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An interview with Fadi Riscala and Michelle Agnese
Principals, Riscala Agnese Design Group, New York

From overall concept development and graphics to kitchen planning and interior design, Manhattan designers Fadi Riscala and Michelle Agnese like to be involved in every aspect of their restaurant projects. Their work may be recognizable, but never predictable. These designers always meet whatever the menu of the moment calls for, with custom elements both artistic and mechanical, creating inspired spaces that people feel good in.

Riscala, who emigrated from Beirut in 1983, received a degree in interior design from Michael Graves College School of Architecture. He started his career with Q5 and was approached in ’96 to independently design his rst restaurant, introducing Riscala Design as a professional design firm. With the addition of partner Michelle Agnese in ‘99, Riscala Agnese creates some of the most imaginative spaces, with a range of budgets and styles, and sometimes helping neophyte restaurateurs from concept to completion. Here, the designers talk about the secret to a successful partnership, the advantages of being constantly curious, and of course, restaurants.

Q: What do you like about designing restaurants?
RA: By nature, designers are hungry for change, which can be an uncomfortable place. There is a constant call for fresh ideas and approaches in restaurant design, so it’s well within our comfort zone. What we’re saying is, we’re most comfortable being uncomfortable.

Q: You love to see a concept through…logo, interior, music selection, menu design…why is it so important to you to get your hands on every aspect?
RA: The strength of any brand or concept comes from the continuity and consistency of its message. Restaurants are no exception. It is all about an overall statement, coming from one single breath. If we could be the chefs preparing the food as well, we probably would. From a practical aspect, limiting the number of parties that are involved in the overall process saves the client time and money.

Q: Where do you like to start conceptualizing?
RA: We try to get to the root of our client’s intended concept by asking a lot of questions, to establish solid ground from which to start designing, rather than pulling from anything too obvious or supercial. Once we dene the intended concept, the specic feel and level of design is driven by the target group and the budget.

Q: What’s the secret to a great partnership?
FR: Embracing your dierences and celebrating your similarities. As long as the similarities outweigh the dierences!
MA: Respect for one another with no egos that get in the way is important to keep things moving in the right direction. But the natural dynamic between who we are as individuals enriches everything we do as a team. A common objective for the overall vision of our company and our projects is of utmost importance.

Q: What’s the secret to a great client relationship?
RA: Becoming truly part of the client’s team rather than just a ‘hired designer’; possessing a true sense of care and concern for the end result, putting your personal or professional interests aside, and working as an integral part of the collaboration, where the project benets from each individual bringing something meaningful to the table.

Q: What was your big break?
FR: Being given the chance to design the very rst restaurant, with not much of a portfolio to show and design fees that at the end of nine months averaged far below minimum wage. The feeling after the end result was exhilarating, and addicting.
MA: What would probably be considered as a ‘big break’ by most is that we were hired to be the designers on a new Food Network series. But after shooting two episodes, we realized that what was driving us was not the TV aspect of the show, but the design challenge at hand. For us, our brief involvement with the show oered more of a revelation than an actual ‘big break,’ returning to our own design world with a renewed sense of self, and a hunger to sink our teeth back into some serious restaurant projects. We have connected with some really amazing people both in the city and out, and have many very exciting projects on the boards.

Q: What’s the most important thing to remember when designing a restaurant?
RA: The end user’s psychology (which is not necessarily that of the client), the timeline, and the budget.

Q: What projects are on the horizon?
RA: A restaurant in Miami for a long-time NYC client, several restaurants for another loyal client in CT, and a new modern fast-casual concept here in the City, among others.

Q: Dream project?
RA: Something not entirely real, more surreal, so our imagination is not limited by a specic practical use. Although, it would be really interesting to see how the public then uses whatever it is we create. In the real world: Stephen Starr’s next restaurant.

Q: Greatest lesson learned?
RA: Something that you learn quickly when you own your own design business is that the design industry is as much about ‘business’ as it is about ‘design.’ Not only for our own business, but also for that of our clients. On the other end, it’s not about what you know; it’s about what you’re willing to nd out. Curiosity goes a long way in this business, or in any business for that matter. Design is problem solving, and to eectively remedy any problem, you have to really learn about where it originates.

Q: Biggest challenges in the hospitality industry today?
RA: This industry has gone through drastic changes in the past decade. Shifts in budgets and timelines through ups and downs have required us to adjust our services to accommodate many dierent circumstances. But we are agile, and able to keep up. We are constantly stretching our minds to push the limits with materials and methods, in order to achieve the most possible, with whatever we are given. Remaining interested in whatever capacity we are involved and executing as much as possible ourselves has been a huge benet.

Q: Trend you are paying attention to?
RA: The trend of ‘avoiding trends’ yet to remain current. It’s a ne line. Trends in ne art and fashion have been inuencing everything, so that’s an interesting place to look for inspiration.

Q: When you are not at work, where can we find you?
MA: Working somewhere else! We have a hard time ‘turning it off. We do a lot of indirect research, strolling the sidewalks of New York, seeing what’s new, what’s old, what’s good (and what’s bad). We nd a lot of inspiration throughout the city, always looking to mature our minds and our eyes. Beirut, Fadi’s hometown, is also a place that we visit whenever possible.
FR: Wherever Michelle is.

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