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Culintro and Hospitality Design (HD) magazine bring you the minds behind restaurant design. Each month, HD offers a Q&A with America's leading architects and designers on new and upcoming restaurant projects. Know restaurant design: what works, what lacks, and what's in store for the future.

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Jun Aizaki

crème
Brooklyn, New York

cremedesign.com

Jun Aizaki always knew he wanted to be an architect. After studying at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, he cut his teeth at the Rockwell Group, before starting crème in 2005. "I always had the idea of having my own studio," he says. "I always thought the sooner the better. I like to be responsible for my own decisions."

Now he has a firm of five to six designers (he calls his firm's culture fun, where off-the-wall ideas and brainstorming sessions are encouraged), and has designed more than 15 restaurants for a great list of chefs in New York, Philadelphia, and most recently Seoul. His spaces are organic, timeless, yet also modern, where wood prevails and diners feel comfortable enough to linger for hours. (His talents caught our eye last year, and earned him a Wave of the Future Award.) Here he chats with HD about the meaning behind crème, his first unusual design project, and his secret to creating spaces that allow guests to sink into the design.

HD: What was your first childhood memory of design?

JA: My first project was a design/build project when I was in kindergarten. I built a toilet inside the sandbox using an old tire, so we didn't have to go back inside each time we wanted to go to the toilet. I thought it was a brilliant idea and my friends loved it, until my mother found out through their mothers. She was furious after finding out. I always loved to draw and I seriously contemplated becoming a cartoon (manga) artist when I was a teenager. During school, my favorite thing to do during class was to draw cartoons on my desk and show it to friends.

HD: Why hospitality?

JA: I was born in Japan, but my father was a newspaper journalist, so we lived in New York from when I was five years old to 10. I got to travel to places such as Mexico, Europe, and around the U.S. Then I spent time in Japan until coming back to New York for university.

Hospitality is a big part of traveling and enjoying different cities. As I learned more and more about design, I started taking mental notes on the places I went. In hospitality the designer is also the client because you must put yourself in the shoes of the customer. Hospitality is about good, food, good service, and a beautiful design. All those things must come together to create something successful.

HD: What does the name crème represent?

JA: Instead of an acronym (like many other architecture firms) I wanted a name. Crème de la crème was a starting point, and then my first project was a pastry store so it just felt right. We started to design restaurants by chance. Though we work heavily in the food industry, our style and our method of design translates really well to hotels, retail, casinos, residential, or any other type of spaces.


Village Whiskey, Philadelphia, PA

HD: Your specialty seems to be restaurants. What is it about a restaurant that you love?

JA: Restaurants are great because we get to work with creative chefs who experiment with inventive new dishes. We can take that flavor and energy and turn it into a complementary environment. It is a very sensory experience.

Eating is so essential to human existence and we are really honored to work in the food industry. As natural resources become more and more scarce, we will be forced to reevaluate the way we eat and the way we produce food. Eating is an important activity that promotes community, inspires joy, and also provides sustenance, and we are pleased to be involved in that process.

It is also amazing to see a chef pull from different cultures to create a fusion (like Garces' Chifa which is Chinese Peruvian), or recreate a traditional ethnic cuisine. In our globalized society, cuisine is a form of education. You learn about Japanese life just buy eating at an authentic Japanese restaurant. You get a taste not only for the flavors, but the culture itself. Hopefully our experiences with diverse foods will make us all more tolerant and open-minded in the end.

HD: What are the keys to a successful restaurant?

JA: Creating a comfortable and lasting space is the key to a great new restaurant. You want people to sink into the environment as they dine, and be inspired to return based on their positive experiences. Rich, well-crafted materials complemented by even lighting create this sort of an ambiance.

With our restaurants we try to create timeless spaces that will not go out of fate. We use classic materials like stone, wood, metal, tile, and glass, but applied in a modern manner.


Zama, Philadelphia, PA

HD: One thing you and your firm does well, is design everything—from the graphics to the menus to the interiors. Why is this important for a project?

JA: We love being able to contribute more than just an interior and in many ways the wallpaper, menus, or website are just an extension of the interior design. When we are given the opportunity to create the entire design, the space tends to feel more cohesive than if you hire different firms for each element. It provides design consistency and helps create a specific experience for the customer.


Zama, Philadelphia, PA

HD: Your spaces have an organic feel, and you use a lot of wood in many. What is it about wood that satisfies your design needs?

JA: Wood is a timeless material that everyone relates to because it grows. Unlike metal or tile, it has imperfections and personality. Wood will always make a space feel comfortable and warm. We try to incorporate as much of the easily renewable woods or reclaimed lumber as possible.

HD: You have worked with some great chefs, like Chef Jose Garces. What's the key to a successful collaboration?

JA: We are lucky to work with very creative people. Jose understands the creative process because he is an incredibly creative chef and business owner himself. He has opened our eyes to other cultures, and to the process of creating a restaurant from the ground up.


