Community, Greenery and Restaurant Design with Studio UNLTD
On this episode of the DesignWell podcast Greg Bleier and Terri Robinson of Studio UNLTD stop by.
As part of an award-winning hospitality design firm the pair are no strangers to cultivating a sense of comfort and wellbeing on projects.
A New-York native, Bleier himself harbors a distinct passion for restaurant culture and holistic design, while Robinson combines her experience in designing bespoke furniture and love of nature to create distinctive biophilic spaces.
Through the firm’s unique, collaborative approach, there is a constant cross pollination of ideas, no better represented than through their projects.
In this episode, we will discuss:
- Studio UNLTD’s work in creating community-driven, biophilic and holistically designed spaces.
- What constitutes a human-centric space.
- How custom elements are used to play into the story of a space.
Nick Boever: Greg, Terri, thank you once again for coming on to the podcast. I figure before we get started with things today, I’ll give you a moment to introduce yourselves to the audience.
Terri Robinson: I am Terri Robinson. I have been with Studio UNLTD for about eight years. I joined Greg about 2009.
Greg Bleier: 2014.
Terri Robinson: What’s that?
Greg Bleier: 2014.
Terri Robinson: Wow. Thought it was longer than that. Prior to that, I had a furniture factory where I designed and manufactured furniture local in Los Angeles.
Greg Bleier: I’m Greg Bleier, the president, I guess, founding partner of Studio UNLTD. I’m originally from New York and moved to LA in 2005. Started the firm in 2009.
Nick Boever: Very interesting. The furniture factory sounds very interesting. How’d you get over from doing furniture manufacturing, and then eventually making your way into interior design?
Terri Robinson: 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. Then it was a pretty tough industry. I got out of that probably in 2009. That’s probably why that stuck in my mind and met Greg on a job where I was doing consulting basically 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 just 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. So it just made a lot of sense and from there it just made sense to move forward as a partnership, I guess.
Nick Boever: Yeah, it’s really great to hear. I feel like it fits in really well from what I’ve seen from Studio UNLTD, just because the project that I got introduced to you guys on, the Gusto Green restaurant, I heard about the custom lighting work that you guys did there. It peaked my interest as far as having this interior design firm that also makes these bespoke elements that they include in their projects.
Terri Robinson: Well, I guess to that point, Gusto Green was one area. I mean, we do like to do custom lighting on a lot of our projects and Gusto Green in particular, we wanted to incorporate some type of lighting that obviously also incorporated some type of greenery, namely in this picture, air plants. At the same time, Greg had a relationship with Industry West. They’ve been going back and forth on potentially us working on one of their showrooms, but then it fell into, “Hey, would you guys like to design any lines for us?” We’re like, “Well, as it happens to be, we’re working on a line for a restaurant that we’re currently working on and it might be something you’re interested in.” So we designed that line and then it led to another line that hopefully will be coming out in the next year. I think it’s been doing quite well, actually.
Nick Boever: Cool. So you guys actually do sell these outside of the projects that you’ve used them on, I guess is to say?
Greg Bleier: Yeah, this was the first time that we had done that. I mean, we pretty much have always focused on creating unique, either light fixtures or some kind of furniture element per project, but this particular opportunity presented itself with the vendor or the company Industry West that Terri mentioned. Yeah. So yeah, they’ve been, I guess, on sale for about a year or so now, and there’s a full line, so we didn’t showcase the entire line at the restaurant.
Nick Boever: Give them a little taste of what you have going on.
Greg Bleier: Sure. Well right now, I mean, I would say we’ve got, gosh, 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, but we are starting to see our business stretch nationally. We had our first international project during the pandemic, which was wild to have a job 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. So yeah, we’ve been doing a lot more work outside of Los Angeles. So we’ve done a project currently that we’re excited about down in Honolulu for a restaurant there, an exciting young restaurant group. So they’re trying to plant their flag and have designs on creating the best restaurant in Hawaii.
