Designer Forum: Custom carpet anchors Bells + Whistles’ swanky San Diego restaurant concept – Jan 2022

By Barbara Rourke

Top Chef finalist Brian Malarkey is known not only for his creative cuisine but also for his destination restaurants. When he was commissioned to launch a new restaurant in San Diego called Animae, he reached out to Los Angeles design firm Bells + Whistles to create a concept that would not only set it apart from other eateries in the city but also his own.

Malarkey’s restaurants share some common characteristics: cozy, contemporary, sleek, sophisticated. For Animae, a Michelin-rated Wagyu steak and seafood restaurant, he opted for keywords like Art Deco, opulent and Asian.

The result is a theatrical wonderland, inspired, in part, by a remote ancient forest on Japan’s Yakushima Island. The design team wanted to create an enchanting environment that emulated the forest as told through an Art Deco lens, with opulent touches like lush, serpentine velvet-backed banquettes and floor-to-ceiling curtains with lavish folds that frame different parts of the dining room. Meanwhile, the forest-floor carpet and terrazzo “river” snaking through the space marry with elements like pendant lights that mimic the feeling of sunlight filtering through the trees to create an immersive design for diners to unravel on their own.

Drawing from mossy inspirational images and a regal color palette of emerald, gold and salmon, the Bells + Whistles team turned to an expansive bespoke carpet that is hugged by a meandering terrazzo installation as the base of the design.

Flooring is essential to the design of any space, but restaurant flooring is especially important because of the wear and tear it has to endure. Restaurants are machines that require constant upkeep and cleaning, so when it comes to flooring, looking good is only part of the equation. The material choice has to stand up to getting hammered day in and day out for ten-plus years.

The design team knew they wanted carpet in the dining room for its functionality and were surprised to learn that wool is exceptionally well-suited for soft surface restaurant floorcoverings. As such, they introduced a custom, 11-color patterned wool carpet by Brintons that stretches along the dining side of the restaurant.

Uniqueness is key to commercial design-restaurants must compete for customers, and their experience doesn’t rest solely on the food served. Brintons’ Craigend collection by Timourous Beasties offered the perfect solution. Inspired by ground textures in the natural world, like lichen on a boulder, it provided a way to incorporate the design theme through custom tweaks. Its blend of 80% wool and 20% nylon is perfect for high traffic, maintenance and longevity, while also offering sumptuously designed sound mitigation, another important factor for restaurants that must be addressed for a successful design.

Animae has 20’ ceilings and a wall of windows, which would normally create a noise problem, but the carpet allows diners to hold conversations without having to scream. It also helps the soaring space feel cozy and intimate and, combined with the terrazzo in other parts of the dining room, creates alternate environments to keep things fresh as people return again and again to celebrate life’s big occasions.

In an interview with San Diego Magazine, Malarkey admits he had to be talked in to the carpeting but was ultimately swayed by the acoustical benefits-along with its eye-catching design. “It’s the funkiest carpet ever,” he says. “[My business partner and I] used to be the ones cleaning up warehouses and making super-loud restaurants. Now, I think we’re at the forefront of restaurateurs getting back to places you can talk to people.”

The custom carpeting, which echoes a sun-dappled forest floor, is also one of the design team’s favorite aspects. Its bespoke quality elevates the space, yet it was surprisingly affordable. Flooring is always a big part of Bells + Whistles’ designs, but budget ultimately determines the material and how much attention is given to it. The team’s buildout budget of $5 million could have sustained the anticipated $100,000 price tag for the 4,500 square feet of custom Axminster carpet used, but the fractional cost-$25,000-meant the designers didn’t have to compromise on any other aspects of their original vision in order to accommodate the carpet.

Using multiple textures throughout a space creates a sense of wonder and luxury. With that and durability in mind, Bells + Whistles used a custom terrazzo blend for the high-traffic walking areas. The design firm often turns to terrazzo for its longevity and versatility; not only is the material suitable for a variety of even high-performance environments, but by its very nature it can be designed with a number of personalities in mind-a colorful, chunky mix for high-impact modernity or an elegant array of tiny glittering aggregate particles, for example. Working with Over The Top Terrazzo & Tile, the design team opted for a blend that recalls a star-studded night sky. The black base is generously flecked with fragments of gray- and green-toned marble, creating a subtle contrast between the two flooring materials in the dining room while feeling right at home amid the Art Deco environment. The terrazzo flows like an inky river, connecting the main dining area to the bar and, ultimately, Animae’s sister eatery, Nima Cafe, next door.

Nima is Animae’s minimalist daytime partner, so the connecting flooring had to pull double duty. In the bright and airy cafe, the terrazzo adds a touch of flair without going overboard, playing off the warmth of the juxtaposed oak hardwood that shares the space. The “fossil stone” selection from Provenza’s Old World engineered hardwood collection is hand-distressed and smoked, giving it an ancient, rustic cast that ties in with the “Japandi” aesthetic of the popular lunchtime spot. While Nima generally feels more in line with San Diego’s laid-back vibe, the inverted mossy plantings oozing from the ceiling harken back to Animae’s enchanted forest theme.

On par with destination restaurants in the world’s “be-seen” centers like London and Hong Kong, Animae was short-listed for the Restaurant & Bar Design Awards, which honor the world’s most creative and influential restaurants and bars, and it has racked up numerous local accolades-the most telling of which is that San Diegans have relished the excuse to get dressed up for an extra-special night out amid its unrivaled ambiance.

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