Generating Experiences, Telling Stories, Speaking with Materials
A conversation with Alexis Readinger, creator of award-winning restaurants, predictor of a ‘bootylicious’ design future, and keynote speaker at this year’s Decorative Surfaces Conference
By Kenn Busch, Material Intelligence
I spoke to Alexis Readinger just after she had returned from Burning Man. She was bursting with inspiration, even more than usual.
“It’s an amazing dream, so beautiful to be part of this huge intentional community, where everyone is absolutely straight and totally considerate. It’s a privilege to be amongst all these people coming from all over the globe with an idea, and their imaginations go crazy. They create an enormous installation, or a small one, or even just little gifts to share…everybody’s bringing something.
“It’s different than anything else because everybody’s generating a unique experience.”
Generating unique experiences is something Alexis Readinger does extremely well. As founder of Preen Inc. and one of Los Angeles’ hottest restaurant designers, she works with chefs and owners to create spaces that tell a story.
When Tesse opened on Sunset Boulevard in 2018 it was voted the Most Beautiful Restaurant in Los Angeles by the Eater LA website. As I write the restaurant, serving rustic, contemporary French cuisine, is on the short list for Americas Restaurant and Surface Interiors in the Restaurant and Bar Design Awards in the UK.
Starting With the Story
“The design comes out of the story of its location in West Hollywood,” says Readinger. “We wanted to bring a serious kitchen back to the Sunset Strip, an area where exploring macrobiotic cooking, communal living and that whole hippy mentality combined to create the story of the ‘California Table.’ We also wanted to pick up on that John Lautner moment, with rich, saturated earthy colors.”
Obsessed with terra cotta but unable to find a manufacturer in LA, Readinger used six-inch pink concrete blocks, “sometimes twisted and rotated almost like a glitch, where you’re not sure if it’s on purpose or not.”
Another brand new project, another story: Restaurant Piccadilli in Culver City: “We’re calling it ‘fresh pop apocalyptic,’ says Readinger. “The place is a funny mix of a moment for fine dining and bar food, dominated by a very fat bar in the middle looking into the kitchen. We designed it with a little bit of romance, taking place after the apocalypse. It’s almost like a waypoint, where a couple had planned to meet, but they might not both make it at the same time. It’s a love story.”
Another project close to Readinger’s heart, and to her own neighborhood in LA’s Chinatown, is Howlin’ Ray’s, a Nashville hot-chicken joint that’s bright, casual, fun and loud.
“It’s a phenomenon! After three and a half years still has lines out the door. The project was very lightly funded, but I was very interested in helping to create success for them. I used particleboard, plywood, corrugated metal and light-colored Formica to keep a sense of cleanliness. But we didn’t want to get into a ‘sterile’ conversation, so we did subtle things with lighting and dichroic filters to make the space much warmer than normal, bumping up the whole experience to make it feel like fried chicken.”
Once the story is written, how does design begin?
“Materials are huge for us. Our choices are what very much what makes our work different that a traditional architecture office, but our library is a little unconventional, we don’t use binders to store samples. We always start from a pile of experiential tactile things.
“Because restaurants have a very specific financial model and some are more well-endowed than others, we often look for materials that we can get a lot of, inexpensively, and try to use them in unique ways. We’ve made chandeliers out of oyster shells. We were the first in LA to use reclaimed wood in a restaurant. We’re always hunting for something that no one else has used, or that we can use in a new way. And I love watching how materials age in a space.”
Asked about ‘the next big thing,’ Readinger points to the “aesthetic of the round.”
“Things are kind of ‘bootylicious’ right now…corpulent. I don’t want to say ‘fat,’ but…grabbable! Posh, velvety, duotones, with a lot of arches and round things. This is still happening, I don’t think we’re fully into it yet.”
Readinger would rather talk about what’s next, despite the many accolades she’s earned.
“My goal isn’t to win awards. My goal is to create spaces to uplevel peoples’ energy, to feel assured and become more engaged, and be more beautiful people. The awards are great because that’s free press, and we do need that to grow and create projects that the world needs, projects that might be too ‘forward’ for someone to naturally come hire us for.”
Find out more about Preen’s work at www.preeninc.com.
To meet Alexis and learn more about the future of hospitality design, join us at the Decorative Surfaces Conference in San Diego, 3-5 December. www.surfacesconference.com.
Copyright 2019, Material Intelligence LLC