American Society of Interior Designers: Club Hopping
Icon Magazine, Winter 2007
It was a lot easier to be a club owner in the '70s. A hardworking entrepreneur could put up a fairly simple club with music and a bar and turn a nice profit. But today the nightclub business is a lot more competitive—especially in such top party cities as Manhattan, Las Vegas and Miami. In these sophisticated markets, a club's concept and design play a crucial role in its success.
Concept Is King
To create a concept that's right lor the target market and locale, it takes some upfront research. Tom Telesco AIA, president of Telesco Associates in Miami Beach, Fla., boasts an impressive club design resume, including such hotspots as Crobar New York and Nocturnal in Miami. But despite his experience, he starts any project outside his home city by visiting the area's successful clubs. What makes patrons swoon in Miami won't necessarily fly in Minneapolis or even Los Angeles.
An intimate knowledge of a club's eventual customers also makes design decisions easier. Right now, for example, Telesco is working on a martini bar in Orlando, Fla. The club's owner developed a nearby community of homes and condos and provided the design team with specific information about the customer base: 25-45 year olds earning $150,000 to $200,000 a year. Since these sophisticated patrons aren't easily impressed, Telesco's team is building in a lot of buzz-worthy features. "When people go to this nightclub, they'll never forget the experience", he says.
Once the club opens, one of the most talked about spots inside might just be the bathrooms. Plans call for high-tech surprises in both the men's and women's rooms. When a man walks up to the urinal, a plasma screen will activate behind the black glass in front of him with a woman making a clever comment about his manliness. Ladies who preen at the mirror will find themselves face-to-face with an image of a drag queen applying her own make-up.
These types of high-tech touches may soon become the norm. "A lot of the forward-thinking trends have to do with technology and lighting and environment," Goff says. Technology gives designers the power to create ever-changing—and increasingly impressive—surroundings for fickle club goers. LED lights, for example, allow designers to create precise and versatile displays. It's possible to call for something as specific as one square inch of red light next to one square inch of purple light. Other possibilities include projecting film through the lights or using them to create images.
At the Nocturnal nightclub in Miami, club patrons might find themselves feeling like they're partying underneath swimmers splashing in a pool. Telesco teamed up with San Francisco company Obscura Digital to create this near-virtual reality effect. In actuality, the club's rooftop party space is covered by a tensile, multi-peaked canopy (picture the underside of a circus tent) to keep the weather at bay. But Obscura Digital turned this practical surface into the canvas for a single video image. Changing the space's look and feel is as easy as changing the video.
"It's something very few people have seen," says Patrick Connolly, Obscura's CEO. "They freak out." His company provides the hardware, software, content and know-how to turn almost any space into an immersive video environment. The Obscura team can produce video displays that put dancers in the middle of a rainforest or create the illusion that water is running down a wall and onto the floor. Club DJs can even plug into the systems to play their own videos.
The Alcohol Factor
Regardless of how impressive the overall concept or environment is, there are still a host of practical considerations in any nightclub. "We always assume [patrons are] going to be slightly disoriented and slightly drunk," Goff says. "That's how we make design decisions." Designers generally recommend staying away from steps in a club, along with any flooring material changes that might cause intoxicated patrons to trip in low-light conditions. Materials also need to be durable. If it can be broken, ripped, torn or stolen, an intoxicated patron is likely to test the limits.
The placement of the bar is also crucial: If customers can't get drinks quickly, they'll go somewhere else. Goff typically places the bar out of the main traffic pattern and to the right, explaining that "People are a little like herd animals. We have a tendency to move to the right when we go into a building." To make the bar efficient, it's also crucial for the interior design team to understand things from a bartender's or owner's perspective. Goff, for instance, has a retired bartender on staff and Tom Telesco started in the business as a club owner.
Ultimately, a successful club design helps club owners make money: It creates an environment where people want to stay longer and keep coming back.
Tom Telesco: Designer to the Stars
Club Systems Magazine, November 2005
"Design is being able to recognize what's in the market and what that market will accept, not just doing the same thing over and over again."
A successful designer and builder, as well as a long-time music lover, Thomas Telesco first melded his prime passions back in 1974 with his live music club Jack Daniels, in Buffalo, N.Y. By 1977, however, he decided to quit the operating side. "The hours got to me," Telesco says. "I really couldn't handle the lifestyle after three years. But I enjoyed servicing the nightclub industry."
More than three decades later, Telesco is a driving force in that industry. As principal of Miami-based Telesco Associates (www.nightclub-design.com and www.restaurant-design.com) he's the Architect of Record for the clubs that have defined the modern era of nightlife, including SoBe staples Liquid, Living Room. Opium and Crobar. Most recently, Telesco added highly-anticipated downtown venue Nocturnal to his portfolio.
