Creating Public Intimacy: Designing Restaurant Booths and Banquettes

By David Rockwell

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

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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.

The booth can create a room within a room, private space for two, three, or four people.

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/11/creating-public-intimacy-designing-restaurant-booths-and-banquettes/248041/