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Chris Smith on Cohesion, Lighting, and Church-Pew Sofas

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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 CMS Architecture & Design

Chris Smith oversaw a swag of big-name restaurants, including Nobu, before setting up his own shop, CMS Architecture & Design. He’s completed an impressive roster of projects: Charlie Palmer Steak restaurants, the Pearl in Nantucket, and Dylan Prime and Hotel Pennsylvania, both in NYC. Next up, he’s working on the new Todd English restaurant CrossBar, in NYC's Limelight Marketplace, a sushi joint in Waikiki for Rocky Aoki’s son, Kevin, and a farm-to-table restaurant in Union Square with chef Don Pintabona. We spoke to him about Charlie Palmer’s strong opinions, English’s take on bad press, and chefs on reality TV.

You started your interior design career at the Rockwell Group, where you oversaw a team that did Nobu, among other big projects. What did you learn from David Rockwell?
I was there before it was the Rockwell Group, so I saw it transition from being a six-person firm through to a 176-person firm. That was a learning experience. I set up my own shop and did what is now Dylan Prime. Then, it was called City Wine and Cigar Company—we started that with Drew Nieporent as managing partner. He was also a managing partner at Nobu when I met him. He was great. He’s a big superstar stud.

In your opinion, what are the best-designed restaurants?
For me, [that's] when there is a cohesive idea, a thread that runs through the design that is skillfully done, and not overdone. I like restaurants that are not designed at all as well. When the food is great the food is great.

What does CrossBar look like?
It is actually kind of dark, the rectory space where the priests used to dine, and it also had bedrooms. We have a downstairs bar and dining room, then upstairs, another bar and dining room and private room. We are going to do a courtyard as well. We can’t put a bar out there legally, but we are doing a pavilion with loungey beds, and umbrellas. It gets light all day long. Inside, it is dark but it’s going to be open in the day, and transformed at night to more of a nighttime mood. We put in three fireplaces, rotisseries and a brand-new kitchen upstairs and in the basement. It was a difficult space to work in because it was dark.

How did you fix the lighting crisis?
On the second floor, the plaster ceiling had come down and some of it was exposed. We used that as a design element so we installed track lighting and hung this lattice structure below that and all the light comes through that. All the rest of it is decorative. Lighting is number one—everyone has to look good. Then comfort. This restaurant is a bar lounge. We do have custom-made church-pew sofas and banquettes. Because of the tight space we couldn’t do high-backed bar stools so we have smaller, easier bar stools, but people end up standing in this kind of environment. We have a drink ledge on the second level overlooking the bottom level.

What else are you working on?
We are doing a project in Waikiki for Rocky Aoki’s son Kevin. It’s a sushi restaurant. We did one in Miami for him on Lincoln Road. We did another for Kevin in Honolulu as well.

Additionally, we're working on the design of a farm-to-table restaurant in the pavilion space in Union Square with chef Don Pintabona. We are doing a little country inn on the North Fork of Long Island. It’s a beautiful Italianate home that was turned into a B&B. It was owned by Jedediah Hawkins, a sea captain in the 1830s. There’s a barn attached to it, so we are making a connetion to the barn and house, and putting in banquette rooms, and eight or 10 guest rooms. And in Mattituck, Long Island, we’re doing Love Lane Market. It’s kind of like a local green grocer, with all locally grown produce, even some of the butchery. I love the area. I have a house in Laurel. It is the wine country in New York with 38 vineyards and every street has a farm stand.

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