Just Getting Started
Jun Aizaki is a young man in a hurry. “He’s made amazing, amazing progress in, really, no time,” marvels Diego Gronda, the creative director of Rockwell Group Europe. This is an understatement. Since starting at Rockwell’s New York office in 1998, two years out of Pratt Institute’s architecture program, the now-38-year-old Aizaki has designed more than 20 restaurants, first at Rockwell, then through his own Williamsburg, Brooklyn–based firm Crème Design, as well as retail spaces in his native Japan and several residential projects. “Seventy-five percent of it all in the last five years,” Aizaki declares.
This outpouring derives partly from Aizaki’s approach, a design version of the gunman Tuco’s philosophy in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: “When you have to shoot, shoot—don’t talk.” “I’m all about hands-on making,” the architect says. “I privilege that over theorizing and thinking too much.” But it has also to do with strategizing what Aizaki—whose boyishness and modesty barely cover his ambition—hopes will be a comprehensive career, embracing everything from graphic design to city-building. “It’s what I planned for.
With restaurants, you can have a lot of work under your belt while you’re young, which means that you can start to figure out the next step,” he says, adding, “It’s definitely an interesting moment for me.”
“You can call me an ‘accidental’ hospitality designer, because it wasn’t where I thought I’d start,” Aizaki admits. “I had hoped to work for Tadao Ando.” He did, however, always want to study architecture in New York, where he’d lived as a child when his father, a foreign correspondent, was posted there. Aizaki’s impatience with theory emerged early. “At Pratt, there’d be classes where you’d design a crematorium on Mars. I was really frustrated, to do something that wasn’t on paper.”
For two years following graduation, Aizaki struggled to get by, doing small jobs and freelance gigs while sending out hundreds of résumés. Finally, he “stumbled upon” the Rockwell Group, where, waiting for his interview to begin, Aizaki experienced a crisis of creative conscience. “I was sitting on this couch by the elevators that looked like a big tongue, flipping through their portfolio,” he recalls. “And back then, the majority of their work was, like, Planet Hollywood.” Aizaki retained his attachment to the “more hardcore” architecture exemplified by Ando, “and I thought, this is not my thing, I’m going to politely say thank you and move on.”
That changed when Aizaki walked through the door. “It was buzzing with energy,” he says. “There were people from all over working on all these projects, and I thought: there’s some possibilities here, you could actually get your hands dirty building stuff.” His first year, however, proved disappointing. Though he worked within a design studio meant to focus on international business and staffed by a mini-UN of creatives, Aizaki says, “You can become a cog in a machine at a big office like that. Whatever I drew, somebody took it and priced it out and it was gone.”
Then Aizaki caught a break: he was selected by a project manager, Scott Kester, to work on Ruby Foo’s, a theme Chinese restaurant in Manhattan. A Harvard-trained architect, Kester had dropped out for a time and worked in a woodshop building boats. “I learned how to sketch details in a way that the person fabricating them can understand,” Kester says, an eye-opening skill he passed on to Aizaki.
“You’d go to the job site, draw things full-scale, and give them to the millworker, who’d make them in front of you,” Aizaki recalls. “Suddenly the connection between what you design and how it gets built became really clear to me.” It was precisely the sort of hands-on experience he’d been seeking. In a few months, Kester “taught me everything I know,” Aizaki says.
His second break came shortly afterward, when Kester left the company and, effectively by default, Aizaki became head project designer on Pod, a design-driven project for the Philadelphia-based restaurateur Stephen Starr. “I was 26 years old and everyone was saying, ‘Are you sure you can handle this?’ Are you kidding? I was like,” he laughs, “a fish in water.” Aizaki helped craft a Sixties-style space-age scheme that mixed Saarinen’s TWA terminal with the bright colors, material innovations, and general playfulness of Gaetano Pesce—one that, some ten years on, remains striking for its well-detailed, comprehensive vision.
Pod taught Aizaki multiple lessons, the need to listen closely to the client topping the list. “At first, I was tackling it from a design point of view, and when I presented, it got shot down because the flow didn’t work,” he says. “I realized that the core of hospitality design is that you’re providing a service, with the goal of having a successful restaurant.” Gronda says, “Jun learned to detach from his ego and agenda,” and to be pragmatic. “He is not only extremely creative but can go to a construction site and fix things if needed. Those two sides, yin and yang, are what make a great designer.”
