Design Review: h2hotel in Healdsburg

Of all the wine country towns in Napa and Sonoma, Healdsburg is probably my favorite.  It has the best mix of retail, restaurants and hotels, while still maintaining that quaint, town-like feel.  While St. Helena comes in a close second, thanks to Martin, Woodhouse Chocolates, Footcandy, Napa Valley Vintage Home, and of course Dean & Deluca, Healdsburg feels a bit more undiscovered and understated.  Actually, the shopping is probably not as good as St. Helena, but the eclectic mix of generally high-quality stores framing  an old-fashioned town square just feels right (in contrast, downtown Sonoma and its square is sparse, touristy and surprisingly downscale).  Shops, restaurants and hotels like Cyrus Restaurant, Duchamp Hotel (personal fave), 14 Feet, Oakville Grocer, and Boisset Wine Bar (more on that in another blog) are my favorites.

For many years now, Hotel Healdsburg has been the grand dame of the square, and really the town, in large part due to its celebrity chef-owned restaurant Dry Creek Kitchen (Charlie Palmer).  Of course the swanky, sleek architecture by David Baker + Partners, white glove service, and premium location overlooking the square didn’t hurt either.  So with the formula to creating a successful hotel down pat, the owners decided to create another down the street – the h2hotel.

The h2hotel (I assume the 2 is for being another “H”ealdsburg hotel as well as being the second one for this company) is similar yet different to its older “sister” in many ways.  They are similar in that they share the modern David Baker architecture, indoor/outdoor lobby-level restaurant and generally upscale, boutique philosophy .  But the h2hotel is slightly different in that it commands a less premium location at the beginning of Healdsburg Avenue off the square, is smaller (only 36 rooms), and is a bit less upscale (rooms start at a mere $195 versus $275, in the off-season mind you!).

Being a new hotel in wine country, it’s no surprise that the h2hotel is an environmentally friendly hotel, “striving for” (aka: not yet certified) an impressive LEED Gold certification.  According to its website, it has green features like: solar heating, a living roof, innovative heating and air systems, an underground cistern for water collection and construction using sustainable and local materials (for example, I think the bathroom tiles are Heath Ceramics from Sausalito, another fave).  Another green and practical idea that I saw was cute lineup of gleaming white Public Bikes (this is of course Rob Forbes’, the founder of DWR, new bike start-up) at the front of the hotel for hotel guests to borrow, presumably to cruise around town, or for those more daring or athletic, to cruise to the nearby wineries (yes, Solage has bikes too but not Publics!).

The exterior of the hotel is probably its weakest part from a design perspective.  It looks very bloated, generic and simplistic compared to the Hotel Healdsburg, which has a formal elegance about it, despite its modern and fairly minimal take on traditional architecture.  How much this has to do with the siting, the construction budget and the “brand” (meaning it’s supposed to look less expensive because it is) I don’t know, but the two properties certainly have different vibes about them.  The Hotel Healdsburg feels darker, richer, roomier and swankier, which is all true by the way.   The worse offense to the exterior are the hideous guest room balcony rails, which look like laser-cut Corten in an organic, branch-like pattern.  The oxidized look is consistent with other details in the hotel, but the overly ornate nature of the pattern bothers me – like something made by a hippie artisan for sale at the Berkeley Flea Market.  I get trying to bring an organic element to the clean, straight lines but I really think that pattern and approach doesn’t work here.

Another example is the poorly poured concrete job throughout the hotel on the outside, and the inside for that matter.  For most upscale buildings who have exposed concrete walls, great care is used to build exacting forms so that the resulting concrete walls that come out of the mold look smooth and precise.  The walls in the h2hotel are “rustic” to be generous – as you can clearly make out the imprints of the rough-hewn 2″x6″ or 2″x8″ planks that were used to make to use the forms.  Again, this could be because of decisions to be consciously rustic, budget conscious or both.

As you get a bit further in however, the building’s promise starts to emerge.  The hotel’s entrance is tucked away off the street, in an interior courtyard, allowing visitors a bit of respite from the bustle of the sidewalk.  As you walk toward the huge, candy apple red entrance doors, across from the line of Publics, is a nice, calming water feature made out of spoons that cascade water down the metal grating, an homage to the “Spoonbar” restaurant behind it.  Above the entrance doors is a novel rain canopy – frameless plate glass precisely perched on an oxidized I-beam.   I love how simple this canopy is and how it creates a true floating roof look.

Once you enter the hotel, you immediately notice that this hotel is organized a bit differently.  Directly in front of you is a long, bowed counter that serves as the front desk, concierge and hotel bar.  I like continuous forms so a part of me likes the casual, multi-purpose, one plane-ness of this idea a lot.  But, the androgynous nature of the front desk bothers me.  I think they should have placed some sort of screen behind the desk to frame and formalize the desk a bit more – I think the current way makes the front desk people look like too much like cafeteria workers manning their stations, especially since the desk does segue into the bar.

To right of the front desk is the quaint (rather small) lobby lounge, replete with all Roche Bobois furniture, including my favorite Mah Jong sofas. To partition the space from the vast front desk/bar area is a custom steel bookcase and self-serve water bar.  The all-glass back wall of the lounge overlooks the pool at the back of the hotel.  Providing some privacy to the pool guests is another matching steel bookcase that houses curiosities.  Though the voyeur in me enjoys the pool view, if I were a guest at the pool, I would appreciate a bit more privacy but maybe that was in the intent – to be provocative.

In fact, look no further than the lobby level bathrooms as another example.  These bathrooms share a unisex sink area, a la my beloved Pastis in New York (the first place I saw this done years ago).  Personally, I think this idea is very cool, definitely a bit edgey and irreverent, while being quite practical in terms of reducing the amount of area and fixtures required for bathrooms.  Beyond the concept, I think the bathroom is very well done, and of one of the best designed spaces.  There actually isn’t much too it: concrete trough sink, ceramic tile walls, downlighting, slab mirrors and farmhouse faucets.  But, the total effect is beautiful in its simplicity, though much thought went into the design, such as the right type of tile to provide enough texture, the right type of lighting to highlight the wall, the strategically placed mirrors to allow focus on the walls, and the rustic faucets (for brand and for budget).  And by the way, for those who are worried, the toilet compartments are marked for men and women and feature solid, full height, locking doors (with a glass transom along the very top).

