The stage is the driving metaphor for architect David Rockwell,
one of the country's premier restaurant designers, a former
theatrical-lighting specialist who designed the sets for the
Tony-nominated show Hairspray. Restaurants, he says, are all
about people connecting with other people.
"Theater represents a relationship between the audience and the
performers," he says.
"In restaurants, the relationship is between diners and other
diners. I visualize something like a script for the experience: How
does it feel when you come through the door? How does it feel to be
one of the first 20 people in a 200-seat space?" At restaurant Town
in the Chambers Hotel in Manhattan, for instance, Rockwell sunk a
major chunk of his design budget into the 18-foot walnut doors.
"When you enter you almost embrace these doors," he says. "It's
like moving through a proscenium. Inside you find all this backlit
mahogany. The wood glows, and people look incredible."
RESTAURANTS are notoriously risky business ventures and the
stakes are higher than ever. One in four restaurants fails within
its first year; 60 to 70 percent are shuttered before their fifth
anniversary. Throw too much money around at the start, and you'll
never pay your mortgage. Spend too little, and your dream
restaurant will disappear as fast as beluga caviar on an
Enter the restaurant designer, who translates the vision of owner
and chef into a pleasing and profitable space. These days, the most
in-demand designers - who command fees as high as $500,000 - help
their clients create the concept, locate the space, oversee
construction, and, in some cases, find the right chef. Many
custom-design the furniture, the fixtures, and even the tableware
to give each restaurant its one-of-a-kind look. Some designers,
like Kuleto, Adam D. Tihany, and Sir Terence Conran in London, own