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Meet the Local Firm That Helps Restaurateurs Realize Their Design Dreams

The secret? It’s all about telling a story.

Mark Wilson and Yoko Ishihara of Wilson Ishihara Design have worked on restaurants and other hospitality projects since 2015. Together, they’ve been the vision behind Wit & Wisdom restaurant and SIGH Champagne Bar in Sonoma, as well as the rebuild of Sweet T’s Restaurant & Bar in Windsor, after the original location was lost in the 2017 wildfires.

The business partners come by their immersive, hands-on approach honestly. Ishihara, who was born in Japan, was drawn to the creative side of hospitality, while Wilson worked in restaurants for years before studying design.

“It’s amazing how many restaurants are designed by people who have little clue how restaurants really work,” Wilson says. “And that’s something Yoko and I pride ourselves on; that we can design a place that is beautiful, but that also functions well and makes things easier for the staff.”

For this, our annual food issue, here’s a window into the world of small details that go into a successful restaurant design.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Designers Yoko Ishihara, left, and Mark Wilson. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
How does the design process begin?

Ishihara: We start every project the same way, with historical research and figuring out the story that we’re going to tell to build the project. And that comes from looking into books and other primary references, taking a deep dive into the individuals who created the culture of that community. And then obviously, we have to go to places that inspire our story and experience the culture there. And from that initial research and the historical references, we start creating the design. We can’t make any design decisions without having the conceptual story in place, because that story is our entire basis for making decisions.

What’s an example of that kind of storytelling?

Wilson: When we were working on Wit & Wisdom in Sonoma, my wife ran the volunteer program at the local hospital, and some of the volunteers have lived in the community for 80-plus years. And so we’d find these little historical tidbits — my design partner Yoko is the queen of research — and I’d go back and fact-check with the volunteers, and we’d get another whole layer of understanding.

Ishihara: We looked into the historical progression of the town of Sonoma, and some of the key figures, and we settled on the 1950s period with Chuck Williams [founder of Williams-Sonoma], with M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child. And we focused on a story with Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher having a dinner party at Fisher’s house in Glen Ellen, and this notion of cooking dinner together. That whole scene just really resonated with me; the idea of unpretentiousness, of inviting someone to your home and making them feel welcome. Also, at that time, Sonoma was a community of makers, which was one of the key words that we used. There were machine shops; there was a foundry in town. So we also focused on that sense of craft.

The plans for Wit & Widsom included subtle nods to local history and personalities, including author Jack London. (Wilson Ishihara Design)
Wit and Wisdom restaurant in Sonoma. (Wilson Ishihara Design)
What follows from there?

Ishihara: Then we start creating the spatial relationships and the massing of the space. And then it goes all the way into furniture and how we select the fabrics. And we kind of make fun of each other sometimes, because even for the tiniest project, we can’t really make any decision without that conceptual story. We start building the palette, the general aesthetic of the space, and after that, a little bit more into the details, like what does the millwork look like? It’s very organic.

So for example, at Wit & Wisdom, there’s a chair in the front that has this custom-designed fabric with a bear, because of the Bear Flag Republic. It looks so abstract that you might not even notice. But some guests might decipher that tiny message that we put there. The background story we create helps sprinkle the message everywhere in different ways. And I think that keeps the spirit of the place.

Wilson: It’s all of those things together that, I hope, make you feel really intrigued and comfortable when you’re in the space.

The rebuilding of Sweet T’s in Windsor two years after the fires seems to have been a defining experience for you both. How did that relationship start?

Wilson: We met with the owners, Dennis and Ann Tussey, and just fell in love. It’s great to be able to feed off someone else’s creative energy.

Ishihara: It was definitely a special project, for the sheer fact of how they lost the restaurant. It was such the soul of the community. And it wasn’t just about Ann and Dennis; it was all these people who were looking for a re-creation of this home that they had had. With Sweet T’s, we were really tapping into the Southern roots, bringing that hospitality front and center, because you really have that feeling, when you enter the restaurant, of being welcomed to their home.

Wilson: Ann told us that we really needed the grill out in the middle of the dining room, to create this sense of hearth when you first walk in. And we’ve got the brick at the bar, and the glazed brick at the grill station, the wood on the ceiling — taking the details, but then pushing them one more level in certain areas.

I think for us, we knew it wouldn’t be successful if we just re-created the other space, what it used to be. So we needed to spend time to get to know Ann and Dennis, and work them through the process of the design. We always kept in mind how hard it was for the owners to be going through this process.

Sweet T’s Restaurant & Bar in Windsor. (Courtesy of Sweet T’s Restaurant & Bar)
What do people find surprising about the overall design process?

Ishihara: There are so many parts to it. It’s not like we’re just spreading beautiful fabrics out on a tray, like on a reality show. There’s the creative process: the drawing, the making, the fine-tuning. But then there’s the production portion of each project, where you actually make the design happen. And that’s probably more than half of our time; just chugging through that process. Functionally, if the design doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter how beautiful it is.

Wilson: It’s important to be creative, but to be technically savvy at the same time.

How do you define Sonoma design?

Ishihara: The word that always comes to my mind is unpretentious — and sophistication. There’s a strong sense of this authentic, down-to-earth feeling in Sonoma. And it’s just so beautiful.

Wilson: There’s so much history here, the number of local families who have lived here forever. When we were doing the research for the lodge, we found a historic picture of a lunch from the 1920s, a big work party to fix the park in the square, which had fallen into disrepair. There was a huge communal table set up in one line, and this wonderful intergenerational connection and sense of community. And I looked at that photo and I thought, that’s the town we should be, and many times are.

Resources

Wilson Ishihara Design, Sonoma, Oakland, wilsonishihara.com

Wit & Wisdom, 1325 Broadway, Sonoma, witandwisdomsonoma.com

Sweet T’s Restaurant & Bar, 9098 Brooks Rd. S., Windsor, sweettssouthern.com

SIGH. Champagne Bar, 120 W. Napa St., Sonoma, sighsonoma.com

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