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Diners feast their eyes on architect Stephen Francis Jones' work

Jones is founder and lead designer of SFJones Architects in Marina del Rey, which specializes in designing fashionable restaurants.

September 11, 2011|By Roger Vincent, Los Angeles Times
  • Stephen Francis Jones, an architect who specializes in designing restaurants, visits one of his creations, the Manhattan Beach Post.
Stephen Francis Jones, an architect who specializes in designing restaurants,… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)

The gig: Founder and lead designer of SFJones Architects in Marina del Rey, which specializes in designing fashionable restaurants, hotels and spas. Among Stephen Francis Jones' creations are Spago Beverly Hills, multiple Daily Grill restaurants and the renovated public spaces and penthouse suites of the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza in Century City.

The path: Raised in Orlando, Fla., Jones signed up for a drafting class in high school because he thought it would be an easy A. Jones got the grade he hoped for — and a bug for architecture. As an undergraduate at the University of Florida, he visited Boston and made a vow to move to a vibrant big city. "I wanted to be someplace with real architecture," Jones said.

Early days: After graduation, Jones landed a spot with a Boston architecture firm where he was part of a team designing a high-rise office building. It was a long process, and Jones grew disillusioned with the scale of the project.

"Everything was so grand, so big," he said "I was young and wanted instant gratification."

Many states require an advanced degree to practice architecture, so Jones enrolled at UCLA to earn a master's degree in the field. While there, he took time out to observe the architecture of small hill towns in Italy and work with master architect Ricardo Bofill in Barcelona, Spain.

Coming into focus: During grad school, Jones worked at an architecture firm that specialized in restaurants and found his calling working on such eateries as Chaya Venice and Typhoon at the Santa Monica Airport. "In restaurants, you have a lot more leeway to do things fancifully," he said.

The breakthrough: Jones eventually found a restaurant-design job in chef Wolfgang Puck's casual dining company. When Puck planned to move his flagship Spago from West Hollywood to Beverly Hills in the mid-1990s, Jones quit the company in the hope of getting the contract to design Puck's new fine-dining establishment. About a month later, his new firm got the job. "Spago was my big break," he said.

Speed bump: "Early in my career I thought I was limiting myself by doing restaurants," he said. "I tried residential [architecture] when I should have been continuing in my niche."

High-end residential design commissions were hard to come by, and the competition was so fierce that Jones' business slipped dangerously close to the red.

The offer to be executive architect of the makeover of the Century Plaza and St. Regis hotels in 2000 saved the day. "It was a good year and a half's worth of solid work that got me upright again."

Kitchen as theater: Restaurant kitchens, traditionally hidden from sight, emerged in public view after building code changes in the 1980s, and Jones was quick to exploit their visual attractions for diners. "The kitchen is like a big engine that has to perform at top speed and kind of look sexy," he said.

Design philosophy: "I try to simplify things to their essentials," he said, using natural materials, textures and colors. "I like having strong axial defining elements, with a foreground, middle ground and background so you anticipate what will happen at the next stage of the process."

Among the defining elements at Spago is a sloped roof held up by purple hardwood beams.

"I also love drama. I like that great first impression so that you walk in and bam, you know you are in for a good experience. You are there because you want to be entertained, and you want all your senses filled."

Eyeing the competition: When Jones visits a restaurant he didn't design, "I can't help but be observant and other times critical. There are a lot of beautiful restaurants out there, and I make mental notes of what works and doesn't work."

Personal life: Jones, 49, lives in Manhattan Beach with his wife, urban planner Stephanie Eyestone-Jones, and their two children. He designed the house; at night, the living room exterior of wood, stone and glass shines like a big lantern. For fun, Jones bicycles, plays volleyball and sculls in Marina del Rey. "I have a really strong feeling that living a good lifestyle transforms into doing good work."

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