Studio Mai Coaxes the Tinder Generation to Look Up From Their Phones

The L.A. firm behind hit restaurants and the new Made Hotel in New York forces interaction through design.

Milo Garcia and partner Crystal Wynn in Studio Mai's office.

Can design help get you laid? Milo Garcia thinks so. One of the challenges in the United States, the founder of Los Angeles-based design firm Studio Mai says, is to create a café that is also a wine bar. “It’s somewhere you get drunk, go home with someone, and then have coffee the next day,” he says. “Everyone does this in Spain and Italy, but Americans—and frankly the English—compartmentalize.”

This concept has proven popular at places like Zinqué, which just opened its third location in Newport Beach, California. Creating moments is central to the downtown firm’s holistic approach to design. For a Manhattan outpost of the La Colombe coffee chain, Garcia outfitted the space with low-slung stools and circular tables that compel customers into a hunch to use a laptop. “It’s a little bit of a social study,” he says. “Will people spend hours checking the internet, or will they realize that it’s kind of uncomfortable and look up?” One of Studio Mai’s design tricks serves as a social lubricant of sorts for sprawling L.A. “The city has a slight level of constipation when it comes to social environments, because of people driving in cars,” he says. The solution: stools strategically positioned close together so that when patrons turn their respective seats they bump into the person next to them, ideally igniting a conversation. “I like the idea of forced interactions,” Garcia says.

This month marks the debut of the firm’s latest project, the 108-key Made hotel in Manhattan’s NoMad neighborhood. Studio Mai’s organic Southern California style is expressed through an unwavering devotion to the integrity of materials—African mud-cloth throw blankets, hand-carved stone sinks, walnut-and-brass lighting fixtures—that Garcia compares to modern food trends like farm-to-table. A rooftop bar enclosed in a 22-foot semicircle glass wall and a moody subterranean restaurant add more energy to an area that is quickly becoming an after-dark hub. “It’s for the curious traveler who has graduated from camping at the Ace Hotel and wants something more tailored,” Garcia says. The airy, light-flooded lobby has a spacious feel, with a wooden kitchen table at which guests can sip small-batch blends from seasonal roasters. As the sun takes its leave, wine replaces the coffee. Even the most fastidious design scheme can’t control what happens after that.


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