Meet the Minds Behind Restaurant Design - Allison CookeFeb 19, 2013
By Alia Akkam
the senior restaurant designer of Washington, DC-based CORE on a focused path that today has her immersed in DC's culinary scene and beyond. Here, she talks inspiring chefs, building community via restaurants, and the days of Laura Ashley frills.
Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?
I’ve known I’ve wanted to do something artistic ever since I was little. When I was young, my brother and I took drawing and painting classes outside of school once a week, and did cartooning, sketching, and learned different types of media. I loved it!
What are some of your ﬁrst memories of design?
I remember a middle-school diorama project where we had to draw a plan and the wall elevations and tape it together like a room. It was the Laura Ashley era in residential design, so everything was ﬂowery—a nightmare with frilly pillows and overstuffed sofas. Also, my mom had a lot of crazy wallpapering projects
that I would help her with.
How did you end up where you are today?
I went to Miami University, then did internships in Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, in interior design, architecture, landscape architecture, and marketing, but I have been in DC for most of my career.
Initially, I began working on corporate interiors projects for a large ﬁrm, but after about six years, the work wasn’t as gratifying as I had hoped. That’s when I decided I was ready to shift to hospitality design, and I joined CORE to get that experience. Since then I've had wonderful project opportunities. I've worked very hard and taken on every new challenge that has been thrown at me.
Do you have a greatest lesson learned?
It’s essential to nurture the younger designers around you and value your team. If you mentor them the right way, they will make your life so much easier—and the design process much more rewarding.
Tell us about your ofﬁce culture and design process?
CORE has a casual and collaborative culture, but everyone is self-motivated. The partners, Dale Stewart and Guy Martin, are committed to being involved on every project. I'm usually the design lead or editor, and I work closely with the other designers to keep the project aligned with the original vision and goals.
For every restaurant, you want to create an experience that is unique and different. CORE doesn’t have just one design style. We are able to take more design risks because clients push harder for good design and you learn something new on each project. Also, it’s fun to meet the chefs and infuse their personalities into our restaurant designs. Restaurants are also a great technical challenge because you have to coordinate the production and ﬂow of their food and beverage into the concept. I love working with the kitchen designers.
What are some of the challenges of the industry today?
Due to the recession and efﬁciencies gained from using BIM software, there’s pressure to push fees lower and make project timelines faster. These trends certainly make it harder to provide thoughtful design. It’s important to educate clients so that they understand the value they're getting from a strong design team. They need to realize that their day-to-day operations and business will be better if they work with someone who knows how to design restaurants. Not everyone gets that.
What's exciting about DC's food scene today?
The DC food scene has been exciting for years! I'm so glad to see the Food & Wine article about DC last month with chef José Andrés in Minibar, which we just completed. He's been such an advocate for the DC food scene for years and his team is still at the forefront of creativity. My favorite thing about DC is how restaurants anchor the neighborhoods and build community. For example, Union Market is exciting because of the way they're supporting local small businesses. Also, a lot of young chefs are opening their own places. I would watch out for Danny Wells, who has been working with Jeff Black for years. And I know it's had so much media attention already, but Johnny Monis' Little Serow served me one of the best meals I've ever eaten. For me, if the design is good but the food doesn't hold up, the whole concept is ruined, and DC chefs are delivering.
Minibar by José Andrés, Washington, DC
What’s a recent project that was most challenging and why?
Minibar by José Andrés was amazing to work on, but a huge challenge as well. We had a very quick, intense project schedule and we were collaborating with Juli Capella, an incredibly talented designer in Spain. The design concepts were customized, and we had to ﬁnd a way to get the restaurant done in our timeframe. But it all came off so successfully. It was testament to how a strong, focused, passionate team can work together.
Minibar by José Andrés, Washington, DC
What’s one project that you are most proud of and why?
Pearl Dive Oyster Palace and Black Jack. The whole team from Black Restaurant Group has so much experience, and I'm proud of what I learned on that project. The design holds together so well, and represents the brand identity and concept perfectly. I put so many small touches and details into it. We also worked with a strong graphic artist who threaded together everything seamlessly in our design. The building was really in need of some love, too, so it was rewarding to be involved in rehabilitating it, as well as revitalizing the
Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, Washington, DC
Black Jack, Washington, DC
What are some projects you are currently working on? What’s next for you?
We’re designing chef Victor Albisu's South American restaurant, Del Campo. I’m especially excited about it because I took a trip to Peru last year and the food Victor creates is so delicious. We’re also in process on several other things: a new bar and kitchen concept in the Marriott at Tysons Corner; a new fast-casual
burger concept that is still conﬁdential; and Silver, a reinvented urban diner concept currently looking for just the right space in the DC metro area. I just got back from London where I met our newest restaurant client, who is bringing their concept to the U.S. market and would like us to develop it for them.
Silver, Washington, DC
Most creative solution for a cool design feature that you have recently come
Our team sourced the gold domes in Minibar from a boat builder in Annapolis. He had an old abandoned sailboat and we repurposed it by cutting two symmetrical shapes from the hull to create the domes.
What would be your dream project?
I'm always interested in a challenge; we love the weird stuff at CORE. I am interested in anything that pushes the level of design in our studio. Of course, CORE would love to do a boutique hotel from the ground up, since we have extensive base-building expertise as well. I would have to say that a food hall like Harrod's in London would be amazing to design. I get very excited at the prospect of doing something new, but historically sensitive in a beautiful old building.
What’s the key to a successful collaboration between designer and client?
Good communication and understanding the project goals and priorities. If you have the same expectations from the start, no one is disappointed. I also think projects are stronger when the owner has a point of view and engages in the design discussion.
Sugo Cicchetti, Rockville, Maryland
What’s the most important thing to remember when designing a hospitality space?
Good design entertains people and that is what hospitality design is all about. It promotes escapism. You want the customer to be completely in the moment of the space, with no distractions. That is the ultimate goal.
Motto to live by...
Treat everyone the way you would want to be treated.
Greatest accomplishment so far?
My marriage! My husband (an architect) and I are watching and helping each other to grow professionally, and it's exciting to celebrate our accomplishments together.
If you weren’t a designer, what would you be?
I would love to have a shop where I could build my own furniture and work more hands-on in the crafting of objects. Or, I would probably just throw elaborately- themed cocktail parties. I've been doing that for years and love to entertain.
When you are not in the ofﬁce, we can ﬁnd you…
In the kitchen with my two dogs cleaning up whatever tidbits hit the ﬂoor. I love to cook, and covet my Blue Star range. If I’m not cooking, I'm usually drinking wine with my next-door neighbors, or eating out somewhere with friends.
If you could have supper with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
That’s a tough one! Most of them would be chefs. Right now, it’s a tie between John Besh and Stephanie Izard. I met chef Besh at an event and he was one of the warmest personalities. He just seems like someone you would want to sit down and eat comfort food with. I would want to have dinner with chef Izard while she is cooking so that I could understand how she made the most life- changing meal I’ve ever had at Girl and the Goat in Chicago.
Describe that meal, the wine, and the person you’re eating with.
As far as the food, if it has pork in it, I'm pretty happy; something braised and comforting. I am in love with Willamette Valley Pinot Noir right now.
Whom do you admire the most? Why were they an inﬂuencing factor in your career and life?
My parents. They both taught me that a strong work ethic and good Midwestern manners will get you far. They gave me the conﬁdence to speak my mind, but also to know when to shut up and listen. That's a tough balancing act.