Aside from the front desk, lounge and bathrooms, the rest of lobby level (minus meeting rooms) is dedicated to the Spoonbar Restaurant, which rules the roost.  The restaurant design is a nice and minimal: solid cherry tables with upholstered indigo blue chairs atop polished concrete floors surrounded by walls of either glass, concrete or the outdoors.  The floors and drop-ceiling, clad with wood boards with “randomly” spaced slots for recessed lighting, are carry-overs from the lobby area.  So the look between the two spaces is continuous and integrated, although a bit one-note for me.

Of note in the dining room are the now de rigeur communal, raw-edged, slab hardwood dining table, and the nice bright yellow floral art installation against the “rustic” concrete wall.  One thing that I saw that immediately grabbed my attention was the raw-edged slab hardwood “chandlier” centered over the communal table.  I had never seen slabs like that placed on their edges and hung from the ceiling – “what a great idea!” I thought.  But, believe it or not, these were not chandeliers because they never lit up while I was there?!  But how could they not be because it would be perfect to drop a few low-voltage units inbetween the slabs for some nice, focused downlighting.  The hotel is only three weeks old so maybe they didn’t get to it yet, but this seemed like potentially a huge and obvious miss to me.

Adjacent to the dining room and enjoying street frontage is the bar portion of the restaurant, overseen by world-famous “mixologist” Scott Beattie, formerly of Cyrus.  The bar is pretty minimal as bars go – no flashy LED lighting, floating glass shelves, or dramatic wine archive – though it is consistent with the look of the rest of the hotel (including another one of those wood “chandelier” type things).  The best part of the bar design is the Nanawall doors that open up the bar to the street.  The indoor-outdoor concept is not novel at all, but affixing a long steel beam along the entire length of the opening and topping it with a cherry counter to form a perch and drink bar is.  This simple idea creates a sleek, slim and functional divider between the patrons and the public; the tiny strip of succulents along the bottom is another line of demarcation and a nice touch, though I question their longevity with people undoubtedly trampling them.  I also liked the Eames fibeglass dowel leg stools – I actually didn’t know these existed exactly but they seem genuine enough.

In the end, I liked the space and my meal very much at Spoonbar (it helped I got the only table on the sidewalk, perfect for people watching or noticing the built-in heat lamps set flush into the eave – nice).  Despite some of the details that I question, I think the space is well done, and fits the bill for its aim: providing a modern, boutique hotel experience in wine country geared toward a slightly younger, hipper audience than its sister property, who is intent on retaining the title of grand dame of Healdsburg.

BONUS: Food porn from Spoonbar for those who care…


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Design (and Food) Review of New York City Restaurants

Baohaus' Uncle Jesse Bao

So this past weekend I just got back from a fabulous week in New York.  It had only been about a year since my last trip to the Big Apple, but this was my first pure pleasure trip in ages.  For those who do not know, I enjoy food nearly as much as I enjoy design (nearly, but not quite) so this trip to New York, with my family, was planned around food as much as anything.  Using a mixture of personal recommendations, Yelp, Travel Channel, Daily Candy, New York Magazine and the plethora of food magazines we subscribe to, we winnowed down the extensive list of restaurants that we wanted to try to meticulously craft an itinerary that mapped out every lunch and dinner over our six day trip – with reservations of course (yes, I am that compulsive).  The final dining itinerary has an Asian bent and is focused more on the casual side of fine dining since I was traveling with my five year-old, but nevertheless it’s list of restaurants that I think any foodie would be eager to indulge in on a trip to New York.

While I could try to play food critic for this blog entry, I won’t and will leave that to the professionals.  But because design and ambiance is a huge part of any dining experience, I thought it would be interesting to blog about the design and decor of all the fabulous restaurants we tried.  While there was no breakthrough design moment for me on the trip (because we didn’t go to any multi-million dollar, celebrity chef-owned restaurants that push the design envelope on this trip), I did take away a lot design tips and techniques that are invaluable to file away for a rainy day.  Specifically, I paid attention to how Manhattan designers deal with tight space constraints to make restaurants both functional and interesting at the same time.  Many of these techniques are applicable to anyone who is designing in close quarters, whether for a small apartment or restaurant.

So the rest of this blog chronologically follows my eating itinerary and shares some of the design tips I saw while offering only a small slice of food commentary only because I can’t help myself.  I apologize in advance for the less than great photography but I tried to be somewhat discrete when taking pictures to not be a total nerd and only used my iPhone…

SUNDAY

Le Pain Quotidien

  • Decor: When we got off the red eye and into the city at 8am, we wanted a pick me up but one that was not Starbucks or Dunkins.  So we quickly found the closest Le Pain Quotidien, a patisserie and boulangerie franchise that can be found in 20 locations throughout Manhattan as well as in six states across the country.  Despite being a chain, this place is always favorite stop of mine when I’m in New York because it whisks me away to France without leaving New York.  How does it do this?  Inviting yellow plaster walls, warm intimate lighting, unfinished wood floors, and vintage-looking wooden furniture, case goods and architectural details.  Particularly charming, and a trademark to this franchise, is the signature extra-long communal farmhouse table that begs you to sit back and relax with some good reading and a warm latte.
  • Food: Whenever I go I always order the same thing: a latte in the stemless “bowl” (which immediately makes the latte taste that much better and more authentic) and a platter of fresh baked bread to eat with their house Belgian Praline Spread (think sweet hazelnut butter) and a poached egg.  A faux-French breakfast in a faux-French farmhouse but the warm fuzzy feeling this place inspires is the real deal.  And all from a chain – who would’ve thunk?

