When you step into the Brookland wine bar Primrose, the space feels lived in. The walls look like they’ve seen hundreds of coats of paint, vases of dried flowers feel like reminders of anniversaries and apologies past, and mirrors covered in patches of patina don’t quite depict accurate reflections. But it’s all a magic trick at the behest of co-owner and designer Lauren Winter. The Paris-inspired spot from Winter and her husband, Sebastian Zutant, only opened at the end of November.
Winter and Brian Miller founded edit lab, a hospitality industry focused design agency, in 2008. The trendsetting duo first met more than 20 years ago while attending the Savannah College of Art and Design. In 2012, they joined forces with the design and strategy firm streetsense to form edit lab at streetsense, where they now lead a team of nine.
You’ve seen their work at Tail Up Goat, Whaley’s, and Daikaya. Their projects also include many of the restaurants in Blagden Alley—The Dabney, Calico, Tiger Fork, and Columbia Room—and Bloomingdale fixtures like The Red Hen and Boundary Stone.
The edit lab team doesn’t just configure designer furniture and scout vintage accent pieces; they mold the look of entire neighborhoods. “We know these neighborhoods are developing, so our goal is to see how we can shape the changes, steer it in a good direction,” Miller says. The group can quickly assess what a neighborhood has too much of and what a neighborhood lacks.
Miller is the lead on one of edit lab’s latest projects, Little Sesame. As City Paper reported in July, the owners of the hummus shop beneath DGS Delicatessen want to grow their brand. In preparation for opening additional locations, partners Nick Wiseman and Ronen Tenne traveled to Israel this summer. Miller tagged along as he often does when a project draws the lion’s share of its inspiration from a specific place.
“We went around to the old markets in different cities seeing these amazing businesses and the community around hummus shops,” Miller says. He learned about hummus culture, history, and how the shops operate. “Now it’s our job to figure out how to capture some of that.”
On a research trip like this Miller snaps about 500 photos per day. Storefronts, food, plates, plants, signage, tile, and lighting are fair game. “From that, generally we’ll get a set of a couple hundred photos that are important ‘touch points’ to look at,” he says. “Obviously it’s not going to feel like old world Jaffa or something in there, but it has to evoke a number of things that we saw.”
When it comes time to design, edit lab considers everything from directing how diners move through the restaurant to how chefs cook and plate the food. “We’re shepherding the whole atmosphere of a space even though we’re only designing a part of it,” Miller says. This level of research yields restaurants that look unlike others. Winter and Miller’s concepts go beyond reclaimed wood, murals, and Edison bulbs.
When almost every restaurant was screwing in Edison bulbs over the past five years, Winter and Miller thought of alternative ways to create a similar effect as the antique filament lights that were popular at the turn of the 20th century. “Things become trends when they’re used at a very successful place and if they can be done for little cost,” Miller explains.
“With Edison bulbs, I think what people like is that warm lighting quality. So how do we bring that to a space? How do spaces really glow and have that fire-like, candlelight quality?” Winter softened the lighting at Primrose with chandeliers shrouded in tan ostrich feathers.
edit lab’s holistic design strategy positions Miller and Winter to think like restaurateurs and comment on dining trends just as easily as design trends. They can sniff out patterns and identify the forces shaping the District’s dining scene.
For example, the importance of a restaurant’s bar—it’s no longer just a holding pen for diners waiting for tables. “Everyone wants to sit at the bar,” Winter says. “At Primrose, the first couple of nights everyone was at the bar and not at the tables.” Customers often probe a new restaurant by dining at the bar, according to Miller, so it’s critical that bar professionals make a good impression.
The bar remains important despite its uneconomical use of space. “The square footage per person takes up way more space than square footage at a table,” Winter says. “But you make more money typically at the bar because alcohol generates more money.” Even a restaurant that positions tables close together (or, as Winter calls it, “Brooklyn-style”) will devote ample space to the bar because it can be the heart of the operation, dispersing energy into the dining room.
Miller and Winter predict open kitchens will continue to direct how restaurants are designed, but that their look will change. Staring at chefs surrounded by stainless steel equipment will start to feel stale when compared to the open kitchens at places like The Dabney and Maydan that feature live fires. “It feels much more welcoming,” Miller says. “People want to feel that much more visceral, direct connection to what’s being cooked.”
Restaurants today also need to be more nimble. “The economic reality is now people are trying to do more than one thing, so that ends up being important to design in,” Miller says. With rising rent prices and increased competition, owners are looking to maximize their space. That’s why you see a rise in businesses that operate as cafes during the day and cocktail bars at night, like The Royal and Aaron Silverman’s Little Pearl.
“We’re going to see a lot more restaurant-bar hybrids,” Miller says. “They’ll serve full meals, but also work as bars. [The] Fainting Goat set a good precedent there.” Another edit lab client, Tiger Fork, is a place you can come for a solo drink, bring a group for dinner, or visit late at night.
Going forward edit lab will expand its portfolio beyond restaurant clients for several reasons. The brand new restaurant boom is slowing down, according to Winter, and they’re intrigued by other public-facing projects. Recently, they tackled the interior design of The Apollo, a stylish apartment building on H Street NE.
But there also may not be that many restaurant clients positioned to hire a top-tier design firm, especially if they only require a lipstick renovation. “You’re going to see a lot more places take over existing places just because we’re starting to get to a point where we have so many restaurants built out that they’re going to start to go through shorter life cycles,” Miller says.
He points to Bresca on 14th Street NW. It opened swiftly after taking over the first floor of Policy Lounge.
“A lot of places will fail, but sort of like a brushfire, it will create a lot of opportunity for new growth in independent restaurants,” Miller says. Winter adds that the most intriguing bars and restaurants will open in offbeat locations instead of in big developments or on prime streets.
Her one concern is that customers may be too tough on places that don’t have the funds to make their spaces gorgeous. “I hope the community embraces them and tries them instead of saying, ‘It doesn’t look great.’ In the end, it’s about the food.”
Plus, Miller adds, “We don’t think design is the most important thing despite the fact that it’s what we do.”