Several review visits this winter took me to interiors you might categorize under the umbrella term of Southwest Minimalist, a look whose label has bubbled up in part from the blogger world.
It’s an extension of a minimalism we already know, but earthier. Warmer. Minimalism without the austerity. And it has something going for it that for a restaurant is not a bad thing, particularly after a glut of Edison-bulb industrial chic: it feels good to be in. This is no small part of why my visits at Sixty Vines in Plano and Smoky Rose in East Dallas stretched out, so pleasant was it to be there. In December and January, their interiors—light, airy, simple but textured—were an antidote to winter. And more than that, they were soothing.
You know the look is Southwest Minimalism when you’re having flashbacks to your last trip to Santa Fe, Phoenix, the deserts of California and Nevada, or Marfa. Sunlight spills through windows onto raw wood, indigo-dyed pillows, and leather. It’s uncluttered, stylish, relaxed—a desert aesthetic that shares with Scandinavian minimalism a palette of neutral tones, the primacy of natural light, and the evocation of nature through rustic wood grain. At Smoky Rose, smooth stones, like simple river rocks you might hold in your palm, fill the planter that divides bar from main dining room. There are air plants in the bathroom.
The Dallas designers behind the two restaurant’s looks have similar words about the logic.
Angeline Guido Hall says chef David Cash and his partner Jeffrey Shramm wanted “something relaxed, not stuffy” for their slightly glammed-up barbecue spot across from the Arboretum. Hall’s design firm does a lot of residential design. “You really want it to feel warm, a real hospitable environment, with lots of texture”—hence the hand-dyed throw pillows and vintage Turkish rugs in what she calls an “eclectic collected look.” Being across from the Arboretum was a large part of the inspiration as well, she says. “We really wanted to do plants,” and during brainstorming, her most oft-returned-to idea-board piece was a photograph of a loft with high ceilings and skylights. They channeled that look. And while the patio with fire pits is a draw at Smoky Rose, the interior is equally compelling.
Kate Murphy, who created the design for Sixty Vines’ interior, acknowledges it as Southwest if you take into account the fact that the Southwest encompasses all of California, including the Sonoma and Napa valleys that are so fundamental an inspiration for the restaurant with its wine on tap. For Murphy, it’s a look tied to agrarian roots: the leather of boots and gloves, the natural elements in “light, airy, organic combinations.”
Murphy wanted the look at Sixty Vines to be distinct from that at Whiskey Cake, which shares a parking lot and is another stalwart for the Front Burner group. “That reclaimed look, with a darker palette and industrial parts … that’s not Napa Valley,” she says. (During the summer in which she was working on the design, she made a number of trips to the area.) “It’s white, it’s light, it’s organic.” And it’s green. “It was hard to sell,” she says. “Because I think people think design should be hard. The hardest thing to sell was that there was no art on the walls.”
“This was the most hands-on I’ve ever been in my life. Usually you give things to a mill work,” but the interior didn’t call for over-designed pieces of mill work, but rather items that would feel like found objects, like driftwood, she says. To create the stunning forty-foot bar, she hand-selected acacia-wood slabs and oversaw the finessing of the cuts till it was less mill work, more sculpture.
“I kept calling it hippie chic. Rich hippie. The truth is that the plants make it.” She potted every plant, but the goal is for them to look like they’ve simply been set down.
Judge for yourself. (And read this month’s Newcomer review for my take on the food.) Ultimately, it’s a forgiving aesthetic, one that’s easy on the eye and the mind, which has room to wander. Incidentally, it’s the aesthetic Murphy chose for her own home. Perhaps that, too, is why it felt so personal.
“You could probably screw it up,” she says. Most likely by overthinking it.