For over 25 years, the Johnson Studio has cemented its identity as an innovative architectural firm, revolutionizing the design of restaurants, clubhouses, hotel interiors and other hospitality-oriented venues. Its most recent projects continue to shock and amaze; the Oak Steakhouse at the Westin Nashville, for example, plays on the concept of an inverted oak tree with roots turned upward to cradle a dramatic upper mezzanine dining space.
Another show stopping project, Molly B’s in the Atlanta Falcons Mercedes-Benz Stadium, pays homage to the company’s vintage cars with bespoke lamps crafted to resemble antique Mercedes headlights. These two projects demonstrate the astounding range and creativity of the architects at the Johnson Studio, which has recently opened doors in Manhattan. This is good news for the hospitality circles of the city. New York-based leaders in hospitality can now turn to the tight-knit group of designers at the Johnson Studio for design consultations, concept developments, interior design, lighting design, and even furniture purchasing. The Johnson Studio is sure to have a significant impact on the hospitality experience in Manhattan in the coming years.
We recently talked with director of design Ray Chung, who will lead the new studio in Downtown Manhattan, about his thoughts on the Johnson Studio’s upcoming projects, the interplay between kitchen and design and his creative process.
Talk about one of your newest projects, the recently opened Oak Steakhouse in the Westin Nashville. Why is this design so special?
Well, it’s a new building within these brand new glass skyscrapers, and you really need to inject some personality into it. It needs to feel like it has always been there, to create some authenticity and presence. We looked into the idea of using oak trees as a motif, and the acorn light fixtures come from that. The design tries to find that sweet spot between traditional and modern, to make something you’ve never seen before. It’s warm, inviting, and all about hospitality.
You’re also involved in the new Atlanta stadium. Talk a little bit about what went into that on behalf of Mercedes-Benz and this distinct project.
This one comes out later this summer; some parts of the design are a nod to Mercedes, but really the architectural challenge is that you have a huge stadium, yet you need to make a private space. For this site we created this custom “basket” style of architecture that lets you see into the space, but protects you from all the wandering crowds. The other architectural challenge was that the restaurant is very high and needs to provide views of the field below. The seating cascades down on tiers and is connected by integrated ramps which allows for wheelchair access. All fun things to work in.
How do you incorporate the business strategy of a project like this into its design?
The idea, from a business standpoint, is that you want people walking by and looking in to see what’s going on: the quality food, the comfortable seating and the great view, and at the same time, they understand that it’s a members-only place. It encourages people to want to be inside, yet it doesn’t shut them out.
Why do you prefer to design restaurants? Do you work with the chefs?
We like working with the chefs. We’ll do these fun projects, working really closely with the chef and their specific concept to try to capture who they are and what they’re going after. These projects especially hold our designers’ interests, too.
What about the interplay between kitchen and design? At what point of demarcation is the kitchen no longer a part of what the design is? What’s the conversation between the designer and the kitchen designer?
It’s definitely necessary to have an understanding of the visual impact as well as the production side of the kitchen. You have to think about what the guest sees and exactly what kind of food is being made. The trash needs to be concealed, and one of the biggest things is the lighting. You need to make sure that the shocking, sometimes hospital-like lighting of the kitchen doesn’t bleed into the room; for expo kitchens you need to screen it off somehow, which you can do sometimes with a copper hood, or tinted glass, changing the impression of the light. We think of the kitchen from the perspective of the guest, while the kitchen designers see it from the point of view of the chef; then we kind of meet in the middle.
What are the benefits to working with other architects on the same project as part of a design group?
Our studio is made up of both architects and interior designers, so we have the advantage of being able to collaborate in-house. Also, you can get to a solution much faster; you see the construction detail as you’re designing it as opposed to drawing something that you think might look nice, and then wondering in six months to a year how someone will actually build it.
What are some of the projects you’ve worked on in the New York metropolitan area?
Before The Johnson Studio I worked on the Rosa Mexicano in Union Square, the JetBlue terminal at JFK and the carousel renovation at Coney Island. There’s also a Time Warner focus group facility in Columbus Circle and I did a children’s hospital in Long Island. My projects are kind of all over with many outside New York City.
Do you have a signature design strategy or preference? What’s your approach to how you design something?
Well personally, I enjoy diving deep into the history of how my clients got to where they are. I probably go in deeper than I need to, learning all about the people and the history of the space. I like to read about the birth of the specific industry my clients are in. I want to understand where they’re coming from, what really makes them who they are. I then draw on the relevant cultural references and visual associations to make a connection between the guest and the architecture, incorporating their story into the design.
To learn more about The Johnson Studio at Cooper Carry, visit their website.