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Chris Sheffield on Working With the Right People, Paris, and Wi-Fi

Welcome to Dining & Designing, a new column in which Curbed National joins with the forces of Eater National to profile and explore the design of restaurants. Your fearless leader through this untamed wilderness will be Julie Earle-Levine, an Australian, NYC-based writer who has contributed to The Financial Times of London, New York Magazine, and the New York Times, among others. She has both a passion for real estate and a passion for eating. This will be fun.

Photos courtesy of SL Design

Philadelphia-based Chris Sheffield, who started SL Design in 2005, masterminded the interiors of Bills Bar & Burger in Manhattan, the 400-seat largest standalone burger joint in the country, Amalia at the Dream Hotel (also in NYC), and the award-winning Postcard Inn, in St. Pete Beach, Fla. He’s currently working on revamping Stone Rose in NYC's Time Warner Building, a new restaurant for Stephen Starr at the New York Historical Society, a swank private swim club and restaurant in Philadelphia, plus a cool new wine bar concept for the world’s youngest female master sommelier. He spoke to us about themed restaurants, the thrill of working for Starr and Steve Hanson and his desire to create an urban hotel in Philly. Or Paris. Either works.

How did you get started in interior design?
l have a background in art history. I started working at architecture firms but my interest has always been on the interior side. The scale and immediacy of the experience is more appealing to me.

How do you choose your projects?
The most important thing is who we are working with. We’re small. We only work on six to seven projects a year, so it’s crucial that we work with people who are as passionate about what they are doing as we are. It’s also an intimate process getting into someone’s head, so we want to work with people we enjoy spending time with. We’ve been fortunate enough to have long-term relationships with several clients. We’ve done five projects with B.R. Guest. [Its founder and president] Steve Hanson has a really remarkable energy that impacts every single aspect of what they do. He lives the restaurant business and is not afraid to be critical. The first time I met him, he walked through restaurant I’d designed—Amalia in the Dream Hotel—and gave me five or six comments of constructive criticism. The next meeting was at his restaurant and he asked me for the same. He doesn’t take a cookie-cutter approach to anything. He has a point person in the office who deals with design, but he’s very involved in the design direction and implementation. He signs off on everything. Sometimes there is a bit of conflict but it’s never an ego-driven thing. The integrity of a project is very important to him and he will fight for those things—if he agrees.

Tell us about the new restaurant for Starr at the New York Historical Society.
It’s a 70-seat, 2,500-square-foot space that will be part of the Historical Society’s $75M renovation. The challenge is: how do you do something for a museum patron during the day, and draw from the surrounding neighborhood—the Upper West Side—in the evening? The quality of Upper West Side dining has improved, but there is still a real need for restaurants. It’s going to be small-plate Italian [called] Cicchetti. Everything will be prepared and plated in front of you. The kitchen will be a very open experience. We tried to keep it from feeling too minimalist. There is a lot of depth and dimension to what is going into the design. We’re working with the museum to curate elements of their collection and to incorporate them into the space. Much of the color and pattern we are introducing will be achieved using elements from the NYHS archives. It’s important to us to have the restaurant reflect the character of the institution and have a connection with the history of New York, as well as to have a contemporary Italian twist.

What is it like working with Starr?
There is a little bit of pressure, but we may put on ourselves. Stephen puts a high value on design, and he values the input of those he hires. He is not interested in designing the space himself but he’s a really good critic, and a really strong editor.

You’ve earned awards for 675 Bar in New York, and for Postcard Inn in Florida. Tell me about these properties.
Postcard Inn was a lot of blood and sweat and tears. It was a blank piece of paper, then concept to opening in nine months. Steve Hanson and Barry Sternlicht, who created Starwood and W, were partners in the property. It was different from anything else on that strip but it wasn’t overdesigned. There is comfort there, whether it's locals or travelers from Europe. It was a motor lodge built in the 1960s. We wanted to maintain its integrity and we did that, for very, very little money.

Are you seeing more demand for simpler, cleaner design—a step away from fussy hotels?
Definitely. We are still interested in creating spaces people can take comfort in. It’s partly driven by the economy, and a shift in people’s attitudes.

What should every hotel still have, no matter how simple?
Free Wi-Fi should be a given. Also, some kind of a gym or fitness area that’s not just a closet, or little room. Hotels need to appreciate some of things restaurateurs have done. If you start to do a la carte you start to commoditize the experience.

For me, the best hotels are ones that offer that kind of seamlessness and escape. Palazzo Sasso in Ravello, above the Amalfi Coast—I got married there. It’s a level of luxury above all others. Cap Juluca in Anguilla. I love Hotel du Petit Moulin [in Paris]. It’s a perfect city hotel—there is such a strong sense of place. It feels like the Marais.

What’s next, in your dreams?
I’d love to do an urban hotel—20 to 40 rooms. I’m not sure that model will work financially but the scale of that would allow me to create a variety of experiences. I’d love to do it Philadelphia, but if not here, I would do it in Paris.

Head over to Eater National for the rest of the interview. >>