Jane

  • Decor: Jane sports a very “conventional” restaurant interior: booths along the walls, tables in the middle, wood floors, and neutral color palette.   Nevertheless, I did see two design tricks that I was reminded of: 1) over-sized mirrors, hung angled downward to reflect light and provide interesting people-watching angles, and 2) large, rounded molding that ran along the top edge of the banquettes to create a cove to run up-lights that provide some accent lighting against the plaster walls.  I am a lighting freak and I think little details like that make all the difference in the world.
  • Food: We chose this place because we knew after a long flight, we would be starved and looking for a hearty brunch.  What says comfort food like a BLT-E (egg), rosemary fries and the best cheddar grits (infused with rosemary also) that I’ve ever had?  Jane is the classic American brunch place, housed a classic cast-iron building in SOHO.  What’s there not to love?

Ippudo

  • Decor: Ippudo is the first American outlet for the restaurant chain based in Japan.  What started as kind of an underground place for hardcore ramen lovers has now gone mainstream.  The vibe of the place though remains a bit hardcore – dark, stylish, and loud.  As soon as you walk up to the restaurant, you begin to sense the cool vibe – the hipsters hanging around outside, their tricked out fixies (bikes) chained to the guardrail, and of course the unique exterior fascade composed of strips of woods (ash?) of varying lengths, widths and depths.  The result is a multi-dimensional surface that pays homage to tradition (in that it is wood) but does so in manner in distinctly modern.  This juxtaposition of old and new is a theme in both Ippudo’s design and cuisine.  As you enter, your eyes are drawn to the red wall behind the bar that supports the thematic and interesting ramen bowl collection, a la Kelly Wearstler at the Viceroy in Santa Monica.  The exposed brick wall behind the banquette where we sat was nicely up-lit and held a nice piece of art that was an image composed of hanging “coins”, which constantly shimmered and provided some extra kinetic energy to the already hopping restaurant.  Again, this was very similar to the art that I wrote about in my previous blog about the Riviera Resort in Palm Springs.  Perhaps the most inventive design element in the space was communal table built around an integrated Japanese planter filled with logs (last picture below).  If you look closely though, you’ll see that the table is built around a corner wall but the wall is cleverly disguised with smoked mirrors to make it appear as though the table was a complete rectangle (in reality it’s only 3/4 of a complete rectangle).  This bit of smoke and mirrors (literally lol) is particularly inventive and playful, and shows that mirrors can still be used intelligently to manipulate and expand spaces.
  • Food: Ippudo has quite the following from hipsters to foodies to Japanese tourists for good reason.  While it does not have the gastronomic credentials of say Momofuku, the Akamaru ramen with an extra onsen (poached) egg was probably the best I’ve ever had.

MONDAY

Pearl Oyster Bar

  • Decor: When you go to a classic restaurant in the West Village that serves New England beach food, what kind of decor do you expect? If you close your eyes and imagine it, it would probably look very much like Pearl Oyster Bar – complete with wainscoting, tin ceilings and brass light fixtures.  Despite the restaurants success and longevity, it was started on a shoestring by its owner who did not use a designer, shopped flea markets and chose paint colors to reflect the colors of a beach.  The simplicity, coziness and kitsch work with for this concept, and proves successful design can be done inexpensively and innately.  Obviously, this place isn’t design-forward but I can certainly appreciate it for what is is.
  • Food: The $27 lobster roll is the place’s claim to fame but personally the quality of the ingredients cannot overcome the classic New England style preparation with mayo, celery, etc., which I personally think is only okay.  I prefer a more purist lobster roll on a baguette with clarified butter with minimal accouterments.  However, the skate sandwich and clam chowder were amazing – probably the best chowder I’ve ever had.

Falai

  • Decor: Falai is a cutting edge restaurant in every which way.  Like it’s neighbor, the highly acclaimed WD-50, Falai represents contemporary cuisine and design. From the street it’s hard to tell what the establishment even is – my first guess would have been a furniture store based on the large window with the Kartell Starck Louis Ghost Chair and the rather industrial and imposing front door.  In truth, what the designer did was enclose the vestibule to make it a heated, “semi-formal” entry to the tiny restaurant.  Given the the minute footprint of the restaurant, this approach was actually a novel way to gain back a few precious square foot and carve out an entry versus walking into tables as soon as enter.  In my estimation, the primary dining room in the restaurant was no more than 12 feet wide, including the bar/prep area.  The width of the space for the dining tables and walking corridor was only about seven feet; the total width of the restaurant even with the cooking alcove and pantry area (last picture below) was maybe only 18 feet.  So how does someone work with such a tight space?  Given the realities, a lot of what what you do is to work the techniques.  For example, the space utilizes an all-white, tonal color scheme to make the space seem cohesive and contiguous.  Next, there is the transparent Kartell furniture, at the table and along the “bar” (I quote this because there really is no room for a bar – it’s essentially stools in a walkway) which takes up almost no visual mass.  Then there’s the creativity.  That Starck chair in the window?  It’s actually one of four seats at the signature table of the restaurant – an elevated dining space walled-in by glass on two sides overlooking the street and the vestibule.  It’s literally like being in a cool fishbowl.  It’s so tight that the dining table is pushed length-wise along one wall, and it’s so dark that the only light for that area comes by way of a nearby floor lamp.  But it’s also so cool – and a creative way to to use an awkward and tight space adjacent to the door.  The other detail I wanted to call out was the cool treatment of the wall protrusions behind the dining tables.  I am assuming that these are necessary to cover some unsightly pipes or something that runs along the wall at several points in the restaurant.  Instead of trying to mask them, the designer wrapped in a graphic, tonal wallpaper of sorts and used the empty space along the bottom to install some accent lighting, which does a fine job of highlighting the mosaic, Carrera marble floors and adding some extra chicness to the space.
  • Food: The meal at Falai was fun, inventive and very good, especially the pasta, which is their specialty.  In retrospect, I wish I tried the pasta tasting menu from this chef who has a world-class resume that includes stints at Enoteca Pinchiorri, Michel Bras and Le Cirque.

