Hospitality design inherently focuses on designing spaces focused around comfort, care and respite, but for Greg Bleier and Terri Robinson, the work that Studio UNLTD does extends beyond simple function. A New York native, Bleier has always had a passion for holistic design, while Robinson’s long love of nature has often seen it brought to the forefront of many of her projects.
For Bleier and his team, it’s all second nature at this point. What’s good for the front of the house needs to be good for the back of the house as well. The focus is at once designing for the concept the spaces yearn to capture, and designing for everyone that will someday occupy the space, creating communities and promoting wellbeing through the firm’s design.
Below are some excerpts (edited for clarity, brevity and thematic linkages) of a conversation I had recently with the duo.
DesignWell (DW): Before I get too far ahead of myself, Greg, what prompted you to found Studio UNLTD in the first place?
Greg Bleier (GB): This was just happenstance really for me. So if I had to, I guess, predate this founding of the firm, even before I went, because I had graduated from University of Pittsburgh, had moved to Seattle, living in Seattle for a while with an art degree, not knowing what to do for my next move, and had decided to go back to school for interior design.
I had done these visioning sessions of sorts and imagined not dissimilar from the studio I’m looking at through the window here, but just wanting to create a creative guild so to speak of people that I knew that were talented, but maybe didn’t always have the voice to go out on their own and started to create safety in numbers and be able to offer a full gamut of design.
Now that was before I went back to school, after I was done and started working, 2005, I graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a design degree. 2008 is when the great recession hit.
I didn’t really have a lot of experience generally in the workforce at that time, but all of the work was drying up here in LA. I basically lost back to back jobs at smaller firms over the course of two years, or actually within two years, and just started working my own connections and was able to land a couple of fun projects on my own.
One of those was the project that I ended up meeting Terri on, which was a residential project in the Pacific Palisades here. Then the other was actually a high end pawn shop in Beverly Hills. So I had always wanted to do restaurant design, just didn’t even have the opportunity to do it.
So even when I was in school, I didn’t even sniff a restaurant or food related project even in studios, but I just started speaking to people, meeting people here and that just opened up some doors early on to get into that industry.
DW: And Terri, how did you move from furniture manufacturing into eventually becoming a principal at Studio UNLTD?
Terri Robinson (TR): Well, I actually, back in ’92, graduated with an interior design degree at Montana State University and never really quite did anything with that. I mean, in a sense, I did work with furniture. I do custom design furniture for local stores here. Back then it was a pretty tough industry. I got out of that probably in 2009.
I met Greg on a job where I was basically doing consulting for Millwork Design. We worked on a job in Pacific Palisades. It was a residence, a high-end residence, and we worked really well together. Greg knew that I had graduated degree in interior design and he was like, “Hey, should join me. You could be in charge of millwork.”
Obviously, that was my specialty, so for a couple years, I just hung out at the office, familiarized myself with the profession, found out that I really did love it. We were doing a lot of restaurant work and I love restaurants, love food. It just made a lot of sense and from there it just made sense to move forward as a partnership.
DW: Now, do usually sell any of the bespoke elements you create for projects outside of those applications?
GB: This project [Gusto Green] was the first time that we had done that. I mean, we pretty much have always focused on creating something unique, either light fixtures or some kind of furniture element, in each project, but this particular opportunity presented itself with Industry West. They’ve been, I guess, on sale for about a year or so now, and there’s a full line, which we didn’t even showcase the entire line at the restaurant.
DW: So what projects are you guys working on currently?
GB: Well right now we are so busy at the moment and it’s pretty remarkable given where everybody’s come from over the last two and a half years. We are starting to see our business stretch nationally. We had our first international project during the pandemic, which was wild. That was probably one of the first jobs, if not the first job we’ve ever done that we have not visited the site for. That was in Paris.
We’ve been doing a lot of work outside of Los Angeles. We’re working on a project currently that we’re excited about down in Honolulu for a restaurant there, an exciting young restaurant group that’s trying to plant their flag and have designs on creating the best restaurant in Hawaii.
DW: And with that work, would you consider it to be based in wellness per se?
TR: For us, yes.
TR: I think the first time I truly really started thinking about that was when we worked on Gusto Green and just their ethos. Everything that they do is based on wellness and using adaptogens and that type of thing. It’s in a building that’s centered around cannabis. It’s not that they actually serve that, but I think there’s just properties related to that that promote wellness.
I think across all of our projects, we focus on community. For this one in specific, we started thinking about what does the space do as far as how it makes people feel as they’re there. That’s where, for me, I really started to think about that. Not to say that I don’t think that a lot of our projects consider that, but I think prior to that, adding greenery for me has always been the most important.
Bringing a little bit of the outdoors in, it adds a softness to the space that I think people desire. Especially in these last couple years, people need that feeling of openness and nature more than they ever did before.
GB: And just jumping in a little bit further on that. I don’t think we go out of our way to say that these are wellness spaces. I think we want there to be a sense of that from the patrons, but also the workers that are there.
We were at Gusto Green last week and the server at the end of the night was thanking us for creating a space that she’s excited to be at every day. I think that makes a difference to us because we’ve all worked in spaces, some good, some bad. For them, it’s not any different than going to an office except they’re on their feet all day and sweating,
Generally, I think the idea that we’ve gone in with on so many projects has been to bring in natural light, whether it’s one project where we opened up an old warehouse and allowed ethereal light to come in through these giant skylights or creating a sense of that through artificial lighting. It’s also been about bringing in real, natural greenery wherever we can.
It definitely gives back to the space. I think there is this kind of base human desire as Terri was alluding to be close to nature. There’s something appealing about that. I think there’s something calming about that. Maybe it’s just inherent in our general approach that we don’t think about it too much. It’s a more holistic approach to designing the space, not just focused on the front of house.