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Meet the Minds Behind Restaurant Design – Karen Herold

November 23, 2016

Karen Herold is principal of Studio K Creative in Chicago, which she founded in 2014 after a 13-year stint at locally based 555 International where she helped evolve the firm’s hospitality practice. Now she boasts a varied portfolio of timeless and eclectic projects, including BOKA Restaurant Group’s recent Chicago addition, GT Prime. Here, she discusses her time as a fashion student, her most coveted design collection, and building a Rietveld-style chair at age 15.

Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?
Yes, I knew when I was 13, although I had no idea what type of designer I wanted to be. For a while I wanted to be a goldsmith or an industrial designer. I ended up with a degree in fashion design and started working as an interior designer when I moved to Chicago.

What are some of your first memories of design?
When I was 15 we studied [the work of Gerrit] Rietveld in school. I decided I wanted to make a chair in his style and went to our basement with a handsaw and some plywood. I ended up actually building the chair with some significant help from my father. Not sure how pretty or comfortable it was but it felt great to actually build something.

Did where you grew up influence your career path?

I think growing up with two creative parents influenced my career path, as art and design were part of our day-to-day lives for as long as I can remember. They encouraged us to explore whatever it was we were interested in without pushing us in a particular direction.

Give us a bit of your background: college, first jobs, early lessons learned?

The first college I chose was actually focused on the creative side of the advertisement industry. I quickly learned that his was not a great fit for me and switched to fashion design after one year.

I was lucky enough to to start work as a fashion designer during my third year in school, which allowed me the opportunity to see how the industry works. I worked in Hong Kong to get the collection produced and learned valuable lessons about the business side of the fashion industry and why I would not want to pursue a career as a fashion designer. By the time that I came to Chicago I had decided that I wanted to become an interior designer, but had no clue how to go about it. I got lucky when a friend recommended me to a large architectural firm where I started out with a part-time job in the resource library. One thing led to another and after about six months I started my job as creative director for 555 International. The most valuable lesson I learned is to always apply yourself, in any job, with any client, as you never know where things will lead.

Why and how did you start your own firm?
During 13 great years at 555, I had the opportunity to work with some amazing clients on some very rewarding projects. Besides a design studio, 555 is also a manufacturer of high-end metal and wood products. It was a great experience to be able to learn so much about production early on in my career, but as time went on I wanted to focus only on the design side of things, which led to me starting my own design studio in January 2014.

Can you discuss some of your recent projects?

Recently we opened GT Prime for one my most favorite clients of all times, the BOKA Restaurant Group. Chef Giuseppe [Tentori] and I had worked on a restaurant before and so we all knew each other and trusted each other, which allowed me to be more adventurous in the design approach.

Is there a challenging project that you are especially proud of?
We were recently given the opportunity to present a design proposal for the next NOBU Hotel in Chicago. We only had two months to create a presentation for the entire group of owners after which we were awarded the project. It was a tremendous amount of pressure but definitely worth it.

What are you looking forward to at your office?
I am looking forward to some great international projects that have been coming our way. After our work on Victory Ranch [in Kamas, Utah] for Sterling Bay I have been very interested in expanding our resort portfolio, and it looks like once again luck is on my side.

What do you find are the most challenging and exciting aspects of your job?
The most challenging aspect has always been the balance between managing a design studio and finding enough time to be creative and finding time to design. The most exciting part has been and will always be the new types of projects that are coming our way. The things we have never done before that allow me to keep growing as a creative individual.

What is the most important thing to remember when designing a restaurant—both in terms of branding and interiors??
It is not about us, the designers. It is the guest that needs to feel comfortable in the space in order return over and over again. Sometimes this means we need to take a step back as designers.

Is there an architect or designer you most admire? Why?
One person that comes to mind is Tyler Hays. His store BDDW is my favorite spot in New York. Not only is he an amazing designer, he also surrounds himself with other creatives he admires. His collection of pottery is my current obsession (and one day I hope to be able to afford some of it!).

What would be your dream project and why?

My dream project would be to be part of a development team working on planning a large resort or housing project. Although I still really enjoy interior design I find myself being more and more drawn to the part that comes before design and trying to figure out how guests are going to behave in a particular project.

If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?
I would love to have one more dinner with my grandmother. We were always really close but I feel I was too young to ask her all the questions I have for her now. She lived through World War II in Germany and lost most of her family during that time. I would love to spend all night listening to her and finding out how someone with such a rough life always managed to stay positive and an inspiration to all the people around her.

Where would you eat and what would you be having?
We would eat in her little house in Dusseldorf and we would have Chinese food—that was her favorite.

If you weren’t a designer, what would you be?
I would be a movie director.