A Q&A with Neil Whitehead, Founder of Stuff International Design Limited

What are your memories of your first restaurant design project?
My first major restaurant project was Putney Bridge Restaurant, just by Putney Bridge on the Thames.  We were the concept architects and restaurant designers.  The site is narrow and had to have two floors to maximise the restaurant’s square meterage, which meant that designing the vertical circulation was a challenge and essential for it to work well so that food could be served easily and hot to diners on both floors.  I really enjoyed the intellectual challenge and think we were successful.

The location of the restaurant is spectacular and the best table is on the top floor in the rounded glazed area next to the bridge, where the view is wonderful.  We also used recycled material from a local school, so do look out for the children’s messages on the walls, which is a fun detail.

To date, what has been your most challenging design hurdle to overcome?
The challenge is the same with all new projects - creating unique designs that reflect the cultural demands of tomorrow.  We are passionate about designing and challenging the status quo.  Also, as technology is constantly evolving, we aim to integrate the best new technologies into our designs to improve efficiencies, the user experience and, of course, profit.

What inspires your work?
Everything.  The world in which we live is constantly changing and giving us clues as to how the future will look and feel.  I travel to many countries worldwide with different cultures and economic situations.  I enjoy mentoring and presenting to young entrepreneurs both in Russia and in the UK, it is very stimulating as they constantly challenge established points of views on everything. 

I hate the thought of grabbing inspiration from design magazines as once published it means the ideas were conceived at least a year before. For me music, YouTube, theatre and contemporary art are better places to begin!  "Original thought has to start from an original place."   

Which of 2016’s design trends have caught your eye?
My key observation is the movement away from the big brands and established food and restaurant operators.  The emergence of pop-up concepts from The King’s Road, to Brixton and throughout London, creating new brands.  The mixing of experiences: champagne with hot dogs.  Using street art to give individuality and inspire the taking of selfies.  These new concepts promote themselves by feeding off the narcissistic world in which we live, people seeking out the new, exciting and cool and creating images so as to see themselves reflected similarly through social media.  Young people today want to be seen to support the pop-ups against the plutocratic big brand dominance - a “David and Goliath” fight that they could win.

What are the emerging design trends we should look out for in 2017?
The driver of many trends today is narcissism.  People want to be seen through their social media to be going to venues that their friends will think of as cool, interesting, fun, exclusive or unusual – in experience, look or location. This drives people to pursue what they too see in social media.  So restaurant design needs to have a narrative brand with an evolving story that is extraordinarily interesting and topical.

For example, Tiny Leaf is a “Vegetarian, Organic, Zero Waste” restaurant that popped up in a venue in Kensington for just 4 months in 2016, recycling its water, glass bottles, waste, using wonky end-of supermarket-day vegetables to make health, delicious food, with the aim of raising finance and finding another pop-up location.  A very socially responsible concept – and very busy.

These threads show that there is a really change in how people are behaving today.  In my talk I will explore and discuss these ideas with you... http://www.restaurantdesignshow.co.uk/seminars/neil-whitehead/