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Meet the creatives who have probably designed a restaurant you’ve eaten in

Crafting inspired places for Singapore's top restaurants.

01: THE POWER OF TWO

The devil’s in the details for design couple Marc Webb and Naoko Takenouchi.

In its conceptualisation of restaurant decor, design firm Takenouchi Webb strives for a look that conveys elegant tranquillity. “When someone steps in, I don’t want him or her to feel overwhelmed by the space,” says Naoko Takenouchi, 43, who helms the firm with her British architect husband, Marc Webb, 48. “When the details come together, the design doesn’t need to shout. It should feel harmonious and make guests feel relaxed.”

Naoko Takenouchi and Marc Webb of Takenouchi Webb

The couple, who design everything together, are behind some of Singapore’s most-talked-about restaurants: Whitegrass, Empress, The White Rabbit, Tanjong Beach Club, and Loof. They consider themselves lucky to have founded Takenouchi Webb 10 years ago, when Singapore’s culinary scene was coming of age. Says Webb: “We happened to have set up our office at a time when new developments and opportunities were springing up.”

Key to their success, they say, is the way in which they create a space by building upon layers of detail. “The most difficult question people ask us is: What is the design concept of your restaurant?” says Takenouchi. Instead of a conceptually driven approach, her firm takes a “down-to-earth, step-by-step” mindset, which begins with inspecting the site before considering the restaurant’s cuisine, the function of each space, and the materials required for the construction.

  • Whitegrass
    01: LUXURY OF SPACE Whitegrass at Chijmes resembles the dining room of a private home, because it doesn’t need to fit in many tables.

In fine-dining restaurant Whitegrass at Chijmes, the couple saw the potential of enhancing the “residential feel” of the space after evaluating the site at the historic Caldwell House. “It’s a high-end restaurant that does not need to pack in a lot of tables,” says Takenouchi. “Therefore, we approached the design the same way we would a home.”

The duo is currently busy with Straits Clan, a private members’ club that will replace the New Majestic Hotel. The club, founded by two of Singapore’s top F&B names Unlisted Collection and The Lo & Behold Group, will house diverse dining options, including two restaurants, a cafe, a bar and a secret bar. They are excited to be working on a project that is uniquely Singaporean. Says Webb: “Though we’ve been in Singapore for a long time, we still find interesting materials and patterns here that we can work with.” Straits Clan is set to feature rattan furniture inspired by local examples, and walls customised with patterns from Singapore in the 1970s.

(RELATED: Find out whether Unlisted Collection’s Loh Lik Peng believe boutique hotels have a shelf life with the closure of his flagship hotel, New Majestic.)

02: ONE TO WATCH

Laank‘s Cherin Tan likes to walk in your shoes.

In 2012, Cherin Tan intended to take a sabbatical from work but her freelance jobs kept piling up. So, she said “no” to the time off and “yes” to starting her interior architecture firm, Laank.

Cherin Tan, owner of Laank

Five years on, the baby-faced designer still gets asked by corporations and older clients if they could “speak to her boss” – never mind that she’s helmed notable F&B projects that include three restaurants by culinary personality Violet Oon, and Resorts World Sentosa’s Curate, the first restaurant in Asia dedicated to showcasing Michelin-star chefs.

The fact is, Tan has worked in the industry for more than a decade, having started at the age of 21 honing her design skills at local design firm Asylum. At 33, her experience shows. Any credibility issues her clients have over her youth are usually dispelled after a meeting.

  • Resorts World Sentosa Curate
    03: GARDEN OF STARS The interior decor of Curate, which showcases Michelin-star chefs, channels an enchanted garden.

Today, Laank’s projects include hospitality, health care, retail, exhibitions, and offices. But the self-confessed foodie has a soft spot for F&B clients. “I love designing restaurants because of the human-centric approach we take in our work. It’s easy to apply that to restaurants. We try to imagine how a person might experience the space before defining the experience.”

Take her projects with Violet Oon. When designing Oon’s restaurants, Tan wanted to bring out Oon’s vivacious personality. “How would Violet feel if she was walking through the restaurant, sharing stories of the space with her guests? That’s one of the key considerations,” reflects Tan.

