The Creative Process
An Interview with Architect Stephen Jones
The New Sun: You like to give people a "wow experience" when they walk into a restaurant or building you've designed. Could you explain how you go about inspiring that feeling?
Stephen Jones: I think that first impressions are critical. It sets of tone of your expectations. When I think of the design I think of people getting out of their car, walking to the door, and opening the door. I think that initial feeling when you walk in the door is something that carries through your whole experience.
When I think of the layouts of spaces, articulation of spaces and their flow -- I keep that in mind -- that I'm setting the first impression. It could be coming into a space and seeing a lot of action. Sometimes it's putting a bar at the front, right when you first walk in. You'll have a lot of people standing in a buzz, in a bit of excitement. There's that kind of feeling.
When you go into Spago, the bar is right there and it has a lot of energy. I think that starts to set the tone of the experience you're going to have.
NS: I guess so much depends on what you're doing and who you're doing it for.
SJ: Exactly. At The Hump restaurant, at the Santa Monica Airport, there was a built in "wow factor" in just the fact that you're going to an airport and you're going upstairs and you're seeing airplanes taking off and landing.
Part of the experience in that is actually getting to the space. That was kind of the wow factor. In that space you have to go up three sets of stairs. I thought through the path of the of traveler.
NS: Of the weary traveler.
SJ: Yeah. We had a theme at The Hump restaurant. In World War II, "Flying the Hump" was going over the Himalayan mountains. During the war, China's routes were cut off from Japan, and American soldiers had to bring in food and stuff from the Himalayan mountains. They referred to it as "Flying the Hump," so I had a story line on this.
You walk through this one area that leads up to the space. I made it look as if you are walking down a narrow street with the fish displayed on one side and pebbled flooring on the ground. Once you get inside, it has things such as ceiling fans that look like airplane propellers and materials that aren't traditional Japanese decor.
Being wowed starts with getting out of your car and into the space. The first impression when you open the door -- that's the key point.
NS: Would you elaborate on the creative process. When you're given the assignment and maybe some story lines, or maybe not, do you sit down and start sketching? Do you meditate a bit or talk with people?
SJ: During the process of being interviewed for the project, it's usually in pretty raw form. I try to take a lot of clues from what I'm hearing. I think one of the keys to success is to listen a lot in the beginning. Sometimes you get your clues from not necessarily positive things, but negative things. For a sushi bar, the owner said, "I hate the fact that the sushi case is right in front of you and you have to look at the fish all the time." That becomes a design directive. Okay, how can I do this without having this thing that he hates?
I think the key is picking up on clues. The stronger the concept or the more involved the owners or the client are, the better I think I can do with it.
I did a sushi bar for Michael Ovitz. It was the first time I met him. I got taken up to his office and was a bit taken aback by the intensity of everything. I had my portfolio to show him.
He was really busy and he comes in and talks to me and immediately says, "Okay, here's what I'm thinking: black, white, and natural colors of wood." He was very straightforward with some of the key points that he had. He didn't even let me show him my portfolio. Afterwards I said to the guy who brought me in, "Do you want to see my portfolio?" and he said, "Well, you got the job. I don't really care to see it."
So with those really strong points that he had, I was able to take them back to my office and start thinking with these things in mind. In the end, when I presented the design to him, he loved it. He said, "This is right on!" and I'm thinking, "Well, this is just what you told me."
If I come back with exactly what they say, it would be one thing, but if I come back with a design that had the elements that they talked about presented in a unique way, or a different way, it works. They think -- not only did he follow my instructions or picked up on what I was thinking, but he actually put a little twist on them or made them a bit better. That's a design process that I follow.
NS: I like that you said, "Great architecture is like great music, like a Mozart symphony played by the New York Philharmonic." Do you sometimes have music in mind when you're thinking about design?
SJ: With the structure of music and the structure of architecture, there are a lot of similarities. There's rhythm and the repeating of certain themes. Or coming back to something that you see in one place, and you see it again. Like when you hear it someplace and you hear it again. In an orchestra or in a space there are a lot of different "instruments." There are different aspects of the space, from lighting to flooring to flow.
My role, as a "conductor," is to make sure that all of it goes together -- just like a nice piece of music does.
NS: You are working with Wolfgang Puck and the Academy Awards building?
SJ: I have a long relationship with Wolfgang Puck, in fact that's how I really got into restaurant design. What I'm doing now is the catering facilities for the Ballroom. I'm not designing the Ballroom itself, that was done by the tenant. I'm doing the Baca House and the flow of the catering facilities. There's a pool that we'll be catering to. It's going to be Wolfgang Puck's hub for outside catering and catering for the Academy Awards. That project is more of a utilitarian project, but it does have a pretty high profile.
NS: Do you have tips for other architects or entrepreneurs trying to get ahead and noticed?
SJ: I would say that if you have a passion, you should follow your passion. You may have a passion and not be good at what you do! But if you have a passion and happen to be good at it, it sure helps. There's a certain passion that goes with drive, which you either have or don't have. I think you need a personality that is willing to take the risks to go out there and extend yourself, and not to be disappointed and fall back into a simpler, easy way out. These would be keys for success. I've definitely gone through my periods of doubting.
NS: The "D" word.
SJ: Yeah. The overall ability to stay focused and keep plugging away is good. It's also good to have a partner who can be your "yang." One of the parts of my success is being able to have my wife who is able to make me go that extra step that I don't think I need to do.
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