The headquarters of architect Cass Calder Smith could easily fit the description of “generic architectural office.” It’s located in a former warehouse in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood. Skylights and a wall of windows flood the open interiors with natural light. Renderings and photos hang on a pin-up wall.
Smith, by contrast, is far from generic. In fact his penchant for unexpected choices has helped make him one of the region’s most influential designers. In 1993, at San Francisco’s Restaurant Lulu, he warmed up a cavernous space with residential elements like integral colored plaster walls, upholstered booths, and wooden tabletops. Fifteen years later, at the Tesla showroom, Smith added one of his signature restaurant touches—the communal table—to the commercial space.
Such unconventional moves stem from a background that is equally unorthodox. Smith spent most of his childhood in communes, including Woodside’s Starhill Academy, with its tree houses, underground homes and domes. He even took three years off from school to build houses, including one for his family. Then, at the University of California in Berkeley, Smith worked as a carpenter while earning his architectural degrees. Many of his projects reflect a carpenter’s affinity for wood, which he combines with the streamlined simplicity of his mentors, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. “I think people like being around wood as much as carpenters do,” he said of its appeal.
Smith founded the firm that bears his name in 1990. Since Lulu he has become known as a designer of restaurants—he’s done more than 75—including RM Seafood in Las Vegas, La Toque in Napa, and Townline BBQ and Giorgione 508 in New York, though homes are still in his portfolio. He opened a New York office in 2005, which has come to handle projects outside the Bay Area.
This 35,000-square-foot restaurant, tucked into a corner of the Westfield Center in downtown San Francisco, takes its cues from what is one of the most fashionable malls in the country. Take the red-lacquered tables that run down the center of the restaurant—they’re meant to recall a runway—and are complete with stairs at one end. The giant white graphic wallpaper, designed by CCS with Lark Creek Restaurant Group’s graphic designer, are in the shape of a flattened dome, which happens to be in the form of a pizza, a staple of the menu and the interiors (those runway tables lead straight to the pizza oven). More richness comes from the use of walnut walls and tables that surround the restaurant’s edges.
In the same 1912 building as Perbacco, the Italian restaurant Smith designed a few years ago, Barbacco is a casual trattoria that becomes a wine bar at night. The 2,650 square-foot eatery has quickly become a Financial District favorite.
Unlike its sister restaurant, where the use of marble connotes classical Italianate interiors, Barbacco takes its influence from modern Italy—“the cars, the motorcycles, the fashion,” Smith explained. That feeling is conveyed through the use of Ferrari yellow, stainless steel, polished chrome and walnut-and-chrome that evokes the interiors of a luxury car. The feeling of movement is reflected in a lengthy mirror interspersed with blurred Italian lifestyle images. It’s as if you’re glimpsing Italy from the seat of a rapidly moving car (a Ferrari, of course).
RAMMED EARTH HOUSE
This recently completed rammed earth house is the architect’s second—his first was built in the Lovall Valley, in 1998, with the same interior expert, David Easton. Rammed earth walls—an ancient and sustainable technique using on-site soil combined with gravel, clay and sand—are known for being strong, durable, thermally massive and noncombustible. Because of their heft, Smith used such walls only in the lower portion of the house, which contains the living areas. The upper floor, framed in wood and steel and clad in wood siding and aluminum, contains a library, three bedrooms and two baths. Although the home’s close to 6,000 square feet do not make it particularly P.C., its many other sustainable attributes seem to make up for its size. A 1930s home torn down to make way for the new house was recycled by The Reuse People. Roof-mounted photovoltaics generate electricity and heat the water. Landscaping consists of a meadow of drought tolerant native grasses and a yard of synthetic turf.
On Lusk Alley in the South of Market district, the swanky interiors in this year-old restaurant demonstrate Smith’s expertise at creative reuse and dramatic counterpoint. A former smokehouse and former meat-processing facility, the 1917 building consisted of intimate single-height areas and dramatic vertical spaces. Smith made good use of that contrast: suspended, stainless steel fire orbs act as focal points for seating areas, and connect the lower spaces with the taller ones, where ceilings rise 20 feet.
Sleek Macassar ebony tables run right through a balcony wall, echoing the rough-hewn beams that run through the space and disappear into the ceiling or walls. Another use of counterpoint is in the materials: new polished stainless steel, glass, white plaster, leather, mirror, faux fur, and slate against the existing brick, concrete and rough sawn timber. Rooms formerly devoted to smoking meats are now semi-private brick and concrete chambers appointed with sumptuous sofas. Old and new are celebrated right at the door, where the faded name of the old plant remains over a new glass entry.
PLANT ORGANIC CAFÉ
One of the greenest restaurants in the country, the organic eatery takes its sustainable design as seriously as its menu. The cafe’s one of a few in the country with its own photovoltaic system that powers most of the kitchen and an electrolyzed water machine that converts tap water into acid and alkaline water, the latter used to clean produce, countertops, and floors.
Because the restaurant is part of an early 20th century warehouse that is landmarked, “you couldn’t really do anything to it,” said Smith. So he re-used timber beams and weathered steel from the original structure. To that he added reclaimed hickory as ceiling paneling and tabletops, recycled-content tiles, zinc, cold-rolled steel and stainless components that added textural interest. Massive windows reduce the need for lights and soak up the gorgeous waterfront views.
When Smith received the commission from luxury electric sports car maker Tesla, he promised “it was not going to be like typical car showrooms,” with cars crowded into a nondescript space. Instead, he created a gallery-like area using concrete floors, plenty of glass and white walls to show off the car’s sculptural qualities. He preserved the 6,000-square-foot building’s original wooden trusses to act as a counterpoint to all the sleekness.
The dealership is also unique in that its service process is fully transparent to guests and to passersby on Santa Monica Boulevard. Smith tucked away all the workings of the business (offices, meeting rooms, retail space and restrooms) in a red walled area that separates the two spaces. The cars also cooperated: only electric vehicles (that don’t have emissions) could be repaired in such an environment.