Meet the Minds Behind Restaurant Design - Ed Seiber and Stacey KirbyDec 12, 2012
Whether it is Atlanta's classy, iconic Restaurant Eugene, the contemporary Cakes & Ale, or upbeat casual eatery Yeah! Burger, local firm Seiber Design marries a distinct sense of personality with sophistication for each of its spaces. Here, Ed Seiber, who helms the architectural side of the practice, and his partner Stacey Kirby, who handles interiors, discuss the art of collaboration, a reverence for the South, and eating barbecue with Terence Malick.
Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?
ES: Not at all. I was pursuing an academic career (graduate school in German Literature and Language) when I decided to change course and enroll in architecture school. Not as out of left field as it seems owing to the fact I had worked many summers and school breaks learning to read blueprints, do construction material take-offs, and shop drawings.
SK: I decided early in high school that I wanted to be a designer, displacing my earlier desire to be an archaeologist.
What are some of your first memories of design?
ES: I became fascinated with clothing styles in seventh grade. That and the car culture of my high school days in Tennessee probably did more to awaken my aesthetic sensibilities, though both for me started as the means to be considered ‘cool,’ rather than ends in themselves.
SK: It all started with a technical drawing class in high school, which I really enjoyed. I began redesigning the rooms of our house on paper and constantly rearranged my bedroom furniture.
How did you end up where you are today?
ES: After getting my architecture degree I worked briefly as a research assistant for my thesis professor in Knoxville then moved to Austin to work with a conceptual architect, growing structures in seawater for six months. Deciding it was time to actually practice architecture I considered D.C. and Atlanta. Atlanta won.
Do you have a greatest lesson learned?
ES: Not one specifically. We're still learning great lessons today. We're constantly challenged and surprised.
SK: Each time we think we've experienced every possible project issue, something new arises; keeps us coming back for more.
Cakes & Ale, Decatur, Georgia. Photography by James Camp.
What inspired you to start your company?
ES: Necessity really. I never quite found the right fit in the firms I worked for. I quit my last job and decided to freelance for a while. While doing freelance design for Houston's Restaurants (now Hillstone Restaurant Group), who had been a client at a previous employer, I was offered the contract for a new freestanding restaurant in Bethesda, Maryland. I owe a lot to that group, especially their owner and VPs of design and construction. Thanks, George, Bill, and Allen.
Cakes & Ale, Decatur, Georgia. Photography by James Camp.
Tell us about your office culture and design process?
ES: Seiber Design is a design studio in every sense—open space, no private offices, waxing and waning clutter depending on project phase. We're in an old warehouse building immediately adjacent to the newly opened Beltline. Music is always playing.
A few years ago we set up our conference room to host design charrettes with our clients with a large screen TV monitor connected to our server and the internet. We involve them in a collaborative process from the beginning, using 3D digital models, physical samples, images, and sometimes hand-waving; whatever it takes to create a shared visual (and emotional, financial, performance) understanding of the design. In the studio itself, we assign primary responsibility for the entire project to one person, but all weigh in with ideas and opinions.
ES: Love the challenges, the complexity of integrating function, performance, and visual appeal.
SK: Hospitality projects offer the opportunity to create environments that touch many people and lead us on a constant search for new combinations of elements.
Why the South? What is it about the Southern food scene you find so exciting now that makes what you do all the more inspiring?
ES: We're both Southerners by birth and inclination. Like many native-born Southerners, I left for a while wanting to escape, but was drawn back.
Stacey has always lived in the South. Southerners have a strong connection to the region, the landscape, the people, and our culture of hospitality. It's this hospitality and deep-rootedness that gives the Southern food scene its current resonance. We believe without that grounding in and understanding of the traditions, you can't truly explore new territory.
Yeah! Burger, Atlanta, Georgia
What are some of the challenges of the industry today?
ES: As portrayed so well in the movie Big Night, it always comes down to the struggle between art and commerce. That tension drives our projects. A lot of our work over the last four years has focused on resourcefulness, or achieving maximum impact with limited means. Too much focus on commerce only leads to soullessness; too much focus on aesthetics alone may lead to a fleeting business and a fleeing client.
SK: The internet. It informs people of design choices available, but doesn't necessarily educate them in terms of quality, value, and cohesiveness in any deep sense.
Walk us through the process of how you two tackle a project from the architecture and interior realms. How do you complement each other?
ES: We don't separate the two disciplines and frequently cross our respective professional boundaries, but we generally work from inside out. I really enjoy the conceptual beginnings of a project and frequently draw from many non-visual sources. Stacey is the more instinctively visual one and has an incredible eye and visual memory. Though we sometimes approach projects from differing starting points, we both share very similar ideas of what makes a successful project outcome.
We have also learned to never stop questioning and digging deeply into our client's program, design, and business goals to unlock new approaches.
What are the best parts of working together? The biggest challenges?
