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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.

David Ashen

Founder, d-ash design
Long Island City, New York

d-ash design


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David Ashen
Founder, d-ash design
Long Island City, New York

   

 

David Ashen knows how to create a brand. That seems to be his specialty, especially when it comes to restaurants. The Tufts and University of Pennsylvania graduate started off in retail design, but transitioned to hospitality, taking the lessons learned with him. Since 2003, when he started his firm d-ash design, he has designed a slew of restaurants and nightclubs, most recently Urban Farmer, Mercat, and the Original for Sage Restaurant Group. He's also continued in the retail realm, designing the RocPopShop for hip-hop artist Jay-Z. Next up, he will make his mark on Shanghai, designing all the F&B at the Mandarin Oriental as well as a Godiva flagship store and café. And back in the U.S., he's transitioning into non-F&B hotel work with the Renaissance brand. The Brooklyn, New York, resident opens up about his transition from retail to hospitality, working in Asia, how therapy paid off, and why his mother is always right.

 
   

HD: Did you always know you wanted to be an architect?

DA: When I was little, if you asked me what I wanted to do I would tell you I wanted to be an architect. So in a way I always knew. I ended up at the school of engineering at Tufts. The first year was really difficult and I wasn't sure this is what I wanted to do. However, they offered courses in what they called the Experimental College, which were non-credit courses in subjects that the university didn't offer, taught by local professionals. I took an architecture course taught by two recent MIT grads. It was all I wanted to do; I knew then I had to figure this out. I switched my major to engineering psychology (human factors), which was part of the engineering design department. This was the key to my freedom. I actually really enjoyed human factors and it provided me with a way of thinking about design problems that is very relevant to the work I do today.

HD: Talk to us about your first work experience and how it shaped how you got to where you are today?

DA: From Tufts I went to the University of Pennsylvania where I got my masters in architecture. When I graduated the economy was in the tank; there were no jobs so I had to put together freelance jobs (I got paid $6 per hour). My first job was working as an assistant to the editor/publisher of a small architectural journal called SITES. This job gave me access to a number of emerging designers and architects. It was pretty exciting. After that I worked for a small architectural firm for a year (Robert Segal) and when that was done, I went to work at Pentagram. I really wanted to merge my two degrees and I thought that a multi-disciplinary firm was the answer. It wasn't, and I was fired. It was devastating to me but the best thing that ever happened. I probably would have still been there. A great headhunter told me that I should be working in retail, that this would merge all the things I had been doing. So I saw an opening at Peter Marino's office and was determined to get it—and I did. I spent a year there working on luxury retail and got amazing experience. While I was there I got the opportunity to do my own project. This was an office for a technology company and they were interested in both my human factors and design skills.

HD: Why did you want to start your own firm?

DA: Basically, I don't think I was a good employee. I grew up with parents who ran their own businesses and I think that when you spend your formative years around people who are entrepreneurs that it is only natural to follow that path. While I was at Desgrippes Gobe, I was running my own business within their business and decided that when the economy took a dive after 9/11 that it was the appropriate time to strike off on my own. I did, and still maintain a relationship with them, developing an exclusive partnership with their office in Asia.

The Original, Portland, OR

HD: What was your big break in hospitality?

DA: My big break in hospitality was XL in 2001. It was the first bar we ever did and our first hospitality project. I was running the architecture department at the branding agency Desgrippes Gobe. This was not our sweet spot, but I was so intrigued by the opportunity I didn't want to turn it down. We got the project via a small competition the client held. The client was a business and life partner of someone I was in group therapy with. Therapy paid off in many ways.

HD: Why hospitality?

DA: I was doing retail for a few years. Retail can be very limiting. Hospitality, especially clubs, allowed us to push the edge and experiment with materials, light, and customer experience. We didn't have to worry about where to put the merchandise. Hospitality allows us to explore our fantasies, good and bad.

The Original, Portland, OR

HD: You have been doing quite a lot of work for Sage Restaurant Group. Can you tell us a bit about two Sage restaurants you recently completed, Mercat and the Original?

