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How I Got My Job: Becoming a Top Restaurant Designer in Chicago

Karen Herold left the fashion world to create some of Chicago’s most memorable restaurants

Karen Herold is a white woman with curly blonde hair. She’s wearing a white shirt and smiling into the camera in this black and white cutout image that’s placed on an orange background.

In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Karen Herold.

In 2010, Chicago’s Girl & the Goat was one of the country’s buzziest new restaurants. Reviews raved about the creative and impeccably executed dishes from chef Stephanie Izard, fresh off her Top Chef victory. Even more so, critics took note of how the restaurant looked — particularly its distinctive burned wood paneling. In his review, Chicago Tribune Phil Vettel wrote that Izard’s explanation for the design — “rustic with a bit of badass” — was also an apt descriptor for her food.

That was no coincidence. Karen Herold, a designer who at the time worked for Chicago-based firm 555 International, created the look for Girl & the Goat in accordance with her philosophy that a dining room should feel like an extension of the chef and her cooking style.

Herold’s vision clearly connected with diners, chefs, and restaurant owners. Now as the principal of her own firm, Studio K, Herold is known as one of the country’s foremost restaurant designers, creating some of Chicago’s most stylish dining rooms such as Monteverde and Maple & Ash. In the following interview, this Dutch native who started out studying fashion design in Amsterdam discusses the unexpected turns her career has taken. She also offers advice for aspiring designers on how to deal with setbacks and the importance of understanding how a restaurant operates before you get to designing it.

Eater: What does your job involve?

Karen Herold: I design interiors. I try to create a three-dimensional version of chefs — an environment that is the exact reflection of the chef and their menu.

What did you originally want to do when you started your career?

I was a fashion designer.

Did you go to college? If so, would you recommend it?

Yes. First, I studied marketing and communications. then I [studied] fashion in Amsterdam. During that time, I worked as a fashion designer and realized it was not what I wanted to do. Fashion is actually a two-dimensional type of design because you work in flat patterns; I really wanted the 3D part of it.

So, [my school] allowed me to specialize in material development. I had a mentor who did that for and with me. So I graduated with hundreds of fabrics and materials. I had to find a way to show those materials and the crazy [way] that I did that was with interiors for restaurants. I designed four spaces based on the four seasons and separated all these fabrics [according to] those seasons, creating aprons, tables, tablecloths, entire renderings of restaurants, wallpapers — everything that I could [do to] show all the textiles and materials I had developed. So the fact that I ended up [designing restaurant interiors] later is just very crazy, because it wasn’t planned.

Why did you gravitate toward restaurants?

I have no idea. I was 22. It seemed like a good idea. And the thing is, when I first came to America, I started working at my first firm as a materials librarian, meeting with field reps for carpets and fabrics, and filing those, and organizing them. That was a company that worked in laboratories and [did] very boring stuff. Through that, I got connected with the company I ended up working with for 13 years — a company that specialized in retail design. So I started with retail, and then somehow somebody knew someone [who] was going to do a job in Vegas. I ended up designing that and it turned into the Playboy Club at the Palms Hotel. A lot of work came out of that.

So it was a complete coincidence that I got into interior design, first of all, but especially into the restaurant world. And it was many, many years later that my mom was cleaning the house and wanted all the stuff I’d created out of there, because my parents were moving, and she was like, “Do you remember that you started in restaurants?” So she’s the one who made that link. It just kind of happened.

Looking back, would you have done anything differently at school?

No. I tell my son the most important thing in college is just to become older and smarter. What you’re studying, I think is a side effect. It’s just about evolving.

What are the biggest challenges when it comes to designing a restaurant?

The biggest challenge is to end up with something that the chef and owners are happy with and, at the same time, [find something that’s] current or valid from a design perspective.

So on the one hand, I tell the chef, “I want it to look like, when you walk in, that it’s exactly how you would have done it, if you happened to be as good at designing as you are at cooking.” I really want it to be an extension of who they are. But at the same time, I don’t want it to become so normal or traditional or whatever it is that I don’t think it is valid from a design perspective. I just don’t think it’s a good idea, because it doesn’t add anything to the world. But if that’s what they want, it’s hard for me to completely go against it. So the biggest challenge is if chefs or owners start thinking they’re designers.