“Violet and I also agreed that the design of her restaurants needed to represent her and be as iconic as Raffles Hotel or the Singapore Sling.” With historic elements including old-school coffee shop chairs, and photo walls of Oon’s past, Oon’s restaurants have hosted luminaries like Thai princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

(RELATED: Restaurant of the Week: Violet Oon Satay Bar and Grill takes over Clarke Quay’s former Satay Club spot.)


“Violet and I agreed that the design of her restaurants needed to be as iconic as Raffles Hotel.”

– Cherin Tan


Unexpected elements also come into play. Says Tan: “When someone walks into a restaurant, he or she already has expectations of what the restaurant should look like. We like to surprise the guest, and create something with a different vibe.”

For Curate, she was tasked to reflect the culinary prowess of its chefs. Her team turned to the idea of an enchanted garden. “We want the diner to experience a sense of dreaminess underscored by calm,” says Tan.

She, on the other hand, is no dreamy creative. “One of my strengths is my ability to manage budgets,” says Tan with a laugh. She adds that practicality and creating projects that withstand wear and tear is “essential” and sometimes “more important than aesthetics”.

This clear rationality, coupled with her ambitions to grow overseas – Laank is currently working on restaurants in Phuket and the US – puts the firm in a good position to succeed in a highly competitive industry.

03: WHERE LIFE IMITATES ART

Award-winning designer Emma Maxwell flaunts her sculptural flair.

Sculpting may seem an unlikely training ground for designing restaurants, but for Singapore-based designer Emma Maxwell, knowing how to cast bronze and weld iron has served her well.

“You learn about shape, light and form intimately,” says Maxwell, who holds a degree in sculpture from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. “It gives you a strong understanding of materials and the physics associated with them.”

Emma Maxwell

Since moving here from Sydney nine years ago, Maxwell, who is in her 30s, has designed a slew of restaurants, including Sabio Tapas Bar and Cafe Melba at Mediapolis.

Last year, she bagged the accolade of Best Interior Design at the prestigious Italian A’Design Awards. Her seven-piece lighting series, Flume Lighting Collection, also scooped the 2016 Best of the Best for Product Design Award at the Architecture & Design Awards Asia-Pacific.

She’s known to create restaurant spaces with eye-catching textures and materials, including hand carved timber, cast bronze and copper, dyed leathers and hand blown glass. “When I’m designing, I’m always thinking about principles I’ve learnt in sculpting. I like to tell the most dramatic story I can. I’m not a very quiet designer,” says Maxwell with a laugh, who cites sculptors like Eva Hesse, Constantin Brancusi and Joseh Beuys as her muses.

  • Cafe Melba
    05: DRAMA MAMA Maxwell admits she’s not a “quiet designer”, as evidenced by her design of Cafe Melba at Mediapolis.

    PHOTOS Brett Boardman/DHM

Often, she customises close to 80 per cent of the furniture and lighting for her projects. When she was working on Sabio, Maxwell drew inspiration from a 400-year-old tapas bar she visited in Seville, Spain, to craft a contemporary-style backbar for the restaurant.

Her latest project, Cafe Melba at Mediapolis, sees her referencing design elements from the Australian landscape to pay homage to the restaurant’s namesake city of Melba, which refers to Melbourne. Guests who look up will notice the cafe’s sculptural ceiling – crafted from layers of recycled metal plates – which performs more than just an aesthetic role.

(RELATED: The pinnacle of livable design: this narrow inter-terrace building in Singapore.)

The structure helps to dampen the noise levels in the restaurant to achieve acoustic stability, an oft-overlooked aspect of restaurant design. She says: “If you’re having a conversation at a crowded restaurant and you need to yell to your neighbour, you’re going to start feeling frustrated with the space.”

Though Maxwell now works with clients from around the world, including Borneo, China, Bali and Hong Kong, she hopes to one day design a restaurant with a Singaporean flavour. “Singaporean culture and aesthetic – especially that of the Peranakans – is beautiful. The materials that Peranakans use, ranging from their marbles to ceramics, serve as an inspiring foundation for some really great design.”

PHOTOGRAPHY Veronica Tay, Tan Wei Te & Vee Chin
ART DIRECTION Denise Rei Low & Chelza Pok