In Good Taste

Two leading commercial interior designers share their recipes for some of Rhode Island’s hottest restaurants


When Rob and Uschi Yaffe turned to Kyla Coburn Designs to conceptualize their farm-to-table, community-oriented restaurant, The Grange, in 2012, Coburn immediately thought of a tiny, abandoned, 19th century grange in upstate New York she drove by frequently as a child. “In rural communities all over America, a grange is one of the first buildings to go up in a community. It is where people meet to determine the price of grain, or hold weddings, or discuss politics. It instantly came to mind as the perfect inspiration for a new version of a farm-to-table space on Providence’s West Side,” says Coburn.

But before the paint enlivens walls or fabrics are selected for window treatments or banquettes, Coburn and her team do a yeoman’s job of research. The designer says they have an incredibly detailed discovery process where the team considers the restaurant’s branding, menu, price points, and overall goals. “This creates a project architecture that guides us through the rest of the process,” says Coburn. It’s that up-front work, she explains, that allows her team to deliver an interior that is cohesive with textures, materials, and finishes that have longevity, that fit well with the community, and that create a memorable customer experience.

“The psychology of an experience and how it impacts the people who visit the space, whether calm or exciting or edgy, remains the most important factor in the design.”

When it comes to sourcing, Coburn says Providence is a treasure trove due to the city’s vibrant creative community. For The Grange, options were plentiful.

“Almost every element in The Grange design was locally sourced – with its own story – so we could create layered textures and touchable materials that were familiar. Taken together, they create a magical atmosphere where the plant-based menu and visual design are symbiotic and deliver a naturally cohesive experience,” says Coburn. The restaurant’s chairs came from an actual historic grange, the table bases were made from porch posts salvaged from area houses, and wooden bowling alley gutters, originally from Pawtucket, were repurposed to create the coffered ceiling.

In fact, Coburn reveals that the pieces that awe diners in multiple restaurants across the city were collected from area antique shows, markets, and salvage houses. Coburn says, “When you find an item that seems to make no sense – that’s heavy, awkward to move – and all logic tells you to walk away – those are the items you have to buy and find a home for when the right project comes along.” In late summer, Coburn was featured on an episode of “The Professionals,” a documentary series on OZY.com. The segment included footage of her work at Providence’s Troop and Wara Wara.

Designer Libby Slader, best known for creating the interiors at The Eddy, Providence Coal Fired Pizza, George’s of Galilee, Sura, and most recently, Kleos and its sister restaurant, Rosalina, says every client and every space has its own identity. “We strive to create a space that reflects the individual project,” she explains. Sometimes, says Slader, restaurateurs come to her with a clearly defined concept and she’ll work alongside them in a collaborative effort, taking their ideas and vision for the space and creating a narrative for it. Other times, the restaurant’s concept is developed from scratch. In either case, Slader will leave no stone unturned as she hungers to learn everything about the restaurant, from the menu and price points to the seat count and target market, to better understand the vibe chefs and owners are looking to emanate and the goals they want the aesthetic to accomplish. “Once the concept is understood and/or developed, the design decisions are much easier to make,” she says. “We always refer back to the concept and whether or not the design decisions support it. Creating a space that supports the operational needs of the space is just as important as the customer experience.”

Where some see challenges, Slader sees solutions. When highly touted Persimmon moved to Providence from Bristol, owners Champe and Lisa Speidel knew they needed to make what was clearly two distinct spaces into one cohesive restaurant. “We needed to make everyone feel as though they were part of the action,” says Slader. Champe wanted to have an open kitchen area and a chef’s counter so he could interact with the customers while Lisa sought a space that felt brighter and lighter than their former location. “A Scandinavian-inspired aesthetic was mentioned, and we ran with it,” says Slader. “The existing building had amazing millwork paneling and we knew that a fresh coat of paint would work wonders – and it did.”

Conversely, Steve Durkee, owner of Durk’s Bar-B-Q, had done his research before meeting with Slader. He traveled to barbeque joints across the country and as a result, already knew what he was looking for from an operational and aesthetic standpoint. “There was also going to be a strong emphasis on whiskey, so hence, the ‘Wall of Whiskey’ was created,” notes Slader. Making the most of the square footage, the designer made the functional aspects of the space focal points, so the smoker and the firewood not only add to the aesthetic but are constantly utilized.

Slader also likes to think long term for her clients. “We tend not to do anything that’s too trendy, unless it’s in something that can easily be changed out in ten years, such as a light fixture or furniture.” As the Ocean State is ripe with creative talent, Slader works with myriad local artists and craftsman in Rhode Island.

“We love to work with James Reynolds, the team at Providence Painted Signs, Mark Freedman, Kingston Krafts, Lorimer Studios, Corporate Art Group, and Jutrus Woodworking,” she says. “There truly is no shortage of amazing collaborators.”

As to which project has been her favorite, says Slader, “It would be impossible to choose. My favorite is always the next one.”  

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