Nick Boever: It’s actually very interesting. I personally love food immensely and Hawaiian cuisine has been one of those things that I’ve always been drawn to just mostly because they use a lot of Spam in their cooking in a lot of regional dishes. I will admit I do actually really Spam, but kind of interesting. I’d love to hear about how the restaurant scene is out there, because I have to imagine it’s got to be so unique with it being its own micro climate.
Terri Robinson: I think in this instance, they’re actually, I mean even in the design, they’re like, we want it to, because their cuisine is more Italian inspired, but even the design they’re like, “We want it to not feel like you’re in Hawaii.” Yeah. I don’t know that they’re going to be. I think they’re going to be leaning more heavily on an Italian inspiration on that one.
Nick Boever: Okay. Interesting. I guess I got a little bit of ahead of myself though with the first couple questions. I meant to ask, Greg, what prompted you to found Studio UNLTD in the first place? I’m curious, have you guys always worked on restaurants or did you guys get started something else in the beginning?
Greg Bleier: Yeah, 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. 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. So 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. So 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.
So one being 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.
Nick Boever: Now I’m curious, with the work that you’re doing currently, it’s going through the website for Studio UNLTD, there’s a lot of talk of building communities out of these designs and incorporating plant life and natural elements to a lot of your different designs. I’m curious for you guys because I’m deeply embedded in the wellness and sustainability categories. So to me, when I see all of these things, immediately all the lights just start flashing up in my head. I’m curious if you guys consider the work that you’re currently doing, if you consider that to be based in wellness per se?
Terri Robinson: For us, yes.
Greg Bleier: Yeah.
Terri Robinson: I think the first time I truly really started thinking about that was when we worked on Gusto Green and just their ethos, I guess. 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. So I think all of our projects, we focus on community. I think 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 were considering that, but I think prior to that adding greenery as far as for me is always very 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, being surrounded by nature more than they ever did before.
Greg Bleier: Yeah.
Nick Boever: Yeah.
Greg Bleier: Sorry.
Nick Boever: I feel like it has to be second nature almost when it comes to designing a lot of these spaces where it’s like you’ve worked with it for so long. You’re just like, “That’s the way it needs to be done.”
Greg Bleier: Right. Yeah. I mean just jumping in a little bit further on that. So I think when it comes to… 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.
So this is really, for them, not any different than going to an office except they’re on their feet all day and sweating, but generally I think the idea that we’ve done so many projects where we start to bring in natural light, whether it’s our [inaudible 00:15:48] project, where we opened up an old warehouse and allowed ethereal light to come in through these giant [inaudible 00:15:55] skylights or creating a sense of that where no natural light can be found through electric lighting, but also bringing in natural, real greenery where 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. So there’s something appealing about that. I think there’s something calming about that. Yeah. So I think there is a factor of that, because maybe it’s just inherent in our general approach that it’s a more holistic approach to designing the space, not just focused on the front of house.
Terri Robinson: Yeah. I mean, I think we both come from that desire. We both like to be in nature. We both appreciate that. So I think just like you said, it inherently just comes out in design in a lot of cases.
Nick Boever: So I guess digging a little bit deeper into that, when you’re designing these spaces, do you happen to notice if there were any natural touches or elements in design that you guys find yourself regularly drawn to?
Greg Bleier: Just natural touches?
Nick Boever: Yeah. I would say something along the lines of the different elements within biophilic design. You have the natural plant, you have the plants themselves, you have more natural earthy colors like we were talking about a little bit at Gusto Green. You had mentioned lighting where I know in a lot of the spaces that are trying to go for that more natural feel, there’s ample natural lighting coming in or as you would mention using circadian lighting systems to supplement where natural lighting isn’t possible.
Greg Bleier: Right. Yeah. I think for sure. I think from an early time period, we’ve always focused on using more architectural finishes as well. So most of our meaning, the basic, glorified, architectural finishes like time honored steel or metals, glass, wood, things of that nature. So the feeling of plaster instead of paint when an option. So even if our spaces can or are more contemporary or modern in style, that there is a storytelling through the materials themselves so that they’re relatable to people, that they’re not too polished or too standoffish. I mean, it really comes down to the goal of the project ultimately, but I guess when nature is thrown into the mix or organic like in the case of Gusta Green, it’s a predominantly plant-based cuisine. So that becomes really important to come stay true to that using natural and organic materials throughout. So yeah, I mean think that you’ll see throughout all of our projects.
