From overall concept and graphics to website design and interiors, New York-based designers Fadi Riscala and Michelle Agnese, principals of Riscala Agnese, like to leave their mark on every aspect of their restaurants. Their designs mix playful elements, like a mechanical bull in Rockefeller Center and splashes of vibrant red in New Jersey, with sophisticated sensibilities that create the perfect backdrop to whatever the menu of the moment calls for. Riscala, who emigrated from Beirut in 1983, received a degree in interior design from Kean University Design School. He started his career with Q5 and was approached in 1996 to design his first restaurant, introducing Riscala Design as a professional design firm. Now, with the addition of partner Michelle Agnese, Riscala Agnese Design Group creates some of the most imaginative spaces, sometimes on a shoestring budget, helping neophyte restaurateurs from concept to completion.
Here, the restaurant designers talk about their new Food Network series, the secret to a successful partnership, and advantages of being constantly curious.
What's so great about designing restaurants?
By nature, designers are hungry for change, which can be an uncomfortable place. There is a constant call for fresh ideas and approaches in restaurant design, so it's well within our comfort zone. What we're saying is that we're most comfortable being uncomfortable.
You seem to love to see a concept through—graphics, Web sites, menu design, etc. Why is it so important to you to get your hands on every aspect?
The strength of any brand or concept comes from the continuity and consistency of its message. Restaurants are no exception. It is all about an overall statement coming from one single breath. If we could be the chefs preparing the food, as well, we probably would. From a practical aspect, limiting the number of parties that are involved in the overall process saves the client time and money.
Do you have a favorite place to start conceptualizing (i.e., menu, location. building history)?
We try to get to the root of our client's intended concept by asking a lot of questions to establish solid ground from which to start designing, rather than pulling from anything too obvious or superficial. Once we define the intended concept, the specific feel and level of design is driven by the target group and the budget.
How did you two come together?
Michelle Agnese: A fabric rep told me about a guy who was designing restaurants out of a barn, but when I found him (in said barn), he didn’t have enough work to hire me. We clicked, so I kept showing up until he did.
Fadi Riscala: There was this persistent girl just out of college that kept showing up at my office, until one day I had enough work to bring her on. Her name was Michelle.
What's the secret to a great partnership?
FR: Embracing your differences and celebrating your similarities—that is, as long as the similarities outweigh the differences!
MA: Respect for one another, without egos to get in the way, is important to keep things moving in the right direction. But the natural dynamic between who we are as individuals enriches everything we do as a team. A common objective for the overall vision of our company and our projects is of utmost importance.
What's the secret to a great client relationship?
Truly becoming part of the client's team rather than just a “hired designer;” possessing a true sense of care and concern for the end result; putting your personal or professional interests aside; and working as an integral part of the collaboration, where the project benefits from each individual bringing something meaningful to the table.
What's the most important thing to remember when designing a restaurant?
The end user's psychology (which is not necessarily that of the client), the timeline, and the budget.
What projects are on the horizon?
We’re collaborating with a client and architect from Southern France on a new Meatpacking District-located restaurant; a new blues joint in Philadelphia; the development of several, fast-casual concepts; and some exciting new hotel work.
Biggest challenges in the hospitality industry today?
Budgets and timelines significantly have gotten shorter with the shift in the economy, so we drastically have had to adjust our services to accommodate that. We constantly are stretching our minds to push the limits with materials and methods in order to achieve the most possible with less. Remaining interested in our project involvement and executing many of the installations ourselves has been a huge benefit.
-- Hospitality Design (HD) magazine, sister publication of Contract magazine