Asked how quickly he realized Aizaki wanted his own firm, Gronda replies, “The first day I met him—Jun was on a mission.” By 2003, Aizaki says, “I had a sense of how to do the work, and the whole interdisciplinary aspect of Rockwell I wanted to take further.” Accordingly, though initially a one-man band working from home, he called his business Crème Design Collective, “even though I hadn’t collected anyone,” he says.
When, after two years, he opened his Williamsburg office, Aizaki built a small, broadly international staff (presently numbering seven full-time employees, plus three interns), cultivating an environment “where there’s an exchange of ideas, between people from different back- grounds and disciplines.” He also maintains a network of small-shop specialists—metalworkers, cabinetmakers, ceramists, and others—in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, where Crème has completed numerous restaurants, including seven for one of the stars of the Food Network’s Iron Chef America, Jose Garces. (The distinctive ironwork sign for Garces’s Basque-inspired wine bar Tinto—its second T styled as a corkscrew—was executed by Metal Dimensions, a Brooklyn studio just around the corner from Crème, and details for the recently opened Manhattan restaurant Red Farm were crafted by the Tbilisi-born artist and metalworker Zura Bushurishvili, whose workshop is across the street.)
Aizaki admits that balancing creativity with the discipline required to turn out work is challenging. But he enjoys running a business. “It comes back to the whole hands-on thing. I’m involved in everything.” As Kester puts it, “He’s practical,” and a tour through some of Aizaki’s Philadelphia restaurants reveals that practicality in practice. Whereas many young architects might seek to make a splash, Aizaki puts durability above dazzle. “There are restaurants that are design-driven, but I prefer non-design restaurants, where you go for the food and ambience,” he says. “So our style is ‘no style.’ We like to get the basic formula right, then use the resources wisely, especially as a lot of projects are low-budget. So craftsmanship replaces exotic materials, creativity replaces money.”
Opa, a 70-seat Greek restaurant, exemplifies the approach. Crème’s design uses a few elements—a bar inlaid with river stones, steel wall screens featuring a bubble motif, a ceiling canopy built from birch branches, handcrafted terra-cotta pendant lighting—to evoke an inviting outdoor seaside café. “We do modern interpretations of traditional food, and the design supports that,” says co-owner George Tsiouris. “It looks Greek but not too Greek—a great design, but also comfortable.” A similar approach turns up in Zama: “Our spiel is simple, modern Japanese cuisine, and that’s what I wanted from Jun—simple and modern,” says its owner and chef, Hiroyuki Tanaka. Aizaki obliged him with a repeating motif of vertical maple slats that porously zone the narrow room into different dining experiences, and a few impactful strokes: a Nakashima-inspired flitch-sawn sushi bar, a fish-shaped rice-paper chandelier, a vaulted ceiling featuring a contemporary graphic interpretation of a Japanese sand garden.
The architect also proves adept at what Gronda calls “really questioning the problem,” as JG Domestic, Crème’s most recent collab-oration with Garces, demonstrates. Confronted with a confining preexisting restaurant space off the atrium-style lobby of Cèsar Pelli’s Cira Centre, Aizaki captured part of the adjacent lobby area within a loose, reclaimed-wood corral formed by a pergola, openwork shelving, and a “living wall” with racks of succulents reminiscent of a potting shed. “Inside the old restaurant, it wasn’t very inviting, so we shifted the center of gravity to the outside,” Aizaki explains. “It’s architectural and horticultural. The layout drives everything, and the decoration is mostly plants.”
Aizaki is self-effacing to a fault—at each restaurant we visit, he declines to introduce himself as the architect, and merely asks if we can look around—and both Gronda and Kester remark on his patience. Yet with Crème well-established, he is anxious to go in new directions. “Big architectural projects, interiors, residential, furniture, even urban work,” he says. “I would love for Crème to be the first design group that goes back and forth between everything—I’m very greedy.”
While certain commissions represent natural steps beyond restaurants—hotels and casinos, for example—“the projects I really want to work on are urban problems that relate to my life.” He cites an open competition the office entered to redesign the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, a noxious eyesore that has divided parts of New York City for generations, and ideas derived from local observation, such as a pedestrian bridge linking Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood to Long Island City in Queens. For Aizaki, it is all design—and close in spirit to his current practice. Aizaki has barely begun thinking about how to realize all these dreams. But of one thing he is certain: “I’m just getting to the starting line.”