Meet the Minds Behind Restaurant Design – Dieter Cartwright and Jonathan McElroy

October 23, 2013

At New York-based firm Warren Red, creative duo Dieter Cartwright and Jonathan McElroy merge their interior and graphic design expertise to leave their stylish, unexpected imprint on projects like a new Kimpton hotel in Milwaukee, edgy Filipino eatery Jeepney in New York, and sexy Los Angeles restaurant Chi Lin. Here, the two discuss synergy, the importance of thorough concepts, and finding inspiration from Mother Nature.

Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?
JM: As far back as I can remember, I knew that art was going to be a major part of my life. However, it wasn’t until my studies in college that design would present itself as the front-runner of my career path. Until then, nothing could compete with the smell of oil paint and the feeling of a loaded brush sweeping across a blank canvas. Painting, I thought, was for me. I guess you could say that reality settled in during college, and it was suggested that I try out some classes in graphic design and typography-to prepare for the ‘real world.’ I was still painting, but also began to find a love for the precision and subtle nuances of setting type. Both worlds collided when I took a letterpress class. All of the sudden, I could produce a perfectly crisp, cleanly printed piece of ephemera, and at the same time have my hands covered with ink, oil, and grime from the 1940s printing press that I would spend countless hours tinkering with. This sealed the deal. Designer, I would be.

DC: Yes.

What are some of your first memories of design?
JM: The Pinewood Derby. The Museum of Natural History. The Millennium Falcon.

DC: When I was six or seven my parents were building their first house, and they spent many an afternoon resolving one problem or another over a cup of tea. The architect was never present-it was always just my parents and their builder, drawing details out on scraps of wood (they don’t fly away in the wind) to figure it out. I didn’t know it then of course, but looking back I see that I was being included in what is now one of the most exciting parts of design for me; those hands-on, practical problem-solving charrettes needed to realize all our ideas in their built form. I would follow the builder around on weekends with my own house designs drawn up on graph paper, and he would patiently review the designs with me (on my parents’ dime, I suppose). I still call him from time to time. He’s also a boat builder, and I looked him up for some insight when I was working on the interiors of a 50-meter yacht while at zeffdesign.

What about hospitality?
JM: A significant introduction to hospitality design for me was Macao Trading Co, in New York. I had the opportunity to work closely with the owners to develop their brand with them. It was a wonderful affair, one that exposed me to all that goes into creating a memorable experience for the guest. The result of our hard work was so well-received, it became a bit of a calling card for us. We can trace back many of our clients to Macao: Plan Check Kitchen + Bar in Los Angeles; Chi Lin and RivaBella for Innovative Dining Group in Los Angeles; Rum House in New York; and Pilsener Haus & Biergarten in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Pilsener Haus & Biergarten, Hoboken, New Jersey

DC: To fund travel, I found myself bartending in London in the late nineties. Since then I’ve worked in over thirty bars and restaurants in Sydney, London, and Spain, and had the benefit of some excellent mentors to hone my craft. I had the opportunity to work in some notable bars, but it’s the breadth and variety of hospitality venues in which I have worked that serves us best in our projects. I’ve had a hands-on education, and we endeavor to consider all operational requirements and how they fit into the greater context of the social dynamics, atmosphere, and identity of a project. I moved to New York specifically to see my hospitality and design experience come together.

How did where you grew up influence your career paths?
JM: I was fortunate to have grown up in what began as a rural suburb of New Jersey. Surrounded by farms, fields, and rivers provided me with endless inspiration from nature. Much of my time was spent chasing butterflies, collecting flowers, and studying their inherent beauty. To this day, the flash of a tiger swallowtail’s wings still stops me dead in my tracks. Nature is the best designer, and I will always look to her for guidance.

DC: I grew up on the outskirts of a small rural town in Tasmania, Australia, so it’s hard to find the link between that and starting a boutique design firm in NYC.  I suppose growing up in a bit of a backwater, you can develop a sense of wonder or discovery for anything that is from another place-always looking outward for stimulation. We lived in a tent for a year when we built our first house (pole-framed construction), and for the second (rammed earth) it wasn’t much better.  So you could say I was exposed to a slightly different model, and perhaps that is a fertile environment for fostering a career in design.

       Jeepney, New York

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

JM: Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University provided me with many lessons. Among the greatest was that the best work always stems from a solid concept.

DC: I managed to spread five years of study out over ten years; the first three at University of Tasmania, then the last two at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. At UTAS there was a strong focus on developing a hands-on approach to design and fabrication. At the end of each semester of the first year we would have designed, fabricated, and installed somewhere in the community a fairly well-orchestrated intervention of some kind. The pace was ridiculous, and students were largely left to their own devices to resolve structural and weatherproofing details. Of especially great importance was that each project also had a well-considered social brief-with hands-on workshops with the end users-and our work was fulfilling a need in the community.

Plan Check Kitchen + Bar, Los Angeles
Where did you work before starting your own firm?

JM: My career as a designer began at a humble letterpress studio in Brooklyn. I had the honor of working with master printmaker Peter Kruty. From there I spent the next several years in small boutique design shops in the city. These small shops taught me so much about design, but more importantly about what is involved in running a business. Soon, the advertising world came calling and I spent time in some of the largest agencies in the world: McCann Erickson, Ogilvy, and the Brand Union. Sprint, HSBC, LG Electronics, and AT&T Wireless were among the accounts for which I was developing campaigns. Advertising was exciting to me, but I felt that I was missing something. This all changed when I accepted a job at zeffdesign where my love of hospitality and design came together. It was here that I met Dieter.

