When discussing the city's hot restaurants of the moment, the name Coeval Studio comes up quite a bit. The seven-year-old design firm that is John Paul Valverde and Miguel Vicens has made a serious impression on the restaurant scene with some very bold spaces including Belly & Trumpet, Tanoshii Ramen and Pakpao Thai, but the guys are far from mere interior designers — they often create concepts from the ground up, including everything from the name and the logo to the architecture and kitchen design, and sometimes even the menu.
For nearly a year they even ran their own restaurant, Campo, where Matt McCallister cooked before moving on to open FT33. Eater recently sat down with Valverde and Vicens at their new studio space in the Design District to talk about inspiration, execution, and the unique challenges that factor into designing a restaurant.
So other than the obvious, designing the restaurant interiors, what do you guys do exactly?
JPV: The idea, or at least our 3 main things we try to focus on is branding, interiors, and the architectural space. How the space feels, what walls go where.
MV: Those three elements is what gives the experience of the space.
JPV: Ideally if you're a client and you approach us about doing a restaurant, and say 'this is what I like but I don't know how to make it happen' — we start with a brainstorming session to figure out the core of what the restaurant will be. Then from there, we start designing the brand, and creating inspiration images of how it might feel inside. After that, if we have a space we start identifying what zones it has and what the program is for each space.
So basically, in some cases you guys do everything from the ground up.
JPV: We do. I think what people dont realize until they start talking to us is, we don't just go out there and pick your finishes. We give you the plan so you can walk into the city and get your permit and start building.
MV: We're not decorators. It's more of actual design work. We design tables, furniture, lighting, chairs — all the elements that make up what a space feels like. Especially when it's a concept that we get to brand, then we get to make sure that everything flows and everything has a meaning and it becomes a more unique space, and the experience of the guest is a lot better. When they leave, they have [a clear picture] in their head about the space, about the food, the experience.
JPV: We just want to create a really cohesive feel in everything we do.
Pakpao Thai. [Photo: Garrett Hall/EDFW]
How did Coeval Studio actually come together?
JPV: Basically I started in real estate in '99 and then went on to open a small company of my own downtown. Miguel and I met almost 12 years ago through a mutual friend and we kind of hit it off but we were still both doing our own thing. In '07 when the market dropped I was doing commercial real estate and I had some clients looking to do a restaurant, they knew how to cook but they didn't know how to develop anything. I had never done it before, but I loved food and I enjoyed design and I was trying to figure out, how do I leverage more business versus just doing the real estate deal? And that was by selling the service of helping really concept the whole restaurant.
MV: I moved here 13 years ago. I studied architecture back in Puerto Rico, then went to Arizona and got a Masters in architecture and came to work with a firm down here, and like John said the economy was kind of dropping, everybody was getting laid off and this was a great opportunity basically to do a project from scratch. John told me about it and that was our first project together, so that's where Coeval Studio began for us in '07.
What are some important elements of designing restaurants that people don't necessarily think about?
JPV: There are several things for me. You have flow issues, and then sight lines — like, you don't want your customers to be able to see the toilet from their table.
MV: From where's the best location to put the kitchen hood, where should the bar be, to where the entrance is, and what you see when you come in the door, and how you feel when you're sitting [in the dining room].
JPV: Where's the dish pit, so you can't see dishes stacked up from the dining room.
MV: We've done a lot of laying out kitchens too, which is something that isn't part of the guest experience but it's more operational. And a pretty big thing lately of course is open kitchens, so you have to make sure that if you need to hide [the dish pit] then you put other elements in front of it so you don't see all the dirty dishes.
JPV: Also, designing is interesting and it's fun but at the same time you have to design to a budget. If you don't have a budget in line or if you don't know what you can spend or how much it's going to cost to design, you're kind of wasting your time. You can design whatever you want, but if you can't implement it then it's pointless.
MV: It's very rare that you get a client that has an unlimited budget. So that's always a concern of ours, we're always very budget-conscious, trying to find the most economical way to do something or how can we save on certain things.
