Last month, as part of Irish Design Week, we hosted a panel on Designing for Dining. In the beautiful bar, bistro and bureau Note, we discussed how design can supplement, complement, and elevate a dining experience, and how we can use it to create positive dining spaces.
We welcomed Ahmad ‘Acky’ Fakhry, creative director of Note and AB Projects, Cúán Greene, chef, founder of Ómós Digest, and Totally Dublin contributor, and Aoife Mulvenna, art director and interior architect for Crown Creative in Belfast. The talk was co-hosted by Michael McDermott, editor of Totally Dublin, and Kerry Mahony, Totally Dublin’s design columnist.
“In every kitchen, the lighting had to be of equal quality in the kitchen than it was in the dining room. There was mutual respect there.”
Below is an edited transcript of a wide-ranging, hour-long discussion about all aspects of designing for dining, encompassing personal anecdotes, best practice advice, and more.
First, Ahmad reflected on the founding Note, their ambitions for the space, and the process of designing a new dining space for Dublin.
AF: Myself, Andy Collins, who runs Indigo & Cloth, and my brother Essa had an idea to do a restaurant, wine bar, something like that. It was COVID and we wanted to create something we wanted to see in the city. It was borne out of conversations where we tried to figure out how we could do it. Through that we started to put structure on it and what it could be. We all had different areas of expertise; my brother is a chef, and he was brilliant.
We got lucky enough to find this space which used to be an off-licence and a Mizzoni’s. It was a bit of a mess. We got to take over and design the whole space from scratch, which was good because I was able to do it through my own company and use our connections with builders. Originally we looked at spaces a lot smaller than this, but then this came up and we just thought we’d go for it.
It took a little over a year, maybe longer, and we moved the build at a fast pace because we could design it during the lease negotiations. The floor was originally dusty concrete but we had our guy come in and do a test and it revealed this floor which saved us a huge amount of money! We opened October 30 last year and had our first birthday two weeks ago.
Aoife gave a run-down of her career as an architect and designer and how she took up her role as an art director in Crown Creative.
AM: My background is in architecture, mainly residential and community architecture, and as I started studying I fell in love with hospitality design. I loved the pace, the characters you meet along the way and the variation of the briefs. I found what I loved in doing that. And then COVID hit, which was a bit of a nightmare, and I moved into a joinery manufacturer. This was invaluable, particularly when I was on-site and dealing with tradesmen.
From that I ended up completely shifting and joined Crown Creative, who are a hospitality agency. I joined them as an art director-slash-interior designer. It’s been amazing, because I’ve learned throughout my career that you can do all this beautiful work only for someone to slap a hideous logo over it, which is heartbreaking! [In Crown Creative] we have full control over the brand strategy and visual identity which has been phenomenal.
Then, Cúán gave an insight to his background and his thoughts on how design intersects with chefing.
CG: I’m a chef by trade. When I think about that, sometimes it feels a little conflicting, as I have so many other interests as opposed to cooking and cheffing. My parents are two wonderful artists and I’ve grown up with an interest and understanding about the importance of design my whole life. In hospitality you get a little bit of everything. You get to interact with people. You get the involvement of the food. There’s a community aspect to it. But there’s also the whole involvement of design that you get to feel every day. It’s something I absolutely love.
MMD: Design comes into not only front of house, but also the kitchen and how it’s designed. Now, kitchens can sometimes be glass-panelled and facing the clientele, but if a kitchen is badly designed it can be a disaster. What are your thoughts on that?
CG: I’ve worked in some really badly designed kitchens growing up in Ireland but also some very good ones. The great kitchens were when I was starting to travel and working in some really well-designed, inspiring places with amazing people. When I first went to Denmark, there was a requirement that every kitchen must have natural light. And even more, in every kitchen, the lighting had to be of equal quality in the kitchen as it was in the dining room. There was mutual respect there. When you spend 18 hours in a restaurant, it’s great when at least your lighting is on point. [Laughs] Often the counters and painting also were of equal quality to what the customer saw. That’s something that has always stuck with me.
