Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Artsy Wednesday: Herman Miller's La Fonda del Sol

I am a ridiculous Herman Miller fan. Not just because their design library - especially the midcentury stuff - is amazing, but also because a few years ago, I had the opportunity to work with the company on what might end up being the most interesting and intense research project of my career. I don't own the data, so I can't get into the details, but I can say that the people at Herman Miller are some of the smartest I've met, and the company itself has a kind of commitment to intellectual exploration that is rare and inspiring.

I've been to their Holland and Zeeland, Michigan offices, and have even overnight in a company-owned inn on a local lake - in possibly the coolest room ever. As a part of the project, I was granted access to the internal culture and psychology of the company. It's complicated and somewhat exclusive, but impressive nonetheless.

If I sound like I'm gushing, well, I might be. I bought into their whole deal.

However, during my visits, much of my work was focused on the current company. We did a little research into the past, but not a whole lot. So somehow, I was completely unaware of La Fonda del Sol, Herman Miller's New York restaurant experiment that lasted from 1960 until 1974.

Housed in the Time & Life building and designed by the incomparable Herman Miller giant of design, Alexander Girard, Dwell magazine describes the restaurant as "Girard's abstracted vision of a Latin-American themed cantina".

The restaurant sounds - and looks, from the pictures I've seen - like a crazy marriage of design and food, one that demonstrates a clear understanding that the meal experience involves so much more than what's on the plate. Oh, I know that nearly every restauranteur knows this, but the design of this space is a far cry from amping up the excitement with Fridays-style flair, or conveying quiet money by throwing around some heavy white linen and crystal.

I wish I could've eaten there.

In today's restaurant world, I'd guess that overall, there's more of an emphasis on the food itself than there was at Girard's experiment. According to Dwell, an Eames Office employee once said that "the restaurant was so exciting to be in, she couldn't eat." Yesterday's design stars have faded into today's kitchen stars, though, so I doubt that would happen again.

But still, I'm sure there are restaurants out there that make truly innovative, interesting decor a priority. Maybe not in Baltimore, though?

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