Creating Public Intimacy: Designing Restaurant Booths and Banquettes

Banquettes are pivotal to any restaurant that I have ever designed, and they represent an array of emotional connections


What do you think Wolfgang Puck and I spent an entire day discussing as we prepared to open his new restaurant at the Hotel Bel-Air?

Wolf, as everyone knows, is an astonishing chef, and not surprisingly he also happens to be a stickler for details. And for his new venture, the seating arrangements -- what I've now come to think of as the "social" details -- were uppermost on his mind. The majority of our time could be tracked to an analysis of "people groupings" and the furniture that supported and enabled a wide ranging variety of interactions: celebrations with a group of friends, romantic dinners, business meetings.

Repeatedly, the conversation turned to a discussion of booths and banquettes and every other conceivable seating arrangement as we searched for the perfect match between intimacy and total flexibility.

After our work session, Wolf and I had dinner at his restaurant Cut. As I sipped my wine, I surveyed the cascading levels of the Richard Meier-designed dining room, and asked the chef to point out the preferred tables and the ones considered to be "Siberia." His responses inevitably revolved around one piece of furniture: banquettes.

Looking at the room through that particular filter, I began to see the entire social dynamic of the space as defined by the landscape of booths and banquettes. The way people sat in groups, inhabited the space, behaved and made eye contact -- all of it was directly affected by the seating configuration of the room.

Put simply, the overall atmosphere was created by individuals engaged in social interaction, and banquettes were the connective tissue that linked these people.

Thinking about banquettes triggered a vivid memory of a certain booth at the legendary Four Seasons Restaurant. I was designing Vong, my first restaurant for another legendary chef, Jean Georges Vongerichten. Vong was located on East 54th Street, and included an informal café at the entrance of the Lipstick Building, an office building designed by another legend, architect Philip Johnson. One afternoon, with great trepidation, I headed to the Four Seasons to have lunch with Johnson and obtain his input -- and, hopefully, his approval -- for my design of the café. Knees shaking, I followed the maitre d' to Johnson's personal booth in the Grill Room. As I slipped over the clean lines of the black leather cushions, I became aware of a few things.

Story continues after the gallery.

First, Johnson's usual seat in the dining room, with his back to an interior wall and facing the door, gave him a bit of physical "protection" and a total overview of the comings and goings on the room. (Wasn't it Wild Bill Hickok who would never sit with his back turned toward the entrance?)

Second, the booth actually created a room within a room, private space for two, three, or four people. There was a sea of activity and boldface names coming in and out, but Johnson and I were still able to enjoy our tête-à-tête as if we were alone in the room. (He gave my cafe design his blessing.)

The day after meeting Wolf, I headed back to New York. Sitting in my plane seat, my mind wandered back to all the types of banquettes we had discussed and some new ones I could start to imagine. I started to sketch, and as I did, realized not only that banquettes are pivotal to any restaurant I've ever designed but that they also represent an array of emotional connections we have with each other. In the gallery embedded above, a look at my typology and the memories and moments I associate with each form, from campfires to exchanging confidences.

Image: David Rockwell.

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David Rockwell is the founder and CEO of Rockwell Group, an architecture and design practice based in New York. The firm focuses on diverse projects including restaurants, hotels, Broadway set designs, and consumer products. More

David Rockwell is the founder and CEO of Rockwell Group, a cross-disciplinary architecture and design practice based in New York with satellite offices in Madrid and Shanghai. His 140-person firm focuses on a diverse array of projects including restaurants, hotels, hospitals, airport terminals, public playgrounds, Broadway set designs, and consumer products. His firm recently completed work on a food truck/mobile kitchen for Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution," the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center and the U.S. flagship YOTEL in New York, and is currently working on the W Paris Opera, Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles and the first freestanding Nobu restaurant in Doha.

Rockwell is the author of two books, Spectacle (2006), a book examining the history and public fascination with larger-than-life manmade events, and Pleasure: The Architecture and Design of Rockwell Group (2002). In May 2010 Rockwell was inducted into the James Beard Foundation Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America. He was also honored with the 2009 Pratt Legends Award, the 2008 National Design Award by Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt for outstanding achievement in Interior Design, an induction in Interior Design magazine's Hall of Fame and the Presidential Design Award for his work for the Grand Central Terminal renovation. Rockwell serves as Chairman of the Board of the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS (DIFFA), and as a board member of Citymeals-on-Wheels and the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum.

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