Nick Boever: Now when you’re working with those plants in the space and the natural and organic touches, how do you usually work with it? How do you work with them to accentuate the manmade elements, because I know we were just talking about you have that interplay a lot of the times between organic and manmade. Is there ever a time where you’re working with a tab, one accentuate the other?
Terri Robinson: I don’t know if it’s about mostly it’s accentuating more so it’s adding a softness to a lot of hard surfaces. This just adds another layer in the space and depth in the space that you don’t have when you don’t add the plants in.
Nick Boever: No, I mean, fair enough. That’s something that I definitely like to see a lot, that juxtaposition between the two different types of materials.
Greg Bleier: Yeah, I think certainly when we’re working in a space that’s a bit more like, Bevell is a great example because Bevell at its core is a pretty simple, clean space if you take the enormous plant hanging sculpture out of the room. It’s just a very bright and it still has a lot of storytelling from the building itself. The existing brick comes through the plaster on the walls, the flooring pattern that we put into the space. I mean, there’s still details in space, but that element is so dominant in the room that it, on its own, balances out the space in quite a magnificent way I think. When you’re in there, even though it’s this one giant design move that it, I guess, balance is the right word. It just…
Terri Robinson: I think it almost makes it all come together.
Greg Bleier: Yeah.
Terri Robinson: It’s more cohesive. Yeah.
Nick Boever: Sticking with that idea though as you’re talking about the different stories that you’re trying to tell with these spaces, I’m curious to when you’re developing your own design elements in the beginning, how those ultimately end up playing a role in these stories that you’re trying to tell for these spaces.
Greg Bleier: Are you referring to basically furniture, lighting fixtures, and those types of elements?
Nick Boever: Yeah, yeah.
Greg Bleier: Yeah. I go back to one of the first big restaurants that we did, which was [inaudible 00:22:35] out here in Los Angeles. Pretty much most of the decorative fixtures in that space are, and even a lot of the main seating elements are custom. There was a lot of custom elements into that space and they’re in a lot of ways the heart and solve the restaurant. Even the ones that you don’t really see because it’s a pretty tight space. So you don’t really have a lot of great vistas in the room where you can see all the details that went into it. So I think starting there, these elements, we were strategic about it. So I mean, there’s a economy that has to be thought of when we’re doing these projects. There’s a lot of R and D that has already gone into many off the rack products versus trying to sell our clients, going through that process with us.
So I think we reserve it, like we pointed out earlier in the discussion that it’s really a few elements here and there, maybe a little heavier acoustic greens, a little heavier on that side, for instance, and [inaudible 00:23:56] in one. That’s a little heavier, but I think we try to inject a little bit of unique personality into the space that adds to that culture of what the restaurant is about at its core and reinforcing the design concept of the space as well. So we don’t just do it to do it. There’s intentional. It’s very intentional in terms of our strategy, but we also try to keep it very focused.
Nick Boever: One of the things that I’ve been wanting to ask too is just for you guys, for all of the projects that you’ve worked on, I’m curious what’s the most fun or unique opportunity you’ve had in your career so far?
Greg Bleier: Well, I…
Terri Robinson: It’s different for both of us.
Greg Bleier: Yeah, we might have a couple of different ones.
Terri Robinson: Yeah.
Greg Bleier: I mean, Terri really enjoyed working in Paris because that was her project, even though she wasn’t there. That was fun because it was… You want to talk about that before [inaudible 00:25:06]
Terri Robinson: Yeah, it was in the 10th…
Greg Bleier: [inaudible 00:25:11]
Terri Robinson: [inaudible 00:25:12] I don’t even know how to say that. Anyway, it was in the 10th, but I don’t think it was in a Houseman style building, but it was an older building. Certainly not as old as a lot of the buildings in that surrounding area, but they did want to preserve some of the, they have these large columns within the space and they want to preserve the existing material on them. So they had a few stipulations like that, but I think I was mostly fascinated by their process. I think that here in LA we have a little bit more of a convoluted process as far as getting things permitted and built. I think I handed over a drawing set to them in January and it was built in May. It was up and running in five months.