Zama, Philadelphia, PA

HD: Talk to us about one of your newest projects, Garces Trading Co. and Village Whiskey, both in Philadelphia. What was the overall design aesthetic here?

JA: Garces Trading Co. is based on the aesthetic of European markets and importing/exporting businesses of the 1800s. Dark metal, light wood, white tile, and custom display cases, signs, and graphics create a farmer's market feel, but also transform into a more formal dining space at night. The amazing thing about having the marketplace essentially in the restaurant is that you can order a sandwich and then go purchase the same cheese that was used to make it, or ask for a bottle of wine and then go inside the wine shop to choose your bottle by hand. It is the complete interactive experience with a focus on where the food comes from and quality ingredients.

Village Whiskey is more influenced by turn of the century social clubs and whiskey pubs. The focus is on spirits and gastropub style food, so we wanted to create a rustic and masculine space. The russet booths, tile pattern floor, marble counters, and pewter bar, accompanied by antique cash register, prohibition posters, and green library lights complete the hearty vibe. It has become a very popular spot in Philly for a date, or a drink with a friend.


Distrito, Philadelphia, PA

HD: Actually, you have done quite a few restaurants in Philadelphia, another one Zama. What is it like working there? What's the climate like?

JA: Philly is great because it often feels like an extension of New York City and we have grown very comfortable working there. Culture in Philly definitely resembles Brooklyn because of the cultural landscape. Both are somewhat off the commercial map and both have ample space and resources to let creative professionals thrive. For example, there are mill buildings and metal workers that create an industrial feel, and that combines with the designers in the area to create these great, hands-on relationships with fabricators and other designers.

Zama is a perfect example of using custom elements and a streamlined aesthetic to appeal to the customer and complement the cuisine. Custom wallpaper applied to the ceiling, slats of maple millwork, and a handmade rice paper lantern are the types of custom touches that define a space.


Distrito, Philadelphia, PA

HD: You also just designed Lugo and Lucy's for LDV, in Seoul and New York. Can you tell us about those two projects?

JA: The original Lugo Caffe is actually right next to Lucy's Cantina Royale in Penn Plaza (near Penn Station in Midtown New York). This area has great foot traffic and so many offices, but sadly it is mostly fast food restaurants appealing to travelers.

Lucy's is a Baja style Mexican joint with a sustainable bamboo bar, a used surfboard ceiling, and buoy inspired light fixtures. The design is playful and the space is perfect for an after work drink or casual lunch.

Lugo Caffe is a more formal Italian restaurant drawing from 1950s Italian films and Vespa style scooters. Black and white film stills wrap the top of the dining room, and custom lampshades, millwork, and signage complete the look.

Lugo Seoul is a continuation of the Lugo name and aesthetic to Seoul, Korea. At the entrance, a large wood-grain texture concrete wall wraps around the front of the building and a backlit brushed nickel sign, oak door, and brushed nickel door handle, and Vespa scooter greet patrons as they enter. Inside the front door, the courtyard dining space for casual dining has red metal chairs, metal tables, a red and white awning, string lights with spun aluminum shades, and a lattice wall of ivy. The main dining space is rich and warm with wood floors, chairs, tables, and millwork, and red accents throughout.


Distrito, Philadelphia, PA

HD: What is one of your most favorite recent projects and why?

JA: Garces Trading Co. is such a unique space since it is a retail marketplace and a formal restaurant in one. We designed the logo, packaging for all products, the website, and the interior including custom metal pendant lights, spun aluminum wall sconces, and all the millwork. We are thrilled to be able to apply our creativity to so many aspects and the end result is really beautiful.

HD: New York, Philadelphia, Seoul. What other cities are on your radar for design and development?

JA: Brooklyn, where we work, is a rapidly changing are and it is exciting to be in the middle of it. We'd love to work more locally, but we've also been making connections in major cities in the U.S. and abroad. In the past we worked in Tokyo, Seoul, and Paris.

We are open to work in any city on any genre of project so we are trying to put ourselves on the radar. It would be great to collaborate with a fashion designer on a retail space, or work on a hotel or casino with a great entertainer.

HD: What's your dream project?

JA: I look forward to working on my own project, such as an apartment or a house where it's very personal.

I love the idea of working closely with an owner or a financier to build a project from the ground up. A natural spring spa in the states is definitely on my mind. In Japan, I was very influenced by the natural springs built on volcanic soil and I would love to head a project like that.

We also do so much custom furniture, lighting, and textiles that we could make an easy transition into manufacturing our own products. We have been designing new packaging devices and biodegradable cups. Our work is not just interiors by any means. We love it all from designing the interior to designing the logo.

HD: What's next for you?

JA: Crème has been getting involved with the community in Brooklyn, from planning a block party to participating in a local food market. We love to work locally and help build the community. We are hoping to make connections and work more in Brooklyn and other interesting cities. We just got a lead about a project in South America where they may bring us in, so we are excited to head to a new continent for work.

Brought to you by:

HD Magazine