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Where the Jobs At?

Restaurant Designer: What’s on the walls is just as important as what’s on the menu

Where the Jobs At? Restaurant Designer

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Wooden serving boards as plates; Edison light bulbs over the bar and a taxidermied mammal on the wall; a $17 glass of Malbec served in a mason jar. You can always tell when a restaurant’s decor is simply copied and pasted from a 2013 top-ten list.

But when a spot’s atmosphere is truly unique — and melds seamlessly with what’s on the menu — it can create a city-wide sensation. See the massive hype surrounding Toronto’s surrealist Bar Raval.

Picture by Sarah Latulippe

Good design is good business, especially in a continually booming field like hospitality. According to Statistics Canada, in 2015 the average Canadian household spends $2,502 a year on dining out, while sales have risen at double the rate of inflation since WWII. And now that celebrity chefs and indie restaurateurs alike are flocking to cities like Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, it’s a great time to get into the business of making their new spots stand out from the crowd.

Tania Morrison is an interior designer who specializes in restaurant decor. Along with partners Catherine Bélanger and Tania Perreault, the trio runs the Atelier Lovasi design studio in Montreal. These women are responsible for some of the city’s most memorable new bars and restaurants, from crisp Scandinavian minimalism at fine dining spot HVOR, to the retro 70’s vibe at at Rosemount board game bar Randolph.

Interested in a career in restaurant design? Here’s how Tania did it:

So why do you guys focus on restaurants?
The three of us love going out to eat. When we go to restaurants, we’ll spend the whole evening talking about what’s on the walls, the light fixtures, or the detailing on the bar, and how we might make it better. We love the experience of going out to dine, and of creating that atmosphere for the clientele. For us, the design of a restaurant complements the food and the service.

How did you personally get it into the field?
My father was a contractor. I remember when I was 14, I’d spend time with him on the sites. Now, when I work with builders I can speak their language, which is incredibly helpful. And then my first career was actually in restaurants—I was a restaurant owner for ten years. I ran two places, and I handled all of their interior design and renovations. When I was approached to open a third place, I brought on Tania Perrault to help me. She then introduced me to Catherine. Both of them have more traditional backgrounds in interior and industrial design. We had so much fun working together on the project that we decided to keep doing it as a proper agency.

I think my restaurant experience was very valuable for me when I moved my focus to the design side. Let’s say a client wants to use an open kitchen, and blend the restaurant decor into the kitchen. I’ve been in those environments, so I know what will make it work.

When does your team step in on the design process? When the owner has bought a space? When they’re planning the menu?
Depends, usually we’re contacted by an owner that already has a restaurant and they want to be taken in an entirely new direction. Or they just found the space, it’s completely empty, and we work from scratch. Either is a great challenge. But the client normally comes to us from the very beginning. Together, we’ll talk about the mood that they want to create, the type of guests they want to attract, and all of the details. We’re working on a project right now that’s actually getting into the clothing that the servers are going to wear.

How do you find your clients? Is it competitive in Montreal?
They’ve been coming to us, thank God. At this point we’ve built ourselves a name, and clients are usually referred by word of mouth. What’s happening in Montreal right now is that groups of owners are getting together and opening a few restaurants at once. Instead of having one or two partners opening a single place, six or seven partners will open many at a time. Once you get in with that circle of people who know you, and who know you deliver, then word gets around.

How long did it take to get to the point where you’ve made a name for yourself?
For the first two years of the agency, we weren’t focused on that necessarily. We also make custom furniture, and work on other projects. But once we realized that this kind of design was our passion, it took about another year or two before we were working steadily. Again, once you build a place that’s popular, people start contacting you.

Any advice for the kids who might want to break into the industry?
It’s a field that you really have to involve yourself in. It’s not enough to have ideas, and then just wait for people to buy them. You have to get your hands dirty, and give up your time. It really has to be a passion for you. You have to wake up each morning and want to create new things, not just copy what’s popular. You also have to be able to create bonds with people, build trust with clients, and have a good solid team around you. Staying positive is a major component of staying in the business.


The lowdown on careers in restaurant design:

By the numbers: According to the 2011 National Household Survey, there are about 23,000 interior designers and interior decorators in Canada—though most focus on a corporate or residential clientele. Canada’s restaurant industry, meanwhile, has come off 25 straight years of growth. It feels like there’s a big opportunity here.

Types of jobs: Most young designers work at established design firms or agencies. If you’re particularly entrepreneurial, and really know the industry, you can branch out like Tania with your own practice.

What you’ll study: Short answer? A lot. Interior design isn’t just picking out furniture and fabric swatches. You’ll have to pass what the industry calls the “Three Es” — education, experience, and exams — to prove your wicked ceiling treatment won’t fall down and kill someone. For undergraduate programs, Toronto’s Ryerson University and the University of Manitoba were just tipped by design mag Azure as two of the top eight schools in the world.


Where to live: With over 6,500 restaurants, Montreal has the most per capita of any city in North America, including New York. Rent is cheap too, so your studio space won’t have you going broke before you land your first client. If you can afford it, Toronto and Vancouver also boast booming bar and restaurant scenes.

What you’ll make:
Salaries start at around $35,000 to $50,000 annually for someone fresh out of their education. With a little more experience, you’re looking at $60,000 to $80,000, while the big name designers with their own agencies can easily top $100,000. Lower your expectations if you only want to design the type of spots you’d be seen at. To earn this kind of money, you’ll probably have to pick up a few less desirable gigs: think bottle service, VIP areas and “Asian-fusion cuisine.”


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