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Candy Bar in Detroit opened in 2018 with a pink theme.
Christian Harder / Candy Bar

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Pink Restaurants Were Edgy. Now They’re (Mostly) Derivative Instabait.

The making of a color trend

Restaurant design trends come and go: Dark walls, bare bricks, and Edison bulbs give way to white-washed spaces accented with natural wood and succulents. The latest restaurant-interior fad, however, is not a checklist of design hallmarks, but a single color: pink.

Pink is everywhere in dining today: On restaurant walls (see June’s All Day in Austin, Gabrielle in Charleston, Cha Cha Matcha in New York City), in logos and branding (Momofuku Milk Bar’s neon-inspired logo, Tartine Manufactory’s espresso bean bags), and even in the food and drinks themselves (hello, radicchio del Veneto and hibiscus-spiked cocktails). You’ll find pink to-go bags at the fast-casual chain Dig Inn, pink kitchen cabinet doors for your Ikea kitchen from Los Angeles-based Semihandmade, and pink tableware from trendy direct-to-consumer brand Year & Day. The color now seems to be visual shorthand for healthy-leaning, fashion-forward dining destinations.

The pink restaurant trend is, of course, a subtrend of the overall rise of pink — and yes, by “pink” I mean “millennial pink,” but what I prefer to think of as the “new” pink. The new pink spans a broad spectrum, from a dusty, grayish blush to salmon, often with a bit of dirtiness to its tone; while its hue varies, it is universal in what it is not: bubblegum pink, hot pink, fuchsia. The new pink has taken over fashion, packaging design, and residential and commercial interiors. It’s a rare tsunami of a single color dominating across categories. Leatrice Eiseman, a color consultant and executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, attributes this cross-category color trending to our increasingly connected digital age. “In the 20th century, it took seven years for a color to migrate from fashion into the home,” says Eiseman. “Today it’s almost instantaneous.”

2014 was a breakout year for the new pink. Disrupter beauty brand Glossier launched with its signature pink packaging. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel opened in theaters with vivid doses of pink throughout the film, including the namesake hotel’s exterior and the perfectly pink boxes that fill Mendl’s bakery. It was also the year that architect and designer India Mahdavi and artist David Shrigley opened their redesign of the Gallery at Sketch in London.

The Gallery at Sketch is the restaurant that spawned dozens of rosy imitators. Speaking about the design to Lauren Collins in the the New Yorker last year, Mahdavi said, “Today we’re subjected to spending a lot of time dealing with these cold digital interfaces. I think we’re seeking visual comfort.” In an email, Mahdavi further explained this idea of pink as visual comfort: “It reminds me of my childhood growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the mid-’60s — from strawberry milkshake to the color of the typical objects of that period.” Perhaps the Gallery at Sketch’s instantaneous popularity was due not only to its cinematic look, but in part to that feeling of comfort it offered.

The Gallery at Sketch London is the pink dining room that launched a design trend.
Ed Reeve courtesy of India Mahdavi

Following pink’s breakout year, it was a slow and steady rise until our current moment of peak pink. Throughout the 2010s, rosé (and its 2016 Instagram-darling cousin frosé) has also experienced increasing popularity, with seemingly no end in sight: 2017 saw sales up 53 percent in the U.S., according to Nielsen. As rosé gained more and more cultural brain space, so did pink. In 2016, the Pantone Institute named Rose Quartz 13-520 one of two colors of the year (perhaps not coincidentally, Rose Quartz 13-520 is the same Pantone color Mahdavi referenced for Sketch).

Later that same year, writer Veronique Hyland is credited with coining the term “millennial pink” in a piece for the Cut. In Hyland’s 2016 story, she wrote: “But ask yourself: Do I like this because I like this or because I’m buying back my own re-packaged childhood in the form of blush-toned lip gloss and stickers?” If the trend had gone away, I would have been inclined to answer that it was the latter, but the new pink remains popular, suggesting its pull runs deeper than marketers’ influence or personal nostalgia.

In the era of Trump and #MeToo, the new pink’s appeal may also lie in what it is not: the bright, garish pink of Barbie and Victoria’s Secret that the modern feminist has spent her life eschewing. “Today’s pinks are not connected with cutesy baby-doll concepts,” says Eiseman. “There is a bit of power in it.”

By email, Mahdavi echoed this idea of power in her design for the Gallery at Sketch, writing: “Pink is treated in a very radical and masculine way.” That strength and the surprise of pink’s power is what appeals to brands that aim to market their feminist credentials, like the all-women’s co-working space the Wing, which decked out its flagship location in pastel pink and has used the shade in every subsequent location, or menstrual panty company Thinx, which chose a muted pink for its launch advertisements.

Restaurant interiors overall have taken a turn to softer, lighter colors and playful design elements, perhaps as a reaction to the dark, heavy, almost industrial designs that had been the norm. (Just take a look at Eater’s picks for the most beautiful restaurants to open last year: You’ll see botanical-patterned wallpaper, pastel upholstery, and whimsical color galore.) At the beginning of the 21st century, design-forward restaurants were predominantly “masculine” and moody, furnished with reclaimed lumber, featuring exposed brick, and lit by bare bulbs. Will Cooper, chief creative officer at ASH NYC, says his team notices this contrast every time the firm’s recently opened Candy Bar, a pastel-pink jewel box of a bar at the Siren Hotel in Detroit, appears in roundups of the best bars. “We’re always the pastel pink outlier,” he laughs, noting that his team settled on pink after imagining the glamorous people who might have visited the hotel at its opening in 1926, looking to Los Angeles’s Perino’s, an old Hollywood hot spot, for inspiration.