Belly & Trumpet. [Photo: Stephen Masker/EDFW]
So let's talk some specific places you've worked on. One of the most striking designs you guys have done is probably Belly & Trumpet. The artwork in there has inspired some strong reactions in people.
JPV: When we were designing that restaurant after The Bowery shut down, it was really about being dramatic. Our partners on that of course were [owners] Tiffanee and Richard Ellman and it was really an idea of like, how do we give this experience of being a destination restaurant? It's McKinney Avenue, so you're either super-casual or you're just a bar, or you're something that people will talk about and come experience. And in that case we asked, 'Okay, how far do we want to go on this? Do we want to give people shock value or just be a little edgy?' Doing research on different artists and then finally running into Ruben Ireland, his work, we were just kind of like [snaps fingers]
MV: We looked at photos of so many different artists' work and when we saw his, we were like, this is it.
JPV: One of my favorite pieces [of art] is the girl with the heart in the center. That image is so striking. I don't think it's offensive and I don't think it's anything where your kids can't see it, because I take my daughter to Belly & Trumpet once a week, but I think it's a conversation starter. I feel like we achieved what we wanted which is creating something that people will have a conversation about while they're there. And hopefully want to come back.
MV: Not just the art but the color selection too, the chairs, the lighting, everything.
JPV: It was really important for us too — really anytime you're doing a reconcepting — that when you're in there it doesn't feel anything like it used to be. Most people should go in there and be like, 'I can't believe this was The Bowery.' And that's the point. The other thing for us too, we want to showcase that we're versatile. When we started, a ot of people thought that we were very minimal and super modern and we can do that and we enjoy that, but we want to show people that there are all different ways we can approach a restaurant design.
Kitchen LTO. [Photo: Garrett Hall/EDFW]
I'm curious about what you guys did at Kitchen LTO, because it seems like that space probably came with a lot of limitations.
JPV: We were excited that we won and got the chance to do that, but itwas definitely limited.
MV: It was, but us being the first ones to do it, we also thought we might get a chance to do a bit more — but we didn't. We basically didn't have a lot of room to work with. We did create the big centerpiece, the big bent wood tree. We guided the color scehemes, and the lighting on top of the bar, those were the main pieces we got to come up with. But it was definitely a whole different thing for us. We enjoyed it, we put a lot of effort into those pieces that we worked on there.
JPV: In short, it was more decorative. We couldn't lay out the space and decide where the kitchen was, the entrance. But it was a great experience to work with them, they have a very cool, experienced team. I think LTO is an exciting concept.
MV: It was the first restaurant down there, so overall we were pretty excited to be working on it, even though we were limited in what we could do.
JPV: I think the part of that design that most reflects Coeval is the art tree. It took 2 weeks to make.
MV: That's really the piece that transforms the installation.
JPV: The tree is made out of real wood, it's bent by hand. They built these custom tubes that contain steam, and you put the actual pine in there and steam it for three or four hours, then you take it out and bend it. It was done at my house, actually. That's how committed we were, it was done in my backyard with my neighbors looking at me weird. [laughs]
Tanoshii Ramen. [Photo: Margo Sivin/EDFW]
When brainstorming for a new space, where do you start?
MV: Every space is different. Every project has a unique situation. I'm a very spatial person. Projects that are built in existing buildings have their own character, and you work the concept into that character. Situations where we're doing all the branding, we start with a logo or name and start building from there, and then visit the site and see how that gets appplied to the space. Layout wise and all that, it's very location- and site-specific. At the beginning we always go through a session of brainstorming names, logos, and then we would begin creating images.
JPV: We usually come up with a name at like, midnight talking via instant message. A lot of it starts from what the customer experience should be. What feel do you want them to have? Like Tanoshii, we concepted that from scratch. We came up with the name, then the interior, how the space feels.
MV: And since it's in Deep Ellum, we really wanted it to reflect that.
