Interview: Studio MAI co-founder Milo Garcia

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Designers Los Angeles

Crystal Wynn, Milo Garcia, and David Irvin are frequent collaborators on hospitality projects.

I met Studio MAI co-founder Milo Garcia at the stylish Hayden Tract office he’s shared with business partner Crystal Wynn and their team since 2007. Branding expert David Irvin introduced me to the London native, since he frequently collaborates with Garcia and Wynn, starting with Gjelina. They shared interesting insights into their creative process.

Josh Lurie: What brought you to Los Angeles?

Milo Garcia: Holiday. I trained as a fine artist and product designer. I was doing some shows in Paris and New York and I came to L.A. for six months break. I met my business partner, Crystal Wynn; she was doing some residential projects, and she asked me to help out. One thing went to the next, and we ended up starting two studios with minimal money, one here and one in Hong Kong, and 18 employees.

JL: So you started with residential and expanded to hospitality?

MG: We started with residential, and we started teaming up with other designers to manufacture and help them design products. Say you have a small design studio asking us to make a bronze light fixture or table; we would design and make it for them. Our heritage was about manufacturing products. Rather than come at design with a sense of space, and a sense of how we’d like to have things look, combined with materialities of products, we come at it from the other angle. We know how to make things, so we know what things should go where and what materials are applicable or appropriate areas, and the authenticity of materials; we design with that in mind.

JL: How do you and Crystal divide your duties?

MG: Crystal’s in charge of the interior design department. I oversee all the projects, generally. We meet on every single project and meet on a weekly basis, but she’s in charge of the day-to-day activities of the interior designers and meeting the deadlines. We have a consistent outlook and design concept that we always sit down and share.

JL: How has that changed over the years?

MG: When we first started, it was a free for all, and just by the necessity of the projects and the clients we have, it’s become more formal in our approach. One of the things we do, we encourage a lot of playtime, so when we start a project, before we get into heavy drawing time, we actually play with stupid ideas and figure out materials and have some time to develop materialities before we start. That’s really crucial. If the concept’s not right, then we don’t start working until the concept’s right. One of the things we’ve done with David – and I think this is a big distinction with us – and there are a couple other studios in the world that do this – but we look at restaurants as a brand. So it’s not, “How do we decorate a restaurant?” It’s, “How do we make this brand successful?” We look at the chef, look at the owner, look at what they’ve done in the past and what they’re trying to achieve and think about how to make that brand very, very successful in terms of how authentic it is, to place the priority of the chef on the food, and how those things come together, and that is in terms of the identity he has from an outside perspective in terms of graphic, branding and everything else, and the interior. The food is always primary. It’s not decorating and have the place look pretty and the food be crappy. We don’t do that.

To answer your question another way, what’s changed quite significantly is before, we wouldn’t take every project, but we’d take a large portion of projects. Now we’re more cautious about who we work with, and we make sure it’s the right fit. Doing restaurants is extremely time consuming. It takes a lot of energy and a lot of man hours to do it. It’s a relationship with the client or the chef, and that relationship lasts from when we get going to the day the keys are handed over, and even after. So the marriage has to be good. They have to understand how we work, and we have to understand how they work. So we always try the chef’s food before we start. We’re always very honest about the location they’re picking, whether the food’s right for the location, and whether we can help them achieve what they set out to do.

JL: So there have been times where you’ve said it’s the wrong location, and they’ve reconsidered?

MG: Yes. That actually happened, most recently, with our current project. A young chef was looking at a location in East LA, and the food didn’t feel like it was going to be appropriate. It felt like it was going to be a more bombastic approach to the neighborhood. They actually looked at it and reconsidered and said, “Milo, you’re right about the location we were thinking of,” and went elsewhere. We’re not always going to get it right, but it’s trying to look at the neighborhoods. We know L.A. very well. There’s no point in putting a one Michelin star – to exaggerate – in Silver Lake. A) people can’t afford it, and B) it would seem somewhat bombastic. If it’s a small little kind of dining place in the back of a photography shop, done by one Michelin star, at low price points in Silver Lake, that would work very well. So it’s trying to combine the neighborhood with branding.

JL: What was the last time you tasted the food and decided not to move forward with a project?

MG: Probably about six, eight months ago. We felt that it wasn’t the right fit, or that the people would be better served going elsewhere. It’s not necessarily, oh, I don’t like my sauce with that much garlic. It’s more a question of looking at the timeframe, looking at what the chef wants, looking at if it’s something we feel will be a good marriage. We look at everything. One of the major factors, obviously, is the food. We’re not judging the food. Somebody’s going to design it. At the end of the day, is it going to be us, and is it a good fit?

David Irvin: We’re very picky as a team. We know what we like, and if we don’t like it, we don’t hesitate to voice that.

MG: A chef will have a certain idea. He’ll have a certain dialogue about the food… I have an opinion about this person. It’s always infused by being slightly blinded by certain opinions. The question is when you meet a chef or meet an owner who is too blinded or too headstrong, you decide how much flexibility you have to coax them into a direction. At the end of the day, the outcome of a successful restaurant is making money. If the personalities or the marriage between design and food don’t relate well together, because someone is headstrong or think the food is trying to do something that it’s not, that’s what we’re looking at. It’s not a pure judging of too much salt or not enough salt.