Over the years, many things have changed in the nightclub business, particularly the role of interior designer. Telesco's company has always been ahead of the industry curve. designing and building interiors that please venue patrons and owners alike. "We want our clients to be successful," says the reserved 53-year-old. "We don't want to attach our names to a bunch of clubs or reataurants that failed."
You've been in the biz for quite a while now. What are some of the biggest changes you've seen, and what's changing now?
Back in the '70s and even into the early '80s you could open up a nightclub in a big box, so to speak: just paint the ceilings black, dimly light everything and get the right live music or right DJs in there and you could make money. What's happened over the last 20 years is that the business has become much more competitive. Having said that, it's spread to every part of the reataurant and nightclub industries: The requirements for better sound have gone up and up and up, and better lighting, and better interior design, and just about everything. Competition has forced owners to put out a much better product than they had to put out 20 years ago.
How is nightclub design different from designing other entertainment venues?
A nightclub is a completely different animal. For instance, in Baltimore we're doing a high-end restaurant with a nightclub upstairs, and we'll light that restaurant completely differently. At a restaurant, each table needs to have a certain level of light and it needs to be fairly evenly lit. In a nightclub, you almost want to create some areas that aren't as well lit, little areas where people can get away, boy meets girl stuff. You don't always want to be right in the middle of the dancefloor with intelligent lights washing over you.
What about designing the layout in terms of flow?
Putting bars in the right places, making sure they have enough set-ups – a soda gun and an ice bin – making sure they're in the right places. and making sure the ratio of those set-ups is right for the floor space. In Florida we can put in as many bars as we want; if we have a really big space, say the order of 42,000 sq ft Tootsies Cabaret we can put in five, eight, 10 bars. In New York. the State Liquor Authority holds you to three. You can have other bars, but only service bars, so a waitperson would have to get the drink, turn around, and hand it to you. It becomes cumbersome. but we had to do it that way to make sure we had enough bars to deliver product to the people. When people are uncomfortable because of poor air conditioning, they leave. They can't get a drink, they leave. There are always other places out there where they can be comfortable.
Speaking of Crobar New York, it has won much praise, including a 2005 Club World Award, but what is it that makes it so much better?
Before anything was ever done we spent over a year in the site measuring it and designing it. It was almost a year's worth of rent, which is a ton of money, but it was Cal Fortis, he knows the value of architecture and interior design, and was willing to spend all that time and money on rent in order to get what he wanted.
Is there anything you do structurally that's cutting edge?
We try to make big architectural features a big part of the interior design, instead of creating a space and then just doing great finishes everywhere. If you've seen Crobar Miami, and also New York, Cal used sort of the Crobar-themed columns we [first] used in Chicago. Architecturally, they weren't structural, they look like they are, but they're just there for effect, to create a colonnade that's attractive to the eye.
What are some of your other signature no-fail design tactics?
Whenever possible we always go for a welcome bar, close to the point of entry, where we can close the rest of the club off, either with lighting or curtains or some effect to make it feel like, even with only eight or 10 people, there's a little bit of a crowd. Then, as the place gets crowded, we open up more and more of the space. When people come into a club we like to obfuscate their vision of the interior for that same reason: Nobody wants to go into a place that's empty. We create some kind of monolith or perhaps a hallway, so people waiting in line outside don't get the full visual access of the club.
You've said before that you have that similar look, your "signature Miami Beach style", but how does that work in other locations?
That's a perfect example. I don't design the same club here in Miami Beach that I do 30 minutes north of here in Fort Lauderdale. When I go out of town the first thing I do is go out to all the clubs there that are going to be perceived by my client as competition: the last thing we want to do is give them South Beach in the middle of a Baltimore. Here, maybe Los Angeles and New York, you can do real, real cutting-edge stuff. In a market like Baltimore, Buffalo, or Fort Meyers you have to tone it down. You have to be heads and shoulders above the competition there, but not necessarily where we're at here; it might be perceived in a different market as cold. Design is being able to recognize what's in the market and what that market will accept, not just doing the same thing over and over again.
What are some ways of toning things down?
Some of the best ways are with color. Usually the earth tones and woods are pretty comfortable. In Miami Beach, we might use a lot of white, a lot of steel and concrete. You can do a little, you just can't take it quite as far. In this market everybody's looking to go over-the-top.
Any nightclub design mistakes you come across regularly? Or want to out?
That's funny because I'm kind of a perfectionist and whenever we make a mistake, that's when I remember. For instance, as successful as Crobar Miami is, every time I get involved with a mezzanine I always remember the mistake we made there in putting the pedestrian path right at the edge of the mezzanine and the VIP seating back against the wall, a huge mistake. Why? Because the VIPs don't want to spend money on bottle service and be tucked away on the side; they want to be able to look over the mezzanine and see what's going on, look at the dancers and get that energy from the crowd. And so every mezzanine I've done after that I've done it the opposite way: I put the pedestrian path on the outside against the wall and put the VIPs right up against the mezzanine so they can enjoy the view. You live and learn. And certainly. I don't think it hurt Crobar: they did, and are doing still, very well.
