Eat With Your Eyes - Art, design and lighting all contribute to the dining experience

You know how going to a favorite restaurant just feels right, like the planets are in alignment when you eat there? Chances are it’s the result of more than great food. Be it kitschy or classic, the right art can help create those elusive qualities of individuality and ambiance that make a great dining experience.

“Art can really add to the creation of the mood; it can really become a focal point in a restaurant,” said Kiku Obata, president of local design firm Kiku Obata & Company. Her company has worked on the design of most of the projects that are part of the expansion of The Loop east of Skinker Boulevard, including The Pageant, Miss Saigon, Mirasol and Big Shark Bicycle Company.
“I think everyone tends to look [at artwork] when they walk in a place; it’s like they have a little secret reviewer in the back of their head, looking at what’s on the walls, what’s on the floors or what the menu looks like,” said Al Jung, co-owner of Locus Gallery, which recently relocated above Restaurant Space and has placed artwork there.

But successfully hanging art is about more than putting a nail in a wall. Many design elements have to come together for a piece of art to be successful in a restaurant. One of the most basic, and most overlooked, is lighting. “Lighting is so much a part of what makes you feel good in a space,” said John Rice, co-owner of Restaurant Space. “You can have the best looking space and have the wrong lighting, and it just doesn’t feel good.”

“Lighting is really an important accent. It adds texture and color and glow,” said Obata. “There’s not a lot of knowledge about what lighting can do. Most people take it for granted –
it’s either on or off.”

Color is also vital. “We use a lot of color; it’s very expressive,” said Obata. “It’s of huge importance – we look at
every surface.”
And once the basic elements are in place, they have to be integrated. “The most important thing is that everything has to work together,” said Obata. “There are so many restaurants where you go in and there’s a really cool painting or a cool chair or light fixture, and that’s it – you don’t get a whole experience that’s been really thought through. If one [element] is totally overpowering, it becomes only about that ? it’s not about enjoying the food or who you’re with. I think a lot of people pull together things they think are cool but don’t think about how they’ll work together.”

One of Obata’s recent projects in The Loop really challenged her to work with balancing multiple elements:
Pin-Up Bowl.
Owner Joe Edwards said, “I really thought for a couple of years about opening a martini bar that happened to have eight lanes of bowling, and I’ve always wanted to do an Art Deco design with a pinup theme.” Obata had to combine Edwards’ desire for modern, diverse takes on vintage pinup themes, such as creating black and Latino pinup images. She also had to deal with design challenges like incorporating bowling lanes into a martini lounge, as well as working in some of Edward’s trademark collections.

Despite challenges like these, Obata said designing a restaurant isn’t much different than designing any other retail space. “You just want to create the right mood and environment for whatever audience you’re trying to get in there. In a way, the food is like the product in a retail store, so you’re just creating the exact right setting for it, the right atmosphere. Everything has to align so there’s
no disconnect.”

Locus Gallery works with many corporate clients such as law firms and hospitals on their interiors, and Jung said the process is much the same for restaurants. “We look at what they do and what they want to present. What I’m trying to do is complement what the owner is trying to do,” said Jung, who has also placed art over the years at local restaurants Redel’s (now closed) and Anthony’s.

Also of importance in designing and choosing art for a restaurant is understanding the owners’ vision and who they’re trying to connect with. “I think you have to determine what your market is first,” said Obata. “It’s really matching the mood to the food. You never want to make people feel that they don’t want to come in, but you want the right customer to feel comfortable in whatever you design.”

Davide Weaver, co-founder of ArtDimensions, a local arts organization dedicated to promoting area artists, said some restaurants definitely look to attract a particular clientele through the art they show. “They don’t want to let that clientele down once they’ve already captured that audience,” he said. Weaver, who comes from a restaurant background, knows the importance of art in a restaurant. “Art is integral to bringing people back in [to a restaurant],” he said.

After a restaurateur decides to get serious about hanging some art and has the place in shape to receive it, he or she needs to find artwork that works. Going to a design firm or a gallery are options. Some restaurant owners know just what they want, and they have the talent to make it happen themselves. For example, Rice created the menu for Restaurant Space as well as much of the artwork that occupies and adorns the restaurant. “Food is a passion for me, as well as art and building things – it’s all the same to me,” he said. “I’ve never considered myself an artist. I just love to make stuff.”