The buzzy direct-to-consumer brand Year & Day sells pink plates.
David William Baum / Year & Day

This visual transformation reflects a transformation of the way we eat today: trendy restaurants have moved away from the bacon-fueled richness that characterized early-aughts dining, opting instead for breezier, vegetable-centric fare that can comprise an all-day menu. Plus, the pink decor trend has roots in this new wellness-adjacent way of eating. Dimes, the influential hipster-health-food restaurant on New York’s Lower East Side, opened in 2014 with one pink-topped table that became so desirable as an Instagram backdrop that the restaurant had to do away with the table altogether. Bread & Circus in Sydney, Australia, opened in 2011, is one of the progenitors of the all-day-cafe concept. Outfitted with pink tile, cabinets, and dishes (the same ones you’ll find at its sister restaurant, the all-pink Carthage Must Be Destroyed in Bushwick, Brooklyn), it may also be the first to pair pink decor and healthy cuisine. In turn, decorating your restaurant in rosy hues may create a health halo for your brand.

The famous table at Dimes might be the biggest clue to why so many designers have been, ahem, “inspired” by Mahdavi’s design: Pink gets an awful lot of likes (according to the New Yorker profile of Mahdavi, Sketch is reportedly the most Instagrammed restaurant in London). Perhaps restaurateurs see diners flocking to restaurants like Sketch and think pink will lure in customers. Some are unsubtle in their Instagram baiting, such as Pietro, a very pink Italian restaurant that opened in Manhattan in 2016 that has emblazoned its motto, “Pink as fuck,” on menus, takeaway cups, and T-shirts you can buy as souvenirs. (Pietro’s designer, Jeanette Dalrot, told the New York Times that the Memphis Group, another decor trend du jour, was her inspiration for Pietro). In going long on pink, restaurateurs are also appealing to Instagram’s core demographic: 68 percent of the platform’s users are women.

So, what are designers trying to convey when they create yet another all-pink restaurant? Speaking to the New Yorker’s Collins, Mahdavi said of her imitators, “They’ll remember the color match, the pattern match. But they apply it so that it just creates an image without the meaning behind it.” It’s hard to disagree: I doubt these designers are conjuring the strawberry milkshakes and visual comfort Mahdavi imagined when she spent a month seeking out the perfect pink paint for the Gallery at Sketch. Nor do I think they are subtly trying to signal fourth-wave feminist sentiment (though they are likely conscious of trying to appeal to women). They may simply hope to become a certain type of healthy-ish, of-the-moment spot that iPhone wielding customers will be likely to snap and share.

But perhaps it also goes back to the age-old wisdom that pink is a flattering hue: Soft pinks have long been popular for dining rooms. Edith Wharton chose a pale, peachy pink for the dining room at the Mount. La Grenouille famously purchased 50,000 pink-toned lightbulbs when they were being discontinued in the 1970s, so the dining room could always be cast in a rosy glow. Cooper was quick to note that Candy Bar is painted in “a flattering color” and that it’s a “nice color to be in,” while Year & Day’s Kathryn Duryea said, “I’ve never seen a dish that didn’t look stunning against pink.” When asked about pink dining rooms, Mahdavi wrote, “Pink gives you the most wonderful complexion — a two-day tan.” Maybe we actually do feel a little healthier in a pink room?

As for what’s next, Cooper points out that Candy Bar, Sketch, and other all-pink restaurants fall into a separate tradition of monochromatic rooms, citing the influence of British interior decorators David Hicks and Syrie Maugham, both known for their bold, single-color rooms. (Hicks is famous for his fearless use of color in the 1970s, including rooms that were sometimes decked out with matching carpets, upholstery, and wall coverings; Maugham is credited with popularizing the then-cutting-edge idea of an all-white room in the 1920s and ’30s.)

All-black Aska in Williamsburg, the sunny 24/7 at the Standard in Downtown Los Angeles, and the Coral Room in London’s Bloomsbury Hotel also fall into this tradition. Cooper says his firm, ASH NYC, is about to open a new dining space on the second floor of the Siren Hotel: It’s also a single-hue concept, but this time, and right on cue, the color is green.

So yes, it seems the pink-on-pink trend will lead to other monochromatic designs. It’s easy to imagine the pop-up Color Factory “museum’s” rooms reincarnated as Instagrammable restaurants in cities across the country: An all-lavender cafe here and a floor-to-ceiling blue bar there. The trick for restaurant designers will be to create rooms that are meaningful enough to be more than mere photo backdrops, snapped for Instagram and promptly forgotten. The best restaurant designs enhance the experience and tell a story. And for now, the story is pink — the health, the power, and the style it still implies.

Laura Fenton is a writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Better Homes & Gardens, Curbed, New York magazine, and Parents, where she is the lifestyle director.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan


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