Rare is the restaurant designer who gets the zeitgeist, yet pushes currently accepted boundaries and resists pat trends. Ana Henton and MASS Architecture & Design's work strikes this balance. While not limited to commercial projects, Henton and business partner Gregory Williams's updated modernist sensibility can be seen at places such as the newly rehabbed Gold Bar in Echo Park, Corkbar, Intelligentsia Venice, Bacaro and Mignon, its forthcoming sister wine bar downtown, and Breadbar locations.
Squid Ink: How did you get started in hospitality design?
Ana Henton: It's a simple story: Silverlake Wine. They were moving to the neighborhood, and I did something I never do: I went and introduced myself. We became great friends, and they taught me a ton. Because it's retail and a restaurant, a lot was about what it takes to serve, and what it takes to sell.
S.I.: Did your business become word of mouth, or did you start actively cultivating these types of projects?
A.H.: All word of mouth. And architecturally it became really interesting, 'cause it's something you have to do really fast; it's a lot of speed, a lot of detail, and extremely budget conscious. Unlike a house, these people are spending money from day one: on rent, on equipment, on staff. So it's this kind of pressure cooker situation. And that's a great challenge.
S.I.: Do you see a distinction between architect and designer labels?
A.H.: I do. In terms of hospitality design, if someone hires a trained architect to do the design of their space, they're not looking for a decorator. Most people who do restaurant design are interior designers or decorators, and they'll pick fabrics, colors, textures. If [clients] are looking for something innovative in terms of planning, programming, material use, and how the space is going to feel, then that's when they're going to come to an architect. I don't think a space is successfully designed if I can tell what catalogue things came from.
Because the lifespan of these places is short, it's a real opportunity to do something different. But that only happens if the client is willing to go there. With Intelligentsia Venice, they REALLY wanted to go there, so that was great for us. I call [it] “micro-architecture.” It was really about these pieces. They wanted the machines to be completely reconfigured. They were a client who knew exactly how they work, and what works.
S.I.: So it really is Form Follows Function, cliché as that may be?
A.H.: I hate to say it, but it really is! But in a way, it's how can we make [the function] more efficient and better and incorporate the design in it. Everything is down to the millimeter.
S.I.: What do you like and dislike about working in L.A.?
A.H.: People are always looking for something new, and are completely open. I used to work in New York and I think there's it's more tried and true. Like make it look like This, whereas in L.A. it's I don't want it to look like This.
The problem I have is set design. I don't like spaces [with that] temporal quality.
S.I.: What are some of your favorite eating and drinking places that you think of as well designed spaces?
A.H.: I love Hungry Cat, and I love their kitchen. I look at that a lot because it's the most efficient use of space. I like Varnish and Ricki [Kline]'s spaces; he creates an atmosphere. I like Barbara Barry's work; really clean, modern lines, and I like to see her palettes.
S.I.: Does having your office across the street from Neutra's office inspire you?
A.H.: I like to think that's a good thing! It's a great community here.