TUESDAY

El Quinto Pino / Ray’s Pizza

  • Decor: When we wandered into this El Quinto Pino, we didn’t realize that it would be literally a tapas bar, meaning no tables at all!  There was only counter seating, either at the large horseshoe-shaped marble bar or the less elegant wood counters along the sides.  Highlighting the restaurant’s Spanish origins were the Moorish design accents, specifically the impactful and beautiful tile accent wall behind the main bar.  The place is so small and simple that the menu was written on chalkboards on the back wall, above the door threshold, and even on the support pillar that bisected the middle of the horseshoe.  All the cooking is done behind the scenes in a tiny galley kitchen  behind the accent wall.  Add in some period lighting and vintage mirrors, and this place oozes character and charm despite its diminutive space.
  • Food: So we never ate El Quinto Pino.  The reason?  Because we went primarily for their prized uni panini and they don’t serve it until the evening!  I was sooo looking forward to it.  So much for my planning… We settled for Ray’s Pizza nearby, which turned out to be our only pie experience of the trip.  There’s nothing like a good slice with a side of my favorite Jamaican beef pie.

Convivio

  • Decor: Convivio was the most polished place we went to on our trip.  It is a high-end place in a luxury building in the tony Tudor City neighborhood, nearly right across the street from the UN.  Walking up to the restaurant you see the four power tables on the brick patio overlooking a park; in the Spring and Summer these tables must be unbelievable. When you enter the restaurant, you notice how big the place is with a bar area, main dining room, a raised dining area and then another dining alcove adjacent to the main dining room.  The low ceilings immediately make the place feel intimate but the colors and textures keep the place light and airy.  The most striking feature is the red tufted banquette than runs all around the main dining room.  It contrasts nicely with the warm gray carpet and the Louis-style chairs upholstered in a metallic gray faux leather.  I particularly liked the semi-circular booths with round tables; these tables have upholstered side chairs that reminded me of Pierre Paulin’s orange slice lounge chair.  It is a nice touch to have a few swanky lounge-type chairs to break up the space.  The neatest design element of the place is the wall treatment, which essentially is fringe curtains hung closely against the wall and up-lit.  Since the curtains are white they are extremely subtle but made their mark when they swayed gently with each passing person.  The uplighting of the fringe is fantastic, illuminating the fine and delicate texture.  My only qualm is that an extra external valance (upholstered) was needed to cover the curtain track – too bad the they couldn’t conceal the track in a hidden ceiling cove when the restaurant was being built out.  The final design tip I took away – painting the ceilings in a gloss paint for that extra shimmer and reflectivity, especially on a low ceiling.
  • Food: This meal was fantastic.  We did the four-course tasting menu, which was plentiful and well-rounded.  The highlight again was the pasta dish, not a surprise from the chef who is called the Mario Batali of mid-town lol.  We had a small hiccup with a dessert and we were brought two more as replacements.  Needless to say the service was great.  Overall, this place has that panache, that special dining experience feel, from the food to the decor to the location.

WEDNESDAY

Joes’s Shanghai

  • Decor: Classic Chinese joint with no style to write of.  At least it’s decently clean, albeit extremely crowded.  In fact, in pinch like with us, you may even be asked to share a table with strangers, which would be fine if those darn soup dumpling steamers weren’t so big… This dining experience is all about the food.
  • Food: As a pretty well-educated soup dumpling connoisseur, I think these are the best there is (yes, even compared to Din Tai Fung in LA).  The thinness of the dumpling skin and the flavor and volume of the broth (each dumpling yields one Chinese soup spoonful) are unparalleled.  Of course to tempt and tease me, Evan, one of the owners of Baohaus, told me that he preferred Shanghai Cafe on Mott Street instead.  Unfortunately, he told me on Friday after already eating lunch, when I had no more meals or stomach space to spare on my trip.  Bastard.  Alas, there will always be next time…

(Dinner was home-cooked by the Parks – thanks Serena and Dennis!)

THURSDAY

Menku Tei

  • Decor:  See my blurb for Joe’s Shanghai above except substitute the word Japanese for Chinese.
  • Food: So this place was not on our original lunch list; it replaced Cafe Habana because running between uptown and downtown twice a day for meals was killing us and Thursday was an uptown day.  Yelp delivered Menku Tei to us and we  were grateful.  The ramen may not have been as good as Ippudo or Momofuku in a straight-up comparison (i.e. they didn’t know how to make an onsen poached egg) but in a pound-for-pound contest that factored in price, their $8 bowl of tonkatsu ramen is pretty damn good.  The milky broth does it to me every time.

Momofuku Noodle Bar

  • Decor: Like its food, the design of Momofuku is a modern twist on traditional concepts.  Evocative of more traditional Japanese restaurant interiors is the maple plywood covering almost every surface but the floor, which looked to be a nice, slate-looking ceramic tile.  Like Ippudo did with its exterior, Momofuku plays with the size and elevation of the maple plywood strips to create an uneven, undulating surface for visual interest.  Most of the seats in the restaurant come by way of the bar which extends the entire length of the dining room.  A nice detail is how the bar seamlessly transitions from work surface to customer seating in a singular, continuous plane, and becomes table at the front of the restaurant that allows customers to sit on both sides.  The bar seating concept seems to be a design trademark at Momofuku restaurants; even their exclusive, ultra-luxe Ko concept a few doors down features bar-only seating and almost the same aesthetic, perhaps with even more inexpensive materials.  The few tables in the back and all the stools/bar stools appear to custom designs made of solid oak.  These minimalist but sturdy designs focus on practicality and direct peoples’ attention onto the food.  The black painted ceiling adds to the drama and the clubby feel.  In reality, the clubby energy of the restaurant comes from the teeming throng of loyal patrons.
  • Food: This placed is hyped up and it deserves to be, if nothing else for its innovation.  I mean how many bao places exist now, not just in Manhattan but across the country, because of this place?  But don’t get me wrong, the food is very good, whether the tamales, chicken wings, foie gras or $18 bowl of ramen.  But the best thing on the menu is their world-famous pork bun (bao).  There is no better, period.