MMD: Acky, when you were founding Note, were there any moments when you had to make tough calls?
AF: When we opened, we wanted to open as quickly as we could. The toughest decision was to go in without the full kitchen and open as a wine bar. We had a cold kitchen in the corner where our chef could prepare things without heat. He pulled some amazing things out of that kitchen! We essentially didn’t have enough funding to do [a hot kitchen] ourselves at the time. We just had to push ahead with that and it went fine for a while. Downstairs was a bit of a mess, lots of concrete, and no natural light – so thanks for bringing that up Cúán! [Laughs]. We had to figure that out. We now have a main kitchen and a prep kitchen, which works fine. In an ideal world we would have put it upstairs, but you have to weigh up the value of the space, and it didn’t make sense to do that.
MMD: I’ve been thinking about collectivism and designing by committee, and the difficulty of managing everyone’s input. How do you balance bringing the client into the project whilst also respecting your own knowledge and skills?
AM: I mean, that’s always the struggle. Whenever you get a client that fully trusts in your eye and vision it’s amazing – that’s the ideal situation. Sometimes you do need to fight back a little bit. People always pull out the lights, the chairs, and the finishing pieces that, in my opinion, you notice first when you walk into a space. It’s about ambiance and those things really help to create it. I push back a bit and say not to take away those lights and chairs because that’s where you get the most photographable moments.
AF: It’s always a difficult conversation, particularly if they want to spend a lot of money on a chef and pour all the money into the kitchen.
CG: I think things are changing and now there is less of a barrier between front of house and back of house. It’s so important that everyone is aligned and understands each other. It’s really important to value each other and value the design as well. Chefs often don’t think about acoustics but it’s one of the most important parts of the experience – if you’re in a restaurant and you and your friends can’t hear each other, it’s generally because of bad acoustics. Subtle details like that, I’m learning, are so important.
KM: It’s interesting you mention photography because one thing I notice is the growing TikTok-ification of dining. Anyone who is on TikTok has seen a video saying “you need to check out this place,” and often so much of it is because of the aesthetics or “vibes.” Does the prevalence of social media create a pressure to lean into trends?
AF: It depends on the restaurant and their concept. You’ve got those New York bistros and steakhouses that have looked the same forever, and then places that fully choose to lean into the Instagram thing. Here, we tried not to lean heavily into trends. We wanted it to look the same in 20 years. If it’s good enough, it’ll get photographed or talked about.
AM: It’s a balance. Social media is such a good tool for awareness – say if you’re going to New York, you use social media to look up restaurants and places to eat. But when it comes to actually designing a space, it’s the classics that last. Rather than looking at Pinterest for inspiration, it’s better to find a concept and dig deep into older designs. You’ve got these amazing old masters in architecture whose designs from the 1920s have stood the test of time for a reason. It’s beautiful work with integrity.
AF: We had a barometer for everything we did here, set by our graphic designer James Cullen, who designed the brand identity along with our interior. It was this idea of low meets high – you make sure it’s accessible but still really nice, luxurious but really good and doesn’t feel like you can’t touch it. It’s about finding that balance. That’s what gives it longevity.
MMD: Acky, you lived in both Amsterdam and Lisbon before you came back to Dublin. How did those cities inspire you aesthetically?
“What you get then is that lovely mix of everything that’s beautiful about Scandanavia, everything that’s perfect about Japan, and everything that’s so whimsical and wobbly about Ireland!”
AF: In Amsterdam I had these regular wine bars I would go to. They had the vibe of a pub but also something different. It was really refreshing and something we didn’t particularly have here. They were always doing something interesting; a new wine, a new plate, something new to try.
