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Think Big

By Judi Ketteler

When Architect Philip Wu, owner of a one-man New York firm, first saw the proposed location for restaurateur Simpson Wong's new Jefferson restaurant, he immediately found inspiration. The space itself was just a rundown Greek diner, but the site—a compact, one-story building situated directly across from a picturesque park in Greenwich Village—was an architect's dream. "From the beginning, it was about letting the site condition come into the inside," Wu says.

Instead of thinking grand, Wu thought smart and simple—an approach that earned him and the restaurant the Will Ching Award at last year's NeoCon. Each year, the Will Ching Award is given to an outstanding commercial space designed by a firm of five or fewer designers.

Wu's first challenge: Divide the small space into distinct drinking, dining and relaxing niches so customers could flow in and out easily. "Because the owner only had 1,600 square feet to work with," Wu says, "it had to be a simple solution." Wu used variable ceiling heights to define four spaces: the bar, a small corridor, a vestibule and the dining room.

Next, he tried to bring in as much light as possible into the space and take full advantage of the view of the adjacent park. Capitalizing on the space's one-story build, he incorporated three skylights. Wong, who also is Jefferson restaurant's head chef and spends most of his days at the restaurant, immediately appreciated the skylights. "It opens everything up," Wong says. "It makes you feel good and upbeat the minute you step into the space." In an industry where customers' moods directly correlate to their patronage, a basic element like light can net a big payoff.

Wu limited his media to four basic materials: wood, concrete, acoustic tile and glass. Patrons enter near the bar, which is constructed of stacked plywood covered with a thin layer of Corian®. The space's all-glass front, quarter-sawn white oak walls, wood and concrete floors and simple, clean-lined tables and benches convey a minimalist attitude.

Minimalism in a hospitality setting may seem counterintuitive. After all, concrete floors and walls don't seem warm. But where Jefferson defies that perception—and attains award-worthy status—is in its blending of those materials to achieve warmth and elegance.

"We liked that it achieved a sophisticated look with a limited pallet," says Guy Geier, IIDA, a Will Ching Award judge and Principal with Fox & Fowle Architects in New York. "It's difficult to achieve that successfully."

Wu's streamlined, space-conscious approach is something Geier would like to see more of in commercial design and architecture. "Sometimes solutions get overworked," he says. "I would like to see this type of solution become more of a trend."

Though this was Wu's first restaurant project, he applied the same principles that guide much of his residential architectural work: creating functional, simple solutions. Wu doesn't usually look to use the newest, most expensive materials; he'd rather reimagine the conventional. "For me, it's about the integrity of the space," Wu says. "I try never to over-design."

Another area in which Jefferson Restaurant stands out is in its attention to sound. In the noisy bustle of New York, acoustics play a large part in determining a restaurant's atmosphere. Wu imported high-tech, aesthetically pleasing acoustic panels from Japan. It's the first time such panels have been used in a U.S. commercial space, Wu says, and it makes for superior sound quality in the dining room. It's also pretty to look at, unlike most acoustic tile, and the lighting concept is woven right into the panels as though it were an element of their design.

The end result is a restaurant that is modern but not trendy. "I tried to make the restaurant a spatial component rather than an interior design project," Wu says. The space is bare of excessive adornments, such as flower arrangements, artwork, ornate wall coverings and window treatments. The restaurant doesn't even have a single sign. Wu decided instead to let the front glass wall serve as a kind of sign by exposing the inner workings of the space. "It is its own advertisement," he says.