Over chai and naans at Dishoom, yesterday we explored the power of visual identities in the company of legendary restauranteur, Alan Yau.
In 2015 we began a series of intimate breakfast events for our Members, hosted in Dishoom’s beautiful Carnaby Street eatery.
For the third in that series, we turned our attention to the role of visual identities in cementing and expressing a restaurant's offering, with the help of serial entrepreneur, Alan Yau. The endlessly inventive restaurateur is the brains behind ventures including Wagamama, Yauatcha, Hakkasan and Busaba Eathai.
Joining Alan in conversation was Sean Perkins, Founder of North Design and Alan’s ongoing collaborator. Sean has had a hand in crafting Alan’s restaurant concepts ever since they first partnered on Busaba in 1998. The pair have since worked on more than 30 launches, most recently on Turkish eatery Babaji and Mayfair’s 'dinner and dance' restaurant, Park Chinois. Together they shared how their partnership has progressed over the years, discussing the inspiration and rationale behind each restaurant’s visual identity.
Here’s what we learned.
When developing a new restaurant concept and designing its identity the menu is often the only brief. “Alan begins with the food” said Sean. “We articulate that into marks.” Alan’s restaurants have so far encompassed casual communal Japanese dining, Michelin-starred takes on dim sum, and a relaxed Turkish pizza spot.
But as well as the food, inspiration can also come in other, more unusual forms.
A mural in China’s National Tea Museum inspired Yauatcha’s pastel patisserie boxes, while a pair of tartan trousers helped create the visual language behind Betty’s, a French brasserie in Hong Kong. The interiors and identity of Beijing eatery Jing Yaa Tang took inspiration from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, while Alan gave Sean nothing more than an image of a chef cradling a pig juxtaposed with the Soprano’s Vanity Fair cover as a starting point for Chinese noodle bar Cha Cha Moon.
Alan often already has a creative solution in mind when it comes to developing the identity for a new concept. But, as he described, he often keeps his ideas to himself. “I try not to state my real intent,” he said, instead waiting to see how the agency’s ideas progress. “Their solution might be better than mine.”
While many of Alan’s restaurant concepts have been achingly fashionable, Sean argued that visual identities should have longevity. “We create trustmarks,” he continued. “Logos that last. That carry on communicating.”
“Brand essence has to be articulated within the restaurant, but not in a way that’s tacky or over-commercialised” agreed Alan. “Rather than applying the identity everywhere, I aim to craft a narrative.”
He returned a few times to a metaphor that compared creating a restaurant to making a film. You know instantly that you’re watching a Martin Scorcese or John Woo movie, he commented. “When you watch a film, you see the world through their lens.” He sees his role as that of a director, crafting an experience that reflects his own world view: “I want people to view my restaurants as a personal interpretation of each cuisine.”
He creates those experiences through the restaurant’s “emotional architecture”, how the design of a space makes you feel. John Pawson, the architect and designer behind Wagamama, taught Alan about semantics and semiotics, which has radically shaped the way he thinks about restaurants. “Sound, colour, typefaces, staff uniforms, each element is an ingredient,” Sean described. Every subtle trigger helps create a feeling. An open menu tells you the setting is casual and relaxed, explained Sean. One with an embellished cover makes you understand that the experience is more formal. “There are layers and layers of expression, that together make up the whole.”
The mark of a good restaurant is that people steal everything, joked Sean. Menus, crockery and even toilet signs have gone missing from Alan’s restaurants around the world. “People want to take a piece of the experience home with them.”
Alan explained that he is wary of allowing feedback from diners or critics to influence him too much, or prevent him from pursuing ideas that are original.
He also shared with us a new venture he has in the works: an online restaurant recommendations platform named Soft Chow. He plans for the platform to offer an alternative to the ratings-based options currently available online. Instead providing qualitative recommendations from people with good taste. “It will offer taste aggregation through a social networking structure,” he said.
Identity and identities
We should be careful not to overestimate the power of visual identities, or think they alone can create a memorable dining experience. “Identities don’t make restaurants successful,” said Sean. “The proprietor is the heart of the place. Identity is really about personality. And it’s Alan’s personality that we’re capturing.” Alan has sold on many of the restaurants he has opened, for a series of impressive sums. And without him at the helm, a few have lost their way.
Thanks to our speakers, and to Sam Bush for the photos above.
London, W1B 5QB,
Start:7th March, 2017 at 9:00am
End:7th March, 2017 at 11:00am