When did you decide to focus on restaurant design, specifically?

It’s kind of a cause-and-effect. When I started [working] in the hospitality world in Vegas, it was mostly nightclubs and some restaurants. And then I think the real focus shifted when I did Girl and the Goat. Afterward, there were just so many requests for restaurants, so I ended up becoming known for doing restaurants. I did a lot of other things, but people knew me because of Girl and the Goat.

What was it about Girl and the Goat that changed things?

Stephanie Izard had already built a really great following and, with Rob [Katz] and Kevin [Boehm]’s expertise on the operational side, there was just kind of a match made in heaven. So that restaurant just became so popular and, with that, the design.

What was your inspiration for that design and what is your process like?

Well, one of the really important parts was the burned wood, which is a direct result of [Izard’s] cooking style. That was when people just started to do wood-fired ovens in open kitchens. It’s very normal now, but it wasn’t 10 years ago. So the burned wood wall was to make things look the way the space smells.

The rest was all so simple. I found these fireplaces, [which became] the back wall for the back bar. It was very organic. It wasn’t really themed by anything. I was just trying to understand who Stephanie is and what things she likes. She’s very not over-the-top, doesn’t want anything too shiny. Maybe all a little bit humble. And I think [that’s what] that restaurant is. We built that for very little money. I think it was mostly just to support her food and who she is, and it’s very layered. You know how her food is so layered and so rustic? The restaurant is like that, too, just really warm and layered. There are no focal walls or anything over-the-top.

What are the most important skills to succeed as a restaurant designer?

I think you need to listen to what [clients are] saying, but also what they’re not saying because a lot of them don’t really say what they want. You need to kind of listen between the lines. Empathy is a really important skill to have. And I think you need to really want to do your homework and understand the operational side of the business, because if you don’t understand how they actually operate a restaurant, it just becomes very difficult and most likely you won’t get a repeat customer out of it.

So I think it’s a separation: one side is the very pragmatic architectural side of just making it work within the time and money that’s allowed, and, on the other side, separating that completely from the artistry of it and still shooting for the dream. Because if either one of those lacks, it just won’t work in the end.

Karen Herold points at a design with an orange pen.
Karen Herold in her office at Studio K.
Stoffer Photography/Courtesy photo

Did you have any setbacks in your career?

Oh, every day. So many. Growing from one or two projects going on at the same time to 50 projects at the same time means that a lot of the focus is spread out. It means that a lot of things need to be [delegated] to other people; you can’t do it all by yourself anymore.

We’ve had many setbacks where a project opened and closed within a year for various reasons, which is always so painful, because they all become so personal. We had a project burn, which is horrific.

The one thing that’s sure is that there will be problems. It’s just a matter of how you deal with those that becomes the differentiator between success and failure. That’s just one of those things you’ve got to embrace and see what there is to learn from it. And hopefully next time there’s not the same setback, but a new one.

Do you have, or did you ever have, a mentor in your field?

Yeah. My mentor in fashion school is a very strong mentor for me who always pushed me to not be content and to look farther. And now, many times, my clients become my mentors, because they just teach me so much of whatever their industry is, whether it’s the restaurant industry or the other projects that we’re doing. And some of them become business partners, too.

Having mentors in the field of business is as important as having mentors in the field of design. My old boss, James, who [worked with me]at 555 International, was, and still is, an important mentor to me. I call him at least once a month with a question or complaint.

For young people coming up in the field, why do you think it makes a difference for them to seek out a mentor?

I think the biggest thing is you have to find someone who has the time and interest and effort to be honest with you and not just tell you, “Yes.” It’s like how you have a personal trainer and when normally you might quit at a certain point, the trainer makes you go 10 more times. I think a mentor can help you go farther when other people might not take the interest or the time investing in you. I think that’s the most important thing: people to help you push your own limits.

What’s the best part of your job?