How do you delegate and teach those below you?
When I was a very young man in my career, I had the good fortune of having a lot of older people work for me. My youthful creativity was blended with the sage advice of experienced older guys. Now it's sort of the other way around: I have a great young, creative staff of interior design and architectural school graduates who work here and keep us on the cutting edge. And then I provide the old salt advice because I know where things should go, how they should go together, and how places should be laid out. and where to create little hourglasses where people are forced to interact.
Can you think of any examples of that hourglass?
An hourglass, that's a concept we like to use sometimes near the main bar. Again, we're concerned with making the place look full early. That incremental opening thing is very important to me. It's a smart way to do it so people don't feel like they are walking into this big cavern, a la the '70s and '80s. You feel ill at ease when you're in that situation. We try to make people feel comfortable once they get in and we also want them to be surprised.
That's what was missing from a lot of those big box '70s clubs – discovery. People come in, they take one look and see the whole place, there's nothing new for them to find the next time they come there. We try and create opportunities so people would have a completely different experience the next time they went to a space. And if you can create that, people love it and they keep coming back.
Telesco Associates Wins Big 50 Award
Remodeling Magazine, May 1998
Nightlife is a big part of Miami Beach's culture. Everybody flocks to nightclubs and restaurants that change as often as patrons change their fashions. So for creative fast-track service, the owners of these venues call Telesco Associates. The firm specializes in completing nightclub & restaurant design and renovations with a power-hitting combination of creative personnel and technology to create virtual environments complete with 3-D real time fly-throughs,and animations.
After measuring a job, Tom Telesco Sr. (third from left) and his architectural staff create a multimedia presentation complete with 3-D real time fly-throughs and renderings. The display pleases thier clients and thier contractors, they get to see the project in three dimensions accurate to the last detail before it is built allowing them to understand the entire design scheme and avoid costly change-orders in the construction process.
He and his architects & designers follow up with detailed plans and interior design schemes. Tom Telesco Jr. (second from left), construction vice president, builds-out aproxametly 20% of the clubs that the firm designs in Miami Beach. Field crews work seven days a week to complete the local projects that Telesco also builds.
Potential Clients hear about Telesco Associates through other Architects, building and zoning officials, real estate agents, lawyers and even competing business owners. "They call us because we're the best, no one can match our level of experience and expertise" says Thomas Telesco Sr.
Telesco Associates Staff: 9 to 12 Office / 25 to 50 Field
Category: Architecture, Remodeling and New Construction
1997 Volume: $3.5 million ($1.1 million in Architecture and $2.4 million in Remodeling and New Construction)
Niche Market Award Granted to Telesco Associates
Remodeling Magazine, September 1998
Thomas Telesco Interview : We lump most of our work into what we call the "hospitality market," which is nightclubs, bars, restaurants, hotels and similar projects. Actually, given my background, designing nightclubs was a natural for me.
I started out as a designer & builder and did well at it. In fact, I was making more money than someone in his 20s had a right to. And since I am also a musician, I decided to buy the live music venue where I hung out and sometimes played. My soon-to-be wife changed that after about three years, however. Her mother told her never to marry a musician or a club owner, and I was both. Working in a nightclub until 4:30 in the morning isn't a business - it's a lifestyle, it can be great but I was ready to have kids and fulfill another part of my life.
Naturally, when I went back to design-building, I had the experience to help out club owners, a lot of whom were first-time buyers. I knew the logistics and the human factors engineering from being an owner. I knew which setups would be the fastest and most efficient, how many service positions should be involved per thousand square feet of floor space, where to strategically place the bars, the logistics of the speed guns and their proximity to ice bins etc... I knew thier business from their point of view.
In 1990, I moved to Miami Beach from Buffalo, N.Y., and started Telesco Associates. This was just as the potential in South Beach was being realized. Now, of course, it's a world-renowned hot spot. Being good at design and remodeling isn't enough here, though the area is famous for its world class design work, you also need to be able to offer your clients a complete menu of consulting services. Today, Telesco Associates (Florida License #AA-0002884) also includes TGC Construction (CCN #01B000243).
It's not easy working in South Florida and Miami Beach specifically. In fact, there's no place in America tougher to work in than Miami-Dade County, Florida. After Hurricane Andrew, the building code was revamped in a kind of knee-jerk reaction that went completly overboard. Sometimes I feel as if it takes 58 sheets of plans just to permit a closet. A lot of architects and contractors have packed up and gone elsewhere.
When we started working in South Beach, it was still a pretty run-down spot. But now, the building exteriors have been renovated and the interiors remodeled. The insides of the clubs and restaurants on South Beach are incredible. We had a big part in all of this. Actually, you can walk on South Beach and anywhere you point, you'll be aiming at a club we had a hand in. It's a great feeling...
Jackie Gleason Residence - [ View Project ]
Miami Design Preservation League, May 2002