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Publication Date: 2017-12-20

Behind the Design

Renowned Architect Cass Calder Smith on the Evolution of Design

CCS Architecture, which is known for embracing California modernism and an indoor-outdoor aesthetic, celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. In recognition of this milestone, we invited the architecture firm’s founder, Cass Calder Smith, to reflect on the evolution of both residential and restaurant design, his sources of inspiration and what’s in store for the business moving forward.


Q: CCS Architecture has worked on more than 100 restaurants and 50 residences to date. Looking back on 25 years in the business, how has the design industry evolved?

A: The residential design picture has trended to more and more modern, with an emphasis from many clients to work with architects to create iconic masterpieces. Likely this is due to the accumulation of wealth—especially in places like the San Francisco Bay Area and the Hamptons. When it comes to restaurants, the industry itself from celebrity chefs to the proliferation of world cuisines has gone through major shifts. Dining and the knowledge of food has become one of the central elements of our culture. There is every kind of restaurant, farmers market, and experts on everything from coffee to kale. Sustainability and what’s organic is part of it all, too. With all of this, design has become more and more important.  

Q: Can you elaborate on how this shift in design has impacted the restaurant business specifically?

A: As the competitive bar rises in general, it has really risen on what restaurants look and feel like. Designs driven by concept, tied to brand are now the norm. Most people want to dine and drink in casual settings that are more residential than commercial, yet with the best food possible. As a complement to the authenticity of food, interiors have become built with more natural materials in their raw states such as wood, metal, and stone. Restaurant interiors are designed more and more by not only interior designers, but by architects—especially those who specialize in restaurants. Twenty-five years ago, very few designers specialized in restaurants. Now the open kitchen with lots of live fire is more the norm than the exception. This really started in California. Most recently the ‘fast casual’ establishment with only counter service has become elevated with lots of design.

Q: Your firm is known for embracing California modernism and for an appreciation for indoor-outdoor living. Why does this specific style resonate with you?

A: With the nice weather and spectacular beauty of California, it just seems obvious to design this way. People want their homes to match their lifestyles, which are casual and outdoor-oriented. I have also been influenced by the very nice work of mid-century L.A. architects like Neutra, Schindler, Ellwood, and the Eames’. My approach has often been to think of a house as more than just the building itself, but of its extension to the site and view beyond. Another aspect of California modernism is the use of natural light to animate interiors and bring the outside in. 

Q: CCS Architecture often incorporates natural wood into projects in a minimalist way. Can you elaborate on this approach?  

A: I have always loved wood. Early on in my career, when I would do a very modern design, my clients felt it was too cold and so I learned that countering really clean minimalist spaces with well-detailed wood walls, or ceilings worked well. Also, on rural houses, it just seems essential to have a house built with the materials nearby. Although I do like clean white spaces, I have done houses where the rule was ‘no sheetrock.’  

Q: Who are some architects, designers, and artists who inspire your work? Are there any other major sources of inspiration?

A: Along with the L.A. modernists I have mentioned, I appreciate the work of Le Corbusier and Mies Van der Rhoe. I also like Borromini from the Baroque era in Rome for his inventiveness and beautiful forms. Today, I really like the way Rem Koolhaas thinks as well as the form of his buildings. Cities continue to inspire me and so does pop culture—everything from music to theater.  

Q: With offices in both San Francisco and New York, how does being bicoastal affect your approach?

A: Aside from some jetlag, it’s really good. The West Coast continues to keep me inspired and connected to nature, while New York keeps me excited about the city, density, and the arts. In San Francisco, I love driving over the Golden Gate Bridge and I really like spending a Saturday in the galleries in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood.      

Q: You’ve designed a slew of restaurants, from San Francisco, to New York, to Dubai, that are all about casual luxury. Do you have a favorite that truly captures what CCS Architecture stands for?

A: I still think my best work is the first one: Restaurant LuLu in San Francisco. It just closed after 24 years. It was large, casual, and had a huge open kitchen with four wood burning ovens. Most recently, we designed Covina in the Park South Hotel in New York City, which has many hallmarks of CCS. 

Q: Are there any major trends in residential and restaurant design that excite you right now?  

A: I’m glad to see us moving away from reclaimed wood as a look. There is a sense of making places more luxurious but in a way that’s still casual. I’m seeing this more and more and it's done really well by many.  

Q: Are there any upcoming projects that you’re especially excited about? What is your vision for CCS moving forward?

A: We are working on a new restaurant in Amagansett for the owners of Nick & Toni’s. We are also doing a new restaurant and gallery for a chef and artist in San Francisco, a nice large restaurant in Healdsburg in Sonoma County, and a home in San Francisco for a great client. I’m also excited about a few commercial projects in Saudi Arabia, too. Moving forward, my vision is to keep doing what we are doing but even better and to move into some larger-scale, mixed-use projects.


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