The Best Seat in the House

Creating ambience in restaurants through design.

It's Friday night and you are excited.  Weeks of waiting are over and the reservation date at your favorite place has finally arrived.  You flag down a cab early, hoping to get a coveted seat at the bar.  Their bartender seems to have a knack for reinventing classic cocktails, and you just can't wait to try the newest concoction.

On the cab ride over, you and your date are already constructing the evening's dinner plans - of course you've checked online for today's menu.  But there are so many things to taste. How will you ever make room for all of it?  As you open the heavy oak front door and are greeted with all the sights, smells, and sounds, you are sure of one thing:  tonight will be a memorable experience.

How is Ambiance Created?

But what exactly makes up that memorable experience?  Of course there is the amazing food, an impeccable wine list and attentive staff.  Wonderful company doesn't hurt either.  Many restaurants can have all of these things and the experience is only agreeable.  Others have a little something more to remember them by; a setting that allows for the eye to roam or the spirit to ease.  In a word: ambiance.  Ambiance is what takes a great meal and turns it into something grand.

When you arrive at an amazing space, sometimes you realize there is something magical going on before you open the door.  A peek into windows that reflect sparkling lights or a well placed detail.  It can be so many little details: a comfortable chair, the right level of lighting, the perfect symmetry of a well-balanced dining room layout, or even a soft level of sound that allows for both music and conversation.

You might not notice it right away, but it will sink in slowly, the way a great glass of champagne fills you with its effervescence as you reach the last sip.  It gives a feeling of warmth and comfort, like eating dinner at a friend's house - a friend who has great taste and knows how to throw the perfect party.  And when you return to the restaurant a second or third time, you absorb more, notice more details and feel even more comfortable.  That is the ultimate goal for any designer:  to invent a space that allows for new experiences each time a customer comes to visit.

Is there a science to creating ambience, a formula?  Though it does not appear so in its final form, all great design stems from a very clinical approach to problem solving.  It leads to a framework upon which a masterpiece will be developed.  In essence, this careful analysis gives the designer the right opportunities to create in a way that optimizes the visual impact.

Commodity, Firmness and Delight

Vitruvius, ancient Roman scholar and father of all things architectural, summed it up in three brief words:  Commodity, Firmness and Delight.  These few terms are what historically have separated architecture from simpler forms of construction.  Although his terminology may seem odd or out of date, his concepts are simple.  The ultimate synthesis of architecture is to create a building that is structurally stable with the proper spatial proportions and, most importantly, is a feast for the senses.

It is this last feature that rings most true for the everyday consumer's relationship with design.  Any type of design, whether it be graphic, product, architectural, or fashion, has a common thread of both harmony and dynamism.  The rules for each category of design are truly interrelated, based on visual relationships that apply to both the largest, most complex items and also the smallest and simplest.  In fact, the rules are rooted in nature itself, deriving from something as simple as the opening of a rose or the spiral structure of a seashell.

In regards to architecture and interior design specifically, the main tenets can be refined into as minimal of terms as Vitruvius'.  The first issue to tackle is the problem solving of the plan, the second is to resolve the volume of space and create visual interest, and last to shed light in just the right way to make the first two elements pleasing.  It is sort of like putting up a Christmas tree: you place it properly (and straight!) and hang all the lights and ornaments, but it isn't until you plug in the lights that you see the true majesty of things.

Upcoming articles will discuss each tenet of design in further detail, shedding light on the mystery of just what makes good design.  I think Vitruvius would approve.

Andrea Bradley Wade is Director of Interior Design at Michael Guthrie & Company Architects, a San Francisco based firm that specializes in restaurant and winery design.