By Daniel During
Fifteen years ago, Asian design informed and influenced global restaurant design, starting with a Thai-inspired vibe and moving onto the very clean, minimalistic lines of Japanese design.
Fifteen years ago, Asian design informed and influenced
global restaurant design, starting with a Thai-inspired vibe and moving onto
the very clean, minimalistic lines of Japanese design. This was the age of
mind, body and soul. Spas proliferated and yoga became very popular, along with
candles and incense. We became fixated on the quiet and calm beauty of Asian
A lot of restaurants actually ended up looking like spas and
the hush in the room allowed one to almost hear their own hair grow.
As the world got richer, brasher, louder, more confident and
more global, design followed this trend with graphic prints and themes that
were very brand oriented. Hip hop, bling bling and hedge funds were the buzzwords.
And it wasn’t just restaurants, either... remember the top-to-toe Burberry
Then came environmental and social concerns. There was a
backlash against the ostentatious and a much-welcome movement towards the
authentic. We wanted to feel again; to be cloaked in warmth and security, and
perhaps experience a bit of nostalgia too. Restaurant designers began to source
more natural or even tribal materials. Chefs returned to a less flamboyant food
ethic, to one of comfort food with a modern edge and artisanal ingredients.
But whilst seeking for this new
design ‘trend’ of authenticity, we seem to have contradicted ourselves. After
all, authenticity is not a trend or a design direction – it stems purely from
The actual design process is the soul of any concept. It
involves the research, the joy of creation and collaboration, and the sourcing
of materials to create an end product that is also joyful for the customer to
behold and experience.
If we look at some of the UAE’s latest restaurant concepts –
without naming names – the designers have managed to achieve a warm ambience
with soft lighting and appealing seating areas. The food is always great, and
they have excellent service, but in their search for the authentic, they have
all melded into quasi-sameness.
I call them ‘comfort zones’ in a restaurant package, with
their low yellow lighting and monochromatic tones. They are all very seductive
– but not very striking.
They all have nondescript interiors with very little
architectural personality. Whether inspired by China,
Japan or the USA, they all
offer the same vibe and feel, and these generic spaces could easily be
transformed into hotel lobbies, upscale real estate offices, spa receptions and
boutiques. The fact that they can so easily be replicated is worrisome indeed.
I see this trend worldwide and it causes me to wonder if we
have become complacent about our customers, our industry and our product. Or
are we just fearful of taking a risk in these uncertain times? That would truly
be odd since the best art and innovation tends to stem from difficult times –
times when we seek to reconnect with values.
Remaining with the group of restaurants I mentioned earlier.
They offer similar experiences in terms of service and product, but where they could
make an impact is in the design differential. From the hotel sector, we can see
how design has leveraged profitability – so it is not all about ethic
I believe that a designer is an artist, and it should be
their responsibility to introduce and seduce a society with the new and the
At no time in history have we had such a global explosion of
design innovation – simply witness the exponential expansion of venues like Art
Basel Miami and The Biennale in Venice.
Not to mention the elevation of architects to ‘star-chitect’ status – Gehry,
Koolhaas, Hadid, Foster.
Perhaps the best example I can offer today is of the recent
Shanghai Expo. There were over one hundred country pavilions, and China’s
citizens lined up for blocks and waited for hours and hours to see them.
Exhibits were greeted with gasps of delight. These were ordinary people living
ordinary lives, but in those two or three hours, they experienced the
Most of our customers lead pretty ordinary lives, and we
should want them to be enchanted and delighted. We should aim for ‘little gasps
of excitement’ and want to impart a feeling of warmth in their hearts and
electricity in their brains. In essence, to have all of their senses engaged.
So the question remains, what will be the new trend for
restaurants? Quite simply, I don’t foresee a trend, as such. I think this is
the era of the anti-trend, and I think that is good. The slate has been wiped
clean and we can begin in a more organic place by allowing our projects to be
led by art, design and our own milieu.
In the Middle East,
designers seem to be focused on replicating ideas from the west. We must
challenge that. I cannot believe that the talented designers and artists that
we have here have such limited imaginations that they can only produce
simulations of design concepts from Las Vegas, New York or London.
Are we not good enough to be inspired by our own ideas in
order to create homegrown concepts? After all, here in the UAE, we are known to
take risks, certainly in architecture.
To become a true 21st century leader, we must carry that
design ethic through all that we do. As business leaders, it is our job to
support artists and designers and convince investors to take a risk and let us
leverage that risk into profitability.
I have been approached on many an occasion by a client who
wants a cookie-cutter copy of a restaurant he has seen abroad. I take the time
to explain to the client that while that restaurant can serve as a design
inspiration, I believe we should develop our own product which can compete
anywhere in the world.
As restaurant developers, we may work on a smaller scale but
we should strive for creative expression and the realisation of our ideas.
Budgets come in all sizes, but that should never limit our capacity for
It seems to me that I would rather face a world where the
design trend is one that I dislike strongly, rather than one that elicits very
Daniel During has been based in Dubai since 1997 and is the principal and
managing director of Thomas Klein International. The food and beverage
consultancy has been operating from Dubai since
2001 and covers the entire Gulf region and Middle East.