How to design a restaurant interior that gives more than it takes? David Chenery explains.

I’ve always been intrigued by interior design for restaurants, but Object Space Place does interior architecture – curiouser still! Not only that, but they have developed a restorative design framework to create restaurants that give more than they take. I caught up with founder, David Chenery, to hear all about it.

SD: What exactly is interior architecture? How is it different to interior design?

DC: Well, maybe the best way is to compare with architecture and interior design. When you think of architecture for example, you immediately think of buildings, from the outside. Whereas with interior design, people often think of domestic decorating like cushions and curtains – the elements that create the look of a place, but are only really superficial. With interior architecture, it’s about taking the rigour of architecture, but starting from the inside out and working with existing buildings. It’s about how we reuse buildings and work with existing structures. Some buildings can be refitted 20-30 times in their lifetime. Hospitality in particular will often refit buildings, either because they are taking over the premises of a former restaurant that went out of business or moved elsewhere, or simply because their customers expect them to be showing some effort through constant improvement. There can be a lot of waste in this process. That’s in part what we wanted our restorative design framework to deal with.

Chipotle restaurant interior design
Chipotle restaurant interior architecture

SD: Tell me more about your restorative design framework. How did you come up with it?

DC: It all started with a conversation I was having with Andrew Stephen, CEO of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, in the days when we were still able to meet face-to-face. I was talking about sustainable design and he said that he had been trying to work out what it would take to create a restorative restaurant, one that has a positive impact on the world. That question really stuck with me and as we set about really pushing sustainability to the forefront of what we do, we kept coming back to it. In the end, we boiled down our answer to a single idea –  “a restaurant that can give more than it takes”. Having such a simple, but ambitious goal (we don’t even know if that idea is feasible right now) is really important so that we can communicate it to everyone without getting lost in technical language. 

We were already working with the SKA assessment system, which is great for assessing the sustainability of fitout projects, but if you achieve SKA Gold is that enough? It’s a self-contained standard, which doesn’t refer to impacts outside the scope of the fitout itself. It was then that we discovered the concept of circular economy and it was like a lightbulb went on. We realised that everything has to be circular. We started working on a circular process for our design, where the fitout bears in mind the future de-fitting and uses materials in ways that can be easily disassembled in a way that they can be reused. It’s not complete yet. We had to apply our thinking to a few projects before we could come up with a circular map, but even so it’s still a map zoomed out from ten thousand feet. We need to explore where the gaps are and find partners we can work with on it. We’re currently applying it to a new restaurant project in Cardiff, which will be very exciting.

SD: How do you measure the amount a restaurant gives and takes?

DC: That’s a really interesting question, but it’s almost impossible to answer. Right now I do not think there is a way to measure this. And there is an important distinction to make between measuring sustainability and communicating it to the wider world. The best ways to measure aren’t necessarily the best ways to communicate. From a design perspective, we have to start by looking at what can be measured right now. There are comprehensive qualitative systems like SKA, BREAM and LEAD which are the best holistic ways to assess sustainability and cover things like energy efficiency and materials used, but in terms of communicating the benefit of this to the public, it’s really difficult because consumers don’t know what any of them mean.

Then there are quantitative alternatives like Carbon Footprint that consumers do understand, but it oversimplifies things because they focus only on one metric. Carbon is only one part of the problem. It’s a bit like counting calories – I could eat 1000 calories a day, but if that comes from chocolate and I do no exercise I would not be living a healthy lifestyle. It’s also only really possible for bigger companies who can spend the time number crunching in a spreadsheet and come out with an impressively large number.

For smaller companies the only really cost-effective option is to make the best decisions they can and communicate the narrative: to tell the story behind the recycled paper menu, the chair reclaimed from a local church. This is typically what customers recognise the most, but it’s not as rigorous as the other methods and can be open to greenwashing. So which is right? It really depends on what you are trying to achieve and how rigorous you want to be. We also have an idea in our restorative design framework to measure the lifetime waste of a fitout, but to do that we would need to develop that metric with a sustainability consultant as the methodology for it doesn’t currently exist to my knowledge.

SD:  What kind of difference do interiors make to hospitality businesses? Are you able to demonstrate return on investment?

DC: The only honest answer to that question is “it depends”. It is really difficult to isolate the overall impact of an interior design on the success of a hospitality business, although people have tried to prove that a refit of some kind can increase sales by x%. Personally, I am very cautious about making such claims as in reality, the design work we do will only form part of the customer experience (which ultimately marks out whether a business will succeed or not). On our website, you will find an article called “How to map your customer’s dining experience”. In that you will see that the interior design actually only accounts for 4 out the 19 steps of a customer experience. That doesn’t meant that they aren’t necessarily important, but I have come to realise that it very much depends on the nature of the restaurant. For example, if you run an edgy vegan cafe in Hackney, arguably the quality of your interior is not hugely important. Certainly not as important as your social media profile, location and food quality. These restaurants don’t need to focus on all aspects of a customer experience in order to succeed. However, as you move up to more premium restaurants, these spaces need to be delivering a great experience across all touch points in order to stand out. So as I say, it depends. 

