A Conversation with Amy Morris and Anna Polonsky
of the MP Shift
First and foremost, Anna and Amy are the people you want at your next party
(dinner, dance, or cocktail).
Somehow they have this electric energy that makes you want to learn, laugh, eat, drink, and get to know everyone in the room. Oh, and they also run a James Beard Nominated design house called The MP Shift.
They. Do. It. All. As I was chatting with these two powerhouses, they mentioned this as a “wholistic” approach. I call it the “they do everything” approach. From concepts to visual identities, interior design to launch strategies (and not to mention Program Curation aka they throw a good event) -- Anna and Amy have become to go-to designers in New York and are now expanding to other cities (such as Paris). Most likely you’ve seen their work around New York’s finest new openings -- i.e. de Maria, Lalito, Otway, Golda, VHH Foods, Ferris….
I stole a few minutes of their time the other day to chat about comfort because, as I’ve probably said before, I think restaurants are inherently uncomfortable. You’re walking into a space that is not yours, trying to suss out every new sense (what does it look like, smell like, feel like, taste like, sound like). You don’t know where the bathroom is, or where to get a drink. You don’t know if you need to whisper or shout to have a conversation, and lord knows what you might be eating that meal.
But the MP Shift has this ability to make restaurants feel lived in, homey, recognizable yet unique and distinct. So, how the hell do they do that? I wanted to know.
Counter Service: So! Thank you for taking the time out to chat with me. To start things off, would you mind telling me how you both got into The MP Shift?
Anna Polonsky: Amy and I have always had one foot in marketing strategy and one foot in creative direction. We have mixed backgrounds, combining marketing-thinking and creative-thinking. When we transitioned away from our old jobs, we both knew we wanted to focus on more creative projects and decided to partner.
There weren’t many chefs thinking holistically when building a restaurant. We bring the rational strategy to the creative direction and work with the entire team to build a strong brand.
Amy Morris: You can be a lot more creative if you have the strategy nailed down. If you don’t have a foundation to drive all decision, you’re grabbing at ideas from everywhere, following what inspired you most recently. Anna and I have a catalogue of creative images, ideas, inspirations; it’s like a never ending movie reel of inspiration collected and stored in our heads. If we have a direction, we know which inspiration to pull from. When we don’t know the foundation, it’s hard to give the restaurant’s brand a form because everyone is working from their own individual ideas, not the collectively built foundation.
When we started designing, we would go to our clients and say “What is your brand? Who are you.” And none of them had answers. We can’t build an authentic space without knowing the brand. It won’t ever represent the client if you don’t know who they are. All would be lost along the way.
CS: What do you start thinking about when it comes to designing the space?
AM: By starting with a brand Q&A, we are able to understand when someone says “minimal” what “minimal” means to them. We need to understand their verbal language and need to understand their visual language. Colorful to one person is adding one object of color and to another it’s adding color to every wall and table. Once we understand both of those we can start build their a mission statement and a mood board to match it.
For example we have a client that wants to be the neighborhood gathering spot, the challenge is that they leased a space that is broken into four rooms. It was important to keep the space vibrant and buzzing and make every room desirable. We did this by giving each room a personality that ties back to the brand, now each space feels special and patrons will want to experience them all.
CS: “It almost sounds like you are moving to a region, let’s say, that produces really good zucchini, you’re not going to make them start producing eggplant. This room tells me this is supposed to be a welcoming room, so, we’re going to make it just that…”
AM: You’re Hired
CS: What do you think sets you apart from other designers?
AP: We think it’s both because of that wholistic approach and we don’t have a signature style, we aim to draw out our clients vision and articulate it in the best way. We have no interest in being recognized by our style like other branded firms.
We also always work with our client’s brand. To give you an example, with De Maria, we worked with colored leather on the table because Chef Camille [Becerra] — an instagram star — really wanted a table with a non-reflective surface. So that’s how we came up with that idea. Every idea is very much connected to the owner. I would say Golda and de Maria are a bit similar because they are both all-day cafes, but with Golda the colors are a little more Turkish. Our designs always represent something personal about the owner, menu or chef.
We don’t want to create sets. We feel that a lot of the restaurant designers in the past 20 years have created movie sets, and it works, but we always feel more at home when it’s imperfect. At your house, you would never create a crazy ceiling installation, with a contemporary artist for a reason: you want it to be timeless; you want it to be like a house. And then in your house you would never just have symmetrical two-tops in your living room; you would have a sofa area and a dining area.
WE ALWAYS HAVE LAYOUTS THAT DIVIDE THE SPACE INTO MANY DIFFERENT Atmospheres, ALWAYS INCLUDE IMPERFECT DETAILS.
WE FEEL LIKE IT MAKES THE SPACE FEEL A BIT MORE COZY, AND SPECIAL.
And that is when it hit me: in designing the imperfect, it makes it more recognizable, less intimidating, and more comfortable.