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Chris Sheffield on Lighting and Dining as Theater

American Fish, Las Vegas.
American Fish, Las Vegas.

Welcome to Dining & Designing, a column in which Eater National joins with the forces of Curbed National to profile and explore the design of restaurants. Your fearless leader through this untamed wilderness will be Julie Earle-Levine, an Australian, NYC-based writer who has contributed to The Financial Times of London, New York Magazine, and the New York Times, among others. She has both a passion for real estate and a passion for eating.

Philadelphia-based Chris Sheffield, who started SL Design in 2005, masterminded the interiors of Bills Bar & Burger in Manhattan, the 400-seat largest standalone burger joint in the country, Amalia at the Dream Hotel (also in NYC), and the award-winning Postcard Inn (St. Pete Beach, FL). He’s currently working on revamping Stone Rose in NYC's Time Warner Building, a new restaurant for Stephen Starr at the New York Historical Society, a swank private swim club and restaurant in Philadelphia, plus a cool new wine bar concept for the world’s youngest female master sommelier. He spoke to us about themed restaurants, the thrill of working for Starr and Steve Hanson, and his desire to create an urban hotel in Philadelphia. Or Paris. Either works.

What was it like creating themed restaurants/hotels for clients like Disney, SeaWorld, and Caesers Palace?
I think there is some theme in what everybody does—some narrative that helps tell a story. Not everyone wants to use the word "theme." The themes for Disney were having to be literal—you are speaking to a child. Sometimes there is also the opportunity to introduce humor for adults.
Do you do themed now if it’s required?
Now we are designing for a more sophisticated audience, so it doesn’t have to be as literal. We can be more subtle. We still try to insert some humor so we keep in touch with our inner child. Our work at Bills Bar & Burger in Rockefeller Center tries to take some elements of a traditional bar and a burger joint, and find a way to do it on a larger scale. For us, it was trying to find the essential elements of what made those spaces work. It has 18-foot-high ceilings, so we had to find a way to create intimacy that might exist in a hole-in-the-wall burger joint downtown. We tried to insert history without saying "totally deco." There is a lot of Oak Millwork and paneling throughout the space, stone and tile cladding on the walls, and interesting decorative lighting inspired by industrial light fixtures, but it is not literal. There are big, huge-scale barrel fans we had to invent. It’s a little polished without being completely cleaned up.

What are you changing at the Stone Rose Bar and Lounge at the Time-Warner Center [in NYC]?
We’re doing a complete renovation—all furniture, fabric, and decorative light sculpture. Their greatest asset is views of Central Park. It’s also the enemy in some respects, because light comes into space. We design with light in mind and are fortunate to work with great lighting designers to implement concepts. How you render the food, how people are rendered in the space—we factor it in. Sometimes people confuse good lighting with a lighting effect. You can feature elements in a space dependent on the lighting, but getting the lighting overall right is critical. That is something Hanson and Stephen Starr understand so well. Dining is theater—how you present the product, and how it looks kitchen to table. If spaces attract a glamorous clientele you want to make sure they look good.

And if they are not glamorous? Even more so?
It’s equally important, regardless of the space or the concept. Everyone wants to look his best and feel good, whether it is a high-end lounge or a neighborhood coffee shop.

You are also opening a new food/wine studio concept [in NYC] that opens later this year.
It’s going to be 13th Street, close to Union Square, for Laura Maniec, the former beverage director for B.R. Guest restaurants. She’s the world’s youngest female master sommelier. It will be a multi-function space, with a mixed bar focused on wine, but with a full liquor license and small-plate food service in the bar area, plus an event space. We are working right now on how we can divide the overall space up in a way that allows you to have flexibility for variety of functions.

What’s it like designing in your home city?
We’ve been in Philly for six years, but up until six months ago I’d never done a project in Philly. We did a small local coffee shop called One Shot. It was a really fun project and now we’re doing Arrow Swim and a [Chef Michael] Schulson project in the suburbs. Schulson is best known for opening Buddakan for Stephen Starr, Izakaya, in Atlantic City’s Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa, and Sampan in Philadelphia. This will be a huge departure for him. It’s his take on American comfort food. There is a real need in the Philly suburbs for restaurants that encourage people to do brunch through dinner, not just as a destination for dinner. The challenge is making space accessible in the day and making it more romantic and sexy at night.

Arrow Swim Club [in Philly] and the adjoining public restaurant Chenango opens this summer. What was your inspiration here?
It’s a 35,000-square-foot facility with a private members-only swim club, a small day spa, locker rooms, and about 14,000 square feet of pool deck and mezzanine, and a full-service restaurant space that will be open to the public. There will also be a 3,500-square-foot garden lounge adjacent to the restaurant. It is really like building a hotel without the rooms. It’s hard to find a precedent for it. It’s not a rooftop pool—not Las Vegas style or a four-star resort. There are lots of firsts for us, like the spa and huge outdoor space with 12 VIP cabana tents. The challenge for us and the project is trying to find a way to embrace the fact that, opposed to Miami or Las Vegas, this is in a very urban context. There is a grittiness about it that we wanted to preserve, and still have a level of luxury that belies the location.

What else are you working on?
We're working with Philadelphia chef Michael Schulson on a new concept. And, perhaps a series of pop-up events that they will be designing and curating with some of Philadelphia's best-known chefs beginning in late summer.

Head over to Curbed National for the rest of the interview. >>>

· SL Design [Official Site]
· All Dining & Designing on Eater [-E-]
· All Restaurant Design Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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