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Hospitality Design (HD) ) magazine and Culintro, a culinary trade organization in New York that brings together restaurant professionals, have teamed up to bring a monthly online Q&A with some of the nation's top restaurant designers. Each month, we will feature a Q&A with an industry leader, talking about his/her newest project, the industry, what works, and what's next.

Currently:

Thomas Schoos Founder - Schoos Design, Inc. West Hollywood


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Thomas Schoos Founder
Schoos Design, Inc. West Hollywood

   

 

Thomas Schoos is an artist at heart. It's how he started off in the business, and it translates into every space that he creates. Today, the passionate and charismatic German-born designer crafts worldly spaces that are almost works of art themselves that entice guests to linger. And clients keep coming back for more—he has designed multiple outposts for chef Morimoto and he is building a mini empire of fabric-themed restaurants with chef Brian Malarkey and restaurateur James Brennan. Here, he chats about his enviable office (complete with a Bali-like garden of a backyard), restaurant as theater, and keeping the world in mind.

 
   

HD: Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?

TS: I was always interested in design, but I began my career as an artist and a sculptor. In fact, I continue working as an artist today, mostly as a painter, with quite a few of my recent paintings on display in Asia and the U.S. I really think art and design are almost exactly the same thing. Every object that one creates has a purpose, whether that purpose is to hang on a wall or fill a space or provide something comfortable to sit on.

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

TS: When I finally got my own bedroom without my brother. A designer was born!

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Morimoto Mexico City

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

TS: After studying as a sculptor in Germany, I came to Los Angeles because I was excited about the contemporary art and design scene. I love the ethos of southern California with its modernism and culture clash and movie industry and everything—it's so different from Germany! My partner Michael Berman and I opened a gallery in LA, selling my own designs as well as wonderful things I found for the home and garden, and pretty soon we had a celebrity clientele with people like Ellen Degeneres, Laurence Fishburne, Halle Berry, Antonio Banderas, etc. The design business grew from there.

HD: Do you have a greatest lesson learned?

TS: Don't assume—always check.

HD: Why/when did you start the Schoos Design?

TS: In 1997, Will Smith asked me to design a home for him and his wife Jada Pinkett-Smith, and pretty soon my residential business was taking off. Things really started changing exponentially after I designed Tao restaurant in Manhattan in 2000. We added a second location and began increasing our staff soon after that, and moved into our current office/studio in 2005. It's been a constant evolution since then.

HD: Tell us about your corporate culture/design process?

TS: Our culture is very warm, friendly, and creative, just like California. We have four dogs in the office, as well as a 6,000-square-foot Bali-style garden in the back with a koi pond, parrots, and palapas. I believe in keeping the atmosphere informal and fun so that people are free to be creative and do their best work. I also keep my desk in the middle of the room just like everyone else. I want people to feel free to come to me and I keep involved in every aspect of the business.

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Morimoto Mexico City

HD: Why hospitality? Why restaurants?

TS: Besides my love of art and design, I also love socializing and bringing people together. I've always been a huge entertainer in my own home—I love to cook—and it seemed a natural progression to take this instinct out into the world. I think this is why my restaurants have been so popular: they focus on the event, the scene, so that the restaurant is a destination for the evening and not just a stopover on the way to the theater. The restaurant is a theater.

HD: What are some of the challenges of the industry today?

TS: Money has been tight, making projects slow to get off the ground. Also, tastes have shifted over the last few years, away from very high-end, corporate, and elite design toward something younger and more diverse. The key is to evolve with the times, as we have, producing designs that are richly visual and yet more casual and inviting. We have also become more international, working in Europe and Asia almost as much as we have in the U.S. Besides that, we are working more and more as partners with our clients, helping create new brands and developing our own projects; so, we don't just wait for the work to come to us.

HD: What is a recent project that was most challenging and why?

TS: Ellipsis restaurant in Mumbai, India, which opens this month, was a challenge because of the cultural differences as well as the technical challenges. Our restaurant was very different from anything that had been done in India before; so, getting everyone, including the trades people and the contractors, to see the vision and follow through was complicated. Often, materials were not available so we had to modify and improvise with what could be found. There was a learning curve, but, in the end, I couldn't be happier. Challenges are usually what drive innovation.

HD: What's one project that you are most proud of and why?

TS: Morimoto Mexico City, I think, is a very special place, and not just because it has won an HD Award, but because it is one of the most consistent, integrated, and original spaces I have designed. This was one situation where I had the freedom to imagine something new from top to bottom and everyone was on board to get it accomplished. I think the 'box within a box' solution for this large open space was dynamite, solving both a practical problem and creating a beautiful architectural feature all at the same time. I love the way the ceilings becomes walls, which become ceilings of the room below, which are offset to make interesting shapes. Plus, I really got my hands into the project, which was fun—painting 45-foot-high paintings, tying rope, spattering paint, and even carving a bench with a chainsaw!

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Morimoto Mexico City

HD: What are some projects you are currently working on? What's next for you?

