CULINTRO A Community for Restaurant Professionals

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.


Denise Korn


Denise Korn



Eighteen years ago Denise Korn understood something that not everyone else did-the power of branding and graphics. Today, her brand design and strategy firm has become one of the most sought-after in the hospitality biz, helping some of the best (Sage Restaurant Group, Daniel Boulud, the Palm Restaurant Group, LXR Resorts & Hotels) create spaces that emotionally resonate with their guests. From identity packaging to web design and signage, Korn and her team’s innovative approach can be found in the most unexpected touchpoints. Here, the James Beard Award winner talks about digging deep, a branding dream and massive design challenge, and why it’s important to ask a lot of questions.


HD: As a kid, did you always know you wanted to go into design?

DK: When I was a kid I had no idea that this whole design world existed. I was more focused on fine art and painting. But I always knew that I would do something creative that involved people.

HD: What are some of your first memories of design?

DK: I guess I started relating to design and seeing it in everything pretty early on. My first brush with architecture was watching the John Hancock Tower rise up in Boston, designed by Henry Cobb and I.M. Pei. I was drawn to the contrast between the old buildings in Copley Square and this super sleek, modern form and how reflective it was; I was roughly 12 at the time. A trip to Paris with my folks landed me at the Georges Pompidou Centre for a Kandisky exhibit and I was blown away by both his work and the architecture. And I am a big fan of flea markets and discovered Eva Zeisel, the most brilliant woman and ceramicist, very young when I bought a piece of hers in a flea market by mistake.


HD: How did you end up where you are today?

DK: My parents are huge supporters of public education and I went to public school through 8th grade until they felt it just wasn’t cutting it in this particular school system. So I landed in a wonderfully small and intimate private high school, Lawrence Academy, which had a huge impact on shifting my perspective and embracing learning. There were amazing teachers there that I am still in touch with.

All along I couldn’t get to New York fast enough so I would spend vacations with my close friend whose parents were working in fashion there. I did my undergrad at Cornell School of Architecture Art and Planning and chose to spend my junior year at Parsons School of Design. At the time I was completely focused on photography and painting, but it was during that year that I stumbled into the design department and that was it! My first job out of school was in the design department at The New York Times. It was a wonderfully intense and vibrant environment. I learned a lot working on everything from graphics for the daily paper to layouts for feature stories in their special magazines. The transition from this early training in editorial design and art direction was seamless as I migrated towards opening Korn Design in 1992. It was there that I made the connections between visual storytelling and design communications regardless of client or problem set.

HD: Sounds simple, but why did you want to own your own firm?

DK: Well, it wasn’t exactly planned…living happily in New York and engaged to a New Yorker, my fiancé was out-of-the blue lured to Boston to help start a company and I found myself back in Boston where I grew up, smack in middle of the recession in 1991. There were plenty of art director and creative director jobs, but they paid much less than what I had left behind. And with a bare bones staff and scarce clients, I decided to hang a shingle and see how little I could make on my own.

Jump by Antony Crook

HD: What has been one of your most interesting/challenging projects?

DK: In 2009 I joined hospitality interior designer Alexandra Champalimaud, Maureen Dodd, and an amazing group of colleagues to launch an original integral health lifestyle concept called Charym, meaning wellness inside and out in Bhutanese. Rather than a destination spa that one might visit only on vacation, Charym states as its mission ‘to support real and lasting changes in individual lives,’ through its combination of integral health, yoga and fitness, and spa services. Starting from scratch we crafted a newly modern brand and memorable wellness experience with authenticity at its core. Since opening our first location in Litchfield, Connecticut, the response has been phenomenal and we are looking towards 2011 to see Charym expand into more locations to reach more people.

HD: What’s one project that you recently worked on/are working on that you are most excited about?

DK: We have been collaborating with the Palm Restaurant Group over the past year and have just begun to roll our their newly refreshed brand with the launch of their new website last month. Still owned by the same families since 1926, we are working with the fourth generation and there is such a rich history to pull from. Their commitment to hospitality and quality has served them well over the years. The Palm will be 85 years old in 2011 and by the end of next year all of the new brand touchpoints will be introduced throughout their family of restaurants. Stay tuned.

Sign by Parsons Killian

HD: You worked on what might be considered one of the coolest hotel renovations, the Liberty Hotel in Boston. Once a former jail, its now a luxury hotel with a restaurant Clink. That must have been a branding dream since you had such great bones to work with.

DK: Branding dream and massive design challenge: to transform a jail that had been unoccupied and left derelict for many years, situated in a raw corner of the city, next to a hospital, into a luxury destination serving both business and transient guests…where to begin. We have worked with one of the owners/developers Dick Friedman and his team at Carpenter & Company for many years, and he was very involved with the branding, positioning, and design process throughout the project. The entire ownership team along with Cambridge Seven Architects and Champalimaud, who designed the interiors, rounded off a powerfully creative and collaborative team behind the outcome. The bones of the Charles Street Jail were magnificent and we all focused on respecting the power of its presence and created a hotel experience that feels at home there.

