Karen Herold in the entry of Studio K, which serves to show some of the textures she likes to use in her restaurant projects.
  • Michael Gebert
  • Karen Herold in the entry of Studio K, which serves to show some of the textures she likes to use in her restaurant projects

We’re close to the point of believing in an auteur theory of restaurants, in which they spring fully formed from the heads of chefs, so maybe it’s time to remind ourselves that there are also restaurant owners (who are like producers) and other kinds of professionals involved in our total experience as diners. Specifically, there are restaurant designers, who are a little bit like production designers (devising the look of the set), cinematographers (creating the atmosphere with light), and editors (making the experience invisibly smooth) all in one.

And there’s no hotter designer in Chicago at the moment than Karen Herold, who launched her own Studio K with Kim Nawara at the start of the year after earning acclaim at 555 International for her designs for projects including Girl & the Goat, GT Fish & Oyster, and Embeya in Chicago, and for Steve Wynn and Michael Morton in Las Vegas. Herold went out on her own to further pursue a type of restaurant design that, she says, is “emotionally driven,” not about making “it look good, but about creating environments that people feel good in.”

A Dutch native who started in fashion design, Herold turned a brief stop in Chicago on the way to Los Angeles into a career that’s spanned 13 years here so far. Her rapidly growing studio in an old industrial building on the near west side works on a variety of projects, ranging from student housing to an upcoming redesign of the Waldorf Astoria hotel’s lobby to include a Brendan Sodikoff brasserie. But when I interviewed her there, one project on her mind was her own building, which turns out not to be as quiet as she’d like when people are walking around the upstairs offices. Today I ask about her approach to designing your restaurant experience; tomorrow we’ll talk about some of her specific projects, past and future.

Michael Gebert: How does a restaurant project start?

Karen Herold: It’s funny because it’s actually very close to how you learn it in school. I didn’t learn it in school because I went to fashion school, but it’s the same process. First thing is we meet with our clients, the chefs or the operators or both. And 90 percent of the information I need, I’ll get out of that first meeting. We just talk, and we hang out—I always say, it doesn’t matter if we shop or have a drink, I just need to be around you for two hours. And just by the way you speak and what you wear, I know what environment you need to feel good in.

Then we go, we find images online of existing spaces that match what I have in my head. A lot of times, those might not be images of spaces—it could be a dress or a necklace. Those are attitude images. We collect those images, we collect materials that have that same attitude. We meet with the clients—99 times out of a hundred, they say “Yes. Exactly. How did you guess?”

And then we start doing schematic designs, we go from the attitude to how do we create that attitude for you. So then at that point we’re starting to look for actual materials that fit in your budget, we’re doing actual floor plans so we make sure you have the amount of [customers] that make sense financially. We’re drawing elevations of bars, we start finding all the actual information for the chairs, the lighting. And at the same time we’re creating a budget for all the pretty things that the clients care about that the construction guys don’t include in their budget. It’s about a two- to three-month process, and then that’s done.

Conceptual presentation board for a student housing project.
  • Michael Gebert
  • Conceptual presentation board for a student housing project

For a restaurant, obviously, there’s the look and then there’s the functionality, and I’m sure there’s a lot of rules and wisdom for that side, the machine side of it.

In every job there is a specialty in just knowing the logistics of something, in knowing how things work. And once you have that, you just automatically keep those things in mind. And then you have the flexibility to work off of that. But there are things that we just know, like how big the bars are and how much space you need behind the bar and where the service stations are and where the silverware comes from and where the water comes from. After 13 years you just know that, and we always start with that. Because, otherwise, no one’s going to come.

I was lucky that we started with clients who were our clients for many many years. Because we never handed them a package and said, “Here’s your design, good luck, pay us, and we’ll see you at the opening, maybe.” We were there the two weeks before opening, we were at the opening, we were there two weeks later, a year later. So you really know the operations and you know where it doesn’t work.

To be really close with the operators right at the beginning of my career and be with them year after year made us design in a way that will look the same ten years later. A lot of designers, I think, don’t know how materials last, and they use cheaper materials, and a year later it’s broken. Or [they] won’t lay it out in a way that the staff has easy access. I think if you have that knowledge, which is really just experience, then the trick gets and the fun part gets to be, to challenge those ideas.