Design. Which seems such a small part of my job. I really like when I can actually physically work with my designers, sketching and talking and things are being born. At that first real kickoff session with clients, I always say, “I need three hours of your time and after that I know what I need to do.” Those three hours, especially when clients are able to be really open and transparent and vulnerable, that’s always a really great, intimate time. Which, in the end, that’s why I do it: to make it so that they’re happy with it. So, that initial getting-to-know-each-other is always really exciting.

What would surprise people or something you didn’t know going into your job? Why?

It is still surprising that after 20 years, I feel I only understand about 20 percent of my business. The longer I do it, the more I’m aware of all the stuff I don’t know in and around acoustics and lighting and air conditioning systems.

When you first start in design, you’re in kind of a silo, and you think it’s a lot about picking colors and tiles and fabrics. And then the longer you’re in it, you understand that you’re just one little micro-element in this whole circus. It’s the landlords and the general contractors — so many people have such an important role, and the sooner you understand that, you’re better off learning your role and making friends with all those people...

That’s something I wish a mentor had told me earlier. In the first five or 10 years of my career, I was just fighting with general contractors and putting way too much effort on a specific tile because I wanted it. And, over time, you just learn it’s a really big cast of a play and everyone does their little part in it. And if people are doing it together then that’s the best way to create.

What’s one of the coolest things you’ve gotten to do through your work?

I do so many cool things. The best experience is working with people who really know what they’re doing and let me do what I do. And that’s pretty much always [the case] working with Rob and Kevin. That’s my favorite moment: when I can work for them.

The coolest thing I’ve done… Well, being in a room with [Robert] De Niro for the Nobu hotel, that’s cool. Overall, I’m lucky that I get to work with a lot of people who are on top of their game. That’s really inspiring, because it’s a tangible energy when you’re in a room with people who are really good at what they do. And that’s just always attractive.

How are you making change in your industry?

I’m hoping that I make a change in keeping people focused on the experience that a space should offer and not focused so much on how things are photographed. Everything comes in trends, but I hope that the places we create have a little more longevity, because the focus is on the emotional well-being of the person in that place and therefore has a longer time than the quick, Instagrammable moments.

What would you have done differently in your career?

I wish I would have also studied industrial design. But at some point I’m going to take a sabbatical and do that.

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever received?

Proof is in the pudding. James, my old boss, always said that to me when I was worried about what other people were doing or thinking about certain things. He always said that proof was in the pudding. It really made my approach. I just do what I do. Keep your nose down and do what you’re supposed to be doing, and don’t spend too much time on what other people are doing or how they’re doing it or what people might be thinking about what you’re doing. Steering your own path is the most important thing, I believe.

What advice would you give someone who wants your job?

I would give advice that is probably for every career: Pay your dues, do your due diligence, and just have a little patience, so you can actually learn the groundwork. A lot of people want celebrity status in a year, but they also want a life-work balance pretty much in the same year. I have a really great work-life balance. My life is filled with work and that’s a good balance for me. Everyone has different balances, you know?

Is there anything else you think would be important for young people coming up in the industry to know?

Whether you design a restaurant or a hospital or a retail store or someone’s home, there really isn’t that much difference. All of it means you need to understand how the space is being used. You need to understand how your client is going to benefit from it — whether it’s personal or financial — and then, over time, you need to learn the operational and technical side of that business.

To only focus on restaurant design, I don’t think that’s really good advice. In my company, people who do restaurant design also work on our multi-family housing project, because I believe those separations and that vertical way of thinking about the job really doesn’t fit how people live and act with each other anymore. Our hotels are the spaces where we also work and eat. All those things are just blending together.

It’s not so much [about] skills, but interest. You need to be interested in the person who is hiring you — what motivates them. Obviously, for restaurants that’s a very specific thing, but I think after this life is done I want to start doing set designs, for example. I think if I would have been a set designer, that would have made me a great restaurant designer, because, in the end, we all tell a story.

Amy McKeever is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.
Photo of Karen Herold by Eric Kleinberg.
Illustrations from the Noun Project: camera by Dhika Hernandita; covered dish by Made by Made; wine by Made by Made; lightbulb by Maxim Kulikov; hand writing by Pongsakorn.