality," says Mr Barr.
He has since gone on to create chef Clift's R&D kitchen and dining space Bin 38, located above Tippling Club, and also Open Farm Community at Dempsey. Other projects in Singapore include Bar-A-Thym, PasarBella at Suntec City, and the recently completed terrace at Bar-Roque Grill.
Mr Barr, 42, is a firm believer in never repeating his designs. He presents to clients a series of "inspiration imagery", and is all for qualitative over quantitative trends.
"My approach to a project is more artistic than scientific," he says. He recently spoke at Food & Hotel Asia 2016 on the topic of "Successfully Launching New Brands and Concepts: Qualitative Answer to Quantitative Needs".
So there are no set questions that he asks a client. "Instead, we talk, listen, and then the team retreats to come up with options which are then presented to the client," he says.
How he designs the space depends on factors such as whether it is a fine dining or a casual joint, a rooftop bar or an underground one.
His most recent project is PasarBella Suntec City, taking inspiration from the streets of Lower East Side in New York City for its design - think graffiti walls and street art illustrations of happy food and familiar cartoon caricatures, hanging fruit crates and urban paved walkways.
While he is wary about clients who don't state a budget upfront - "I don't take up the job in this case, because we may have different expectations" - he likes using materials that don't have to be expensive to show luxury. "Used smartly, concrete and salvaged timber can give that luxe look without too high a cost," he says.
As someone who takes a holistic approach, Mr Barr's expertise goes beyond a space. He will create the branding, the logo, the signage, the cutlery, the music playlist, down to the staff uniform.
"It is all providing clients with the right tools," he says.
Two to three steps ahead
WE'VE all heard stories about how difficult it can be to run an F&B business in this competitive market, but that hasn't stopped Bu Shukun from dabbling in it.
Mr Bu, 35, not only heads Architology design firm, but together with a few other partners, he also runs The Tuckshop, a beer and Asian tapas joint; The Refinery, a three-storey bar/restaurant/workshop space; and most recently Miss Lok, a lok lok, or skewered food restaurant.
He still has other F&B clients, such as Ben & Jerry's. "Clients who come to me know that I not only have the design skills, but operational and ownership skills too," says Mr Bu, who trained as an architect.
He started his firm in 2010, working on residential projects, before he was recommended to redesign the interiors for fine dining Italian restaurant Garibaldi in 2011.
Other F&B projects followed, such as Mu Parlour at Holland Village and Pigsfly Kitchen & Bar at Novena. But it was the completion of The Mad Men Attic Bar at North Canal Road that sparked his interest in starting his own bar and restaurant.
"It looked fun, and it was an opportunity to put forth my design skills on to a business level," he says. "It was a chance to not just to find design solutions, but also test out restaurant concepts."
Working with clients means that he has to deal with constraints that have been set, such as the client's business ideas, and their targeted dining audience. "We provide design solutions to their brief," he says.
When creating his own restaurants, "anything goes", he says. "You decide on the concept, the market segment, and you work on your strengths and weaknesses."
For The Tuckshop, he saw a gap missing in the Geylang area, a place where it is cool to be seen drinking at and in a safe environment. The restaurant is on the city fringe, and in between swanky and coffeeshop casual. Creating The Tuckshop also allowed Mr Bu to test out various seating options to see which is most popular. For example, diners can sit along the five-foot way, at a communal table, or stand around beer barrels to have a drink. "A client may not want to have so many options, but since this is my place, I could offer this," he says.
He notes that with the popularity of social media and consumers being more well-travelled, it is getting more difficult to impress them. "Getting them down the first time is easy, but it is harder getting them to return," he says. With good food and drinks taken as a given, he notes that people peg their memories of a space to their experiences. "This can be from the ambience, service to the company," he says.
To help Miss Lok stand out, he has personified the restaurant, creating a vivacious female that characterises the space. Vintage beer posters with pin-up girls adorn the walls, with neon lights for that cheeky, raunchy feel. The food is served on a conveyor belt for that touch of fun.
Despite a busy schedule running the design firm, Mr Bu is very much hands-on in running the restaurants. He holds weekly meetings with the restaurant staff and is always looking at how to make operations more effective.
With his foot in both the design and F&B business, he says he is able to "cover his client's blind spots". By that, he means that sometimes clients have what they think are fabulous ideas but they may not work in reality.
"A good designer shouldn't just be a yes-man to his client, but should be two to three steps ahead to anticipate any potential problems that may arise and be able to give solutions," he says.
Amendment: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Foreign Policy Design had designed Table No. 1, Esquina, the former Sorrel, Meatsmith, Fat Cow and Super Loco. They only did the branding. The article above has been revised to reflect this.
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