JL: Have you always been interested in food, or did that come about as a result of working with chefs?

MG: I’ve always been interested in food. I love restaurants. I love designing restaurants. We’ve been asked to go back and do some residential projects and have always said no. We considered doing one in Silver Lake recently, and we decided against it. To me, restaurants, there’s that sense of kind of self-awareness that you have. They take time to get dressed up to go to a restaurant. They have an expectation about going to that space, and who they’re going to meet, and what the outcome is going to be in that space, of that encounter, and there’s something wonderful about that, and how you play with people’s perceptions and you make them feel relaxed in these environments, yet slightly on edge. How do you play with that? How do you do that? There are ways of playing with people’s perceptions, like how you do the lighting, so that’s that tension.

JL: So you’ve moved on exclusively to hospitality?

MG: Yes. We’re doing one hotel, which is in Mammoth, a 105-room hotel, British developer. We’ve just redone some of the Doubletree for Hilton, redone some of the interiors for that. And we’re doing about 7-8 restaurants coming up.

JL: All in Los Angeles?

MG: All in Los Angeles. And we just finished a condo project in New York. 123 3rd Avenue, which sold out.

JL: Do you have a dream client? What would that client need to be?

MG: Ourselves. We actually talked about the idea of opening our own restaurant, our own bar. We kind of thought that would be something to do in the future. I don’t think there is. That’s like saying, do you have a dream date? No, because the dream’s not going to be a dream in the end. I might sound somewhat cynical with that. I don’t think it’s a dream in the end.

JL: In what ways do you, Crystal and David complement each other?

MG: I’m the more rational one. David’s headstrong, and Crystal’s passionate. As a team we work well together. At the end of the day, we all have our interests and passions. Getting together, it makes for cohesion and makes the whole thing work very, very well. It leads to unexpected results.

JL: A potential client contacts you. You taste their food, and you enjoy it. What’s the next step?

MG: Typically, a client contacts us, they send us information about the space they’re considering, the location. The next thing would be for us to try their food and have a chat with them, and talk about their background and what they aim to do with the space, and what they aim to do as a brand. It takes us about 3-4 weeks to decide, in terms of the general state of the projects that we have, the amount of availability of the studio, and if we take on the client, we’ll start just by bouncing ideas around. Some clients will come along with –a recent client came along with – 70 images of things they liked. They didn’t know why they liked them, they just liked them, and that’s beautiful, because you sit there and he had a picture of some random toy he found, a picture of something else on the street. And it’s just kind of making sense of all the things they liked, and what they wanted to achieve with the brand. That’s crucial. Some of the clients just give us free rein and we come up with essentially what is a series of mood boards defining the first round of what we see the brand to be, and how the food fits into it, which is what you see on the wall here. [points to mood boards] A lot of these are first stages, some of these are second or third stages, but it’s always easy to use images we found that we like of objects and things so they can see a reference to that.

One of the challenges when we’re doing restaurants – in many cases it’s largely one of the few industries you have someone who’s wanting a change of career or they’re a restaurant group. If you’re working with someone who’s wanting a change of career, and doesn’t know anything about the restaurant business, to explain it to them, how to do a restaurant, or what a restaurant should be like, is somewhat challenging. Using found objects and materials, they can touch, look and feel things and design a concept. Restaurant groups, on the other hand, love them because we can sit around with these mood boards, if you will, and show them around the office and discuss them as a concept. So that’s where we always start. Rather than do any drawings, we literally play with materials and images until we feel the client’s understood, or it gives us a chance to bounce ideas around. Invariably, the feedback is from these 10, 12 mood boards, without the direction, “We feel it’s a bit too rustic, a bit too modern, a bit too monochromatic. Can we push this or that?” And then we develop it further.

JL: From that point on, you go into drawing?

MG: Nope, from that point, we develop 3D models… We don’t do any drawings for three months, until we feel that the general backbone of the project, and the concept of the project, is tight. If the concept’s tight, and we know what the brand is, that allows us to piece together the technical aspects of the drawings, elevations, and material footprints quite quickly.

JL: What happens when they come to you and have a space, and you’re not enthused about the space?

MG: In some cases, we’re wrong. In some cases the space is right, but what they’re trying to communicate, or what they think the brand could be, they’ve got it slightly warped. In some cases, we’re just wrong. We look at it, we spend a couple months thinking about it, and if we take on the space and we like it and move forward, we’ll tweak it and make it work. We have a current project now, it’s in the basement of a building, we weren’t enthused by the building, love the client, and think the area’s a bit odd, but we decided to take on the project because we felt that the chef had a very clear vision of what he wanted. If we could ignore certain aspects of the architecture or the building that it sits in, then the place could be a success. In that case, we could say that we’re wrong, and we’re trying it out. Ask me in year’s time and I’ll tell you how it went.

