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Restaurant Designer Karen Hanlon Transforms Spaces With Miami in Mind

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Karen Hanlon
For most diners, selecting a restaurant boils down to food and ambiance.  The menu is created by the chef but the real world of victuals stars may be interior designers, who touch all your senses and keep you in your seat. With Art Basel upon us, it's appropriate to showcase Karen Hanlon, an accomplished woman who has left her mark on the South Florida dining and entertainment scene for more than a decade.

Whether she's working on a corporate chain like Houston's or her recent project in Aventura -- Zuckerello's --, her focus is on the customer's five senses.  She's worked with some of the most innovative restaurateurs in the industry and her career has taken her from Chicago to NYC to South Florida where, 13 years ago, she started her own firm; Karen Hanlon Design Inc. Her insights give us a new appreciation for our surroundings.

New Times: How did you get your start in designing restaurant space?

Hanlon: As a kid I was always drawing and building "models" of the buildings.  When I ran out of Legos, I built models out of cardboard, paper, and whatever else I could find.  Our living room was always full of my construction projects.  I spent my high school and college years working in restaurants and was truly fascinated by them.  I graduated from Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration but spent my first year in the School of Art, Architecture and Planning there.  After transferring to the Hotel School I "designed" my own independent study program in facilities management and design.

Can you take us through the main parts of the design phase?

We always start with the menu as that gives the "flavor" of the space.  The next two most important influences are the space itself and the clientele -- the local market.  You can't design in a vacuum -- take a concept and design out of NYC or Las Vegas and expect that it can work in a place like South Florida.  People have very different expectations in different places.

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photo by Karen Hanlon Design
Zuckerello's in Aventura
Do you usually work independently or do the owners get involved?

Typically the owners do not have much design input.  They are focused on the menu and putting the operational part of the concept together.

What are key considerations when designing restaurant space?

Bringing in the energy.  It is the most critical part of the entire project.  There has to be built-in energy.  That is, first and foremost, a product of the space planning.  We also always try to create a presence on the street- bringing the inside out.  That means the energy is obvious and visible from the moment you drive up.

Which is most important to you in restaurant seating; design or comfort?

Restaurant seating must be comfortable.  I don't believe in the old adage that if the seats are uncomfortable the turnover will be faster and the restaurant will make more money.  That is simply not true.  In general, people do not know why they feel comfortable or uncomfortable or why they just don't want to go back to a restaurant.  It is a very subconscious experience.  But if the chair is uncomfortable it is very obvious.  Personally, I will not return to a place where the chairs are simply uncomfortable.  I will order take-out instead if their food is great.

We've heard that when designing a restaurant you have to take into account all the senses.  Is this correct?

Certainly. Lighting is the single most important element.  How you look and how others look makes all the difference in the world. Of course smell is also incredibly important which is why I always prefer an open kitchen - for the energy factor as well.  Touch is also important- anything you touch should feel like quality - solid, warm.  If a surface can't be cleaned properly, that will produce a negative experience for the guests.  The music sets the tone.  It should probably not have lyrics and should relate in some way to the menu and/or design.

Stay tuned for part two tomorrow, in which Karen describes some of her favorite projects.

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