Because one of my biggest annoyances is, “Well this is how we always do it.” Yeah, maybe this is how we do it in a certain firm and a certain country, but in Amsterdam things are very different. There isn’t that formality of the host and the systems—a lot of times it’s like, “Yeah, just sit there and we’ll figure it out.”

I’m working with Brendan Sodikoff now who’s a genius in the restaurant world. And he challenges those ideas, and if someone else had challenged those rules, you’d be like, it’s not going to work. The fact that he says it, you’re going to pay attention.

So I think [functionality] is the most important thing, but the trick is to do it in such a way that no one knows that that’s what it’s about.

People shouldn’t be able to see the system?

Yes, but for example Balena, the Italian restaurant I did for the Boka guys, all the service is moved into the restaurant, because I wanted to create an authentic Italian feel. When you went in an old restaurant in Italy, there weren’t service stations behind the walls, none of that was thought out. It was, here’s a table and that’s where we can put silverware and that’s where we can put carafes, because there’s space for it.

And it makes people really feel comfortable. It’s like the idea of the open kitchen. You like the idea that stuff is kind of happening around you as long as it’s done in an aesthetically pleasing way. So at Balena we moved all the service items to this big round table in the center, we have all these niches embedded in the walls. So there’s one service station that is kind of out of your eye, but all the rest is in your face and it really works well.

Was there any resistance to something like that from the Boka guys, because everybody knows you hide that stuff away?

No, not anymore, because by then it was my third or fourth restaurant with them and by then there was trust. And it’s never like, here, guys, this is how it’s going to be. Most of the time I present to them, like, hey, I’ve been thinking about something.

For instance, a leather bartop. There’s a lot of resistance to leather bartops, and the first person who allowed me to do it was Steve Wynn. And the fact that I’ve never heard one complaint, and he’s someone who really strives for perfection. And the restaurant’s been open, I think, three or four years now, and it’s still perfect. Now, it wears, like leather boots and saddles and handbags, but it gets prettier with the years.

So I wanted to do that [at Balena], and I suggested that to Rob [Katz] and Kevin [Boehm], and at first they said, how, that’s not going to work. But when you have one example and you can prove it, then it worked. And they couldn’t be happier, that place is open for two and a half years now, and it starts to live. Like something that isn’t stagnant in a restaurant, which I always like, that there can be movement in it.

You’ve said before that you like neutral colors, and I can’t really think of a place where you splashed really loud colors. Is that because they last longer, don’t go out of fashion?

You know, I designed the offices in this building and the upstairs is black and down here is white. So I guess I think in those terms, that’s my base. But at the same time, I painted the bathrooms pink. And that works there.

I prefer to think in terms of textures. For instance, Balena has no painted drywall. Even where it seems painted drywall, it’s actually plaster, so it has texture. Or painted burlap. In Girl & the Goat, it’s the wood that we torched to char it a little. So there’s layers. Even in a photo you might not see it, but you feel it.

So the two most important things are layers of surfaces and layers of lighting. Because you can layer lighting too.


Which I think is a strength for a lot of your designs, that kind of variation throughout the space. To me the least interesting thing is the rectangular room where you can take in the whole thing as soon as you walk in—there’s no mystery. Most of yours, I think, have different feels, reveal themselves in different ways throughout the space. How do you make that happen?

The first and most important way that it happens is that I really try to instill in my staff, you design with your core. Instead of designing with your eyes, and start matching colors, which I think is what most designers do, you design with your—I call it my stomach, but I think for everyone else it’s somewhere else in your body.

But it’s a very emotional process. Most of the time I know it in the first hour that I walk in the building, I know what it needs from an emotion level. A lot of times I compare it to—you know when you just woke up from a dream? And you know that dream. But the moment you start trying to explain to your spouse, it’s gone, and an hour later the whole dream is gone. But then maybe during the day, something happens, and it comes right back.

So that is the way I design. That dream, when I walk in a building or when I meet with a chef about their concept, I know what it needs to be, from a very core level. And then after, the three months that it takes after, is to find the words to explain that dream. And those words are materials, and lighting and so on. So the first thing is to address the space from an emotional level, not a visual level.

Because the visual level is like Vegas—ah, a crystal chandelier, it’s five stories tall, wow. The second time, you know that crystal chandelier, so you might never come back for that chandelier. But if you go to a space where you felt really good, you will come back.

Read part two of this interview, in which Karen talks about Balena, Embeya, GT Prime, and other designs.