JL: What’s the project that you can discuss at this point?

MG: Just generalities, we were asked to design two nightclubs. I don’t know about David, but I used to be a big clubber when I was in college. The thing that was fascinating about doing the club, the first pitch we came up with was a club, a concept and an empty space for people to dance in. We sat down at the meeting and they said, “You designed a club.” I said, “Yes, that’s what you wanted.” They said, “No, we wanted a club with bottle service,” and I had no idea what bottle service was. That was all news to me. “So how big is this dance floor in the club?” They wanted the dance floor to be about 200 square feet. So out of a 6,000-square-foot space, 200 square feet were dedicated to dancing. The other 5,800 were dedicated to making copious amounts of money for doing nothing. So that’s challenging. That’s fun. We’re doing a large club. It’s about 8,000 square feet in Hollywood… We’re doing another small club that’s about 2,000 square feet, and that’s about to open at the end of May, so that will be one of our first projects this year.

JL: That’s in Hollywood too?

MG: That’s in Hollywood. It’s a small little place. We’re pushing – the client likes their places to be somewhat themed – it’s always a struggle for make them understand that there are ways of doing themed and we’re not doing a club based on the “Pirates of the Caribbean.” There’s a feeling that evokes. Let’s play with that feeling and evolve that feeling into an interior that makes sense. Our goal is to make L.A. into a place that is not second to New York, that is on the map, and people seem interested in things coming out of L.A., and that L.A. has its own flavor. We’re doing an Italian restaurant, and you look at that and think, we have Italy, we have Florence, we have all these cities that do great Italian food. There’s a take on it in New York when the American Italians came. There’s a look and feel for a New York Italian place. What’s that for L.A.? How do we do that for L.A., and how do we make that substantially different from Italy, so if this goes elsewhere, it’s seen as a California based Italian restaurant? So that’s the kind of move and concept and plan we do initially, rather than just design an interior.

There’s essential design. If you look at the Roman and Williams of the world, and the AvroKO, that sense of design has happened. There are plenty of examples of that. The Ace Hotel. You could look at Stumptown, Breslin restaurant. You look at Public for AvroKO. That kind of Americana industrial is coming to an end. It’s finished. I was watching “True Grit” last night with Jeff Bridges. There’s a court scene there, and I was like, “There you go. There’s AvroKO and Roman and Williams in a nutshell right there. 1890, that’s what they did, and that’s great, but that’s been going on for 10 years. There’s a need for interior design and design in general, in this country, to move forward. London’s doing it. Tom Dixon does some great work. Studio Leeds does some wonderful work. The States are still catching up, and they’re still locked on to that Americana, Ace Hotel. We’re trying to get away from that and bring L.A. the new possibility of what interior design can offer.

JL: What do you want to be known for as a design firm, if it’s not this sense of Americana?

MG: Challenge. Materiality. Different ways of seeing things. This is a global economy. We just opened a place called Zinque, which is on Abbot Kinney in Venice, and yes it has a slight monochromatic look. It’s about raw materials. We’ve exposed how we fasten things together. We’re not trying to hide things. Everything is about materiality itself. If there’s a wood, we’ve left it waxed. If there’s a metal, there’s brass, we just left it the way it is and let it tarnish naturally. So looking at influences, maybe a Japanese sensibility infused with the nature of what the brand is going to be or trying to be. In that case, it’s a French wine bar where the importance was on wine, so having simple reds wouldn’t work. Having Burgundy shown on an ash table would be really wonderful. It’s that kind of combination. Simplicity and layered materiality would be great to be known for, and function.

JL: Who are the other people here who are working for you?

MG: We have various departments. We have an architecture department. We have a product development and design department, and we have an interior design department. We still build furniture on large scales for W Hotels and SLS and Philippe Starck. We’re currently doing two hotels with them. They will send us drawings, we’ll look at them, we’ll rework them and we’ll price them out, and we’ll manufacture large quantities, 9, 10, 15,000 of the same piece. One of our most important departments, we have three people working in it here, and two people overseas, is the product design and development department. The goal is to take that knowledge and over the next 12 months, and start our own line of furniture. We’d like to have that out by, ambitiously, end of year, but probably not until mid next year.

JL: Where will that be available?

MG: The idea is to do it online only, now, and then start off with distributors. We’ve managed to find a lot of product designers who have an idea for a product and can’t get it made. We actually can manufacture it cost effectively. We can compete with things like CB2, as well as certainly Restoration Hardware. The idea is to start off with an online presence and develop it from there, our own design hub.

JL: So 9,000 products. What are you making 9,000 of?

MG: We finished the W Austin about a year ago, and that was all encased goods. It can be anywhere from welcome desks in the front area to the furniture in the hotel rooms, all the way to custom kits, so a whole myriad of products. But I’d like to think we could tackle almost any furniture item we set our minds to. But it’s challenging. Making things overseas is extremely challenging. Currently we make things in south China, north China, Java, and Japan.

JL: What are the biggest challenges about working internationally?



Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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