photo by Laura Appleyard
Jess and I had lunch today at one of our favorite area restaurants, Iron Bridge Wine Company in Columbia. On the drive home, sated by endive salad and bacon polenta and pink grapefruit sorbet, we talked about everything that makes dining at Iron Bridge — and other destination eateries — so enjoyable.
There’s the food, obviously: excellent dishes comprising simple ingredients, presented with a relative lack of pretentiousness. Another critical element is the service, which at Iron Bridge is courteous, efficient, and crisp, with none of the forced bonhomie of the family feed trough, nor the snootiness that characterizes other “fine dining” establishments.
Those are necessary conditions. But for us, the “special sauce” of dining at Iron Bridge, the component that elevates a visit there from a good meal to a memorable experience, is the interior design. When I think of eating at Iron Bridge, I immediately picture a warm, mauve-colored, womb-like space accented with soft yellow lights and red flowers. Imagine flickering candlelight trapped in the rich depths of a glass of claret; that is the image that springs to my mind at the mention of the restaurant’s name.
Here’s the strange part: that’s not what Iron Bridge looks like, at least not entirely. The space contains more crimson and earth tones than mauve; the interior, while cozy, is more commodious than the pleasantly cramped space my memory conjures.
The same phenomenon holds true for my other favorite local restaurants, like Pazo, which in my mind has the same tones and hues as Maxfield Parrish’s The Garden of Allah. The reality of its appearance is rather different. Or Woodberry Kitchen, which I picture in airy Scandinavian shades of blonde wood, off-white, and lime green; in actuality, its palette is dominated by subdued pink brick and darker wood tones.
As the expanding field of popular neuroscience (exemplified by authors like Jonah Lehrer and Joshua Foer) has made clear, memory is unreliable. The way we remember is inherently impressionistic, rather than photographic. It collects all sorts of sensory input, highlights some of it, discards other data, mixes in some context and random association, and voila: instead of a spacious, crimson-and-chestnut-colored restaurant with black napkins, my memory connects the phrase “Iron Bridge Wine Company” to shades of burgundy and plum.
In the DVD commentary for his 2006 masterpiece, The Lives of Others, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck explains how he carefully selected the film’s set dressing and palette to evoke a visceral sense of place: East Berlin in the 1980’s. In order to achieve this effect, he and his design team employed muted green, beige, and orange tones, while painstakingly omitting any primary colors such as red and blue. They filled the interior spaces with furniture that was lower and broader than one would actually find in most East German apartments. The whole look was rainy, moody, a faded snapshot of the Cold War.
When I first saw The Lives of Others, I experienced a pang of nostalgia so unexpected and sharp it was akin to physical pain. Having spent a considerable portion of my childhood in Vienna and Madrid during the 1970’s and 1980’s, I was stunned by how closely von Donnersmarck’s film resembled the Europe of my memories. This, despite the fact that the real world I lived in back then was neither desaturated nor quite so atmospheric. On clear days, the sun shone brightly in the sky back then, as it does now. Blue was blue, red was red, and not every room was furnished in Bauhaus-knockoff style.
In other words, while the bygone era portrayed so compellingly in the film closely matched my memories of a particular time and place, that’s not actually what that time and place looked like. With fiendish cleverness, von Donnersmarck created a cinematic experience designed to bypass a viewer’s gross senses and connect directly with her hippocampus.
Driving home from Iron Bridge, Jess and I wondered how one might design a restaurant (or any interior space, really) in a way that takes into account the profound variance between experience and the recollection of experience. What if, in addition to focusing on the quality of the food, the plating of dishes, and the competence of the servers, a restaurateur or architect factored in the ways a patron might recall the experience of those elements? How would those considerations alter choices in decor, lighting, color scheme, or branding? What types of smells might one consciously incorporate in order to fix a particular sense-memory in diners’ minds? What sort of sounds?
How would you design a space that not only appeals to the five senses, but which also shapes our memory of it?