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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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03.08.09

A Designing Frenchman

Profiles in Food: Interviews


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The dapper Frenchman smiles happily, temporarily forgetting his cup of cooling cappuccino as he enthusiastically pours out a lively stream of French history peppered with comments about architecture and food. Segueing from history to his own life, he notes, “When I was fourteen, I wanted to be either a chef or an architect. I ended up doing neither, but in a way, I am involved in both.”

A product designer with an engineering background, François Geneve specializes in creating an image that reflects concept, but without forgetting function. In recent years, the products Geneve has been designing have been the interiors of some of Chicago’s most interesting restaurants. So, though not a chef, he works with chefs, and though not an architect, he creates “interior architecture.” It is a spin on the fulfillment of those early dreams that Geneve finds satisfying.

Coming from a family of wine growers in Macon, in France’s Burgundy region, it’s not too hard to see how Geneve would have developed an appreciation of good wine and food. However, he also had a technical and artistic bent, so he pursued degrees in engineering and design in Paris. His father had always told him, that, no matter what he did in life, he needed to be bilingual, so Geneve decided to pursue his graduate degree in the United States. Chicago hooked him—not just the culture, but also the possibilities. “There is a much more entrepreneurial spirit here than there is in Europe,” Geneve explains. He gave himself five years to succeed, and he has never left.

Geneve was already a successful product designer when he got the opportunity to make the move into restaurant design. Chef Shawn McClain and his business partners, Peter and Sue Kim Drohomyrecky, were converting the old Luxor Bathhouse in Bucktown in to a restaurant, what would become Spring, and the architect recommended Geneve. “We just clicked,” Geneve recalls. “They loved my vision for the space.”

Geneve notes, “A restaurant offers food and entertainment. It has to work for the staff and entertain the guests. The more sophisticated the audience and the higher the level of cuisine, the greater the expectation that the interior will be great, as well as the service.”

Sue Kim Drohomyrecky, who is from Korea, wanted Spring to have a little Asian influence, a bit of a Zen feeling. So Geneve chose a design “language” of opposite elements in balance: old and new, light and dark, warm and cold. These ideas extended to the layout, as well as to the décor. He restored some of the antique interior of the former bathhouse, brought in contrasting elements of rice paper and glass, leather and steel. He balanced a traditional layout with angled banquettes, so diners would not be staring at walls.

McClain and the Drohomyreckys were more than satisfied, and Geneve was their choice for their next restaurant, Green Zebra. “Green Zebra is named for an heirloom tomato,” Geneve explains. “The restaurant was to be less formal and more trendy. The idea was to have an urbane, sophisticated place that is essentially vegetarian, while avoiding all the stereotypes of vegetarian restaurants.” The focus was to be on locally grown and organic vegetables. Of McClain’s three restaurants, Geneve thinks Green Zebra is the most interesting.

This was to be more challenging than the previous restaurant. The former hat-making facility that he’d be working with was long and narrow. The budget was smaller, too. Geneve did more than rise to the challenge—he loved it. “I like to constantly learn. I love working with a quirky space and doing a lot with it, making it not just attractive, but workable for servers and guests. Doing it within budget adds just one more dimension to the challenge.”

For Green Zebra, Geneve had to be creative. He choose materials that would give the place a rich, organic texture—and absorb sound. Palm trees and greenery would mirror the plant-based food concept, while uplighting would project organic shapes onto the ceiling. Earthier colors also reflected the earthy, organic focus of the cuisine. Geneve brought his knowledge of product design to bear, focusing on function, as well as image. Nothing was gratuitous.

Because of his background in engineering, Geneve is very much part of the construction process. He works with and talks to everyone, from electricians and plumbers to construction workers, to learn what can and cannot be done. He takes nothing for granted, and wants the space to be work on every level.

Geneve sees the connection between design and cooking as a natural one. “Design and cooking are both applied arts,” he notes, “so philosophies overlay, and there is in many cases a common language. Also, the levels of passion are similar, and I find that my passion connects with their passion.” He tries to mirror a chef’s style. In the case of Shawn McClain, the food is layered and offers a multiplicity of flavors, highlighting and enhancing natural flavors. A signature dish at Spring, sea scallops with oxtail reduction, shows how things can be interestingly paired. Geneve tries to reflect those ideas of pairing, highlighting, layering, combining the traditional with the contemporary.

Not too surprisingly, when McClain decided to open Custom House (named for the historic Custom House Levee District, today known as Printers Row, where the restaurant is located), Geneve was again his choice for designing the interior. A lot needed to be done to the neglected space, but there was much to love. Geneve liked the thirteen-foot windows on three sides of the restaurant, and he used the surrounding historic buildings visible through those windows to help establish his color palette.

The whole focus here was different. Geneve worked to create a very urban look, and worked to capture the history of the neighborhood. The old interior was almost entirely demolished. Geneve added a 23-foot limestone wall to suggest Prairie style—a tie-in to the name (Prairie) of the restaurant originally in this space. He chose Macassar ebony for the furnishings, a wood commonly used in the Art Deco period, when the earlier restaurant opened. The Pullman cars of the 1920s offered further inspiration. But the period elements and colors were all shaped by a modern eye, and while the influences can be detected, they are transformed into clean, contemporary lines.

When Chef Takashi Yagihashi decided to open his own place in Chicago, he needed more than just design—he needed a place. Geneve helped him with the search for a location, creating rough designs for each new place they considered. Finally, Yagihashi settled on an intimate, 50-seat, two-story house on Damen (the former Scylla). Once again, Geneve was asked to design on a budget—and to make the space more workable.

Geneve lined the ceiling with fabric and wood panels, to give it an Asian feel. He redid the floor and tabletops in warm maple, painted the brick wall to create continuity, and covered the banquettes in fabric with a stylized bamboo pattern. He also enlarged the kitchen, moved the bar under the stairs (which freed up one wall), and added a new waiter station to the second floor. A hand-painted, Oriental-inspired mural brought together the design elements. It was the only piece of art, as it was all that fit into the budget. Takashi Restaurant opened in January 2008.

When Geneve was asked to redecorate Trio, when it transformed into Quince, he was again on a budget. He carpeted the concrete floors, commissioned art, and reconfigured the layout to create a warmer, more formal esthetic. The owners were delighted, and it looks as though their pleasure will turn into more work for Geneve.

Geneve enjoys cooking, especially with his two daughters. “I love that Emily and Chloe enjoy cooking and dining out,” he says smiling. But food is not his sole focus, even in business. He has corporate clients. He also teaches design. But Geneve loves food and food people, so the restaurant design is his favorite work. “Restaurant people seem to have a closer connection to their work than most corporate folks do,” he notes. “I enjoy the closer collaboration of restaurant projects.”

2 Comments on "A Designing Frenchman"

Anonymous

Very interesting piece. Thanks!



art

Really appreciate this post just as I appreciate Geneve’s designs.

Great design stands out just as boldly as the food served within it.



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