CG: For me, living in Copenhagen.. I was heavily, heavily inspired by Denmark. When I came back I was designing moodboards which were heavily Scandinavian. As I’ve become more comfortable with myself, more comfortable with being Irish, and developed that sense of pride and identity, that really changed. Now it’s about taking what these [countries and cities] have and forming that collective. It’s still about taking inspiration, but it’s also thinking about who we are as Irish people, our history and our culture, and actually melding all that in. What you get then is that lovely mix of everything that’s beautiful about Scandanavia, everything that’s perfect about Japan, and everything that’s so whimsical and wobbly about Ireland! That’s the craic and that’s why people love Ireland so much.
MMD: What’s your creative process? Do you save stuff on Instagram, do you scribble in a notebook, how do you go about that?
CG: Dee Morgan and I work very closely together on Ómós and lots of projects. Dee introduced me to a website called are.na where you can save images from all over the internet into folders. But it’s also important to not get too deep into your moodboards – it’s also great to get out there, meet people, have a glass of wine and have a chat. It’s important to stay tactile.
AM: It’s funny with moodboards. Sometimes you can do a cracker moodboard and a client gets it and they understand – other times they can pick out stuff and you’re like ‘no!’ So it’s so important to get out there and get on site and see. I still resort to old-school sketches there and then with pencil and pen and sketching it out there for them.
AF: I’d be the same. If it’s a client I try to have a coffee with them and chat to them. I try to use references that veer a bit away from the physical space – it could be food, it could be fashion stuff. I try to just see what they like instead of “I like that chair! Give me that chair.”
MMD: Do you have a tactic for showing clients that your idea will work? And swinging them back your way? Do you often do that thing of presenting three ideas and letting them choose?
“If you’re designing for longevity, that’s almost like an approach you can apply to environmental design – you can look at what lasts and what stands the test of time.”
AM: Maybe I’m just bolshy. [Laughs] I used to give loads of options but then was wondering why I was doing it when I didn’t like the other two as much, so now I only do one. Sometimes you do need to talk them into it, sometimes you don’t, sometimes you have to talk around it, but then again it comes down to being able to touch and see things. 3D models are great but they can only do so much. You need to give them a whole palette, references, go for a walk around the site and draw it on the floor if you have to.
AF: I only ever show one option. I used to do more but now it’s just one.
KM: When you’re working on a new brief, at one point does the logo and branding come into the space? Do you do it first or is that later on in the process?
AM: It depends on the client. Ideally you find the space and then have an idea in your head and start to work backwards. You go through a whole naming process, which is great craic. Then you pull out your brand strategy and visual identity, which is usually where the logo comes from.
CG: For me, choosing our name took months and months, even years. I always knew I wanted an Irish name being an Irish speaker, but to find something that isn’t like 59 letters or really obscure was hard. We chose Ómós, which still gets pronounced wrong all the time, but essentially Ómós means honour, duty and respect, and that really seems to embody the brand. We spiderweb off those words all the time to try and embody the process. It comes into everything we do.
MMD: How often do environmental considerations come into your work, such as sustainable materials, ethical sourcing etc?
AF: There’s no one right way to do it. You can decide to use recycled plastic instead of plywood but then that has to be shipped from further away overseas. We try to be as responsible as possible. We were pitching for a job in Iceland recently and the whole logistics of that was mental. It’s a really tricky thing to do – I think it’s easier on a smaller scale, but in construction it’s very difficult.
KM: A lot of restaurants now stay open all day – they’ll do breakfast and coffee, then lunch and dinner in the evening. How do you consider designing for that type of flexibility from day to night?
AM: Those are always the tricky briefs. Lighting is key, you need to be able to move from day to night. At the moment we’re designing a Michelin restaurant in Belfast that goes from a lunch to dinner service. Lighting would totally transform the space. Then it’s your surfaces – you need these soft surfaces that can help it transition from day to night.
AF: I think there are few places that do breakfast, lunch and dinner and still feel special for all three of those services. Here, during lunch the light streams in and it’s amazing, when we started doing it we were like “why weren’t we doing this earlier?!”
