David Sokol -- Interior Design, 6/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
Downtown Sacramento has an early bedtime. After 6 o'clock, workers scatter to their far-flung suburbs. So municipal leaders, acknowledging the economic potential of keeping consumers in the central business district after dark—and the environmental benefit of converting them into full-time residents—are boosting nightlife and other urban amenities. In one recent example of this initiative, the city lent $700,000 to chef Randall Selland to launch the $4.5 million Ella Dining Room and Bar in a 1920's department store less than a block from the capitol.
"Sacramento's living room" is how Ella is described by George Gottl, who founded the Amsterdam-based firm UXUS with his fellow principal, Oliver Michell. Neither hails from the Netherlands originally. (Gottl relocated from California as a creative director for Nike, and French-born Michell came to do a tour of duty with Rem Koolhaas at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture.) However, both are champions of design principles often pegged as unmistakably Dutch. As Gottl explains, "Everything we use is very familiar but, by manipulating familiar objects, we turn them into something new and exciting."
Painted wooden shutters, 500 pairs of the kind common on European farmhouses, were salvaged to line large swaths of Ella's main dining room. Besides the aroma of familiarity and the idea of adaptive reuse, the shutters are "about the contrast of materials," Michell says, expanding on this typically Dutch aesthetic. "It's the rough against the smooth, the refined against the humble." Gottl adds, "The individual components of the restaurant are very separate but, layered on top of each other, they create one distinct atmosphere."
A variety of vignettes mitigate the vastness of the 7,600-square-foot space, paved in concrete tile. Adjacent to the bar, giant four-sided tufted bornes are surrounded by a scattering of trestle-style stools made from reclaimed wood, reinforcing the recycling theme. In the center of the main dining room, three countrified tables with white-painted lathe-turned legs stack up like a super-scale tea dolly to play the role of service station, making utensils, plates, and glasses available to bussing staff and providing a pit stop where servers can prep dishes. Right outside the open kitchen, two picnic-style communal tables have a front-row seat on the action. Next door is the private dining room, papered in a huge cutlery pattern.
Besides reveling in a Dutch-flavored design philosophy, UXUS had to obey California's Title 24, concerning energy efficiency. The law required the designers to take a hard look at lighting. "Usage has been halved," Gottl says. Incandescent lamps appear only rarely, edged out by fluorescents, LEDs, and high-intensity discharge fixtures, or HIDs.
Not that the foodies would know it. "Most people like incandescents because they mimic candlelight, casting very romantic chiaroscuro shadows," Gottl says. "What makes LEDs efficient is that they scatter the light—the effect is brighter. But they don't cast as many shadows." To remedy the resulting flatness, UXUS carefully hid illumination sources, so the light would be reflected before hitting diners' eyes.
Fluorescents are tucked behind soffits. White linen is draped to form columns, 16-foot-tall diffusers for the HIDs. For warmth, pinpoint LEDs are mounted behind parabolic gold-leafed reflectors.
And creating warmth from cold ingredients is what Ella is all about.