Monday, August 3, 2009

Sound Design

Architect David Rockwell's interior design for Bobby Flay's Bar Americain.

I just finished reading Gael Greene's memoir Insatiable. Greene is now donning her signature hat at the judge's table on Top Chef Masters, but she was the food critic for New York magazine for 30+ years during "that wondrous moment between the pill and the plague,"as she puts it. (Greene hungered for a lot more than just foie gras in her heyday). When she got to the 1980's in her timeline, she spent a page or two talking restaurant design. Architects like Sam Lopata and David Rockewell were changing the New York dining experience.

"The fusty French restaurants seemed irrelevant. Hushed eating in a temple was giving way to grazing in a raucous gym. Everyone wanted to be in the restaurant business...The stakes were awesome now. Where once an amateur could toss fleamarket tables and chairs into the basement of a Village brownstone and create a restaurant, now design reigned...It had to be noisy. 'Noise is cozy,' an architect, proud of his shattering decibels, assured me. 'Noise creates energy.' And no one really missed the glitter of conversation, because mostly people just talked about how many sit-ups they'd done that morning and which California chefs were rumored to be moving to New York any day."

Noise as architecture. Sound as an element of design. Funny to think that the annoying din and clatter of a loud restaurant is intentional. Interesting, too, to consider this as a cultural shift. As Greene suggests above, we went from hushed interiors focused on individual dining experiences and conversation, to raucous free-for-alls. I remember waiting 2 hours for a table at Manhattan's Momofuku Ssam on the corner of 2nd Avenue. We were ushered back through the narrow dining room and stuffed into the corner of the restaurant's adjacent bakery, barely able to breath for the crowd. The windows fogged from so much human exhalation. When we finally sat, our table was the corner edge of a long banquet. It felt as if we'd been plunked down at someone else's family dinner (and, in truth, we had. They were very nice—adventurous tourists from the Midwest who shared their crispy pig's head with us). The food was incredible. Crispy shaved brussel sprouts that had been pan seared and tossed in tangy and complex Asian vinaigrette with hot peppers. Lots of pig. Warm pork buns. Calamari in a spicy garlic sauce with sprigs of mint. More pig. We could barely talk over the '80's music (I forgot how much I like Tears for Fears) and I was hoarse the rest of the night. Whereas Greene's dinner guests rambled on about their aerobics classes, today's dining experience has become the endurance sport.

Momofuku Ssam, above, and the interior of the adjacent bakery, below, in a rare peaceful moment. I suspect these photos were taken at dawn.

How else does noise and sound play a role in design? You've got some time to think about this. The monthly Baltimore Design Conversation is taking a summer break for August (so no convo this week), but will return on Wednesday, September 2. The theme: SOUND. It will take place at The Wind Up Space starting at 6:30 PM.

If you want more information on the Design Convos, as well as ongoing design dialogues, news, and event listings, check out the brand new D:center baltimore Web site. Join the conversation online through the site's blog. If you have a blog of your own, upload it. If you have an event, you can email the details and add it to the calendar.

Screen shot of the new Web site.