Mark Wilson and Yoko Ishihara of Wilson Ishihara Design have worked on restaurants and other hospitality projects since 2015. Together they were the vision behind Wit & Wisdom Restaurant and SIGH Champagne Bar in Sonoma, as well as rebuilding of Sweet T’s Restaurant & Bar in Windsor, after the original location was lost in the 2017 wildfires.
Business partners come honestly with their immersive and hands-on approach. 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 no idea how restaurants really work,” Wilson says. “And that’s something Yoko and I are proud of; that we can design a place that looks good, but also functions well and makes things easier for staff.
For this annual food issue, here’s a window into the world of small details that go into designing a successful restaurant.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How does the design process begin?
Ishihara: We start every project the same way, with historical research and discovering the story we are going to tell to build the project. And that comes from researching books and other primary references, diving deep into the individuals who created the culture of this community. And then obviously we have to go to places that inspire our history and experience the culture there. And from that initial research and historical references, we begin to create the design. We cannot make any design decisions without having the concept story in place, as this story is our complete basis for making decisions.
What is an example of this kind of storytelling?
Wilson: When we worked at 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 over 80 years. And so we’d find those little bits of history – my design partner Yoko is the queen of research – and I’d come back and fact-check with the volunteers, and we’d get another layer of understanding.
Ishihara: We looked at the historical progression of the city of Sonoma, and some of the key figures, and stopped at the period of the 1950s with Chuck Williams [founder of Williams-Sonoma], with MFK Fisher and Julia Child. And we focused on a story with Julia Child and MFK Fisher having dinner at Fisher’s in Glen Ellen, and this notion of cooking dinner together. This whole scene really resonated with me; the idea of being unassuming, inviting someone into your home and making them feel welcome. Also, at that time, Sonoma was a community of makers, which was one of the key words we used. There were machine shops; there was a foundry in town. So we also focused on this sense of craftsmanship.
Ishihara: Then we start creating the spatial relationships and the mass of the space. And then it goes down to furniture and how we select fabrics. And we sometimes make fun of each other, because even for the smallest project, we can’t really make a decision without this concept story. We start building out the palette, the overall aesthetic of the space, and after that, a 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 out 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 it. But some guests might decipher that little message we put there. The background story we create helps spread the message everywhere in different ways. And I think it keeps the spirit of the place.
Wilson: It’s all of these things together that I hope will make you feel really intrigued and comfortable when you’re in space.
Rebuilding Sweet T’s in Windsor two years after the fires seems to have been a defining experience for both of you. How did this relationship start?
Wilson: We met the owners, Dennis and Ann Tussey, and 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 simple fact that they lost the restaurant. It was the soul of the community. And it wasn’t just about Ann and Dennis; it was all these people looking for a recreation of this house they had. With Sweet T’s, we were really tapping into the Southern roots, putting that hospitality front and center, because you really get the feeling when you walk into the restaurant that you’re being welcomed into their home.
Wilson: Ann told us we really needed the grill in the middle of the dining room, to create that feeling of home when you first walk in. And we have brick in the bar and glazed brick in the grill station, wood in the ceiling – taking the details, but taking them one step further in certain areas.
I think for us, we knew it wouldn’t be successful if we just recreated the other space, which it was. So we needed to spend time getting to know Ann and Dennis and guiding them through the design process. We always kept in mind how difficult it was for owners to go through this process.
What do people find surprising about the overall design process?
Ishihara: There are so many parts. It’s not like we’re laying out beautiful fabrics on a set, like on a reality show. There is the process of creation: the drawing, the realization, the development. But then there’s the production part of every project, where you actually do the design. And that’s probably more than half of our time; just going through this process. Functionally, if the design doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter how good it looks.
Wilson: It is 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 mind is unpretentious – and sophistication. There is a strong sense of that authentic, down-to-earth feeling in Sonoma. And it’s so beautiful.
Wilson: There is so much history here, the number of local families who have lived here forever. When we were researching for the lodge, we found a historical image of a 1920s lunch, a large work crew to repair the plaza grounds, which had fallen into disrepair. There was a huge communal table set in one line, and this wonderful intergenerational bond and sense of community. And I looked at this picture and I thought, this is the city we should be in, and it often is.
Wilson Ishihara Design, Sonoma, Oakland, wilsonishihara.com
Spirit and Wisdom, 1325 Broadway, Sonoma, witandwisdomsonoma.com
Sweet T’s Restaurant and Bar, 9098 Brooks Road. S., Windsor, sweettssouthern.com
SIGH. Champagne Bar, 120 W. Napa St., Sonoma, sighsonoma.com