Rice to Riches

  • Decor: So I’ve passed this place for years but have never tried it until this trip.  Clearly it’s hard not to notice this place because it is so bright and futuristic, yet is sells something as decidedly unglamorous as rice putting?  Maybe that’s why they had to dress the place up?  In any case, this place is wacky – like a it was designed by a Disney Imagineering alum who threw everything he ever learned into one space.  Overall, it’s a bit too much for me with too much going on – signs everywhere, colors everywhere, bad copy writing everywhere.  I didn’t see a lot of cohesion or restraint.  On the plus side – the innovative tables, all of them, from the ceiling hung ones (which help ingress and egress in a tight space because there are no legs to deal with), to the two-headed surfboard shaped one, to the stripper pole one.  In the end, this establishment is successful at least partially from the design of the store – it attracts people to walk in and take a look, and from there the product sells itself.  Good design be damned.
  • Food: So I admit that aside from the rice pudding out of a plastic cup off the shelf at a grocery store, or from my local Mexican joint, I’ve never experienced gourmet rice pudding before, which apparently has been my loss.  This place is darn good and makes rice pudding in flavors that rival ice cream like peanut butter, rock road and banana.  I could eat this a lot if I lived nearby, though I think the store owners needs to reconsider their business model, which currently has their smallest serving priced at $6.50.  While this stuff is good, that is a lot of money for a single, small serving and they give you way to much anyways.  I would sell a half-sized serving for $4 and I bet they would do more volume.  But, they’re clearly successful so who am I to say…

FRIDAY

Baohaus

  • Decor:  Baohaus is a study in making the most of what you have, which in this case is not much.  This place is essentially subterranean and small, and that’s being generous.  I would call the entire ordering/waiting/dining space maybe 10′ x 14′.  So what does that mean?  Well, no tables of course, but by Friday I was accustomed to counter seating only in New York.  One wall has exposed brick and the other a collage of childhood photos of the three brothers/owners.  The back wall has a pass through into the tiny kitchen, and the cash register is beneath the store front glass and adjacent to the stairs leading down into the space.  I would say that the space had an austere, start-up aesthetic (Ikea stools and all), which is accurate since it has only been open four months.  I do like their irreverent branding and marketing, and the blue painted counters that tie back to the brand.
  • Food: So being the last bao place we tried we had a chance to compare it against some of the best in Manhattan (Ippudo and Momofuku).  Ironically, despite being the most modern concept of the three, as far as the food, its flavors were the most traditional. Their Chairman Bao (pork) tasted like traditional Chinese fatty pork/pork belly served at restaurants, which isn’t a bad thing, just surprising.  Flavor-wise, I loved their Uncle Jesse vegetarian bao the best.  Oh, and the sweet bao “fries” – ingenius!  Cut up bao bread into strips, fry it, serve it with a syrupy black sesame sauce, and call it “fries” – so simple but so good!  Not a bad place from a corporate lawyer turned restaurateur. Maybe I could….

Sushi Yasuda

  • Decor: The Japanese can have a very minimalist, zen-type aesthetic (think Shigeru Ban) so when it comes to designing a hardcore, high-end sushi place I can see why they would utilize this approach.  What better way to focus the attention on the food and metaphorically emphasize the freshness, simplicity and sophistication of the sushi than to create a minimalist box devoid of anything superfluous.  I am not sure if I had ever been to a sushi place that did not have the requisite fish-refrigerators along the sushi counter – this place was just bare, minimal.  The entire restaurant is clad in a honey-colored bamboo plywood (Plyboo?) from floor to ceiling (except maybe the floor itself which may be oak).   Even in the hallway to the bathrooms the display niche is finished out completely in bamboo as well as the bathroom doors itself.  The space is so uniform and precise that it is impressive, and certainly not easy to accomplish.  All you notice is the warm glow of wood all around you from all the well placed lights and accent lights. This place is not sumptuous but serious, in a good way.
  • Food: So this place was also not on our initial dinner list, but we kicked off an incumbent to open up a coveted spot when we heard gushing reviews from friends and read similar ones online.  I mean people online were GLOWING about this place.  So even with the sky-high expectations – the verdict?  This place was pretty darn good.  First, I’ve never been to a place with such an extensive list of fish, I mean multiple types of tuna, salmon, etc. including a bunch of stuff I had never heard of, all flown in.  We were so overwhelmed that we went with omakase to make it easy.  All the fish were ultra-fresh and ultra-melt-in-your-mouth.  The sushi rice was expertly cooked and seasoned.  My only two drawbacks from my meal: no fresh wasabi (I mean Megu does this for you) and slightly small portions (that is so American of me to complain about that).  But from a fish perspective, amazing.  This place is hardcore.

Max Brenner

  • Decor: There is not much to take away from Max Brenner in terms of design.  I would summarize it as an “upscale”, adult take on a kid’s vision of a chocolate factory.  The overall design scheme is very Cheescake Factory-like except for the faux chocolate carrying “pipes” that snake overhead throughout the restaurant, and the fact that the place is super dark, like too dark.  It’s almost like they wanted to create a dramatic ambiance so bad that they just decided to make the place super dark.  I guess it works – how’s that for an inexpensive design tip?
  • Food: This place is a semi-tourist trap but I am a sucker for a sweets and it’s open late so I was so happy to go here.  The menu is exhaustive and even for a pretty decisive eater like me I had a hard time choosing something from the pages and pages of choices.  Both times I’ve been here nothing has ever been mind-blowing but everything has been good, like the peanut butter chocolate shake or the chocolate fondue.  But that’s fine because I don’t need mind-blowing all the time, I was happy to just extend my night in one of my favorite cities.
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Press Alert: Cantilever Design Featured by Hakatai Tile

Ahhh, the power of blogging.  A couple days after blogging about the first of my two Eichler bathrooms, I got a surprise email from a representative from Hakatai Tile, the manufacturer of the glass mosaic tile that I used.  Apparently every month they highlight a new designer and project who showcases their product, and they wanted to highlight me in March!  What a nice surprise an honor.  Today, Hakatai issued their press release about my project.

Since discovering and using Hakatai on my own house three years ago, on my outdoor water feature pictured above, I have remained a big fan of this company.  Its product line is extensive, its quality is good, and most importantly, it’s very affordable.  While it doesn’t have the cache of a Bisazza, Sichis or Oceanside Glass (nor the markup for that matter), it provides the same look or a similar look (depending on the line) for much less.  Depending on the project, budget and client, Hakatai could be the perfect tile for your next project – check them out here.