Smaka casual Scandinavian restaurant interior
Smaka casual Scandinavian restaurant interior

SD: Have you always been focused purely on interiors for hospitality? Was there a reason for this?

DC: No, Object Space Place is 9 years old. It all started when I was working as a Design Manager at Westfield. When I left some of my old clients said they had projects they’d like me to do for them, so I set up and started work. My business partner came on board 2 years later and for a while we were just a good interior design company covering hospitality, retail and some residential. Some of those initial relationships came to natural end and it was at that stage that we realised we needed a marketing plan. We looked at the projects we had most enjoyed and it was always hospitality due to the depth of the experience that can be created and complexity of the operational problems to be solved. I’ve always been a foodie so it was a natural fit.

In terms of the sustainability side, we’ve always cared about integrity. We weren’t going to cut corners or not pay people properly, but sustainability always felt pressurised by commerciality. We joined the Sustainable Restaurant Association and hoped we could influence clients to be more sustainable. This was a naive idea we realised because unless clients come to you specifically because they know you are going to do things sustainably, you’re not going to change their mind. So we finally decided to hang our hat on it and say we do sustainable interior architecture. It’s always a bit daunting making a claim like that, because there is always someone out there more militant about sustainability than you are, but we are doing our best and have set out on our journey to make a difference.

Karaway bakery and shop interior
Karaway bakery and shop interior

SD: Do you think COVID will accelerate a shift towards more experience-based hospitality like The Ethicurean and Eddie Shepherd’s Underground Restaurant?How do you think your interiors can support this?

DC: I think Covid will certainly accelerate a number of trends within hospitality and the 4 that I picked out as being most likely to increase are:

Altruism – According to Steven Taylor, author of “The Psychology of Pandemics”, one predictable and positive result of a pandemic is a noticeable up-tick in altruistic behaviour. It is a side effect of the fact we have pulled together to defeat a common foe. It seems most likely that this will add further fuel to two existing movements within hospitality; sustainability and social purpose. Restaurants that don’t actively engage with these issues are likely to be left behind. 

Hybrid businesses – Many restaurant operators have had to pivot their business model in response to Covid-19; they were forced to be creative and entrepreneurial as the risks of not doing so outweighed the risk of doing nothing. To survive and perhaps even thrive, I expect the best operators to keep this entrepreneurial mindset. They will continue to think about how their brand can create multiple streams of revenue, both from a future proofing standpoint and also for increased customer engagement.

Speed of execution – Layers of bureaucracy, approval processes and personal procrastination have been swept aside by brands in order to deal with an imminent threat. They now know they can build a new offer and website for launch in a week, so why take 6 months? Given the continuing challenges for restaurants over the next 12 months, I expect many more brands to match the speed and ingenuity of the likes of Brewdog and Martin Williams (M Restaurants/ Gaucho).

Digital marketing – With physical distancing likely to be in place for the foreseeable future, it has never been more important to invest in your digital relationship with customers. Social media, email communications and your website all need to up their game. So the question is, how do you do something meaningful that cuts through the increased noise? As for the rise of ‘experience’ based hospitality, I think that this has always been the case. Restaurants don’t really sell food, they sell spaces to relax in or have adventures within; places to meet and share stories with friends or make memories with family. Thinking about the experience of a hospitality space is the core job of any designer and the interior lives or dies on whether it succeeds in creating an excellent experience for the customer. Having said that, there also seems to be a growing appetite for the out and out ‘experience’ based hospitality concepts (notably competitive socialising with concepts like Flight Club and Swingers) and I fully expect that these will feel a positive rebound effect as we all flood back to socialising again. Plus, there are an increasing number of large empty units on the high street and in shopping centres (failed department stores etc) and it makes sense for these to be experience led destinations in many cases.

SD: Lastly, I wanted to ask you what’s your company name about? It sounds quite philosophic. Is there a story?

DC: Well, the company answer is that we’re called Object Space Place because we design objects and when you make them big enough they become spaces, and when those spaces are overlayed with experiences they become places. But the real story is that my partner and I were actually drunk in a youth hostel in Berlin many years ago and making fun out of big firms that all seemed to be named with meaningless acronyms, so we pulled the letters OSP out of a scrabble bag and decided that if we ever started a company it would be called OSP. It wasn’t until 8 years later that we actually had to develop a name that would fit with OSP…

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