tom niemer at half & half photo by ashley gieseking

What I Do: Tom Niemeier of Space Architecture & Design

It all started with the ceiling at Franco. Space Architecture & Design owner Tom Niemeier didn’t want to hide the historic wooden joists, but he needed to disguise the exposed pipes and ductwork of his first restaurant design. The Space team came up with an elegant solution: suspended curved wood panels undulating above diners’ heads. 

Since then, Space has designed more than 60 restaurants, including Pastaria, Narwhal’s and Mission Taco Joint, overseeing nearly all elements of architecture, construction and fabrication. Meet the leader of the team behind some of St. Louis’ most recognizable restaurants. 

“If a restaurant can put out excellent food, they can survive being a hole-in-the-wall, bland space. … If their food is bad, no matter what kind of environment they have, they’re probably not going to make it in the long run. If you can possibly put those two things together – excellent food, excellent environment – then you’ve got a real recipe for success.”

“The key is that you don’t want to be too literal. You want to create something that people have to think about a little bit before they realize where that came from, if that makes sense. Obviously, when people go into Narwhal’s and see these ropes hanging down, they’re tying that into ships and netting and things like that. … You’re getting the essence of a nautical theme, but you’re not being too crazy with it.”

“I don’t like what I would call material trying to be something that it isn’t. Not a fan of plastic laminate. Not a fan of faux wood. If you go into our restaurants, you’re typically going to find materials that are being true to themselves. You’re going to see wood; you’re going to see steel; you’re going to see glass; you’re going to see concrete. We’re not trying to fake anything.”

“Even through 2009 and 2010, when it seemed like the entire society was crumbling here in America, restaurant work stayed strong for us through that whole period. These guys have guts. They’re not risk-averse. They have a passion about what they do, and they’re just going to go for it. And yeah, they hear the statistics that 50 percent aren’t going to make it past their first year – they don’t care. They’re confident enough in their ability that they don’t let that stop them. Thank God for them. Thank God for the entrepreneur that’s willing to take that risk and give our city so much more flavor, no pun intended.”

“My wife, Shelley, is really my teammate and soulmate on so many of these restaurant projects because she adds this touch that I honestly don’t have. I’m an architect, and I can design a nice architectural space, but she has a way of softening things and making things warmer and comfortable and inviting. … It truly isn’t about me. I’ve been here and leading the charge, but it’s absolutely about the team that makes this place go.”

“I love woodworking. That’s really my passion. Unfortunately, I have to live vicariously through the guys in the shop that are, for one, much better woodworkers than I am, and they obviously spend a lot of time there. My hope and dream is to one day transition back to the shop, and I’ll be the old Geppetto guy in the back, and hopefully this firm keeps going. I’ll still be around – just creating a lot of sawdust.”

Catherine Klene is managing editor, digital at Sauce Magazine.