JPV: Yeah, we didn't want it to be too polished, we wanted it to feel approachable and casual. For every project, we want our clients to feel like it was designed for them.
MV: We always try to do something different and unique with every single project. We don't think 'Oh yeah, that worked over there so let's use that here.' We come up with a totally new scheme and see what we can come up with creative-wise, design-wise. Every project we build has those features that make it really special. Like Tanoshii has that bench that turns into the ceiling and has that mural. That's the things that makes Tanoshii special for us. Every single project has those special features. It's very cool to have the chance to come up with stuff like that — and to make it real, which is of course the other part of that. Not just coming up with the ideas, but actually executing it.
Tanoshii Ramen. [Photo: Margo Sivin/EDFW]
So let's talk about Campo. Was that basically just you guys going 'Okay, we do design, we do branding, let's just push it a little further and do an entire restaurant?'
MV: Yeah, that's literally almost exactly it. We were starting to try and work with the previous tenant of that building and that never turned into anything. Then we were actually approached by the landlord to see if we wanted to jump in and come up with a concept for that building. It took us a couple weeks to decide but we went for it. We concepted everything for that space and managed it for 9, 10 months. We built it, did the construction of the place ourselves. We would work in the day and then head over there at night to finish building the lamps and stuff.
JPV: The hardest part was working during the day and then going there at 5 p.m. and running it till midnight, six days a week. It was fun though.
MV: It was an amazing experience.
JPV: It was a huge learning lesson on operations. Of course you can look back on it and say it only lasted 10 months, but for us it was a major experience compressed into a short period.
MV: Obviously we were hoping to make money with Campo, but it was really more like another schooling experience, a learning experience.
JPV: We worked with some talented people so that was really fun and made some great contacts. Before we even opened Campo I followed Matt McCallister for a long time, when he was at Stephan Pyles. He used to come to Lumi [now-defunct McKinney Avenue restaurant Coeval designed] a lot, so we always said hi to each other. When we had clients in town I'd take them to Stephan Pyles to do the tasting menu. But yeah, it was a fun time.
Would you do it again given the right situation?
MV: It would never be a no. It would just depend on the situation. We know a lot of things now that we didn't know before we did that.
JPV: I think it's cool because it does help us even now with our current clients. It's not just about designing for them… If we know a way we can help them on the operations side, we'll tell them instead of waiting for them to find out themselves later.
MV: Even with food, we get a lot of questions like, 'Can you help us come up with some menu items?'
JPV: We actually have a separate food & beverage department that people don't really know about. We have two clients right now that we're designing their menus. We'v done it in the past but now we're making it more formal.
Pakpao Thai. [Photo: Garrett Hall/EDFW]
As far as design goes, what other restaurants or buildings do you admire or get inspired by?
MV: To me it has a lot to do with the architecture part... I get a lot of inspriation from buildings. Like the Perot Museum. That building to me and the experience of the flow inside it is very unique and it's one of the spaces I look at all the time and think about it. Same thing with the new [Margaret Hunt Hill] bridge, too. Those buildings to me are graphically pleasing and graphically inspiring. Their proportions, their shapes. The Perot Museum isn't your typical tower. So I like to study a lot of buildings.
JPV: For me, one of my favorite places in Dallas is Tei Tei. I love the environment and how it feels, but the second reason I like it, and I don't mean this in a bad way at all, is what they used to design it are very common things but the way they were used makes it look like a really high-end finish. That's one of my favorite places in Dallas.
MV: Plus the food is awesome.
JPV: Outside of Dallas, I'd say Freemans in New York. Even though if someone looks at it it doesn't necessarily look that well-designed, but sometimes the way it feels is more important. It's several levels, in an old 1920s building and they took it and basically made a restaurant with a lot of different environments. The lighting is always perfect. The music is always good. Everything about it gives you the right feel. And to me that's more important than what kind of chair you're sitting on — it's about the experience.