DA: We have been very fortunate to work with Sage. I met Peter Karpinski, who heads up Sage Restaurant Group, via Denise Korn [founder of her namesake branding design firm]. Denise suggested Pete bring us in to be part of the team and work with Korn Design on developing Mercat [a modern reinterpretation of a Catalan restaurant in Chicago]. It really was our first new restaurant. Sage Restaurant Group was just starting out so Pete, Denise, and I really got to collaborate on bringing this concept to life. I love the collaboration with Sage and Korn; we push each other, which adds richness to the work. The Original [in Portland] was our second collaboration with Korn. It was a totally different concept [reinvention of a diner] and went through a long phase of development. However, I think it is as rich as Mercat. We have continued to work with Sage and have moved on to renovating lobbies, rooms, and conference facilities [under Sage Hospitality] in some of their other properties.

Jay-Z's Rocawear's mobile "RocPopShop" store

HD: What's the secret to keeping such a good client?

DA: Well, that's the thing. They are a good client. They are a great organization, and that starts at the top. They have entrusted us to venture where we have never ventured before. I think they hired us to do Mercat because we were not restaurant designers and then asked us to do a lobby because we never had done that. They are interested in changing the paradigm. The funny thing is that after three years, now people call me a restaurant designer. I better do something to change that.

HD: Now you are doing a couple of projects in Shanghai. What is it like working there?

DA: China is challenging. It's difficult to do business long distance. I have formed a partnership with Brand Image Asia, previously Desgrippes Gobe. This allows me to have project managers on the ground as well as local offices in Hong Kong and Shanghai. My partners there can handle day-to-day communication and that allows for a smoother flow of information and greater level of comfort for our clients. This is an amazing market—it is definitely the new frontier and there are few limits in regards to design. There are certainly challenges, mainly related to language, negotiating contracts and fees. I haven't figured it all out yet. Ask me in about two years. With the way things are going I could end up living in Shanghai soon.

Jay-Z's Rocawear's mobile "RocPopShop" store

HD: You have been traveling quite a bit. Any city/area you would like to work in next?

DA: Well selfishly, I would love some work in Chile. My partner is from Santiago and we only get there once a year. I just came back and the opposite seasonality is very tempting. I would like to develop some work there in the near future. I would also love to work in Paris; it's my favorite city and I have great friends there. I am a huge Francophile.

Jay-Z's Rocawear's mobile "RocPopShop" store

HD: Besides Paris and Chile, is there a city/area you are watching in terms of design?

DA: I love to visit London. I always see great stuff there. But it is being eclipsed by what is going on in China. I have just begun to explore Shanghai, and find new things every time I go. You can do things there that you can't do in the States or in Europe. It's the wild Wild West (so to speak).

Urban Farmer, Portland, OR

HD: One place you are starting to know a lot about is Novi, Michigan. Can you talk about your projects there? What is the area like?

DA: We are working on transforming an independent hotel called the Baronette into a new Renaissance property. We are creating a new restaurant for Sage Restaurant Group and renovating the public spaces of the hotel for the owners (this is a Sage Hospitality managed hotel and the property is owned by the Wickens Group in Lansing). The restaurant is separately branded from the hotel and is again, a joint project with Korn. It is a pretty interesting concept as we are creating a retail wine concept in the restaurant, which is a pretty new idea. The restaurant itself is a new American bistro and it was designed to feel as if it had been there for a long time—a comfortable, textural environment that is a bit country cabin crossed with Mad Men. The place you might have a great power lunch or a romantic dinner.

The lobby and public spaces are inspired by the great history of 20th century modernism that comes out of this region, inspired by designers such Saarinen and Eames. The elements are straightforward and express their materiality, while creating a space, which we are referring to as a modern retreat.

The area is interesting. It is a suburb of Detroit. I have been working with [art consultant] Paige Powell on this project. Paige is assembling the art collection for the hotel and we are commissioning local artists to create the pieces. This has given me the opportunity to really dive into the art community there and see the amazing energy and creativity that is coming out of the area during such a dark time in their history. It is really been uplifting, which is probably the opposite of what most people might think. However, I think that out off the darkest times, comes the greatest creative energy.