DC: In design I worked at PTW Architects, in Sydney, and zeffdesign here in New York. Outside design, the list is long.

Why and how did you start your own firm?

DC:  Jonathan and I worked together at zeffdesign, and had been working independently for about a year after that on our separate projects when an opportunity came up for us to pitch together on the interior design and branding of the beer garden in Hoboken. I was tying up loose ends on CD’s for the American Trade Hotel, Panama, so it was a good time to be throwing all my energy into the next thing. What we learned from those early projects was how we could dabble in each other’s respective disciplines to achieve some very interesting results. The following project, Tough Club, while unrealized, had us designing the staff uniforms, developing the signature cocktail program, setting up a staff training manual, and all manner of other roles which fall outside the usual interior design and branding scope.

                American Trade Hotel, Panama

Working in two different design realms, what is your collaborative creative process like?

DC: As with any singular design discipline, when you approach a project from many different disciplines, you must establish a core set of principles, or ideology, which will serve to guide the project through all phases. Honestly, we don’t consider our design realms that separate. While Jonathan’s background is in art direction and graphic design, and mine in interior design and architecture, we bring to bear a variety of agents to complete our projects. As we set out on a new project’s brief, we identify and develop its identity-positive brand perceptions-if in the public realm-and set about finding the right tools to communicate them.

Can you discuss some of your recent projects?
We’re working on a new Kimpton hotel in Milwaukee. It’s a whole new brand for them, particular to Milwaukee’s historical district. We’ll be naming the hotel and its various F + B components, as well as interior design and branding services.

                The Rum House, New York

Was there a challenging project that you are especially proud of?
Each project has its own set of unique challenges. The best ones are when we challenge ourselves, by either placing certain constraints on ourselves, or by creating something meaningful. For Pouring Ribbons, it was important to us to not recreate the New York speakeasy atmosphere that is so prevalent here. Nostalgia has its place, but we wanted to upend this city’s formula for a cocktail bar. Pouring Ribbons just made the 2013 World’s 50 Best Bars list, and its write-up makes note of this exact intent.

What are you most looking forward to at the office?
Shaking things up. I look forward to taking on the challenges of a brief and the demands of our clients and giving back something unexpected yet successful. We’ve had a few recent occurrences of that. Sometimes the room is absolutely silent you can hear a pin drop, and other times stakeholders are so hotly debating a point amongst themselves that as designers it can be a pleasure to sit back to observe the discord.

What do you find the most challenging and exciting aspects of your job?
JM: Balancing the creative work with the operational obligations of owning a small business. And still finding some time to spend with my family.
  While we consider ourselves multi-disciplinary, the scope and/or size of all projects require a high level of collaboration with third parties. That is challenging, but the most rewarding aspect of the job. I have many examples of this, and the best ones are when we step out of our comfort zones with collaborators to take a project to a unique place. I would refer to Demi Monde, a bar/lounge in New York, to illustrate this. Having won the trust and approval from the client to divide the space using screens made with a traditional technique of Japanese rope bondage-kinbaku or shibaru-we had to devise a strategy to actually execute it. That in itself was an interesting side project as we delved into a whole world we hadn’t before. We found an artist and educator based in San Francisco who had literally written the book on the subject-well at least the first in English-and from there enjoyed an interesting and creative relationship to realize a design that exceeded both our expectations.

Demi Monde, New York

What is the most important thing to remember when designing a restaurant, both in terms of branding and interiors?
That design is a business as well as a calling.

Is there an architect or designer you most admire? Why?
Victor Papanek. As a pioneer of sustainable and humanitarian design, his enduring vision has influenced both designer and end user alike.

DC: I heard Calvin Tsao of Tsao McKown speak recently and was inspired by his sensitivity, high level of social and cultural accountability, and the variety in his firm’s work. And sense of humor, which is essential.

Demi Monde, New York

What would be your dream project and why?
DC: Not to sound too sappy, but we’re doing it right now. Naming, branding, and doing the interior design of a hotel project, with owners and operators we respect, is exactly what we strive for, and we’re excited about what’s coming next.

If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would they be?
JM: John Muir, George Carlin, and Julia Child. John Muir for his passion and determination to preserve the nature he so loved. George for his wit and wisdom. And Julia for her unbridled determination.

DC:  More sappy stuff: my family. I don’t get back to Australia very often.

Where would you eat, and what would you be having?
JM: A candle-lit picnic table in Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite, at sunset. Anything Julia felt like cooking up that night.

DC:  That would be a home-cooked meal.

Yves Durif Salon, the Carlyle, New York

Is there a chef who has recently caught your eye?
DC: We recently had the pleasure of meeting Joey Campanaro of the Little Owl, in New York. The dinner he served was precise, delicious, and memorable. But his humble attitude is what really stuck. In a recent interview he was asked why he included the meatballs on the menu of a new venue. He said it was because he liked to eat them so much.

If you weren’t a designer, what would you be?
JM: A park ranger-anything to be outside more often.

DC:  A beekeeper. That was my first-ever job, straight out of high school, and I appreciate the pace, solitude, and sensitivity that it demanded.