Meet the Minds – Ryan Smith and Will Fox

March 3, 2017
Ryan Smith and Will Fox

Photos: Recent Projects

Ryan Smith and Will Fox serve as the creative director and and head of design, respectively, for Austin-based McGuire Moorman Hospitality (MMH). The firm’s local, hip, and inviting eateries are anchored in a style all their own. Here, Smith and Fox discuss upbringings rooted in curiosity, the holistic approach that characterizes their brand, and the charm of Wes Anderson.

Did you always know you wanted to work in the hospitality/restaurant industry?
Ryan Smith: As a kid, I loved the show L.A. Law and wanted to be a lawyer. At the end of high school, I saw Rushmore and wanted to be Wes Anderson. I was always really into fashion, so that was a possibility too. I thought working in restaurants was just a way to make money along the way, but in all actuality, the hospitality business inadvertently became a major piece of my life. I just needed to find the creativity in it.

Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?
Will Fox: I was always interested in the functional side of design. I was homeschooled until high school, which allowed me time to explore this interest through cooking, building furniture, and making ceramics. After a few years in public school, I realized I enjoyed math and physics as well, but I didn’t realize until after I graduated that architecture was what I wanted to do as a profession.

What are some of your first memories of design or creativity?

RS: Dance contests with family and friends. Clothing—I’ve always really been into expressing myself through how I dress.

WF: Every Christmas we had a tradition of making cardboard box houses, which went into our mantel “village.” My brother and sister would finish with theirs rather quickly, and I would keep working for hours. I took them very seriously and everything had to be perfect. I did the same with carving pumpkins, too.  

Did where you grew up influence your career path?

RS: I grew up in Houston suburbia, and music/dancing, movies, clothing, and sports were how my friends and I communicated with one another. I learned how to relate to the world through a Bell Biv DeVoe song or a scene from the movie Rad. Creativity, artistry, design aesthetics, and fashion just felt natural.

WF: I grew up in Chicago, which has a rich architectural history with Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies Van Der Rohe, and H.H. Richardson. I have early memories of going to the Museum of Science and Industry. Actually, I had a friend growing up who lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright house. My dad grew up in a Mies Van der Rohe building on Lake Shore Drive, and though I never saw the interior, we would always drive by the building as kids.  

Give us a bit of your background: college, first jobs, early lessons learned?
RS: [I was political science major] at Texas State University but didn’t finish. I took a 16mm film intensive at NYU making a series of six original short films. I waited tables all throughout school at places ranging from Mexican to seafood to sushi to Italian to barbecue. One day things just clicked, and I realized I’d never be happy unless I pursued a creative direction.  

WF: I was homeschooled until high school. I received my master’s in from the Yale School of Architecture. After graduating, I went to work for Frank Gehry in Los Angeles for three years. I  learned to trust intuition, be iterative, always start with physical models, and to stay away from trends. I also worked for Bernard Tschumi in Paris and Rojkind Arquitectos in Mexico City.

Why and how did you become involved with MMH?
RS: I’d been living in San Antonio shortly after being back from New York. Choosing between a server position at Per Se in New York or at Lambert’s in Los Angeles, I chose Lambert’s, a sophisticated and very detail-specific take on a casual barbecue restaurant and live music venue. I quickly moved into management in efforts of getting closer to the design and creative departments of the company. I made music playlists for the dining meal periods, designed staff uniforms. As the business grew from three restaurants to six, I presented a business plan to owners Larry McGuire and Tom Moorman outlining a brand new position as creative director handling it all: uniform design, music playlist curation, art direction, marketing, and social media presence. They hired me. The team under Larry and Tom was three employees strong at the time—a director of operations, events director, and project manager. I would help shape creative.

WF: Larry and I are in similar friend circles. We were all together and got to talking about possible future projects. Larry’s excitement and passion for his current and future projects is contagious. That’s why Larry and Tom have such a great team working with them.