This particular press release is also an interesting read as it provides some history about Eichlers in addition to talking about our project and the product.  I even learned something about just how green Hakatai’s Ashland-e series is, which is very sustainable by the way and would make a great option on your next green project.  To read the complete press release, download it here: pr-2010-3-cantilever.

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Press Alert: Cantilever Design in California Home + Design

Alright, this is waaaaaay late but better late than never…. We are featured in current issue (February/March) of California Home + Design for the table we made last Fall for DIFFA!  For those of your who don’t remember our table or haven’t read about the details yet, you can read about it here: part 1 and part 2.  Thanks to my friends (Nikki, Kim and Kat) for alerting me to the mention before I even knew – I know sad but I was busy traveling!

This mention was not quite the comprehensive feature spread that we had in Nesting Newbies but rewarding nonetheless to just be featured along with the host of talented designers from that evening.  CH+D is prestigious magazine whose profile and stature are growing quickly so any mention is a welcome one.  So be sure to pickup your own copy during your next visit to the newstand.  It’s actually a great issue with the “Best of California Design” – be sure to check out the article on Gary Hutton’s amazing space…

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Design Review: Riviera Resort & Spa in Palm Springs

Over the holidays, I was able to steal away to Palm Springs for a week of rest and relaxation.  While I was not able to hit all the excellent mid-century furniture stores on Palm Canyon Drive,  I was able to visit the famed Riviera Resort & Spa for brunch.  Being a Palm Springs design landmark that just underwent a $70 million “rejuvenation,” the Riviera was a place that I had to write up a little design review for…

The Riviera in Palm Springs, is unrelated to the Riviera in Las Vegas, except for the fact that in both their heydays, they were hot spots to Hollywood legends like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Elvis Presley.  The Palm Springs Riviera was opened in 1959, not far from the main drag in old Palm Spring, Palm Canyon Drive.  The hotel was innovative at the time for its size, at 406 rooms, and the unique hub and spoke design, which features guest rooms on the “spokes” and the pool, restaurant and lounge on the “hub.”  Originally built in the iconic mid-century style, the hotel has been updated in a Hollywood Regency meets 70′s glam pop style, which works well with architecture.

As we drove up to the resort entrance and around the circular drive, I immediately was awestruck by the curved glass curtain wall that revealed reception area and lounge in all its orange glory. Simple in concept but detailed in execution, the lobby is really stunning, featuring expansive floor-to-ceiling back-lit orange walls overlay with a white Moorish-inspired screen.

Equally impressive were over-scaled  (light 12′ over-scaled) round foyer sofas covered in white vinyl with orange piping with Asian-inspired roll pillows and a built-in candelabra tower.

Surrounding the minimalist reception island, along with the sofas, were “impromptu” vignettes of mirrored cocktail tables and Philippe Starck Icon chair-like retro modern armchairs in white with orange faux patent leather.  Overall, I thought the wow effect of the glammed-up Hollywood Regency style done in the bright colors with the large scaling was very successful and set a impressive tone for arriving guests.  Unfortunately, as I wandered a bit further around the hotel things became less cohesive…

On the other wing of the curved entrance area to hotel and up a few steps was the Starlite Lounge, the resort’s primary bar lounge. Despite having the same wall treatment as the reception area, the lounge looked much less polished than the reception side.  First, the furniture selection and layout on this side was a bit odd.  Whereas the other side looked minimal and modern, this side looked a bit crowded and conventional in its layout with booths along the back wall and clusters of arm chairs and round tables in the middle.  In my mind, the layout should have been either minimal and airy, a la a Starck hotel like the Paramount or Mondrian, or cozy.  The current layout is neither with high voluminous ceilings but crowded furnishings.

Equally odd was the fabric chosen for the booths and club chairs.  One featured a multi-color stripe (that didn’t seem to match anything) and the other was the Asian floral print used on the roll pillows on the foyer sofa.  Unfortunately, neither of the fabrics played off the orange wall very well and certainly not with each other.  Whereas the floral pattern worked on the other side because it was an accent fabric that sat on a plain white sofa, to see it as a primary fabric across 20 plus chairs was overwhelming, especially given the strong orange color everywhere.  Typically, I love tonal color schemes but this one seemed too much.  Given the strong personality of the back wall, the space would have been better served if the seating used neutrals and or another complementary color.

The bar itself was rather underwhelming, despite the opportunity to really be a focal point.  The design was very safe design and did not leverage the high ceilings or the Moorish influence used elsewhere, which could have been very cool.  Overall, this entire space was a big disappointment coming from the other side, which was done so well.

As you walk from the entry area to heart of the hotel, where the restaurant and pool are, you pass through a wide boulevard with recesses on both sides that house seating groups and the hotel’s “famous” bedazzled crystal pool table.  Functionally, I see what the architects were doing here – trying to create that loungey-intimacy that was missing in the front bar area.  However, the designers, in my opinion, completely missed the mark in its execution.

For example, the designers chose to cover all the walls that serve as dividers between the seating areas in beveled mirrored tiles, laid in a offset pattern.  Generally speaking, I cannot almost imagine anyplace I would ever use beveled mirrored glass tiles, but certainly not to cover such a large area, in such a prominent area.  What walls that did not have mirrors were covered by faux-wood veneer panels.  I get that real wood veneer panels are really expensive and don’t hold up as well as the plasticized ones, but using the fake stuff everywhere takes away from making it feel special and increases the chances that people will realize that it’s fake.  For example, this same veneer was used to sheath the columns in the reception area but when used sparingly, it looked nice.  I would rather see painted, well-done drywall than overused bad veneer.

In several of the seating areas, the designers used pearlescent, tufted vinyl love seats facing each, which were atrocious, like something out of one of those discount ” designer Italian furniture stores” you find in a bad part of town.  These recesses seemed to really lend themselves to something more like an u-shaped, low and sleek fabric sectional that hugged the perimeter walls. The other seats in this area were rounded club chairs covered in a red and gold patterned velvet; while the fabric didn’t feel nor look inexpensive, it was much too loud, especially when used in quantity.

