It's all in the details.
White Dog
Credit: Heidi's Bridge

In the age of Instagram and Snapchat, being a photo-friendly restaurant is more valuable than ever—making the job of a restaurant designer uber important. (No pressure, though.) Kate Rohrer of Rohe Creative, the designing force behind some seriously Instagram-worthy restaurants—think: Cheu Fishtown in Philadelphia and Monkitail in Miami—tells Food & Wine what it’s like to take a restaurant from inspiration to reality—and everything that happens in between.

There are a lot of moving puzzle pieces.

Rohrer fell in love with restaurant design when she worked as a server at The Continental, a Philadelphia restaurant known for its high concept and immersive construction. “What I didn’t quite understand then, but certainly do now, is that there are so many components that contribute to ‘the design,’” Rohrer explains. “What I love most about my profession—and my role in particular—is being able to participate in not only what we bring to the table, but to be part of a much larger picture. We consult on all aspects of the restaurant, from conception to completion. We work with the architecture, engineering, branding, owners, chefs, contractors, subcontractors, custom fabricators, upholsterers—all the way down to the soundtracks.” In fact, she says, “a good restaurateur knows that you can’t leave anything untouched. Everything adds to the experience. Nothing makes me more excited than that adventure and that we get to relive it each time a new project comes to the table.”

Design is more about a feeling than a specific look.

While restaurant designers certainly use photos for inspiration, one of Rohrer’s favorite tools for finding inspiration is to take a walk with the client. “Sometimes we meet at an office, but other times we take inspirational trips to places to start bringing ideas right to the table for discussion,” she reveals. And perhaps surprisingly, the conversation doesn’t always center around what the restaurant should look like. Rather, “it’s really about their [the restaurant’s] process, their clients, and how they want people to feel,” Rohrer says. “We have very thought-provoking conversations and then pretty much go dark after that.”

Mood boards are essential.

Going “dark” really means retreating to a design studio where Rohrer and her team will pour over research and imagery until they find the perfect concept and can create a mood board, a group of edited images, to represent the foundation of the project. “A mood board displays not only an overall look and feel through interiors, specific finishes, furniture, and lighting but also highly-detail images—down to the color of a thread or a foot of a chair,” she describes. “I can’t tell you how many times we may waiver on a project detail down the line and come back to this board for direction. It’s our ‘North Star,’ always there for us.”

Every single thing is documented.

Restaurant designers use a bevy of tools—from AutoCAD to Photoshop—to create visual representations of their designs. From those designs come the construction documentation, the instructions, if you will, for everyone from the architects to the builders to follow. “Our design intent is documented down to the grout colors and cabinet knobs,” Rohrer explains. “We issue our drawings along with furniture, finishes, and equipment specifications. Every single finish, piece of furniture, fabric, light, art, frame, and pillow gets an item number and is highly documented in order for someone to purchase the project.” Talk about details.

The real challenge is creating something that's never been done before.

Rohrer’s latest project might just be her favorite yet, she says, because, “I’ve never truly ventured into this design style—been so bold with color and contrast or had a client who trusted and encouraged us to be this bold, do our best work, and go for it,” she explains. The project, which was originally inspired by art nouveau and early European bistros, took a turn after the client expressed a need to be its own unique brand. So, “we began to layer in pop art, bold color and pattern and came up with a hybrid unlike any other,” Rohrer says. “We have so enjoyed the process of meshing these two worlds together to create a new one. We’re calling it ‘retro nouveau.’ I’m so inspired by this space and the way I think it will make people feel when they’re dining in it. It has so much personality, yet still feels timeless.”

Budget isn't the be-all end-all.

When she created the design concept for Bud & Marilyn’s, a Philadelphia spot, Rohrer says she was asked to work with a fast timeline and a small budget—but the project was very special regardless because, “the direction was entirely unique to the chef and owner's story and relationship with her family,” Rohrer says. “Everything [for the restaurant] was hand-selected, some even shipped from my grandmother's town. I scoured thrift store and flea markets to make it feel just right. The details are there if you look closely. We also created custom wallpaper patterns, furnishing reminiscent of 1960's sofas, and even creatively used linoleum tile flooring. We wallpapered ceilings, made custom lighting fixtures, millwork, and screens. I'm most proud of the details here compared to many of the projects we've done, simply because it was done on such a small-scale budget. It's remarkable.”