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Meet the Minds Behind Restaurant Design - Joshua Zinder

Oct 17, 2012

By Alia Akkam

Joshua Zinder launched his Princeton, New Jersey-based firm JZA+D in 2006. Ever since, he’s been busy working on inspired community, residential, and hospitality projects, including Sky on 57 and Waku Ghin at the stunning Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino in Singapore, as well as the new Bourbon Room at the Venetian in Las Vegas. JZA+D even crafts its own furniture. Here, he talks Rock of Ages, the importance of Legos, and why an open discussion can be a designer’s best friend.

Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?
Before I even knew what design was, I was designing. My parents gave me a hammer, nails, and wood for my fourth birthday, and I just started creating objects. Design is something that always came naturally to me. I’ve always been aware of my environments. I guess design is part of who I am.

What are some of your first memories of design?
I remember building complex Lego cities when I was young.  The cities always had to have just the right proportions, form, and colors. I spent hours and hours to get the right result. They would fill my room and our house, and they really altered how I saw the world.

How did you end up where you are today?
I’ve been very lucky with the opportunity to work with great designers, like Michael Graves, on great projects. When I decided to open my firm, I was lucky again to work with chef Charlie Trotter on his Las Vegas restaurant. That single choice— to take on that project on my own, as my first commission—transformed my life and took me where I am today. Now, I take my experience working for others and leverage it with my own vision into my work.

Bourbon Room at the Venetian, Las Vegas

Do you have a greatest lesson learned?
The biggest lesson has been that there are no obstacles, in design or life, only opportunities. For example, during the design of Waku Ghin we were well into the construction documentation, and then 2,000 square feet was removed from the scope of the project. It could have been devastating to the design, but in the end it forced us to push and make it even better.

Bourbon Room at the Venetian, Las Vegas

What inspired you to start JZA+D?
I was raised in a very entrepreneurial environment. I also think architects and designers by nature want ownership of their design work. Having my own firm where I could express my vision through the built environment was just a matter of timing.

Tell us about your office culture and design process?
We hire only designers: people who have strong vision and a strong aesthetic sense. It is important to me that the culture of our office is open and collaborative so that everyone can feel, and be, essential to the creation of the work. Our design process requires that each team member express their ideas and experiences, and listen to those of the other team members. We also listen closely to the client’s desires, needs, and input. All that goes in the pot, so to speak, and improves our product.

Bourbon Room at the Venetian, Las Vegas

Why hospitality?
As an industry, hospitality is one of the special areas where people care deeply about design. From the outset, design is a critical element to what our clients are trying to achieve. If you bring strong design to any project, it will help the client create their own brand, boosting their ROI. We saw this most recently with our design of the Bourbon Room, which just opened at the Venetian in Las Vegas. It’s gratifying to have people who appreciate design and what it can bring to their business request as collaborative partners in our services.

What are some of the challenges of the industry today?
In this economy, there remains a great hesitation to act. There are so many venues that need to begin, and so many improvements to existing environments that have been delayed, because people are still wary about the future.

Bourbon Room at the Venetian, Las Vegas

You work on a number of projects beyond hospitality. How do those inspire and help you do a better job in the hospitality sphere?
I try to tell clients and friends that we’ll work on anything we can get our hands on. Diversity really creates inspiration; when I am able to work on a corporate office, a residential tower, a restaurant, a home, a dry cleaner, it all inspires me. A residential experience can be turned around to help make a hospitality project more comfortable and welcoming. A hospitality space, like a lounge or coffee shop, can inform an area for collaboration or a breakout space in a corporate environment. It’s about bringing this cross-pollination to our clients to help them achieve their operational goals.

What’s a recent project that was most challenging and why?
The Bourbon Room. The room is part of the experience of people who see the Vegas reinterpretation of the Broadway show Rock of Ages. From a design point of view, we needed to reinterpret the setting of Rock of Ages—without making the lounge into a copy of the set, and taking care not to overly identify the space with the show. When we designed the space, the deal to bring the show to the Venetian wasn’t yet finalized, and the show still isn’t set to open until December. So, we created the same atmosphere without duplicating the theatrical environment. Moreover, we had only four and a half weeks to design the project and complete the construction documentation, and then we had only eight weeks to build it. The lounge opened on time and on budget and has shown to be a great example of how to transform a lounge and create a new business model in the process.

