An under-utilized space at the San Francisco Modern Art Museum becomes a 3D Minimalist work of art. By Vilma Barr     Photos Courtesy of Aidlin Darling Design

Lighting designer Janet Nolan, who heads JS Nolan & Associates in San Francisco, readily admits that she and her husband qualify as devoted foodies. And it’s not surprising that in San Francisco — where food creativity is taken very seriously — self-identification as a foodie is worn with pride by a significant number of residents.

Appropriately, Nolan collaborated with architects and interior designers Aidlin Darling Design for the design of In Situ restaurant, operated by Chef Corey Lee, a three-star Michelin awardee for his Benu restaurant. His culinary creations qualify as a visual art form as well as exquisite cuisine.

Nolan installed a row of spotlights that hug the slat ceiling to evenly illuminate the collection of small artwork in light wood frames grouped on a back wall. Overall, pre-programmed controls adjust the light levels from lunchtime through the evening hours.n.

Overall, the dining environment achieved by the design of In Situ communicates the admirable visual unity of a three-dimensional Minimalist work of art. Located in a street-front site within the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) complex, the restaurant has garnered accolades for both its design and food presentation. Winner of a 2017 American Institute of Architects Honor Award Winner in Interior Architecture; food critic Pete Wills called it “America’s most original new restaurant.”

Design Recipe

Nolan says that input from Chef Lee set the tone for the project’s design brief. “He wanted a wonderful architectural space as a setting for his equally beautiful and artistic food presentations,” he recalls. “The food needs to be seen and part of the display,” says Nolan, paraphrasing Chef Lee.

In Situ can be accessed directly from Third Street in the original museum by architect Mario Botta and from its lobby. Surface textures in the façade of the new SFMOMA addition by the architects Snøhetta were interpreted for the interior of the 6,300-sq.-ft. restaurant. One of the most noteworthy installations is the reticulated wood-drop ceiling of downlight that is studded with pendant lighting fixtures.

The wood slat ceiling with integrated lighting provides visual unity. Nolan and her staff extensively tested a ceiling mock-up to determine the positioning of the fixtures to assure a level that would accent the food presentation.

Chef Lee favors a well-lit, fashionably informal dining environment rather than the dim cut-glass chandelier above white tablecloth settings often favored by typically stylish formal restaurants in which his superb cuisine would be equally suitable. Blocky wood tables and low-slung leather seating at In Situ create a near-surreal contrast to the elaborate examples of food art that is set down in front of the food-savvy diners.

In deliberate contrast to the pale wood chairs, tables, and slated ceiling, dark painted wood chairs and warm brown upholstered and benches are placed around the room, like elements of a still life in a classic work of art. “Chef Lee rejected white tablecloths here. Instead,” says Nolan, “he prefers bare, light-color tabletop surfaces that appear to glow from the lighting above.

“We went through exhaustive studies and modeling of scenarios to examine options for illumination involving the dropped wood slat ceiling,” Nolan recounts. “Indirect fixtures were considered, but they weren’t what we wanted the lighting to do for the space. When we culled down the possibilities, and tried simple suspended monopoint downlights, we all knew they were the answer for the dining room, which seats 60 patrons.”

In the lounge area, there is seating for 70 people at communal tables. Lighting is the visual design element that differentiates the two layouts. Nolan designed a grid of blackened steel tubes, each with a single-watt gold leaf-tipped LED lamp.

To highlight a collection of small artwork in light wood frames grouped on a back wall, Nolan arranged a row of spotlights that hug the slat ceiling to evenly illuminate the horizontally hung images. They serve as a backdrop to a long rectangular table which can seat approximately a dozen guests.

Pre-programmed controls of the all-LED lighting system adjust the light levels from lunchtime on, but avoid the dim environments typically associated with high-end dining.

At In Situ, materials, form, and lighting come together in a space where the diners and the food provide the changing subjects, as expressive as a stage set for a long-running piece of acclaimed theater.