Meet the Minds Behind Restaurant Design—William Bickford, ChicagoMay 29, 2013
By Alia Akkam
Chicago-based Northworks Architects & Planners recently completed a number of projects in the residential, retail, and religious realms, including the restoration of Graceland Chapel in Chicago, and in St. Louis, the Lakeside Memorial Gardens. However, Ada Street, in Chicago’s Elston Corridor, with a grass courtyard and a wood screen leading to a hidden dining room, and the recently completed Tortoise Club in the city’s River North neighborhood—a Prohibition era-inspired space decked out with oak paneling and tartan fabrics—firmly grounds Northworks in hospitality. Here, Bickford talks sustainability, the power of Google Earth, and NASCAR dreams.
Did you always know you wanted to be a designer? Since the third grade. There was a field trip to the McKim, Mead, and White-designed Boston Public Library. I came home from school that day, and said, ‘Mom, I want to be an architect.’
What are some of your first memories of design? Aside from the early years of improvisation with Legos—building what was not pictured on the box—I took an architectural drawing course my freshman year of high school. I learned how to use the slide ruler and draw in two-point perspective. Great experience.
Ada Street, Chicago
How did you end up where you are today? It was a series of destinations: college education in Connecticut, an apprenticeship in New York City, graduate school in Philadelphia, and working for a firm in Chicago, where Austin DePree and I eventually started our own practice. The formative moment was the first freshman night of college, when Austin and I met. We were pursuing the same girl. She wanted nothing to do with either one of us, so we both ended up at a bar together. The rest is history.
Do you have a greatest lesson learned? In professional practice, every project takes its own course, and every client expresses his or her own character.
What inspired you to start your company? During our college years, my business partner Austin and I agreed that the profession of architecture is most rewarding when you personally connect with each client as principals of your own practice.
Tell us about your office culture and design process? To sum up our studio experience in three words: casual, focused, productive.
Why hospitality? We began our practice working on single-family residences. Some of these clients were involved in hospitality projects—as restaurateurs, retail owners, or club managers. They enjoyed the experience of working with us, so they brought us into their own business ventures. We immediately took a liking to the pace of projects, strict budgets, and public appeal. Designing a restaurant with 250 seats presents many challenges, but also great rewards when you see so many people enjoying the space.
Sustainability is important to your projects. What is your distinct approach to green? Our approach to green design and building for all projects is based on high quality and high efficiency. These two principles can be applied to any element of design and construction, from a building envelope to the mechanical systems to the fixture and finish specifications.
What are some of the challenges of the industry today? One challenge is meeting tight schedules to finish construction in time for sufficient testing and training prior to opening. The other is complying with today’s building codes, while not limiting the creativity of design and detailing.
How do you first tackle a project? What do you look for?
We devise a single concept that becomes the core of our design development. All design moves relate to the core and strengthen the consistency of the project.
What’s a recent project that was most challenging and why? The Steamboat Flyfisher, a fishing equipment and outdoor gear store in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, was a challenging but fun project, requiring a clean yet rustic aesthetic, timeless yet functional, set within a new commercial retail building.
Steamboat Flyfisher, Steamboat Springs, Colorado
What are some projects you are currently working on? What’s next for you? We are currently working on six new restaurants and bars in Chicago, as well as historic renovation work on three private clubs.
Most creative solution for a cool design feature that you have recently come up with? To create a 1920s aesthetic at the Tortoise Club, we designed a new storefront and entrance, replacing the 1960s glass façade. On Google Earth, we took a ‘walking tour’ up Bond Street and Savile Row in London, to find inspiration in the many classic building elevations. The new façade of the Tortoise Club not only extends to provide additional banquette seating at the bar, but acts as the brand and signage for the restaurant.
The Tortoise Club, Chicago
What would be your dream project? We would love to design a new hotel. It would be a perfect combination of our design work on restaurants, private clubs, and custom residential projects.
What’s the key to a successful collaboration between designer and client? Constant and very responsive communication.
What’s the most important thing to remember when designing a hospitality space? Operations need to actually operate. It is so easy to get inspired by a design concept. A space needs to flow in many directions for many reasons.
Greatest accomplishment so far? Staying in business.
The Red Room at the Tortoise Club
If you weren’t a designer, what would you be? It changes each week, but this week I would like to be a NASCAR driver. A client took me to my first race last weekend.
When you are not in the office we can find you… Checking out a bar or restaurant that has recently opened.
If you could have supper with anyone living or dead, who would it be? Benjamin Franklin or Frank Sinatra. Both would be great.
Describe that meal, the wine, and the person you’re eating with. Probably a thick mutton chop with a very sharp knife, a Premier Cru (Sinatra selects a Lafite-Rothschild), and several after-dinner drinks.