Cass Calder Smith has more than two decades of design experience under his belt. His company, CCS Architecture, boasts a portfolio with residential and commercial spaces as far away as Saudi Arabia and Mexico but are most prevalent on the coastal areas of the United States. Mr. Smith recently completed work in the Park South Hotel in New York City and is currently working with Hyatt International to design four restaurants in their new Andaz Resort in Mexico. Here we chat with Cass about the history of CCS Architecture, where the industry stands now and what is coming in the future.
What is your company’s background and the inspiration behind it?
So CCS are my initials, Cass Calder Smith. I’ve been designing restaurant, hospitality and residential projects since 1993. I started in California, the San Francisco Bay area where I still have my first office. This was after completing my Masters Degree from UC Berkeley. Now I have a New York City Office as well, where I grew up. It was great to start designing restaurants in the SF Bay Area due to it being so rooted in food, wine, and very fresh ingredients from farms and the sea. There are also leaders in the industry that I got to know and have influenced my connection to the food world. People such as Alice Waters from Chez Panisse, Judy Rogers from Zuni, Staffan Terje form Perbacco and many others.
What does CCS specialize in?
Generally we’re known for straight up architectural interiors. Our projects are pretty clean and straightforward. Not overly decorative, more about being timeless and classic. Since I have designed homes for many years, our work tends to have a casual and domestic look and feel.
Is that a niche you were trying to fill when the firm first launched?
There wasn’t really any niche. I was pretty young and I was just an architect designing buildings and doing things the way I wanted and it works. As mentioned, I had done a lot of houses and still do. People started to see more of the work as it got built and things just built up on there own.
What else does the company do besides restaurants?
A lot of them are are second homes in places like Sonoma, Napa or the Hamptons. We’re also designing loft condominiums in cities and renovations within buildings. They all are in the same sort of level, I call it casual luxury, as the restaurants we design. There is pretty strong consistency across the board in al the different spaces.
What sort of aesthetic are you going for in your designs?
I’ve always liked Japanese and Scandinavian architecture. The thing I hear the most people say is that we use a lot of wood but in very clean, minimalistic ways.
Has there been more of a push lately for “green design” or responsibly sourced materials?
I don’t really come to the projects with any strong dogmatic position on any of it. A lot of clients, they start out with the sustainable goals and then they realize it is a lot of added expense. I like to promote it, like we did on a house in Palo Alto, where we used high performance windows, a large photovoltaic (PV) solar system, and many water conservation fixtures. We also did a restaurant on Pier 3 in San Francisco called ‘The Plant’, where we also did a Solar PV system to offset their electrical usage.
To me the big thing is energy. I really feel like a building should not use more energy than it can produce. High energy usage throughout the world is a really big thing for me.
What trends or common themes are you seeing in the restaurant design industry lately?
It’s funny, years ago we were using a lot of wood in restaurants and we weren’t the only ones but we were one of the earliest ones doing things like wood top tables without table cloths, wood walls and ceilings, and detailed in many ways.
These days many people are doing projects involving wood, especially barn wood and reclaimed lumber. I’m not opposed to using reclaimed and aged wood but to see too much of the same thing, it just become a herd mentality. Many trends of the past are continuing, which I support. Open kitchens, large bars, casual rooms vs formal, and I think more in-depth owner involvement. The farm to table movement is huge and growing. Although there are still many very casual and hand crafted restaurant interiors, I am starting to see a swing towards more luxury with higher check averages. Hotels are continuing to create very highly respected restaurants with talented designers and chefs, which is great for all of us.
How do you balance your own thoughts and ideas with those of your clients?
It’s just a balancing act. A lot of restaurant clients have been doing this a long time and many of them are really thoughtful. On the flip side, there are a lot of people in the restaurant industry who are doing this for the first time. Most clients and always my teams want to create places that are very unique and if possible out of the box, but this is always balanced with practical realities of budget and schedule. We work really hard to create concepts that are strong, but still stay within client metrics.
Generally clients are pretty smart and perceptive. Sometimes you do have to be a little more honest with them than what they are comfortable with as to whats going to work and what isn’t. And its a good a collaboration and the are honest with us. Sometimes this leads to debate, but it is always helpful. I like to think of it as a collaborative alliance, where they see working with CCS as very valuable rather than just a necessary step with costs.
Do you design based on what sort of food will be served in the space?
Yes, almost always and if possible go to the place in the world where the cuisine originates. Its a great job perk and I’ve been all over the place with generous clients and chefs. They see this as very valuable. Aside from that, I try and keep track of what level of casual to formal it is. On my scale, Ten is formal and zero is very casual. Is it a five or a seven? It is important to try and figure out where it is on the scale. I really like to tie the architecture into the food for consistency – as in the end it is all about the experience.
To what extent are you involved with design elements for the restaurant such as logos, names and menu designs?
The way it works is it is not part of our contract t design or select those things but we are always part of the discussion. We usually have a pretty strong say in something like the graphics. The stakes are really high so every decision is made as carefully as possible.
When it comes to kitchens is your company designing the kitchen or do you have consultants that you contract?
We have a kitchen consultant but we design the general layout. We designate the where the kitchen is and its general plan. Its called the ‘back of the house’. Then the kitchen designer will come in and tweak it and then start adding equipment. This is done very closely with the chef. When we create restaurants with open and exhibition kitchens, which is frequent, we are very involved and completely lead the design since its part of the front of the house and usually very prominent. Live fire ovens and grills is always great for the refs and also to enliven the room. When I designed LuLu, which opened in 1993, we did this to an epic level.
How do you market your firm? Is it via social media or more traditional means?
I think its all of them. Generally what I’ve found over the last five or ten years is clients never used to come to us through web searches. That wasn’t how it’s done but now it is very frequent. I don’t know if they are cruising the web or finding us through Facebook or Instagram but web searching is very prevalent. We also try to get the projects published and win awards and work with public relations people. We currently work with a PR firm in NYC. We almost always photograph projects with excellent photographers and also work with our clients’ PR people if they have them.
Can you tell us anything about the company’s upcoming restaurant projects?
Well, we just finished working on a place called Covina in the Park South Hotel in New York City. In that same hotel we did the restaurant O Ya. Both are open and very hot NYC places, which is nice for all of us. We’re working on a new ground-up hotel near Bryan Park/Times Square called Luma that is going to have a sexy restaurant and bar in it and we are also doing the lobby and other common areas. Worldwide, we are working on four restaurants in Mexico for the Hyatt in their new Andaz resort that are designed to relate to Yucatan context and are each unique to the others. Those are under construction and are expected to open this winter. We are also doing a wine and liquor shop in the World Trade Center downtown.
You can view CCS’ portfolio at ccs-architecture.com. You can also see Hog Island Oyster Company, a restaurant designed by CCS, in a short feature by Munchies (Vice Media) here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bllVyZFVWso