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Meet the Minds Behind Restaurant Design—Jennifer Johanson, San Rafael, California

Jul 3, 2013

By Alia Akkam

For nearly 30 years EDG Interior Architecture + Design has been at the forefront of the hospitality industry. As president and CEO, Jennifer Johanson has overseen projects ranging from Spago Las Vegas to Camelback Inn (A JW Marriott Resort + Spa) in Scottsdale, Arizona. Here, she discusses the forward-thinking revamp of a seventies icon, accentuating culture through design, and the allure of Julia Child.

Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?

I moved several times as a child since my parents had a passion for buying and renovating older homes. I was invited to take an active part in the planning, particularly for my own room, and I think that my interest in architecture and design stems from those experiences. My art teacher in high school told me that my creativity came from a very logical and structured point of view and that I would make a great architect. That idea really appealed to me as I was trying to figure out where to focus my energy.

What are some of your first memories of design?

To help me learn more about the possibilities of an architectural career, some family friends set up a meeting with O’Neil Ford, one of the predominant architects of the Texas regional style. I met him in his office in the King William District of San Antonio, and we took a walking tour around downtown, followed by lunch at a local taco spot. His observations about design and how it responded to the climate, the culture, and the location were pivotal for me. His desire to connect people to their region through architecture and design inspired me to do the same.

How did you end up where you are today?

I graduated from the University of Texas School of Architecture and moved up to Dallas to work with a large architecture firm participating in the booming commercial market. The economy came to a screeching halt in the mid-eighties, and I moved to San Francisco ‘for the summer.’ I got a job doing the opposite—residential design for a one-man office on the wharf. After a few years of reaping the benefits of a small firm and excellent mentoring, I was introduced to Eric Engstrom and restaurant design. I instantly loved the integration of food experiences and design as well as working with Eric, so the rest is history.

                                                                                       Pony Line Bar
                                                                           Photography by Juan Hitters

Do you have a greatest lesson learned?

Throughout the many ups and downs of the last twenty-five years, particularly the last several, I have focused on being positive and searching for the upside of every situation. I learned years ago that the only way to get to the other side of a challenge is to work your way out creatively. I apply design logic to a problem and then stay focused on the outcome.

Tell us about your office culture and design process.

We have an awesome team at EDG! I get to work with some of the most passionate and creative people in hospitality. We have architects, designers, graphic designers, industrial designers, artists, and even chefs on staff.  We are a collaboration-based culture. We start projects out with a team charrette—sometimes with very large groups depending on the size of the project—in order to explore the possibilities and develop a strong concept. We do in-depth onsite research if it is a new area for us so that we can understand how to resonate with the local culture. 

                                                                                    Pony Line Bar
                                                                         Photography by Juan Hitters

Why hospitality?

We are all crazy about food and beverage and creating social experiences that connect people with a place or each other—whether in a hotel, college, corporate campus, or freestanding. Taking that philosophy to lobbies and meeting spaces, and then back to the guestrooms, is exciting.

How do you think being on the West Coast influences your approach?

We are located in between San Francisco, a prolific restaurant town, and the wine country. For F&B focus, you can’t beat that for inspiration! California has a progressive approach to change and an open-minded attitude that keeps us fresh and dedicated to introducing innovation. We do a lot of work in the tech industry and those guys really understand the power of shaking things up. It must be an embodiment of the frontier mentality, but we embrace it and try to bring that philosophy to all we do.

                                                                                   Elena Restaurant
                                                                           Photography by Juan Hitters

What are some of the challenges of the industry today?

I find the biggest challenge of the industry today to be the pace. Everything has to be done yesterday and there is less and less time to responsibly conceptualize and design creative solutions. On the one hand, a quick pace is invigorating and it is virtually impossible to get ‘design fatigue.’ But on the other hand, I think that the quick pace is not for everyone. There are a lot of talented designers who do not perform at their best in this environment. We are trying to address that as a team and are constantly striving to find ways to use quick, impactful interactions as a means to extract great ideas from those prone to private, more reflective processes. 

                                                                                   Elena Restaurant
                                                                             Photography by Juan Hitters

What’s a recent project that was most challenging and why?

