Patrick Abrams, managing director at Applied Studio, explains why attention to design detail and customer service excellence will be the most effective routes to sustained recovery for bars and restaurants
Interview by Toby Maxwell
Patrick Abrams, managing director at Applied Studio, explains why attention to design detail and customer service excellence will be the most effective routes to sustained recovery for bars and restaurants.
What is Applied Studio, and what is your role within it?
Applied Studio is a small but growing practice based in London, with an office in Toronto. I founded Applied Studio at the end of 2015 as a multidisciplinary, design-led practice. This essentially means that we’re interested in design, first and foremost, rather than the type or size of project. As such, we have completed a wide range of projects, from small pop-ups and festival installations to bigger residential developments and international and independent restaurant groups. We have also previously partnered with global brands, including Grey Goose – completing a bar for them in the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas – and a private cinema and bar at its brand home in Cognac, France.
The Grey Goose bar in the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, a premium drinking level that overlooks the stage or platform or rink below
The designs of Applied Studio are always collaborative, with the whole team being involved. I learned early on that this team approach produces the best results. I describe my design role within the practice more as collaborator and coordinator rather than having a more top-down approach. Our mantra in the office is that ‘design’ has to be the most important element, and the quality of the design takes priority over all facets of our work.
As a practice, you describe detail as being very important – how has this manifested in past projects?
Design is, of course, about far more than just aesthetics – it encompasses so many different elements. The ‘details’ of the design need to address how it’s used, its longevity, how it feels, and many more aspects. A good design needs to look good, but function well and be durable. It needs to look as good in five years as it does on completion. This means that the design process has to be collaborative, and include the people who are actually going to be using the design. When we do restaurants, for example, we are not just designing for the owner, but for all the staff that will use the space on a day-to-day basis. We, therefore, try and include in the design process all the people who will be using the project and the individual elements within that project – this has become a fundamental part of our process.
We recently developed a bespoke table for a restaurant client that was resin over a traditionally woven fabric. We collaborated with the client as to how they wanted people to not only use the table but also to appreciate its heritage. This influenced the layout of the restaurant [and] also the finer details of the table. It was then developed over a number of months with numerous samples from the fabricator in order to produce something that functioned as a robust piece of furniture, but also conveyed the desired message to the end user of the heritage of the brand.
The studio’s design for the private cinema in Grey Goose Vodka’s headquarters in Cognac, France. Image Credit: BILLY BOLTON
In one of our recent private residential projects, we developed a number of bespoke details and materials with the clients themselves. They were obsessed with achieving perfect sight lines through the house and, in particular, in the kitchen. We developed a recessed blackened bronze kitchen door handle that sat within the thickness of the joinery so as not to obstruct or deviate from the line created by the kitchen units themselves. The detail involved in the design went right down to the measuring of the clients’ hands to ensure a perfect fit was achieved on these handles.
How do you seek to achieve the ‘timeless’ aspects of contemporary design and avoid the pitfalls of creating something that could risk having a more limited style shelf life?
Timeless design for me is about achieving a high-quality, well-rounded design. This sounds simple, but most ‘timeless’ design does appear simple. It is about the choice of quality materials, using these in refined ways through thorough detailing and avoiding what could be thought of as an ‘ego’ within design. I often think that flamboyant designs that are about expressing the designer rather than the end user go out of style much quicker. This is because their shelf life is limited to the importance of that designer. A real-life comparison might be the difference between Mies van de Rohe and Gehry – the former is about details, materials and the users experience; the latter is about making an impact, the impact being to serve the designer rather than the user.
Rewinding the clock to before the pandemic, how was the bar and restaurant sector shaping up? What were the key directions and priorities for some of the projects you were working on?
The restaurant industry before the pandemic was not particularly strong. We were coming to the end of a turbulent time, where there were major changes going on in the fast casual sector. Large restaurant chains like Byron, GBK, Carluccio’s were all struggling. These were large businesses funded by private equity, and their goals were to achieve the ‘numbers’ required to generate a profitable sale of the business – gone from the list of priorities was the quality of the food or service.
The chevron floors of Applied Studio’s recent residential refurbishment project in a traditional terraced house in Hackney
We were seeing a slow change to more independent, service-focused operators that were taking advantage of cheap site and rent deals. Fit-out budgets were lower but there was an optimism and innovation, particularly with young and small new operators.
Since then, how has the pandemic affected spaces like this in the short/medium term while restrictions are in place? And in the longer term, how do you feel your work has changed both technically and creatively – for example, in terms of planning and ‘new’ design best practice?
The pandemic has been [a] catalyst for change. Operators that were struggling before have faded away quicker and successful restaurants have survived. This has left space for new opportunities to innovative and entrepreneurial new restaurateurs, who have been able to take advantage of even better deals and access to great sites and affordable rates. The restaurants that have survived have added temporary measures such as glass screens and dividers. But the biggest innovations have come in terms of the service and have benefitted from technology. For example, online queuing and at-table ordering in pubs – the service has been forced to improve, and this has been one positive element.
The design challenge in the longer term is to address the reason why people would even want to go to bars and restaurants in the first place. After all, you can eat high-quality food from your favourite restaurants in the comfort of your own home at short notice and without having to risk catching Covid-19. So why go out at all?
The challenge for us is to provide that reason, and it has to start with customer experience. The priority is, of course, the food and service, but the design of the spaces plays an important part. Customer experience is not just about aesthetics, it’s also about sometimes intangible elements like atmosphere, for example. How do you design a space where the customer can benefit from the atmosphere of the whole restaurant but still have an intimate dining experience?
It’s about, again, attention to detail. Focusing on elements such as the first impression of the customer, the elements in the restaurant that they actually touch and how this feels, the sound, the temperature and the lighting. Does the lighting, for example, respond to the time of day or year – is it too bright on a cold winter’s evening to feel warm and cosy, or too dark during the summer so that it feels cut off and alienated from the good weather outside?
We, as designers, have to compete with so much in terms of convincing the customer to actually physically go to the space, and now, with a pandemic, that job is that much harder. The focus, therefore, has to be on the customer, and the ‘experience’ itself has to be designed rather than just the space.
Patrick Abrams, Applied Studio