Urban Farmer, Portland, OR

Urban Farmer, Portland, OR

HD: You also just completed the renovation of the Renaissance in Pittsburgh. Are they part of a larger brand re-do?

DA: They are both owned or managed by Sage (who is our client). However, we have been working closely with the Renaissance brand team, as these will be two of the first new properties that reflect the new brand direction.

HD: You have recently completed a few pop up retail concepts. Do you like them as a trend?

DA: I had thought that the pop up trend might have run its course, but this new economy has really fueled interest in pop up retail. It is an excellent way for marketers to try out new ideas. I am not a fan of traditional research, however, I love pop up because it gives you real life experience with customers. I am finding that more people are interested in it because they don't have the funds to launch a full-fledged retail expansion or, because of the available space for rent, it is an affordable alternative to traditional advertising and marketing. I do enjoy working on them. It really is not that different than designing anything else. However, because of the temporary nature, we do often have more freedom to test boundaries.

Novi Renaissance, Pittsburgh, PA

HD: Do you see a line blurring between retail and hospitality?

DA: I see a relationship between them. Because my background is in retail design, I have a bit of an advantage in understanding brand. We approach all of our work from a strategic base and the process of development is pretty similar. Hospitality is becoming more like retail in the sense that the hotel brands have become savvy to the importance of building brand and customer loyalty to that brand. Also, there has become the commoditization of the hotel experience in that, in most instances everything you experience in the hotel can be purchased by the guest so that they can take a bit of that experience home. Therefore, as designers we have to think a bit different regarding how we create environments that foster this desire and create design elements that are unique to a property and may be attained by the guest.

Novi Renaissance, Pittsburgh, PA

HD: Any other trends you are noticing?

DA: On the hospitality front, I am seeing a few trends that are both good and bad. On the not so good side, I am seeing the 'W'ization of the hotel experience. I think the line is becoming blurred between the different luxury hotel brands. In the last few years there has been a lot of following what Starwood created and there is now a bit of homogony between the upper tier brands. On the positive side, there are really unique brands like the Ace which have countered the paradigm and created a totally new experience aimed at a specific market and delivers great experience at great value. Lastly, art. This is a very interesting trend—the hotel as public gallery and community museum. I really like what I am seeing and how some properties are jumping on this trend and creating their own private collections. I think this will continue to grow.

HD: What is your favorite restaurant that you have designed and why?

DA: I have a favorite part of a restaurant that I designed. I love the library at the Nines [hotel in Portland], which is a quirky little space adjacent to Urban Farmer (the restaurant we did there). It's a surprise; it's cozy. It has a lot of great memories for me. I got to work here for the first time with Powell, she was the art consultant for the hotel. I got the Urban Farmer job in a very strange way; I was at the right place at the right time. Because of this project and Paige, I got to learn about Portland in a way that most visitors don't get the opportunity to do. We chose each piece; I think there are 14 different local artists represented here. I got to meet all the artists and fall in love with a city. It's a very personal space. This has led to collaborating with Powell on two more Sage projects in Pittsburgh and Detroit.

Mercat, Chicago, IL

HD What is your favorite restaurant that you have not designed?

DA: I love a small place called Black Mountain in my neighborhood. It is a small wine bar/restaurant on Union Street in Brooklyn. It is not on the main drag, but on the corner of a residential block. They only have a small cold kitchen, so the menu is limited. However, it is cozy, the wine is great, and so is the food. To me it's like going up to a cabin in the woods.

HD: What are the keys to a successful restaurant?

DA: Good food, great service, and a great environment. I believe that without the first two the design is unimportant.

HD: What would be your dream project?

DA: That is a really good question. I really don't know. I would love to work on a large public project, something that could shape a city or a community. I get a lot of joy out of enhancing peoples lives through design.

Mercat, Chicago, IL

HD: Greatest lesson learned?

DA: Listen carefully. There isn't any 'one' solution. There are many ways at looking at a problem.

HD: If you weren't a designer, what would you be?

DA: My mother always said I would either be an architect or a veterinarian. Why question? Mothers are always right.

Mercat, Chicago, IL

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