TS: Two restaurants we designed will be opening very soon. One is a new restaurant for Iron Chef Morimoto in Tribeca in Manhattan, which has an amazing design that feels like walking into a giant painting—very appropriate for this famous arts district. The other is the next 'fabric' restaurant called Herringbone that just opened in La Jolla, California, with Brian Malarkey of Top Chef. Even more exciting, though, is a whole new restaurant group we are creating as co-owners. One is a new beach-themed bistro in West Hollywood, with a second location already planned for Las Vegas. Plus, there are two new restaurant concepts planned for Los Angeles: one is a new bar/restaurant concept with a celebrity chef, and the other is a modern take on the classic German beergarden.

HD: What's one of your most recent creative solutions for a cool design feature?

TS: One innovation I made, which has become iconic, in a way, was the rope chandeliers in Searsucker in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter. Brian Malarkey and I wanted to create a restaurant that is much more casual and creative than the typical high-end restaurant; and, that celebrates the history and culture of this great American city, with its connection to both the Wild West and the shipping industry. I wanted to bring in the textures and iconography of cowboys and sailors, plus all the colorful characters who have passed through the Gaslamp Quarter over the years.

Instead of using sophisticated, upscale lighting, I created chandeliers over the tables by just looping course strands of rope over rustic iron railings and added multiple vintage Edison bulbs hanging down, which give a wonderful amber glow. It was just the right statement for the 'Americana' theme, bringing to mind both cowboy lassos and the lines from a ship! They make fabulous conversation pieces. In fact, some version of these rope chandeliers has become an ongoing theme for all the fabric restaurants I'm doing with Brian. In Burlap [in Del Mar, California], I combined rope with Asian water buffalo skulls, which was perfect for the restaurant's 'Asian Cowboy' theme. Herringbone is a seafood restaurant, so the chandeliers are inverted rowboats with rope and Edison bulbs draping down. Different versions of the rope chandelier are in the works for the 11 other fabric restaurants we have planned. They are part of the brand we are creating for these restaurants.

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Burlap Del Mar, California

HD: Talk to us about your recent foray into products. Can you tell us some of the things you are creating?

TS: The recent move into lifestyle product design was an easy step because I had already been creating custom-designed furniture, fixtures, and accessories for use in hospitality projects for years. It seemed only natural to make some of these items available to the public. Also, many of our projects involve the branding and marketing of entirely new brands, which requires considerable product design. So, all of this leads very naturally to designing products for the public beyond the hospitality industry.

As far as things I'm creating now, some of my favorite recent designs include a series of lamps that are molded from large sea sponges; my 'cubist' lamps in bronze or brass; a chandelier that resembles giant crystals hanging from intricate bronze chains; and a series of furniture and accessories that are based on jewelry, so that a mirror might resemble an earring or an end table might resemble a bracelet. I also love to incorporate nature and tribal art into my designs, so that each piece is truly one-of-a-kind, containing a natural or cultural artifact.

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Burlap Del Mar, California

HD: What would be your dream project?

TS: Designing a hotel on a tropical island.

HD: What's the key to a successful collaboration between designer and client?

TS: Both sides have to have an open mindset. From the design side, you need to be very explicit with the client and create a strong foundation so that they see your vision, because you will be guiding them like a blind person who doesn't know the terrain. It's a safety net you have to create, to make them feel safe and instill trust. They have to believe that you can see the solution and you know the way.

HD: What's the most important thing to remember when designing a restaurant?

TS: First and most important is to understand functionality and flow, so that tables are accessible and the restaurant operation can work. After that, it is 'how do we look?' and 'what do we represent?' This is the intangible part that gives a space identity and generates excitement.

HD: What's your favorite hotel and restaurant for design (that you didn¹t design) and why?

TS: The Delano Hotel in Miami Beach. For me it's like coming home. Never over the top, it's timeless, elegant, and fun, but always a place to feel comfortable. As for my favorite restaurant, there are so many wonderful ones, but I would have to choose the China Club in Hong Kong because I love the way they combine Chinese motifs from the 1930s and 1940s with contemporary paintings and sculpture. Combining history, tradition, and modern design makes for a great visual interplay. It's a lot like what I did with Ellipsis restaurant in Mumbai.

HD: Motto to live by...

TS: Live the day to the fullest but don't empty the glass all at once. Keep an open mind because every day you're able to learn something new.

HD: Greatest accomplishment so far?

TS: I finally know what I want. I have arrived at a plateau of satisfaction while still leaving space for new growth. To be aware of that is one of my biggest accomplishments.

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

TS: An explorer, like for National Geographic, or maybe an oceanographer—anything that involves exploration and discovery. I'd love to discover a shipwreck!

HD: When you are not in the office we can find you...

TS: I am an avid world traveler. The fact that we have projects in India, China, and Europe helps keep me busy, but, even if I am not traveling for work, I am on the go constantly. To me, it is part of the job of a designer to be exposed to as much variety as possible; it feeds the imagination and connects you to people. In fact, our company motto, 'World In Mind,' is an expression of this commitment to draw inspiration from all cultures and styles and to speak to a wide and diverse audience.

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