Nick Boever: Wow.
Terri Robinson: No idea how they did that.
Greg Bleier: It’s really fantastic.
Terri Robinson: Yeah. My mind was blown, but I also have to say that other than trying to constantly transfer from inches, what do you call that?
Greg Bleier: To metric?
Terri Robinson: Yeah, over to metric was a little bit challenging, but just working with the architect there was quite pleasant. It was a really good working dynamic between the client and the architect. Yeah, I was always curious what it would be like to work with somebody in Europe and it was actually a very good experience. So we’re eager to do more.
Greg Bleier: Yeah. I would say probably what I would consider maybe one of our most unique projects was OTM in downtown LA, mainly because of the opportunity. This was a huge collaboration. There was a lot of people involved in this particular project and it was certainly a feat. So it was not, what I would say, always fun, but certainly unique in that it was piggybacking or related to the Broad Museum, which was built in downtown LA. The sighting of OTM is built on a bridge that was created during this process. So it’s a bridge that was built over a street that goes down the old Bunker Hill west side. So this restaurant is seated at the end of this platform or bridge, if you will, overlooking Hope Street, which is a cool thing.
To be associated with that, as it relates to the museum, the uniqueness of the building, it was a ground up building on this little [inaudible 00:28:14] and so pretty cool. From that regard, it was just a massive undertaking. So as mentioned, there was a lot of great talented people involved in that collaboration on that. It’s one of those buildings that in the middle of a very corporate part of Los Angeles, it’s almost like a little carving of Napa modern in that space. There’s a hundred year old olive trees in this Plaza, a lawn and it creates a wonderful break of the concrete and stone surrounding it.
Nick Boever: Both of those sound really interesting. They also sound just miles apart from one another in terms of approach. I’m with you on the big projects always being some of the most fun ones, just from my own experience. Some of my most memorable mountain climbing experiences have just been the ones that are just these 10 mile treks out into the wilderness. So not to get too off topic on that one though, because I could talk about that for a while. Before getting on this call, I mentioned that I had been to HD Expo this year and I got an opportunity to sit in on a lot of talks during the show, a lot of them focusing on different elements within hospitality design.
I sat in a lot of the talks over the Designwell pavilion and got to hear a lot of the different people talking there, but what I noticed at the show was that a lot of people were talking about community and culture within design, specifically with regard to how hospitality design in particular can work to foster these communities and this local culture within the design. So after going through your firm’s catalog of work, that’s something that’s very obviously core to your design in a lot of ways, this integration of community and culture and growing community and culture out of the spaces that you build. So I’d like to hear from you guys yourselves what your specific approach is to adding these influences into the design of a space.
Greg Bleier: Well, I think again, it really comes down to the individual project. So for us, we’ve been fortunate to work on and I think we both really enjoy taking on the types of jobs that I don’t want to say they’re more like underdogs in some ways, but the things that I think we get excited about, I know I can speak for myself, I’ll get excited about are taking these projects, which for instance, apologize for the motorcycle noise, like Rose Cafe in Venice as an example. This was a beloved existing restaurant that had been around since 1979. It was a daytime restaurant and then all of a sudden the locals found out that there was a larger restaurant group that infused money into it and was going to assume the operational control over it. Venice is a pretty strong community here in Los Angeles. So definitely upset the [inaudible 00:32:21] part there.
So I think the chef being a native Angelino, Jason Arone, we worked very closely with him to foster a design that was not going to disrupt or completely turn on its head the design or feeling I should say of their beloved space. We were just enhancing it, but also making it a lot more approachable I would say in some ways, meaning that there was a lot more seating. There was a lot more opportunity just to be there because it was going to be an all day restaurant. So it’s in some ways at Venice, it’s a little bit like a public square of sorts, because any time of day you go there and it’s just full. People will just hang out there and work and celebrities hang out there and work. It’s kind of a funny spot, but you see people from all walks of life there.