Waku Ghin at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

What’s one project that you are most proud of and why?
I always say, ‘It’s the next project we’re working on.’ But for completed work, I’d have to say Waku Ghin. It expresses a great vision for both us and for chef Tetsuya. For the chef, it has pushed forward his operational strategy, and for us, we were able to execute what I believe is a clear architectural form.

Waku Ghin at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

What are some projects you are currently working on? What’s next for you?
Currently, we’re finishing a gelato store for the Venetian, and we’re planning numerous other projects with Sands Corp., including some work in Macau that will be announced down the road. We have a new restaurant in Princeton, Despaña, which is just starting construction. It’s all Spanish foods and has a deep connection to Spain through its owners, yet it will have the raw aesthetic of the structure it will occupy. Despaña will be an interesting venue worth visiting.

What was your most recent creative solution for a cool design feature?
The gelato store we’re working on maximizes a tiny, 500-square-foot area with a pitched ceiling, which is gabled up, and a bright orange ribbon element running up. The space is wrapped and captured with this intense graphic presence: in spite of its unique shape it is regularized by the orange ribbon. A similar solution came to us for Sky on 57, where we had 3,000 square feet of back-of-house space that had to stay out of the way to allow for perimeter views of Singapore. We pulled all that space together and wrapped it with these wooden fins which open up and pull apart for the bar area while also shading the wine storage.

Rendering of a gelato store planned for the Venetian, Las Vegas

What would be your dream project?
With regard to hospitality, my dream project would be to design and build a hotel/resort complex that includes other venues, such as performance and restaurant spaces. It could be anywhere, but it’s exactly the kind of opportunity we’re ready for. I have done similar projects before, but I’m looking for the next big one to do with my team. My larger dream is to work on all types of spaces and develop a really broad based portfolio—I want to design and build everything.

What’s the key to a successful collaboration between designer and client?
Open discussion. We listen very closely to all of our clients, but our best clients are those who are comfortable providing us with an honest critique of our designs. We improve our work through their comments. Too often, clients are hesitant to tell their designers and architects when they like or don’t like something. The best relationships are when clients join our team by being open with us; we can take their ideas and vastly improve their projects.

Sky on 57 at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

What’s the most important thing to remember when designing a hospitality space?
It doesn’t matter what you’re designing, it’s all about the experience of the people who will be in the space; in hospitality it’s about the experience of the guests.  You’ve got to be able to translate the experience into the spaces you design. Whatever you can do to enhance the experience of the space will make the venue more desirable.

Motto to live by...
Be passionate! Care about the spaces and places you work on.

Sky on 57 at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

Greatest accomplishment so far?
My children are happy and successful with their friends and in school. My eldest  is in college; that’s a good one.

If you weren’t a designer, what would you be?
A sculptor. I would work in clay and metal. There was a time when I really liked working with bronze. JZA+D also designs light fixtures and furniture for our projects, and that can be very tactile. Like a sculptor, you are creating objects you can understand as a totality, which is different from interiors, where you are resolving objects in space.

When you are not in the office we can find you…
With my family, and—ideally in the winter—skiing.

If you could have supper with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
From the point of view of an educator, I would want to talk to the master architect Louis Kahn over dinner. His spaces always fascinate me—so minimal with simple materials and amazing light. They are fabulous.

Describe that meal, the wine, and the person you’re eating with.
I would bring a simple boxed lunch to enjoy as I walked with him through the buildings that he has built to better understand his ideas about finish and natural light. But for my perfect meal setting (a different time, with different company), I would have dinner at Waku Ghin. It’s an amazing place to eat, and the food is divine.

Whom do you admire the most? Why were they an influencing factor in your career and life?
My father. Though he was a lawyer, he could appreciate good design. He always said, strive to be better, push yourself, and do more. Be different and new; that’s a good thing. He was a good father, brilliant businessman, and loyal friend.  Understanding what he accomplished has certainly pushed and helped me.

hdtalks: the interviews

During HD Expo 2014, Hospitality Design’s Michael Adams sat down with HBA’s Michael Bedner to talk about his half-century in the hospitality design industry. View the video.



Produced by: Emerald Expositions
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