And then there is the Patricia Urquiola Caboche light (which I think might have been a knockoff by the way) which is an exquisite light (that I have myself hanging over my dining table) but one that requires some space to breathe.  Given the “noise” of the surroundings (mirrors, shag, pearlescent tufting, et al) this lamp just did not work here; I think something like a simple George Nelson Bubble lamp would have worked better and added to the mid-century motif.

Overall, the colors, patterns, fabrics and materials, and how the designers mixed them all together was just over-the-top garish.  I get trying to be glamorous but unfortunately there is a fine line between glamour and chintzy and I think the line was crossed here.

Towards the end of the boulevard,  just before you descend the stairs to the restaurant, the designers placed another black velvet foyer sofa smack in the middle.  While the thoroughfare is certainly wide enough to accommodate it, it seemed out of place all by itself.  To me, another one or two sofas all along the path would added some cadence and consistency.

The best part of this lounge area was the wall art, which were portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope made up of Guatemalan coins (because they’re inexpensive is my guess).  The coins were simply held by a nail and hung freely off the backing allowing for some nice shimmer in the light.  This is DIY-type art which I love – though anyone who wants to attempt this needs to have plenty of patience and coins!

When you descend the stairs at the end of the boulevard, you arrive at the hotel’s restaurant, Circa 59, the most successful and polished space on the property.  Immediately as you enter, you are greeted by a huge, red crystal Murano chandelier which immediately captures your attention and sets the tone.  As you slowly begin to take in the whole space, the fantastic details unfold before your eyes.  The restaurant had a inside eating area, an outside covered eating area and true outside uncovered eating area.  The first two spaces though really flow together seamlessly courtesy of extra-large french doors; given the desert climate eating in either of these spots probably feels the same.  The inner space felt warm and stylish thanks to the dark wood wall paneling (yes, the same faux stuff again), red booths and chairs, and herringbone-patterned wood floors.  The booths had a high back that was upholstered in a red fabric with a graphic mid-century-inspired pattern.  Similarly, the high wingback style dining chairs were upholstered in a shiny red vinyl (I think) with brass nailhead trim – very sharp and classy.

As enter the covered outdoor eating area, the color scheme lightens up but is still complementary.  The banquettes that run down the sides featured the same red pattern as the interior booths (though I think these outdoor banquettes use an embroidered vinyl which made the pattern that much bolder and cooler) for consistency but the individual tables feature different dining chairs.  These were equally gorgeous as the interior ones but in a different way – nouveau wingback style chairs (these have a Hans Werner Ox chair-like wrap-around back) covered in a white croc-embossed vinyl (I think) with pewter nailhead trim.  And that extra detail that made these chairs really great?  The matching handle affixed to the top edge of the chair, which was both stylish and functional for moving the chairs around.  What completed this covered  outdoor space are the layers sheers and drapes which was used to softly define the indoors and out and make the space feel cozy.

As you enter the true outdoor area, where I had brunch, there are similarly cool details like a long communal Carrera marble bar table.

In another corner of the vast outdoor eating area was a special round table that was partially enveloped by tall brown walls with white screens in that same Moorish pattern from the lobby.  Lighting this table was a large chandelier-like floor lamp that arced over the walls.  What I liked about this setup and the designers effort here, is the attempt at creating intimacy outdoors and creating an artificial environment.  While this is not Kelly Wearstler-Viceroy Santa Monica-pool-side-chic, I appreciated the effort.

The coolest thing I saw outside?  The really tall wingback style chairs made of the ubiquitous man-made rattan that’s the rage.  I had never seen these before but loved them.  I really love where outdoor furniture is going these days…

The interior design firm who worked on this project was CRDS out of Tustin, CA, a firm that doesn’t seem to have a web presence based on my quick Google search.  My guess is that they are not really a design firm (maybe a construction company) or just getting into this business (though they must be established in something to have landed such a plum gig) because why else would your business be so stealthy?  Overall, I think they did a good job on this renovation.  I didn’t make it into the spa, pool and guest rooms, but the pictures online look nice enough.  Of the spaces I did visit, I thought their vision was good but some of the choices they made had me scratching my head.  The beveled mirror tiles, faux-wood veneer paneling (which covered EVERYTHING), and odd fabric choices were just a little too prevalent.  Trying to mix mid-century-Hollywood Regency-70′s glam pop together is not easy as this firm encountered.  That’s why I continue to marvel at the people who really pull it off with aplomb – and for an example of that, one needs to look no further than the Viceroy Palm Springs a few blocks away, the institution that got Hollywood Regency restarted again years back.  If you make it down here try to check out both spots to get a glimpse of where Palm Springs design is, was and will probably continue to be for years to come.

Note: Pictures #1, #4 and #6 (in descending order) are courtesy of the Riviera’s website.

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Press Alert: Cantilever Design in Nesting Newbies Magazine

At the DIFFA event last Fall we met the editors of a new, amazing online magazine called Nesting Newbies.  This innovative magazine:

“combines a traditional magazine format with the new social media trend of original online videos and blogs to present a cross-platform experience for “nesting newbies,” the site’s target audience of those who are new to nesting and have no clue when it comes to cooking, entertaining, and decorating. Cooking and decorating enthusiasts will also enjoy the original ideas being presented.”

Aside from focusing on three areas that I am passionate about, the look, feel and reader experience of this magazine is fantastic, nothing like the start-up that it is.  It reads like a cross between Gourmet, Martha Stewart and Elle Decor but with a softer aesthetic – not bad company to be in.  I love how reading it is like really reading a magazine.  I also love how they are targeting young, professional couples and helping them add some “modern luxury” to their lives.