It’s very laid back. It’s the relationship of the chef and the local artists, some that have deep history in the neighborhood, produced a lot of the very interesting poster art within the space and some of the murals, preserving the existing mural on the face of the building, things that the community that has been there a while relates to, but also the newer transplants and things can take ownership of as well over time. It’s again working that nature into it because it’s a very airy space. It’s got a lot of outdoor seating. So it’s unique in that way. I know that doesn’t talk about our specific approach, but I think that’s an example of how we consider the space, the neighborhood, the demographics, the goals, because sometimes there are people trying to put things in areas that are going to be met with a little disdain sometimes.
I think making sure that it is something that the locals can be proud of or something that they can identify with in some way. I know that we only play a small part in that. A lot of that has to do with operations on the back end of our projects, but we definitely consider those things. We’ve definitely continue to work on, what I would say, projects in very sensitive locations like that, but I guess on a micro level, we’ve always tried to develop different types of seating, different types of areas within restaurants that maybe promote different types of interactivity, depending on time of day, whatever life experiences you might be going through, with celebrating or wanting to have an intimate conversation with somebody or first dates, what have you. So I think there’s a little bit of that thought process that goes into that as well.
Nick Boever: I definitely noticed that with Gusto Green, just the variation in all the seating there, being able to have these big open congregation areas and then also moving into the more quiet sections, the more secluded sections. I also liked how that shifted with the lights, where it’s like the more communal gathering areas were drenched in this open air lighting situation. Whereas the more private areas were in these little, I think you guys actually described it as these little cave-like recesses.
Terri Robinson: Yeah.
Greg Bleier: I think in addition to the culture, going to Terri’s background in furniture making and things like that, we’ve also made a lot of inroads, and as you mentioned before, like to do a lot of custom work. So we feel that certainly between use of local artists, artisans, and fabricators, that adds a lot to that feeling of community, a feeling of ownership, a feeling of local energy that’s ingrained in the spaces. I think they tend to stand the test of time a little bit better in that regard.
Nick Boever: I was actually going to ask if you’ve ever collaborated with local community members on that, because as we were having that conversation, that immediately popped into my head on that one.
Terri Robinson: I’d say our preference is to work locally. Part of that is because you like to go sit and touch and look at things before they go on site, but another part of that is just, again, keeping it local. I mean we’ll find ourselves walking down the street and pop into a mom and pop shop that is building chairs or benches or something and just saying, “Hey, what do you do? Maybe we can use you on our next project.” Our upholster is not too far down the street. So when we can, we love to use the local, smaller shops.
Greg Bleier: That translates also into projects that are even outside of the city. Again, generally trying to reduce footprint and things like that. We’ll look for vendors to fabricate that are closer. For instance, we’re working on a project in the suburbs of Memphis right now and we’ve been speaking to vendors in Tennessee. I want to say maybe somewhere, maybe Florida.
Terri Robinson: Not too much.
Greg Bleier: Not super close, but not super far, but again just better than having to schlep all the stuff across country from here.
Nick Boever: Yeah, no, it’s very interesting from what I’ve been seeing so far, because it almost seems as though this talk of community, it’s like everything ultimately becomes a conversation about sustainability nowadays. I feel like talking about community while there is this very potent wellness element to it when talking about it in terms of inclusivity and giving local community members a platform to have their work recognized in these spaces. There’s also that element of sustainability where it’s given the supply chain crises and all that stuff. Working local just lends itself better to the current environment in addition to being incredibly good for the people in the area.
Greg Bleier: Right.
Nick Boever: Well, it was great getting a chance to talk with you guys. I don’t want to hold you up too much longer. So I guess I’ll close things up here. I’m curious though. Is there anything else you guys wanted to say before we signed off?
Greg Bleier: I don’t know.
Terri Robinson: I don’t think so.
Greg Bleier: Yeah. I don’t know [inaudible 00:40:34] everything.
Nick Boever: All right. Well then I guess we can just close things out here and I hope you guys have a great rest of your day.
Greg Bleier: All right.
Terri Robinson: You too.
Greg Bleier: You too.
Terri Robinson: Thank you so much.
Greg Bleier: Thank you so much.