Brand positioning and the manner in which the hotel was introduced was a critical part of its success. We focused on the idea that we were ‘freeing’ the building from its storied past as a jail. Dick came up with the name the Liberty and the launch campaign we created read, ‘Liberate Yourself,’ embodied by Boston Ballet dancers in motion. There is just enough ‘jailness’ to speak to the site’s history, a little tongue and cheek on that theme, and then we fly away from it with the brand experience into its new life. The hotel has an amazing energy—it all works together and has truly revitalized this corner of the city.

HD: What is your process like in your office when you are pitching/researching a project?

DK: It’s all about the chemistry with the person or people we are working with. The work we do is about emotion, creating connections and visualizing ideas that people can relate to and keep with them. We find inspiration everywhere and look in unexpected places as a means to break down a preconceived notion of what the solution should be. Our process is all about not letting anything become ‘precious’ so that when that magic thing happens we are ready and open to it.

Drink Menu by Kent Dayton

HD: You have worked with some of the best—chefs and designers. What is the secret to a successful collaboration?

DK: Trust, mutual respect, and a shared passion for innovation.

HD: What do you think is the biggest misconceived notion about what you do and about branding and graphics?

DK: I ask a lot of questions and sometimes this surprises clients who see the role that we serve on the project as more encapsulated. The best brand thinking and ideas should permeate throughout an experience, not get tacked on in the end. We dig deep and get as smart as we can before forming an opinion or making any recommendations. Anyone who has worked with us has experienced the value in this, but getting there is always an adventure and sometimes the abstract quality of the process up front can be misunderstood.

Martini by Todd Nakashima

HD: You won a James Beard Award for Outstanding Graphics for the Corner Office in Denver in 2009, and this year you were nominated for a second one for Mercat a la planxa in Chicago. What does that mean to you? Why do you think your restaurants stood out?

DK: We were beyond humbled. As designers there is nothing better than being recognized for your contribution to a successful project and the careful alignment of all that comes together in a great restaurant. We have been honored to work with some of the best chefs and restaurateurs in the world. For these particular projects, we had a great working relationship with the client, Peter Karpinski of Sage Restaurant Group, who wanted us to push boundaries and uncover opportunities to surprise. He’s been a great client and partner in design. Although completely different they each portray a bold personality that emanates throughout and feels seamless with the dining experience and menu offerings—they are not identities that sit on top of the dining experience, they are an integral part of it.

Quest Collateral by Kent Dayton

HD: You must see a lot of restaurants for research. Do you have a few favorites in terms of design?

DK: I am drawn to places that have soul and have been around for a long time. Many were not consciously ‘designed’ but they are beautiful, they simply work, feel good, and I never tire of them as long as the food stays fantastic. Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe in Boston’s South End won a James Beard Award as an American Classic. I eat there almost every week and I love that we share the James Beard experience from totally different ends of the spectrum. In New York, I love Café Habana, the Palm One and Palm Too, Café Luxembourg, Katz’s. I am a fan of [design firm] AvroKO—their work is always fresh, sophisticated, and fun to experience, and they really get it and tap into where old world nuances become relevant again. We collaborated with Jeff Kovel out in Portland on Departure Restaurant and Lounge he rocked it.

Folder Detail by Kent Dayton

HD: What are some of the biggest challenges today in hospitality/restaurants?

DK: Mediocrity and predictability. I believe that it’s possible, regardless of resources, to be warm to your guests, inventive, and inspired in the kitchen, pay attention to detail, and keep it fun. I also know that it’s one of the hardest paths to take, but I don’t buy into cutting corners in the wrong places. You can make magic with any budget.

LIB Exterior by Parsons Killian

HD: Outside the office, mentoring is a big part of your life. Can you tell us a little bit about Youth Design and how it came about?

DK: I think as designers we have the power to help transform the world around us in positive ways. I started Youth Design eight years ago to reach talented inner city kids with extremely limited resources and open doors to channeling their own passions to pursue a creative career. The simple idea that if we could show them through mentoring that they can actually translate their unique talent and view of the world into a viable career, they could pursue something that they enjoy and love. These kids need to work in the summer so it’s modeled as paid summer internship but it becomes much more than that—it is a springboard for possibility. We have a 100 percent success rate with our kids going on to leading art and design colleges, and I keep in touch with many of them. Eight years into it we have built a community of the next generation of inspired designers.

Menu by Fernando Neves

HD: What has been your greatest lesson learned?

DK: Giving back feels great and you learn a lot from those who you are helping.

Antony Crook

HD: What’s your motto to live by?

DK: Keep it real, stay authentic, be honest

HD: Dream project?

DK: I would love to completely reinvent what spa and wellness means in the world of hospitality, across the spectrum from limited service to high-end customers. I think there is a huge opportunity to get this right and make people around the world feel better when they’re on the road.

Palm Ad

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