The following is my review of The Dinner Party, AIGA/NY’s sold-out “conversation about food and design,” which first appeared on the popular design blog UnBeige. Thanks to Stephanie Murg for the opportunity to attend and guest write for the site.

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This just in: New Yorkers love food—as if the city’s endless restaurants, cafes, and delis weren’t enough indication. The New York design community shares a certain lust for the well-crafted, and that includes a great dining experience. Thus the table was set for The Dinner Party, a conversation about food and design. Hosted by AIGA/NY, Wednesday’s event featured presentations by four of the world’s most influential foodies: chef and restauranteur Dan Barber, restaurant designers AvroKO, pastry chef and sustainable food expert Will Goldfarb, and creative director of Mucca Design Matteo Bologna. The event was hosted by Christine Muhlke, deputy editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine.

After we braved the cold and queues, the Great Hall at Cooper Union was finally filled. The question on everyone’s mind, aside from “when do we eat?” was simply “what’s food got to do with design?” We understand a certain creativity goes into preparing a new recipe or arranging food in a striking manner, but that’s not quite the same thing…or is it?

Before we heard from the panel, Muhlke illustrated the need for design thinking in restaurants. Over the last 50 years or so, interiors, furniture, graphics, and even silverware have become new canvases to sell the overall dining experience. In each arena, careful thought and strategy must be applied, designs must be tested, and risks must be taken. The pay-off, of course, has been apparent, as some of the most successful and acclaimed restaurants of our time owe their success to designers, architects, and other non-chefs.

Designing a restaurant entails much more than planning a dining room layout, as we learned from the folks at AvroKO. Principals William Harris, Greg Bradshaw, Kristina O’Neal, and Adam Farmerie showed us the painstaking and intricate process of researching popular history before designing a tastefully-themed restaurant. The group showed case studies of their process in designing such restaurants as Public, Social House, and Double Crown, each drawing on architectural, artistic, and even mechanical influences from our past to create a unique space and experience. In these cases, each restaurant is based on a particular social-political setting and the relics thereof. Social House, in Las Vegas, is influenced by the crammed alleyways and microindustries of Kowloon, a notorious Hong Kong slum. Soho’s Public mimics the industrial-chic of common artifacts from the late 19th and early 20th century. Double Crown, just a few blocks north of Public, references an east-meets-west duality from Britain’s colonial golden age.

The restrooms at Public are designed to look like offices from the 1930s.

Next up was Barber. As a chef, he takes more than a passing interest in the agricultural origins of his ingredients. His case study followed the story of Spanish farmer and producer of ethically-responsible foie gras, Eduardo de Sousa. His product, Pateria de Sousa, earned the Coup de Coeur (food’s highest honor) and subsequent sniping from the world of international cuisine. But de Sousa isn’t a famous chef with a secret recipe; he’s a fourth-generation farmer who honors simplicity as the core of a good product. He showed us that fine food isn’t solely for the fanciful and wealthy, but for anyone willing to be creative.

Bologna, the easy-going Italian and creative director of Mucca design, has developed brand identities and graphic personalities for some of New York’s most recognisable spots, such as Pastis, Balthazar, Country, and Schiller’s Liquor Bar. Matteo illustrated the design process for some of these identities, highlighting each with a healthy dose of humour, and a pleasant combination of self-deprication and self-pleasure. Matteo was the proverbial main course of the evening, providing plenty of visual sustenance for branding and type geeks like myself. Too much with the metaphor?

And for the final course, dessert master Will Goldfarb showed us how a self-declared non-designer handles ideation and the magic behind his pastry creations. While his sketches (like the one pictured below) lack the same polish we’re used to seeing from professional designers, what’s clear is his passion and methodology—rooted in his own “14 Principles of Dessert.” (Eat that, Woodrow Wilson!)

Not exactly da Vinci: Will Goldfarb’s clunky sketches help him plan awesome desserts.

So what’s food got to do with design? Well, pretty much everything. AvroKO showed us how research, thematic content, and even a bit of philosophical controversy can influence great design. Dan Barber demonstrated how we can all challenge conventional thinking with clear, simple solutions that seem downright obvious when executed well. He also challenged us, the designers of the world, to solve the agro-industrial dilemmas of the new century. No pressure. Matteo Bologna taught us how much fun food can be, and showed us how using typographic and iconic references to yesteryear can help create something new and fresh. And he reminded us, perhaps unintentionally, not to take our work too seriously. And finally, Will Goldfarb reinforced the most basic principal of design: that our work is not about tail-fins and chrome in slick execution, but about logic and diligence in the design method.

The stampede for samples

After the main presentations, we, the audience, were treated to samples from four of New York’s most famous food carts. The crowds were immense, as hundreds of hungry designers battled to get their grub on from Calexico Carne Asada, the NY Dosa Truck, Rickshaw Dumplings, and the Treats Truck, washed down with wine and vodka samples from Speciality Cocktails. While I wasn’t able to sample everything on offer, I can certify that no one was frowning. Like I said, New Yorkers love food.—