“You've got the celebrities, you've got the nightclub scene, you've got the bars, you've got it all.”
Kristofer Keith doesn't want to be a reality-TV star, but he is quick with a one-liner, like the one above about his firm's projects, and says 15 producers have pitched him pilots about his ubiquitous hospitality interior design firm, Spacecraft, which has done $9.5 million in renovations in the past year. And who is he to say no to free publicity from Hollywood?
Keith is a tall, muscular blond with piercing blue eyes and a black Mercedes, who's unafraid to tell it straight; he receives hourly text messages from assistants about where to be next, as the firm often works on five to 10 projects at once.
Some of the network bigwigs have misinterpreted his persona as that of a “player,” asking to shoot promotional sizzle reel of him partying at clubs and picking up girls. “I'm not a nightlife guy,” Keith says. “I'm in bed every night at 10, actually.”
“I don't want anybody else to have work except me. Who says there's enough to go around? I will crush you.”
Don't tell the Occupy protesters, but Kris Keith doesn't give a shit about spreading the wealth. Since he moved to L.A. from North Carolina 10 years ago, Spacecraft has whipped up some of the most popular and enduring restaurants, bars and nightclubs in the city: Stout, the Bowery, Kitchen 24, Te'Kila, the Wellesbourne, to name a few.
L.A. Weekly recently met Keith for a tour of his latest: Naya, an Indian restaurant/lounge in Silver Lake, featuring jagged-edged, vaulted arches made of particle board that's been patinaed and painted to resemble the copper of a Hindu temple; tiles patterned with herringbones, triangles and rosettes influenced by images of Delhi; a spade-shaped doorway; and draped layers of lace and linen inspired — according to Keith — by the “cozy, sexy” aesthetic of mosquito netting.
Growing up, Keith frequented shop class at school and crafted his own art and furniture at home; his mother was a jewelry designer. He studied fine arts at UNC-Charlotte, designed his first nightclub in 1998 and decided in 2001 that the South couldn't appreciate his talents.
Keith thrives on novelty, refusing to be pinned down to one aesthetic. As Spacecraft's reputation has grown, the projects he is offered have increased in scope, though Keith says his work is still “grotesquely underfunded”; discount home-furnishings store Cost Plus World Market is the source of some fixtures in Naya. Restaurateurs and club owners adore him because he can stretch a buck, facilitate all of the city's inspections, help focus their design ideas, provide his own construction crew and, most importantly, create a space with good flow.
Bob Lynn, founder and president of LGO Hospitality, commissioned Keith for one of his first major jobs in Los Angeles — reconfiguring the interior of the historic Del Mar train station in Pasadena as the Otis bar and La Grande Orange Café. “[Keith] had a really independent spirit,” Lynn says. “You could tell that he had his own point of view.”
But not everyone admires Keith's outspoken nature, and vitriolic Internet commentary abounds. For instance, in response to his August 2009 statement that before his arrival, “in Los Angeles there was nothing in design going on; it was a void,” a commenter on the Curbed L.A. blog wrote that Keith's “ego seems to be, how does one say … *out-of-control*.”
“Don't be a place in Echo Park. Be the place in Echo Park.”
When you hire Kris Keith, you work for him. When Tony Yanow bought the Ramona Theater in Echo Park and wanted to turn only 2,000 of the 10,000 square feet into a vegan restaurant with craft beers, Keith told him to go big or go home. Yanow reluctantly agreed to use all of the space, and Mohawk Bend, the cavernous spot that resulted, has been packed every weekend since it opened in June.
Keith used exposed plywood for everything from tables to toilets, evoking the DIY spirit of the starving-artist customers he wanted to attract. “I can see going into somebody's apartment in Echo Park, and they would have a plywood couch,” he says.
Keith told the owners of Naya to make their Indian food more pedestrian, more like his favorite restaurant, P.F. Chang's, so they switched from ethnic to fusion. The menu now includes samosas stuffed with nacho cheese or feta, arugula and walnuts. Keith says his crude tastes are “blasphemous to chefs,” and his “anti-foodie” leanings often lead him to look at the menu but not sample anything at the place he is designing. “I look at the genre of the food, not the quality,” he says.
“Nobody in the city is going to sign off because they're your bro.”
Keith says he has told restaurateurs, “You're not gonna open in 30 days, and it's not going to cost $50,000,” but many refuse to accept that a designer's building-inspector buddy won't risk going to prison because you can't afford sprinklers.
To design and build so many places, each over the course of four to eight months, Keith encourages his eight-person staff to take creative initiative and then checks back every few hours to make adjustments. He also manages the grueling process of obtaining permits and certifications and walking inspectors through what he's done.
“Unlike most designers, I actually know the inspectors personally. I have their cellphone [numbers],” he says. “When I design, it's already to code.”
“No one wants to eat and look at a toilet.”
Placing a bathroom is a delicate art. A fluorescent flash of the porcelain goddess should never invade the space where diners sit, but putting lavatories near the entrance, beside the kitchen or in a corner doesn't always work. Keith cites the $8 million Hollywood steak house BOA as the worst offender: The only exit from the kitchen leads to a blind left turn into the restroom hallway. “Everyone's constantly screaming to let the person around the corner know that there's somebody [coming], and even then you see customers knocking food on the ground,” he says. “It's ridiculous.”
Space planning is Keith's No. 1 priority. He rails against so-called 2-D designers who merely “stick things on walls” or place rooms by drawing “boxes in corners” on the blueprints. The kitchen should have multiple entrances and exits, one of which leads to the back of the bar. To get tipsy clubgoers to find each other attractive, use walls and curtains to create a little mystery about who or what waits around the corner.
“If it's gonna be a pizzeria, you might make the chairs a little less comfortable, so [customers] don't sit around and loiter,” he adds.
“The design world is a bunch of lemmings. Yes, I get bored.”
Kris Keith doesn't jump on the bandwagon; the bandwagon jumps on him. His current pet peeves include a bevy of five-minutes-ago trends: cupcakes, frozen yogurt, flocked-brocade wallpaper, Edison bulbs, exposed brick and, above all, reclaimed wood — wood that has been used before or at least appears to be recycled. In 2004, Keith used wood from old barns as flooring at the now-defunct Ortolan; within two years that trend took off.
Nothing makes Keith crazier than designers who produce the same old look. “If you go into a Chinese restaurant, it doesn't have to be Buddhas sitting around, but it shouldn't be ultra-clean and modern like a museum,” he says walking around Naya. He comes to a room with bindi-esque, red diamond tiles set into the side of a bar and sighs. “You go to 4100 Bar [down the street], and it's just paint and some fabric. It's just kind of thrown together,” he says. “I just wanted to create a place around here that wasn't, like, a dive.”