There article about what we did was comprehensive and flattering, and even mentioned this blog! Best of all, it really articulates what we tried to do at DIFFA – “Shoestring Luxe”.  I am happy that they are helping demystify how we made our table look luxe without the high cost, through some DIY hardwork and Home Depot lol.  Enjoy the article here!  (We are featured on pages 76-79)

Magazine photos by Dean Birinyi

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Project Pictures – Mid-Century Makeover: Two Bathrooms, One Eichler (Part 2)

MASTER BEDROOM

As beautiful as Eichlers are, they aren’t particularly luxurious.  In the case of my client’s house, the master bathroom was no larger than the hall bathroom, approximately 5′ x 8′.  So creating a spa-like retreat was quite a challenge here as most people equate size to luxury.  So we had to go into our bag of tricks for this one…

First, the original configuration of the bathroom had it split into two: the toilet and stall shower behind a door, and the sink in an open area adjacent to the bedroom.  Although I like this configuration a lot in most situations for privacy reasons, especially when space permits, dividing up a 5′ x 8′ space into two pieces did not make sense here.  By knocking down the wall that divided both sides to create one space, and adding a proper door to enclose the bathroom fully, we immediately helped to solve a couple problems – making the bathroom feel and look larger, and developing a sense of privacy for bathroom (a key to a spa feel and not waking up the person in the bedroom sleeping while the other person is brushing their teeth or blow drying).

Once we knew we were working with one space, we made an early decision to tile all the walls in one material to bring a sense of continuity to the small space,  and help make it appear larger.  On an early shopping trip, we came across an amazing neutral-colored striped ceramic tile with great textural qualities because of its uneven surfacing.  Of course, this was a pricey Clodagh collection tile from Ann Sacks.  But given this was our luxurious master bath and the wall surfaces were rather small, we made the decision to splurge on these tiles and make them a focal point.

Complementing them is a smoky taupe-grey marble tile with very linear veining on the floors.  This darker marble tile provided a nice color contrast to the walls but still “familied” with them because the linear veining mimicked the striping of the ceramic.  On the shower floor, we used the same marble but cut in a “matchstick” style for greater traction from a functional perspective and just a different texture visually.

Overall, I loved how our tile choices were individually interesting and strong, but worked together well in a very neutral, luxurious, zen-like color palette.  I was channeling the inner Barbara Barry in me lol.  My client, who began our project in favor of starker blacks and grays, really loved how the neutral tones came out.  In contrast to the lighter and more playful hall bath, I think this master bath color scheme really provides a nice counterpoint that helps define it as the adult bathroom.

Because of the small size of the bathroom, once the shower stall was mapped out, the remaining space along the long wall was essentially all vanity.  There was not enough room for a double vanity clearly, so we did our best to fashion one luxurious one and in the process we created what I think is the coolest feature in the entire bathroom. In a traditional bathroom, when vanities are bordered by a wall and a shower, most designers/contractors/home owners specify a pony wall (half wall) to divide the shower from the the vanity, which makes sense and is easy enough.  However, the result is another surface to tile, another plane intersecting the space, and a slightly smaller vanity (to make room for the wall).

So in trying to innovate, we created a new option where we extended the Caesarstone vanity surface into the shower area and down to the floor, obviating the need for a pony wall as this surface becomes the pony wall.  In doing so, we made, in my mind, a piece of architectural sculpture – in the extra-thick, plinth-like vanity intersected by a plane of glass that just terminates into it.

Looking from inside the shower it appears as if the countertop just extends right in, which is such a clean, modern detail, especially when done in the seamless Caesarstone.  Kudos the fabricators for getting the detail perfect.  Similarly, the cabinet maker did a nice job on the custom three-drawer console, which was expertly crafted to wrap around the p-trap.

So in going with the clean, monolithic look (as much as one can in such a small space) we specified a rectangular undermounted  sink to keep the surface spare.  Then for a bit a flair to contrast the minimal surface, we used a very sculptural faucet from one of my favorite industrial designers, Jean-Marie Massaud.

This over-scaled faucet features a completely linear, plateau-like top surface while underneath is a tapered, sculptural base.   Water  cascades from the underside in sheets like a waterfall.  The knobs are ultra-minimal, ultra-low profile round pucks that rest on the countertop.  Yes, this was expensive, but yes, this was worth it.  I would say this is fixture is certainly spa-like – only better because no commercial spa would spend so much on a faucet for public use.  To play off the aesthetics of the faucet in a subtle way, we even found drawer pulls that had a similar curved edge.

In front of and beside the sink we installed medicine cabinets to maximize storage and reflect light.  For actual lighting, we were hamstrung once again by the Eichler ceilings so we found wall-mounted solutions.  Since we had no overhead lighting above the sink, we had to ensure that the wall sconces would be sufficient.  So we chose long, linear strip-style sconces that matched the height of the medicine cabinets perfectly, ensuring that my clients got even lighting along any stretch of mirror.  Though this is not my ideal lighting in a bathroom, this was the best solution here.  To add a bit more light along the back of the bathroom, we used a matching style two-arm wall sconce that also doubled to break up the expanse of tile along that wall and light up the accessories on the custom floating shelf we designed.  Generally-speaking, lighting is rarely an issue in this bathroom dominated by the almost-uninterrupted span of floor-to-ceiling glass block requested by my clients.  If ventilation is not an issue, the diffuse light provided by glass blocks is always excellent.

In the shower, we kept things simple. Of note are the shower tiles (body jets), which are actually very affordable luxuries to have.  Hardware wise the cost is minimal so if you can make sure your contractor doesn’t charge extra or very much more for installing these then suddenly your spa-quotient has gone up quite a bit.  In the case of my road-biking client, this massage feature is one he cherishes.  Also in this bath, we jettisoned the shower door, which was another cost and another thing to get in the way in a small bathroom.  As a designer, I think people should really re-consider shower doors more often.  A well-designed shower, with proper drainage, does not necessarily need a shower door.  Of course, there are many considerations like the layout, type of shower head, etc. but remember less can be more – in terms of both cost and aesthetics.

BEFORE PICTURES:

SOURCES:

- Vanity: Custom

- Sink: Kohler

- Faucet: Hansgrohe Axor

- Shower Fixtures: Hansgrohe, Kohler

- Medicine Cabinets: Robern

- Sconces: Restoration Hardware

- Toilet: Toto

- Tile: Ann Sacks

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