With a name that’s synonymous with hospitality design, Jeffrey Beers has spent the past 25 years creating spaces where people want to be. The Jeffrey Beers International portfolio includes some of the most famous restaurant, hotel, and nightlife projects in the world-from the revitalization of the Fontainebleau Resort Miami to the design of the Food Hall at New York’s iconic Plaza Hotel. Here, Beers discusses creating a team of various creative types at JBI, designing places for people to enjoy other people, and his goal of creating a harmonious relationship between design, cuisine, and service.
Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?
Growing up in Manhattan I was always fascinated by the variety and energy of the city, but as a teenager I became particularly interested in the built environment. I traveled extensively with my family when I was younger, and I was exposed to other cities and the art of different cultures. I was most attracted to the visual arts, especially painting.
What are some of your first memories of design?
Both my parents were in the travel industry, and I was lucky to visit Europe many times as a teenager. I always loved observing the architecture of Venice because that city has such a cast of characters architecturally. Behind its public façade, each building seems to have multiple identities and past histories that give the experience of the city a unique depth and richness.
What about hospitality?
I was born and raised in Manhattan, and grew up going to restaurants in the city. I had worked as a waiter and busboy when I was a kid and had always been very captivated by the restaurant and hospitality business. I learned how restaurants operated, what worked, and what didn’t.
How did growing up in New York City influence your career path?
New York was an amazing place to grow up because it’s an international crossroads and an epicenter of arts and culture. At a young age, I was exposed to many of the arts.
Give us a bit of Jeffrey Beers history: college, first jobs?
During my sophomore year as an architecture student at RISD, the temporary architecture studio was located down the hall from the glass lab. I poked my head into the glass studio often and became enamored of the spontaneity and intense level of creativity I saw there. Next thing I know, I was working with Dale Chihuly, who was a RISD professor, on one of his glass blowing teams. That love of glass I’ve carried with me throughout my career.
I thought that the arts and architecture could have a more symbiotic relationship, and I wanted to apply what I learned about glass to architecture. At Dale’s urging, I applied for a Fulbright grant to study in Brazil with Oscar Niemeyer and another architect in São Paulo. Working with Niemeyer was a turning point. He opened my eyes to the world of color and form. It was while working with Niemeyer and absorbing Brazilian art and design that I began to understand how we could marry glass and architecture in new and different ways.
After completing my Fulbright studies in Brazil, I thought very hard about American architects and who I might want to work for. The name that came up all the time for me was I.M. Pei. At that time, I.M. Pei was at the top of his game and one of the first architects to use glass curtain walls in high-rise buildings. I called one of Pei’s partners from a pay phone on the street. I told him who I was and what I’d been doing, and that it would be my dream to work for him. I worked for I.M. Pei for eight years.
Why and how did you decide to start your eponymous firm?
I had been working with I.M. Pei for eight years, primarily on skyscrapers. Then he tapped me to design the public spaces for the renovation of the famed Raffles Hotel in Singapore, as well as several other hotels and restaurant projects. I was hooked! A restaurateur happened to ask me to design a restaurant in Soho that was a big success and was published in many magazines. After that, my phone started ringing. I sat down with Mr. Pei and received his blessing to strike off on my own in 1986.
What was your first reality check?
After starting JBI, I experienced all of the new challenges that come with running a firm, including wearing multiple hats-marketing, sales, and management-in addition to leading the design.
Can you tell us about a recently opened restaurant project?
We recently completely two exciting projects at the New York Palace Hotel with chef Michel Richard. The chef’s fine dining restaurant, Villard Michel Richard, is set in a circa1884 landmarked mansion. We were challenged to honor the historic, ornate interiors while updating the space with a contemporary energy and glamour. The centerpiece of the dining room is a striking thousand-bottle glass wine cube, that reminds me of the flagship Apple Store on 5th Avenue. The restaurant has other unexpected touches such as tables that are illuminated from within using LED lights, artful projections on the 30-foot barrel vaulted ceiling, and an installation behind the bar that incorporates hologram-like lenticular images.
Pomme Palais, which we also designed at the New York Palace, is a little jewel box that was intended to match the energy and color of Michel Richard’s artistic pastries and light fare.
What’s on the boards that you are most excited about? Your office has recently grown-can you tell us a bit about what you are working on?
We are thrilled to have been awarded the interior design for a new Atlantis resort in Sanya on Hainan Island, China. We were involved in the previous two Atlantis resorts in The Bahamas and Dubai, and this iteration of the Atlantis brand will be even more spectacular and modern-the Atlantis of the future.
How would you describe your office?
Our office is a very collaborative, intimate studio atmosphere, and I encourage everyone to contribute-no idea is a bad idea. I try to surround myself with people who can complement what I do better than I can, and I take great care in building a studio with people from many backgrounds both professionally and globally. Yes, many of our staff are architects and interior designers, but they are also painters, sculptors, and graphic designers. It always creates an interesting mix when we put a project team together.
What do you find are the most challenging and exciting aspects of your job?
Certainly there is an incredible creative latitude that designers have in the hospitality industry that they might not experience with another project type. I am excited by the theater of restaurant design and its social significance. We’re essentially designing a place for people to enjoy other people. So it’s kind of a wonderful thing to do. You’re making people happy.
I think that designers and owners today are challenged with a much more knowledgeable and experienced guest. The nature of the internet and accessible air travel has made guests much more knowledgeable and demanding now than they were 10 or 20 years ago. This makes designing engaging hospitality spaces that much more challenging, but also makes the projects that much more rewarding, because you’re really designing with the ultimate and most personal guest experience in mind.
What’s the most important thing to remember when designing a restaurant, both in terms of branding and interiors?
At the beginning of our process, we think about context-who the guest is, where we are-and then develop a design approach. All of our projects start out with broad concept development that takes inspiration from art, fashion, and our own travels and experiences.
The key to successful restaurant design for me is creating a harmonious relationship between the design, cuisine, and service. Restaurants inherently are meeting places, and must never lose their social dynamic. So as a restaurant designer I believe my primary challenge is to create an environment in which guests can be the stars, while encouraging social activity in an invigorating and stimulating space.
Is there a secret to a successful collaboration?
Our clients today are also much more educated and knowledgeable about the business of hospitality than they ever were. I enjoy working with clients who are innovative, creative, well traveled, and articulate, people who have a great energy and a genuine interest in design. I have worked with many great clients over the years, and they are always those who set the bar high and challenge me to be a better designer.
Is there a chef who has recently caught your eye?
I’ve always been interested in what April Bloomfield has been cooking up in New York City.
Is there an architect or designer you most admire and why?
Besides my mentors from my early career, I have always admired David Collins’ work. His designs are elegant and timeless.
What would be your dream project?
An underwater hotel.
If you weren’t a designer, what would you be?
I can’t think of doing anything else.
If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would that be?
John F. Kennedy.
What would you eat, what would you be drinking, and where?
I’d be eating a perfectly cooked roast chicken and drinking a classic martini at Harry’s Bar in Venice.