As the designer behind the distinct venues owned and operated by Cedd Moses's 213 group, Ricki Kline is one of the key people involved in a string of nightlife venues that have transformed Angelenos' expectations of what bars Downtown can be (Golden Gopher, Broadway Bar, Seven Grand, The Doheny, Cole's and The Varnish, Tony's, and the forthcoming Las Perlas on 6th Street). Not to mention what fine cocktails should be.

In this Q&A series, we'll talk to Los Angeles-based hospitality designers and architects about what turns them on, tensions between food and design, and the highs and lows of creating places to eat and drink in this town.

Squid Ink: How did you get started in the business?

Ricki Kline: My background is in construction. I was an English major at NYU and had a flair for working with my hands. I made the migration out west and wanted to work outside, got myself in the carpenter's union and loved it.

Bar as laboratory: The Varnish; Credit: Photo credit: Penden + Munk

Bar as laboratory: The Varnish; Credit: Photo credit: Penden + Munk

I also had a shop and I made furniture. And then some friends of mine had a bar and they were opening another one. They asked me “do you want to do this job?” That was Three Clubs cocktail lounge. For over ten years I wore two hats, or even three. Finally I'm here at 213. Now I don't even have a pickup truck anymore, I just design.

SI: How does not having a formal architectural background or degree influence your career?

RK: There's always that problem with self-esteem because of lack of legitimate credentials. But I just have to take a breath and look back at my body of work, which is pretty substantial. Not just in hospitality but I've done a lot of residential projects and commercial projects and office interiors.

SI: How does your design work play into the revival of cocktail culture?

RK: One of the things that might set me apart from more traditional interior designers is that I'm really committed to the back of the house, and working with the staff to give them the machine to do the work they have to do.

And as far as the cocktail culture is concerned, things like the whiskey menu in this bar [Seven Grand], Cedd [Moses] and I do a lot of traveling together, and we both have learned about the industry.

The Golden Gopher was just a bar. All of a sudden you realize it's not just about a bar, there's an amazing array of products out there, too. And this stuff was happening in London and New York; it was like chefs in the 80s, that same explosion of interest and craft.

SI: So you collaborate with the staff in the design process?

RK: They [Eric Alperin and Sasha Petraske] had a unique vision for their process, the work process itself, how they perform behind the bar. So we have something that almost looks more like a laboratory or a kitchen than a bar where the spirits are not just spirits but ingredients in a recipe. I think everybody got what they wanted and it's a really great room.

We decided to go with a simpler, more austere look in the [Varnish] room than the other [Cole's] rooms. It's really about the cocktail service and creating a room for people to look at each other, not the walls. The room is built around the bar, and the occupants and the room match each other, so that the room does not oversell the bar and the quality of the cocktail is never degraded. That was the point of being involved with Eric and Sasha, was to not have that mark be compromised.

This is the first of 2 parts.

LA Weekly