Rice started welding in college, and Restaurant Space is filled with his metal work, from the brightly colored city skyline that surrounds the outside patio dining area, to the bar and shelving, to the metal signs on the exterior of the building. Rice has a special knack for building lights, such as the skyscraper sconces that are tucked into the corners of Restaurant Space and the pyramid-shaped rice paper light fixtures in the dining areas, as well as the striking fixtures made out of old circuit boards that line the entrance way. Several of his free-standing lamps dot the interior as well.

Rice did most of the designing of Restaurant Space, from the colors to the layout. He also did the drywall work and painting, and his metal-working abilities have come in handy for maintaining the restaurant’s appliances and fixtures.

Others enlist individual artists to help realize their vision. When he wanted a unique look to complement his restaurant’s eclectic pan-American cuisine, Bill Sorby, chef and co-owner of Maya Café, enlisted the help of his friend, artist Bill Christman, known for, among other projects, designing Beatnik Bob’s at the City Museum.

“He had some pieces available, and it was a benefit for us and for him,” Sorby said. In addition to the eight or so individual pieces on display in the restaurant, Christman also helped Sorby design the space, including the striking saffron and red walls in the main dining area, which give it the feel of a Spanish mission.

Some owners opt to start a serious art collection.

When Bill Cardwell began a remodel of his restaurant, Cardwell’s at the Plaza, a couple of years ago, he decided to focus on hanging serious artwork, instead of the more “decorative” pieces that had been there before. He discovered a couple of artists he liked, such as Bruno Vekemans and St. Louis-born Thomas Joseph and, with the help of Rich Winter and Michael Zolman of the Caitlyn Gallery, began to acquire some pieces. The end result is a top-notch collection that expresses the individuality of the owner, the space and the eclectic menu as well as having a market value.
“The art was picked to fit the space, no question, but it’s art that I particularly happen to like, and I think at some point it’s also an investment and will have some value,” Cardwell said. “Art can be as much of a financial investment as collecting wine or buying stocks.” Although he won’t give a specific value on the current collection, it is “substantial.”

But art doesn’t always have to have monetary value, as long as it reflects the owners’ tastes and personal aesthetic. Though some of his memorabilia collections have appreciated over the years, Edwards doesn’t look at them from an investment point of view. “I’ve always picked things that I found appealing – either the artwork or the character or the coloring struck me, or just the positive memory that something might evoke. To me it doesn’t matter if it cost 2 cents or $20 ? it matters more just what it is.”

He cited the display case at Pin-Up Bowl as an example. “There was a packing box with some bowling graphics on it, and they were really great. I actually cut them out and put it up in the display case and that cost nothing, and yet I think it’s just as evocative as some of the other artistic
pieces there.”

If an owner decides to forgo a permanent collection, switching artwork out periodically is a possibility. Owners can work with individual artists they admire or with a local group like ArtDimensions, which has an art rotation program that puts artists’ work in approximately 38 area restaurants, clubs, offices and other spaces.

“It’s very smart, in my opinion, for a small business owner to change out their art every couple of months,” Weaver said. “It gives their place a whole new ambiance; it keeps it fresh and exciting.”
In addition, it gives restaurant owners a chance to partner with local artists and support the local art community. Jung said it’s also a good way for gallery owners to expose new artists and get feedback on their work without mounting a gallery show.

“I always get connections and commissions from showing in restaurants or coffee shops,” said local artist Julie Malone. “They either get my Web site or phone number.” Malone’s paintings have been shown at Rue 13, Ferrago’s and, most recently, Rhythm & Brews Coffeehouse. “It’s definitely good marketing,” she said, and it also allows her to help promote certain areas of the city she feels strongly about, such as the Washington Avenue area.

“Overall [showing in restaurants] has been a very positive experience. I’ve had several sales from the different restaurants,” said Stephanie Zettl, whose photographs have been shown through the ArtDimensions art rotation program at various local establishments, including Monarch, Velvet, Delmar Restaurant and Lounge, Salvato’s Café and Route 66 Brewery. “For me, it is not something that I pursue to make money at but rather to get my work out into the public eye. To me it is very satisfying to hear someone say ‘Oh, I saw your work over at so-and-so’s last night ... .’”

Zettl said she thinks showing in a restaurant is much better than having her work in an office building. “You have much more traffic and a greater likelihood of sales [in a restaurant],” she said. “I think everyone would like to have a gallery show, but there is nothing negative about a coffeehouse or restaurant if done tastefully. If people see my work and are impacted by it, take an interest in it, then it doesn’t matter where they saw it.”