Can you discuss some of your recent projects?
RS: I’ve curated a company printed newsletter as well as locational maps available at our locations, and collaborated with [candle company] Boy Smells on a new scent to their line paying homage to our restaurant June’s All Day. I’ve worked with the Hill-Side [in Brooklyn] to design/manufacture a custom staff sneaker at our restaurant Elizabeth Street Café. I’ve recently structured a relationship with clothing line Acne Studios for a complete uniform program at June’s All Day. I’ve designed and built functional Radio Flyer red wagon martini carts used for company offsite catering events, curated record and vinyl libraries for a newly designed private event space above Jeffrey’s called the Apartment. I’ve collaborated with Outdoor Voices to outfit our Jeffrey’s valet team.

WF: We just completed June’s All day in Austin, which is a cool restaurant with a focus on the wine bar. We also renovated an old windowless recording studio off South Congress Avenue into our new, light-filled MMH corporate office. We have been very busy working with Outdoor Voices.  We designed their new flagship store in SoHo, and also renovated a 3,500-square-foot space for the company office, which sits directly above the store. We also designed two pop-up stores for them in Dallas and on [Manhattan’s] Upper East Side with custom furniture and fixtures. Most recently, we are collaborating with Lake Flato Architects in Austin on a new ground-up commercial construction.  

Is there a challenging project that you are especially proud of?
RS: The dresses I designed for the women staffers at Elizabeth Street Café are very near and dear to my heart—special vibes with that project! I loved designing uniforms for the staff of a private residential home in San Antonio.  

What are you looking forward to at MMH?
RS: Pushing the boundaries of what a hospitality or young luxury lifestyle group is capable of providing. We’ve started with restaurants adding offsite catering, then added design and hospitality services, then added retail with ByGeorge. We have a hotel project in the works. What’s next? That’s the exciting part.

What do you find are the most challenging and exciting aspects of your job?
RS: Most Challenging: maintaining the integrity and unique charm of each location as we grow. It’s very challenging, but super important and rewarding to do so.

Most exciting: building relationships with folks doing and making cool things. Reaching out to them and realizing they’d love to work with us is amazing.

WF: Creating warm and inviting environments that feel current but not trendy.

How would you define the way you both collaborate?
WF: It’s great having someone to bounce ideas off. I feel like Ryan, Larry, and myself are always showing each other images from art books, furniture references, cool album covers, and fashion to get feedback from each other. It’s crucial in keeping the creative juices flowing.

How are you able to hone in on specific details and craft the tone most apt for a setting?
WF: We print a lot of images (floor plan, furniture, art inspiration, graphic ideas) out and are very iterative with our layouts, so in the end, we have worked and reworked the elements over and over to get them just right.  

What is the most important thing to remember when designing a restaurant—both in terms of branding and interiors?
RS: Will the essence, charm, quality, and bones of the location stand up over time and beat trends or short-term popularity?

WF: Flow and layout are really important. The floor plan should be descriptive, even to someone who can’t “read” plans with a good ratio of small cozy spaces and big open ones.  Although we take it very seriously, the end product should feel fun, almost easy— comfortable.

Is there a designer you most admire? Why?
RS: Sorry if this is kind of a lame answer but it’s just true: Wes Anderson. He designs worlds. His work is uniquely his own and unmistakable. He pulls from so many inspirational sources but remains true to himself,.  His movies are charming and timeless.

WF: Frank Gehry. What is incredible to me is that Frank is still at the office everyday (Saturdays too) designing. He is 86 years old and his work ethic has not changed from when he started. Many people think of his work from the exterior, but his interiors are always very warm, inviting, and comfortable.

What would be your dream project and why?
RS: To combine the design, leisure, social, and communal hangout characteristics of a restaurant with exercise and activity. That’s the next step. To be social with friends and family and feel healthier for it is a better quality of life sort of thing—a beautifully designed space for all of this to exist in.

WF: I already feel like these projects are dreamy. I would love to do a ground-up construction, and I think we will get there soon.

If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?
RS: Barack Obama—so many questions for him.

WF: Stanley Kubrick.

Where would you eat and what would you be having?
RS: Burgers at my house.

WF: Las Manitas (now torn down) in Austin.

If you weren’t working in this industry, what would you be?
RS: Movie director or musician.

WF: I wanted to be a chef from a young age but was too slow in the kitchen.