10 Questions With… Stephen Francis Jones
Forward-thinking hospitality designer Stephen Francis Jones helms
SF Jones Architects
in Marina Del Ray, California, specializing in restaurants, nightclubs, spas and private residences. From Wolfgang Puck’s
in Osaka, Japan, to the
Del Frisco Grille
brands, he’s a master of clean, sumptuous-feeling yet utterly relaxed dining concepts. He created the inviting environs for chic bowling alley brand
, and is hard at work on the Kenya-based café concept
. Here, the affable Jones reveals a few reasons why restaurateurs can’t live without him.
Interior Design: You’re based out of Marina Del Ray, California. What’s your favorite thing about designing from the Los Angeles area?
Stephen Francis Jones: I’ve worked in a number of places—Boston, Miami, Barcelona—and there’s something about Los Angeles. It’s so laid back, and there’s great freedom to doing design work here. It works well with my style, and allows me to be really expressive. In Boston, you’d have to please everyone on a committee to get anything done. Southern California has an attitude and flexibility that makes it so we can produce some cool stuff. There are such great resources and products available. Best of all, I feel the right clients are here. They’re forward-thinking, and there’s an abundance of them.
ID: What are the unifying traits of the people who work for SF Jones Architects?
SFJ: The office itself is a fun environment, because what we do is fun. We design restaurants! I try to instill the pursuit of a healthy, happy lifestyle into my employees. We’re a very holistic firm, with 10 employees who cover the different components of the design process—architecture, interiors and lighting design. It’s important that we have a complete handle on the entirety of a project. When adding to my staff, I try to find people who will fit a particular task that needs to be done, be it a good eye for style and materials or people with specific technical skills. No one performs just a single task, though; the team works together. Everyone’s involved, and everyone takes ownership.
ID: Can you share some recent projects that have been creating exciting opportunities for the firm?
SFJ: We have one very exciting project in San Francisco—an amenities facilities for a large biotech office park. They want to have fitness areas, eating facilities… all sorts of amenities. It’s something Google would provide for its employees. This is a trend that we’ll be seeing much more moving forward. It’s a new direction for us, combining all the different types of projects we’ve worked on into one.
ID: You’re widely regarded for your restaurant and hospitality design work—Spago, Redwood Grille, Mister Donut, Del Frisco’s Grille. What are today’s hospitality clients asking you for?
SFJ: Restaurateurs are asking far more of their designers than painting a pretty picture for them. They need you to create a model that will be successful, and takes into account how a facility is branded. Depending on the type of concept, they may want something that can be repeatable in very different locations. On certain projects we’ve been able to create everything from design to a brand prototype that involves every touch point, including brand logo, colors, and uniform design.
ID: What is the general public wanting in a restaurant nowadays?
SFJ: People’s tastes have certainly changed since the time I started my business, 18 or so years ago. There was a lot of fine dining then, and I don’t get any of that anymore. I think there are different expectations now. It’s not about dressing up and being stuffy, at least not in southern California. It’s more about farm-to-table concepts and creating a place that has soul. People want their dining environment to be related to the food that’s served, be it fast-casual or shared food.
ID: What do you think has helped you become so adept at making that connection between food and space?
SFJ: Listening to the soul of a project. I develop a story and stick to it. Recently, we did MB Post in Manhattan Beach, and really told a story with it. It was the original post office in Manhattan Beach and the owners wanted a soulful place. Well, what’s more social than a post office, where people pick up their mail and meet the neighbors? That became our story from the outset. We also wanted to honor the community, so we used the markings on the town’s lifeguard stands. I went out and photographed all the lifeguard stands in the Manhattan Beach and had an artist replicate them. Locals don’t necessarily realize
they feel connected to these numbers, but subconsciously they feel at home. It’s a subtle bit of addressing design that gives a space character and soul.
ID: Meanwhile, you’re doing working on a restaurant concept in Kenya, the Java House chain. What are the considerations you have to take with such a project?
SFJ: It’s about building a brand and facilities that are replicable, but on the east coast of Africa. These restaurants are targeting the emerging middle class in Kenya. It’s a food and dining experience that really reaching out and empowers the middle class. The client Googled me and emailed to see if I was interested, then enticed me there with a safari. Upon arriving, I realized it was totally legit and an incredibly interesting opportunity. For this client, we’ve also developed a pizza concept called 360, and we have plans to do more for them. They have 27 stores already, including one in Uganda, and are expanding to other East Africa locations.
ID: What would you see is the key to staying true to a brand, as a designer?
SFJ: You have to be honest about knowing what the product is. What’s setting this concept apart from what others are doing? My best clients have a good vision. The projects I dislike the most are those with clients who show me what other people are doing and want a replica. I prefer to work on something that’s genuine.
ID: On that subject, how involved do you like your clients to be?
SFJ: I do like clients to be very involved. At the beginning, there’s a lot of interaction. Eventually, there comes a part where they’ll want to say, “Leave this guy alone and see what he comes up with.” My job is to come up with that great first impression, to ensure that the ambiance and setting are as good as the food. We’re fortunate at this point to have a lot of likeminded clients, and always try to associate ourselves with that kind of clientele.
ID: Mixed-use projects and concepts like the office park project you mentioned are things we’re hearing more and more about. They point to new ways for people use their cities—cities that are growing denser and larger. What’s your take on the ways we’re changing?
SFJ: I don’t think rural settings are going to change too much, but there’s certainly excitement in urban settings. For the San Francisco project, we weren’t just hired to do a floor plan and pick colors; we got to help define what it could be. Work isn’t nine-to-five anymore. It’s about working until you get the job done. I’m thinking about how to get name-brand chefs to serve food in this closed environment. Do we do it through test kitchens? Catering kitchens? Can we tap into the major chef talent from downtown San Francisco? The basics of dining will always be the same, and the part that’s changing is how people interact and live. I love developing a new model of how something can operate. It’s an honor to help people go out on a limb.