SK: The best: the complementary skills we bring to each project, and from sixteen years of working together knowing instinctively which design problems should have the highest priority, whether a more architectural or more interiors focus is the best solution. The biggest challenges: understanding where to stand firm and where to be flexible with our different perspectives and ideas.
Proof & Provision, Atlanta, Georgia. Photography by James Camp.
What’s a recent project that was most challenging and why?
ES: Proof & Provision. The design challenge was to resurrect a long abandoned restaurant space in the basement of a historic Midtown Atlanta hotel, the Georgian Terrace, that already had a beautiful main floor restaurant: very tight schedule, limited budget, and the need to work with existing conditions with limited opportunity for new materials and finishes. We could only make a few moves, but they had to be exactly the right ones. The client wanted something more relaxed and funkier than the upstairs restaurant, not too modern or too designed. In this case, we almost had to make Proof & Provision look as if we had never been there. We were very fortunate to have a great contractor and some excellent craftspeople executing and adding to the design. So far Proof & Provision has been warmly embraced by the community—not just hotel guests—and a second phase is underway.
Proof & Provision, Atlanta, Georgia. Photography by James Camp.
What’s one project that you are most proud of and why?
ES: The Mellow Mushroom in the West Ashley area of Charleston, South Carolina. Our clients are franchisees of the Mellow Mushroom restaurant group. Their vision for converting a former neighborhood movie theater was informed by contemporary, hip hospitality design from around the world, not a typical starting point for a Mellow Mushroom. We felt the real design opportunity here was on the interior furnishings and finishes side. Architecturally, the theater space was spatially dramatic when stripped back to its shell, so we only needed to add the focal points: a curving, corbeled soffit framing the open kitchen area at one end, and an overscaled digital photo print of a well-known local chef posing as King Charles II mounted on Plexiglass extending from the back bar to the mezzanine above on the other end.
Mellow Mushroom, Charleston, South Carolina
SK: Ray's on the River in Sandy Springs, a small city on the northern edge of Atlanta. This twenty-eight-year old structure was in need of a complete overhaul and repair. The client loved visiting Las Vegas and his program called for a supper club environment. The existing structure was rustic and very lodge like, so our design required a lot of plastic surgery and make-up so to speak. Our budget allowed us to design many custom elements, which were beautifully executed by the construction team. We were grateful to be recognized by our peers with an ASID Georgia Design Excellence Gold Award for this project.
Ray's on the River, Sandy Springs, Georgia
What are some projects you are currently working on? What’s next for you?
SK: We have a restaurant project under construction in Augusta, Georgia for Goodwill Industries of Middle Georgia. It's our first non-profit client. Their program is unique in that they have a culinary school in the same development and will use the restaurant as a market-focused venue for training, but it will also be open to the public as a means to build relationships with the community. We are also beginning to take on some senior living community design projects.
Most creative solution for a cool design feature that you have recently come up with?
SK: One that comes to mind is the giant abstracted, fuschia mushroom we placed in the center of the dining room at the Mellow Mushroom in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The typical Mellow Mushroom project requires a significant artwork component. We had limited opaque wall space in this former Sears Auto Center, so we decided to propose a giant artwork feature as the visual anchor in the dining room. The mushroom was constructed of composite plywood fins.
What would be your dream project?
SK: Any project with a forward-thinking client willing to challenge assumptions and push boundaries who is truly excited by the possibilities of design.
What’s the key to a successful collaboration between designer and client?
ES: Continuous communication and visualization. Making the design as concrete as possible during the design process. Also, a deep understanding on our part of their business and specific market.
What’s the most important thing to remember when designing a hospitality space?
SK: Everything matters.
Motto to live by...
ES: Practice, practice, practice. Never assume you have arrived.
SK: Stay humble.
Greatest accomplishment so far?
ES: Designing a practice that keeps me and my colleagues excited about design and coming to work every day.
SK: Maintaining the balance between my career and my family.
If you weren’t a designer, what would you be?
ES: Movie director.
SK: Caterer or chef.
When you are not in the office we can find you…
ES: Relaxing with friends over a great cocktail, hanging out at Southern Foodways Alliance events, or at a Billy Reid store combing through the offerings.
If you could have supper with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
ES: Terence Malick, the American film director, screenwriter, and producer.
SK: Princess Diana
Describe that meal, the wine, and the person you’re eating with.
ES: I only know Mr. Malick through his films. He rarely grants interviews, but his bio interests me due to his previous academic career in German philosophy and film. He lives in Austin so perhaps we would skip the wine and drink Tequila and eat barbecue at an outdoor restaurant in the Texas Hill Country while talking about film, philosophy, nature, and God knows what else.
SK: I envision lots of wine, cheese, and girl talk.
Whom do you admire the most? Why were they an influencing factor in your career and life?
ES: My parents who absolutely supported me in my long search for the right career and never withdrew that support even when they may have thought I was lost.
SK: My mother, who taught me a strong work ethic and pride in having a professional career.