CG: It’s about considering space and capacity as well. You need various areas that can be flipped. It also depends on your service style as well, if you’re fine dining or more casual. And then from a back of house perspective, it’s about how much space you can dedicate to prep. You also run into issues like staffing which we all know is so difficult. Lunch has always been a lovely service though, especially when the light streams in.
MMD: Can you recall any times when design has gotten completely in the way of dining? When a place feels over-designed or is just completely distracting?
CG: There’s a lot of bad design around – there’s very little good design! That’s why Note is so special, it’s like “wow, this is what we’ve always wanted and needed.” I was in New York the other week and it’s amazing but, likewise with Copenhagen, you really feel like Dublin is starting to catch up in areas, and that’s because of people who have come from distant shores and are bringing their learnings and trying to make something here.
AF: I’ve been working in Dublin for 12 years, on and off. It has bled through slowly and I think there is a standard to that that we can’t go below and you’ll meet people who push you in the right direction. Dublin has a lot of charm and a lot of places that might not aesthetically look great but always feel nice and special.
MMD: One of my favourite restaurants in the whole city is a little Italian called Terra Madre on the quays. You walk down to the basement and you’re not in Dublin any more, you’re in a little Italian kitchen. You are transported immediately.
CG: It’s about feeling, too, and how we want these restaurants to feel. You look at these huge restaurants like Noma and they have the luxury of space. They also have different purposes. Instead of saying you want this floor or this chair it’s about asking why you want them. Is it about creating a calmness or energy? Do you want people to feel comfortable? Or perhaps it’s about creating a sense of theatre. When you start to think about it like that it becomes less systemic and more personal.
MMD: It’s about creating a dining experience that you want to last – not as a pop-up but something with longevity.
AM: If you’re designing for longevity, that’s almost like an approach you can apply to environmental design – you can look at what lasts and what stands the test of time.
We then handed it over to the audience for a Q&A. One audience member asked if our panellists were concerned about the future of dining and designing with a potential economic crisis on the horizon.
AF: It’s always been hard in Ireland to convince people to spend money on design. I started up a business straight out of college and the hardest thing was trying to get people to value you, to pay you a fee. It’s always tricky and Irish people love to get a bargain and tighten the purse strings. It will be difficult.
CG: I think tightened purse strings will have a big impact on sustainable materials. There is lots of work and research on sustainable processes. It is more expensive to make something out of hemp rather than using concrete. And unfortunately people might go back to it.
To wrap up, another audience member asked the panel what they think is next for Dublin, and if there are any trends in the dining space that they foresee coming to Ireland.
CG: I would say great individual businesses. Like I said, I was in New York last week and I ate a lot of pizza! There was one pizza I ate about 10 years ago and I’ve been chasing that flavour ever since. I went back and the pizza was really good but I remembered there’s a certain man [in Dublin] who has created one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had! Companies like Bambino are doing really amazing things. That’s what makes our city special, that individuality.
AF: It’s about quality. When I lived in Lisbon and Amsterdam, lots of places felt thoughtfully done. Ireland didn’t always feel like that, but it’s changing now. It comes through in retail, tailoring, whatever, and it just gets better and better.
CG: It’s also about understanding the psyche of Irish people too, and understanding why places like Jamie Oliver’s restaurants don’t really work in Ireland. We’re highly opinionated, we don’t like too much success, we really like quality. We like to understand that people are being earnest and we like to feel like it’s real and connected and fun. We’re an evolving nation, we’re growing, we’ve always done much better than we ever should. Things are growing and developing every year. I don’t know if Note would have worked here 10 years ago but now people are ready and excited and want more.
Designing For Dining was presented as part of Irish Design Week 2022, convened by the Design & Crafts Council Ireland (DCCI).
Keynote talks by Bruce Mau and discussions on Designing for Change and Designing for Diversity and Inclusion are available to view at designweekireland.ie