The restaurant Arcona is a futuristic, space-like eatery made up of sleek and clean lines, with white and metallic finishes and punches of orange for color. The interior is in complete contrast to the exterior, the Historic Custom House and Post Office in Georgetown, with the entrance acting as a portal from the past to the future. Meant as a social gathering spot, the restaurant has low-back booth seating allows for interaction among tables, but privacy is also afforded by some more hidden alcoves. As an added bonus, the restaurant is eco-friendly and sustainable.
Except for one thing. It’s not real.
The restaurant Arcona only exists on the design boards and mind of junior Jessica Joanlanne, a student in the University’s interior design program.
As part of the Commercial Design Studio class, each student took the same building, the Historic Custom House and Post Office on 31st Street, and created an intricate and realistic plan to create a three-story American cuisine restaurant that is sustainable and green. Because the building is a historic landmark, students had to keep the exterior as is. Each restaurant had to have 150 seats, 20 bar seats, private dining, and be completely handicap accessible.
“It was great because you have the same exact floor plan, the same exact building, but you have 11 completely different ideas, concepts, floor plans, and styles,” Stephanie Travis, director of the interior design program, said.
In addition to the planning of the restaurant, students were required to pitch their restaurant to professors and guests as though they were clients.
“If you can’t present [your idea] then no client is going to say, ‘Okay, let’s build it,'” Travis said. “It has to be presented in a way that really shows what the designer can do,”
One of the special guests who helped critique the concepts was former Bravo Top Chef contestant Mike Isabella, from the popular D.C. restaurant Zaytinya.
“[Isabella] gave us a lot of insight on how a restaurant really works, like for example the kitchen should be on the main floor,” Travis said.
Designing a restaurant goes beyond just choosing furniture and colors. D.C. has numerous codes that must be followed for everything from minimum widths of stairs and hallways, to space between tables, to whether doors can swing in or out.
“We often had to read through a huge code book to look up if we could fit something in or place things next to a wall,” senior Anna Galperin said in an e-mail.
For the students, this project was like a crash course in what a professional interior designer does on a daily basis and forced them to focus on every single detail imaginable.
“This project is definitely helpful for our future careers because we had to really think about all of the end users,” Joanlanne said. ” We needed to make lives easier for the employees… it needed to have a practical separate entrance for deliveries, and we needed to make sure customers had enough space and weren’t on top of each other. We also have to think about what people see as soon as they enter and where they will be waiting to be seated. There’s a lot we’re responsible for.”
The interior design program is a relatively unknown part of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. A part of Mount Vernon College when it was first acquired by GW, the program has remained headquartered on the Mount Vernon campus.
Travis said there are around 50 undergraduate and 50 graduate students involved in the program, and that many people are misled by what actual interior designers do because of home decorating shows on television.
“Interior design is more, you are creating architectural space, moving walls, dealing with codes,” Travis said. “There is so much to it, it’s a real career. We give [students] the skills to get a job in a firm.”
To become an accredited and licensed interior designer, students must have six years of interior design education and work experience before they can sit for the two-day National Council for Interior Design Qualification exam.
“It’s a really hard exam – we’ve done some practice ones – that involves everything from building codes to space planning,” Joanlanne said.
If students do not pass the exam, they are not allowed to handle construction and are only considered decorators.
“[The exam] is the difference between designer and decorator,” Travis said.
Travis said interior designers are getting work everywhere from the expected – such as homes and restaurants – to a recent surge in demand for designers for health care complexes. Students said their experience with the program has given them a good start to a career.
“I feel that I have been well prepared and ready to jump into the field,” Galperin said.