Santa Monica, California
Thai restaurants are as ubiquitous in Los Angeles as palm trees. But the local architects at Johnston Marklee & Associates resisted the city’s tired clichés—usually a punkish, fluorescent-inflected chinoiserie, circa 1984—to instead design a sleek, light-filled interior for The Orchid restaurant in Santa Monica. The 2,000-square-foot space opened in April 2005, half a block from the city’s palm-tree-lined Ocean Avenue.
With a tight budget and a simple program—bar, dining room, and kitchen—Johnston Marklee focused its energies on developing a dramatic illuminated ceiling. Inspired by the delicate petals of the restaurant’s namesake flower, the architects designed 1¼8-inch-thick, white acrylic panels in a 33¼4-by-6-foot standard size and hung them with steel wire cables from a Unistrut support system attached to the structural ceiling. The architects modeled the panels—there are nine total, but only one type—using Rhino software, exporting the data to the model shop on the Warner Brothers studio lot. At Warner, craftspeople used a CNC-milling machine to create the formwork and then vacuum-formed each panel into shape.
The ethereal panels achieve the mostly seamless continuity of a lush surface while masking the simplicity of the restaurant’s lighting system. The architects painted the overlying ceiling cavity white and, working with the lighting designer F.I.R.E. L.T.D., installed a series of 50-watt MR16 track lights directed toward portions of the ceiling plane. The lights are wired to wall-box dimmers based on a zoning arrangement, which makes it easy to set the mood when the restaurant winds down and the bar gets going in the evenings.
Seriality and repetition have been ongoing research interests for the architects, notes Sharon Johnston, AIA, adding, “We were interested in getting this richness and complexity from the crenellations in the panels and the modulations that can be explored within a unitized system.” Johnston’s partner, Mark Lee, says they could experiment with rapid prototyping for the ceiling because there were no load-bearing requirements for the panels. “We haven’t been able to use this for a building skin,” Lee says, though he adds they are currently researching the methodology’s use for standard exterior cladding systems. Like many small firms, a hallmark of Johnston Marklee’s practice is mining conventional building systems—in this case, acrylic panels—for unintended effects and uses.
Principals in charge:
Illuminated ceiling canopy
Task lighting (wait station)