Alexis Readinger makes thinking big look easy with a portfolio of hospitality projects that intuitively balance everything from materiality to color. Readinger, who founded the Los Angeles-based design firm Preen in 2005, draws upon her varied career to consider the comfort of a range of clients and cities. Here, she discusses her youth in Texas, finding inspiration on the job, and fictitious LA eateries where she covets a reservation.
Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?
I had no idea. I was a reader and always thought that eventually I would write something. In the meantime, I was planning on law school. I was painting and drawing and taking sculpture for fun when a professor recommended I consider architecture.
What are some of your earliest memories of design?
I grew up in a modern redwood architectural home in a forest in Arkansas before we moved back to Texas. My mother was into antiques, abstract expressionist art, and 20th-century modern furniture—so I was always exposed to great design. I still have the sofa I grew up with in my office. I used to lay on it with my head tilted back, picturing the house upside down and then calculate how I would inhabit that space.
Did growing up in Texas influence your career path?
Texas demands a high degree of social command, or the ability to hold a room. Its prairies are dominated by large personalities. While this rigor is wildly helpful, it wasn’t as much of an influence as were sensory places I went to like hippie camp in the Cascades or the Thorncrown Chapel in the Ozarks. And the chefs my mother took me to meet!
Give us a bit of your background: college, first jobs, early lessons learned?
One of my early jobs while at Vanderbilt University was an internship in Washington, DC for a small but powerful political and corporate campaign office. I was struck by the fervor and the inefficiency of the DC machine. Later in graduate school at UCLA, I worked at Sotheby’s and I realized that this was essentially sales. What I took from both of these experiences is that the world has enough people moving things from A to B. Don’t get me wrong, democracy is of tantamount importance and so is art. But for me, I want to create places that inspire powerful, meaningful moments.
Why and how did you start Preen?
At the time I started Preen, I was young and pretty broke. I had been laid off. It had been coming for some time, and I already had an agreement with my boss to see clients on the side. I needed a car so I bought an old Rover for $2,600, which was fine other than that it would occasionally wrench to the left while driving on the highway. My first gig was out of Los Angeles and there were several times I used the force to get there with my maxed credit card and the gasoline I had on hand.
I’d love to say that I began the firm with utmost importance but to be honest, I just wanted to do my craft my way. I did name it Preen so that eventually it could be bigger than me and be a culture for those involved. It wasn’t until I matured more that I got in touch with the kind of world I was interested in creating.
How does Preen stand out?
We are highly creative. We are a very loving firm. We create magic, deepened spaces and we stand for dreams come true.
What are some of the firm’s recent projects?
We recently completed Tesse + Boutellier in conjunction with Fred Segal, an impressive Cal French up on the Sunset Strip, the Heroic, which is redefining the hero sandwich in Santa Monica, and the lobby at ROW DTLA, among others.
We are currently working on the first international outpost for São Paulo chef Rodrigo Oliveira, an outstanding Nikkei concept in Little Tokyo from powerful bar/kitchen duo Josh Goldman and Richie Lopez, and a new concept for Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken.
How do you diversify your restaurant designs?
I ask myself this all the time. Our projects look so different. Each client is so different. Each story is so different. That’s the common thread. Our signature is in our process. We design narrative spaces that communicate the ethos of the project. I don’t believe a traditional signature matters the way it used to. Agility has become an aspect of [many] brands and has accelerated aesthetic transformation.
What is the most important thing to remember when designing a restaurant—both in terms of branding and interiors??
The most important thing is that our projects sing loud and true above the churn and clatter. And that means that the food and the design and the brand all support a common vision. Our clients stand for something in the world. It’s our job to tell this story.
What are you looking forward at work right now?
We are jumping into new kinds of projects: wineries, nature hotels, and more futuristic, progressive dream projects that change the way we live. I’m looking forward to building this office and equity conversations with my associates, and then beginning to partner with other developers to create the projects that are of the future.
What are the most challenging and exciting aspects of your job?
The most challenging aspect of my job is keeping cool when everyone is not and in maintaining the integrity of the team. The second most challenging aspect of my job is remaining inspired while doing the first. The most exciting part is the growth of myself and my team, the growth of my client’s light, the growth of clarity and vision because this is the point of all of it—to see and build a more impactful way of living. Save the planet.
Is there an architect or designer you most admire? Why?
I admire Patricia Urquiola. She’s an outstanding furniture designer and continues to produce playful and provocative work. Her grasp of color and materiality is awesome.
What would be your dream project and why?
I’m craving the opportunity to develop architecture around nature. On a basic level, that could look like an earthwork hot springs hotel, a remote adventure lodge, or a winery. I’m into transformational spaces and would love to work on portals, or touchpoints between earth and heaven. This could look like an art pavilion, meditation space, or psilocybin retreat. Anything that allows for deeper inquiry into the human soul.
If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?
My mother. She passed when I was young. After that, it would be Jean Baudrillard. He was the impetus that had me go to grad school. He, along with all of those post-modern deconstructivist theorists, gave me something to fight against with their arguments on meaning or absence of meaning. I was fascinated with them and very disappointed to have missed Baudrillard’s reading at a late ’90s rave in the Socal desert.
Where would you eat and what would you be having?
Have you seen the restaurant scene with Ali Wong and Keanu Reeves in Always Be My Maybe? It would either be there or at L’Idiot from LA Story.
If you weren’t a designer, what would you be?
As much as I would like to come back in another life as a trick pony rider in the rodeo, I’m pretty sure I’d still be what I am now—an entrepreneur bent on transforming business to create a better world.