One of our most recent projects was the four restaurant concepts for the Four Seasons in Buenos Aires. While that is a fabulous city and visiting there was invigorating, the economy is challenging. In order to avoid the eighty percent plus taxation on all imported goods, as well as the unpredictable nature of the customs review, everything for our projects had to be sourced and obtained locally. It was a struggle to find furniture, textiles, carpets, and lighting of the design caliber and durability that we required. Trips to the local flea market and antique stores to find originals that could be remade, along with finding items to be refurbished, was fun but very time consuming. In the end the project exceeded expectations in its appeal to the local community, and I think it was partly because everything was familiar and had a tie to the indigenous design style.  

                                                                                        Hilton Anatole
                                                                              Photography by Jeff Zaruba

What’s one project that you are most proud of and why?

I am really proud of the major renovation that we did to the atrium and F&B outlets at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas. The project is an icon of the seventies and was really out of date. The original directive from the RFP sent was to add multiple F&B outlets to the lobby. We recommended an alternative direction that focused the majority of the investment on the atrium. The resulting design solution is a stunning indoor-outdoor experience that takes its cue from the vast Asian art collection of the Crow family. This space is a signature anchor for huge events, and it put the Anatole ‘back on the bus tour,’ as the client said. It is a great example of how our expertise in strategic planning and design led the team to the right decisions. We were able to steer the client away from solutions that would have been short-lived. The resulting F&B at this hotel, while not front and center as they had originally envisioned, forms the basis of the most financially successful F&B operations in the Hilton company.

                                                                                    Hilton Anatole
                                                                          Photography by Jeff Zaruba

What are some projects you are currently working on?  What’s next for you?

We are working on projects in twenty different countries right now and that is so thrilling. Finding the crossover between what works universally and what works for a particular culture in a certain place is what gets us excited. We are working on an entire hotel interior in Bali, six restaurant venues and conference centers in Brazil for Four Seasons, a small but mighty Italian restaurant in Los Angeles, and a renovation of a restaurant at the JW Marriott in Hong Kong. Another exciting project is the master planning and design of the entire new food service experience at a new campus at the Google headquarters in Mountain View. Those guys really challenge their consultants to think outside the box and we welcome that invitation.  

Personally, I am rising to the occasion of running a larger, more global office. My role is transitioning from resolving things on a project level to inspiring designers to think bigger and get into the concept structure more deeply. I am energized by the notion of developing the emerging leaders at EDG. I also have a larger role in working with our clients on that same level. We are involved in creating some large-scale experiences for major brands and some big-picture master plans, and I love getting involved in that. 

                                                                            Hilton Anatole
                                                                    Photography by Jeff Zaruba

What would be your dream project?

I dream endlessly about the updates that I want to do to my 1962 vintage Eichler home but never have the time to make happen, so that would be my first accomplishment. Aside from that, I think that our recent assignment to do an entire hotel in Bali rates up there with an achieved reality from my earlier daydreaming days.  

What’s the key to a successful collaboration between designer and client?

Great communication, a combination of intuition and expertise, shared respect and acknowledgment—and a lot of chats over a great dinner and some wine.

If you weren’t a designer, what would you be?   

I can’t imagine doing anything else, but it has to involve travel for sure. I might be a hotel general manager or maybe a travel guide.

                                                                               Hilton Anatole
                                                                     Photography by Jeff Zaruba

When you are not in the office we can find you…

At the farmers’ market, or a Little League baseball game, or in my kitchen.

If you could have supper with anyone living or dead, who would it be? Tell us about them.

Julia Child. I think that she did amazing things for the American diet and I would love to hear that voice in person.

Describe that meal and what you're eating and drinking.

I have made her recipe but would love to have her cook the Boeuf Bourguignon, and some awesome French wine to go along with it.

Whom do you admire the most?  Why were they an influencing factor in your career and life?

My dad—an amazing man with incredible leadership skills, who had a great influence on me. I think about him every day.

My mom—an inspiring woman who has reinvented herself many times and keeps surprising us with her ability to create a new path.

Serge and Larry from Google—inspiring commitment to shaking things up and questioning the status quo

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
Nielsen      Contract Design | Hospitality Design | K+BB | DDI

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