Studio Alt Shift create a restaurant whose interiors appear assembled over time rather than designed
Words by Toby Maxwell
Whether on commecial or residential interiors, designers Shai Akram and Andrew Haythornthwaite of London design practice Studio Alt Shift have forged a reputation for creating spaces that appear to have evolved organically, guided by the quirks of an individual human, with spaces that are inviting because they feel layered, like things have gently been accumulated over time.
Studio Alt Shift has applied its designed/found aesthetic to tantalisingly eclectic effect. Image Credit: LUCAS HARDONK
It was this attention to personal detail that first caught the attention of Max & Benito, the burrito-focused casual dining group with a growing collection of outlets around Vienna. Having seen the tables that Studio Alt Shift created for the Book Club in Shoreditch, Max & Benito asked it to create something similar for an existing venue in 2017. It was so happy with the results that, with a new opening on Austria Campus – a financial and tech hub akin to Canary Wharf or Wall Street next to the Vienna University of Economics and Business – Max & Benito gave the studio an opportunity to define and deepen its brand identity, and to develop whole interiors and set the creative direction.
The design task was to take an empty shell of a space and turn it into an inviting and idiosyncratic space to hang out for students and the district’s office workers.
To connect the free-and-easy ethos of Max & Benito with the Californian-style Mexican cuisine it offers, Studio Alt Shift developed a narrative that built on the concept of a road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway, and the memories and souvenirs that would be picked up along the way. Using a combination of found and designed elements, Akram and Haythornthwaite have created a space that appears to have been put together by one person rather than a design team with a set of brand guidelines. The overall effect is to make diners feel as though they are being hosted by a warm and attentive individual with a unique style and stories to tell. This is typified by unexpected items such as an oversized windsock sourced from a nautical supplier, a Kit-Cat Clock with ticking eyes and pendulum tail, and even two wooden fish – named, naturally, Max and Benito.
‘The found objects work very hard in the space – they reinforce the idea that a person chose and selected them,’ underlines Akram. ‘Most are one-offs, or samples from the making of the space. We collected a lot of the items on a recent trip we took to Morocco – we really wanted to evoke the feeling of travel, where you collect curiosities and memories along the way. A lot of the imagery on the walls come from our own journeys.’
the aesthetic is meant to be less team-cohesive and more individually charismatic, as if dining in someone’s house. Image Credit: LUCAS HARDONK
As is typical with Studio Alt Shift projects, a significant amount of the furniture and decorative features were crafted specifically for the project. The designers carved a series of sculptural fish by hand in their London workshop, constructed a huge and colourful abstract mobile for the restaurant ceiling, and developed a textural terrazzo-style flooring pattern using offcuts of natural stone.
For the tables, the studio wanted to evoke the surf culture of California without the impracticality of ‘eating off a surfboard’, so they turned to master board-shaper Bill Atlee. Working with the studio’s colourways, Atlee took foam (the same material used to make surfboards), shaped it into the dimensions specified by Studio Alt Shift and then employed the process of ‘glassing’ – a board-finishing technique in which multiple layers of resin are applied to create a beautifully deep and intense shade, while ensuring the surface will be robust and hard-wearing.
A range of Studio Alt Shift furniture that uses galvanised steel bases and extra-large diameter posts. Image Credit: LUCAS HARDONK
As well as the surf-inspired tables, the studio also paid tribute to the architecture of the seaside in a family of heavy-duty ‘post’ tables in various heights. These feature metal casings and chunky wooden posts evocative of masts, pier legs, moorings and other nautical structures.
The handcrafted aesthetic also extends to the lighting. Held in place by springs (designed by Studio Alt Shift and made by Airedale Springs in Yorkshire), the translucent shades of the paper spring lights are made from hand-folded A1 paper sheets, which introduces subtle variations in the play of light around the space. Above the burrito counter, a custom-made series of headlamps – with a gap over the till – is designed to resemble a stage lighting rig, adding an air of theatre to the kitchen’s activity.
Plants and greenery are a key component of the material palette too. Draped from hanging platforms, the canopy of plants creates a dappled light effect on the floor. As well as contributing to the internal zoning of the space, they also introduce a soothing element of nature, which serves as an antidote to the hard contours and man-made materials of the surrounding office blocks.
one of the practice’s wooden fish ornaments, spray-painted black. Image Credit: LUCAS HARDONK
In addition to the visual elements, Studio Alt Shift’s design incorporates a range of other sensory qualities, notably sound and touch. Varied textures are created by a material palette of warm woods, wicker, cane, rattan and soft-touch Forbo laminate – a tactile alternative to the gloss of Formica. This material palette has partly been selected to optimise the acoustics of the space, muting the clank of cutlery without deadening the hum and buzz of sociable conversation.
The designed/found duality is echoed in the layout of the space itself, which combines a fixed interior landscape with flexible elements that allow the restaurant to accommodate groups of different sizes and adapt to host different functions. Although the design was developed before Covid-19, this adaptability also facilitates the application of social distancing measures in the wake of the pandemic.
Because Max & Benito’s clientele is varied – from solo office workers looking for a quick bite to friends lunching sociably together – there are different seating zones: high perch seats, lower-set table seating and more intimate booth spaces. The design also carefully considers every stage of the diner’s journey, ensuring that flow within the space operates effortlessly, from entry, ordering and food collection to clearing tables and departure.
‘The challenge of the layout was to get the space to feel connected, inviting and personal, but still optimised to the needs of the business,’ said Haythornthwaite. ‘We worked for a long time on finding a way to make the space feel like a beachside diner in the middle of a Californian highway adventure, somewhere that had organically grown over time.
‘We knew it couldn’t feel like a copy-paste canteen – it had to feel like you were entering a person’s memories.’ www.studioaltshift.com