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Meet the Minds Behind Restaurant Design - David Darling

Dec 23, 2013

By Alia Akkam

The San Francisco firm of Aidlin Darling Design—Joshua Aidlin and David Darling—creates an array of residential, commercial, and hospitality spaces, like Wexler’s barbecue restaurant in San Francisco and the forthcoming revamp of Scribe Winery. They are all united by elegance, detail, and a reverence for rich, honest materials. Here, principal and co-founder Darling discusses cross-pollination, the human spirit, and the community-building power of food. 

Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?

Yes. From my earliest recollection, I was always interested in making things. I have also always had a fascination with space and its scale and manipulations.

                                                Wexler's Restaurant (Photo courtesy of Matthew Millman)

What are some of your first memories of design?

Growing up, my best friend’s father was a ‘modern’ architect in the Midwest. His office was upstairs in an old Louis Sullivan-designed bank on the town square. We used to clean his office every Saturday for candy money. I will never forget that space.

                                                   Wexler's Restaurant (Photo Courtesy of Matthew Millman)

What about hospitality?

It’s a state of mind and can be found anywhere and in any context. As practitioners of ‘high design,’ we can learn a lot from hospitality in its most primitive forms.

How did where you grew up influence your career paths?
Growing up in the rural Midwest, we were instilled with a sense of self-sufficiency, initiative, and adventure. I think that what we practice today requires all of the above.

                                                        Bar Bambino (Photo Courtesy of Matthew Millman)

Where did you go to college and what was your greatest lesson learned?

University of Cincinnati. While at UC, I had an epiphany that the best way to learn is through real experience. The lessons can be intellectual or literal.

Where did you work before starting your own firm?
I had the great fortune of being mentored by the late Charles Pfister, Stanley Saitowitz, and most recently Richard Brayton of BraytonHughes Design Studio. I will always be indebted to Richard for teaching me the virtues of optimism.

                                    Mc Evoy Winery – A matrix of model studies (Courtesy of Aidlin Darling)

Why and how did you start your own firm?

Joshua and I literally started our office around a wood shop. Before the formation of our practice, we would get together to critique each other’s work. We realized that we had many shared ethos and goals, so we set about to pursue them together.

What was your first reality check?
Very early on, we developed the conviction that communication is paramount to the success of our practice. Good communication with clients, builders, and other collaborators can enable endless possibilities.

What is your collaborative creative process like?

Aidlin Darling Design acts as a creative hub for an extended network of builders, fabricators, artists, engineers, chefs, and other specialists. This cross-pollination of ideas and expertise permeates the culture of our studio.

Can you discuss some of your recent projects?
We have recently had the good fortune of taking on project types that allow us to expand our knowledge and interest in designing for all of the human senses. These projects include a contemplative meditation art chapel at Stanford University, a progressive high school in Santa Rosa, a brewery, and several wineries. All of these projects involve designs that embrace architecture as an active bodily encounter. All emphasize the importance of tactility, acoustics, and the olfactory in engaging the human spirit and experience.

                                                             Bar Agricole (Courtesy of Thomas Winz)

Was there a challenging project that you are especially proud of?
We are particularly proud of Bar Agricole, which won a James Beard Award for restaurant design. The restaurant is certified LEED Platinum. It adaptively reuses space in an old warehouse building we repurposed. The building plays a vital role in the urban renewal of a neglected part of San Francisco.

                                                      Bar Agricole (Photo Courtesy of Matthew Millman)

What are you most looking forward to at the office? 

What we often look most forward to is outside the office. The immersive process of research and collaboration is fulfilling and underlies everything we do.

What do you find the most challenging and exciting aspects of your job?

We have a profound appreciation for and responsibility to the resources from which we live. It is imperative that we provide leadership and creativity in reverence for these resources. We take a broad approach that recognizes the virtues of reusing what we already have and designing things that will last.

                                                  Paso Robles Winery rendering (Courtesy of Aidlin Darling)

What is the most important thing to remember when designing a restaurant, both in terms of branding and interiors?

Restaurants are intrinsically grounded in experience. As such, they have the potential to connect people to place and to one another. Food, and our appreciation for it, is paramount. A well-designed restaurant can foster this appreciation and enable a sense of community.

Is there an architect or designer you most admire? Why?
I appreciate the work and practice of Charles and Ray Eames. Their practice was curious, impassioned, and immersive. It shows in the diversity of their work—architecture, furniture, film, and so on.

What would be your dream project and why?
A number of our current projects could be considered ‘dream’ projects. We seek work that enables us to explore notions of multi-sensory, experiential design. We are currently pursuing more work in the public sector because it allows us to do this on a broad scale.

                                          Scribe Winery Tasting Room rendering (Courtesy of Aidlin Darling)

If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would they be?

James Beard. I would be assured that the food was good and that everyone gathered would be interesting.

Where would you eat, and what would you be having?
At home with my wife and son, eating leftovers from Henry's Hunan in San Francisco.

Is there a chef who has recently caught your eye?
I am biased, but chef Corey Lee from Benu in San Francisco is amazing. What he does is always interesting, and the taste is sublime.

If you weren't a designer, what would you be?
Winemaker. They are part scientist, part artist, and always connected to and beholden of the land.

hdtalks: the interviews

During HD Expo 2014, Hospitality Design’s Michael Adams sat down with HBA’s Michael Bedner to talk about his half-century in the hospitality design industry. View the video.



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