Case Study by Vanessa Eckstein RGD and Marta Cutler, Blok Design
David Lee is widely regarded as one of Canada’s top chefs, with a culinary pedigree that includes time as owner and Executive Chef of Splendido, one of Toronto’s most beloved restaurants. When David opened Nota Bene with his partners in 2008, it was an instant success, accorded ‘Best New Restaurant’ by enRoute and Toronto Life. In 2015, David became sole owner and re-launched the restaurant with a new look and menu. His goal: to create a more casual experience that would appeal to loyal clientele while attracting a wider audience.
David’s first step was to hire award-winning interior design firm +tongtong, fresh from designing the Drake Devonshire Inn. Having worked with Blok on the design of its own website, +tongtong recommended us to design the identity for this project.
Uncovering Nota Bene’s soul
After our first meeting with Chef Lee, we knew that this would be a very personal project. His brand and the brand of Nota Bene were so intertwined that the key to understanding what made the restaurant unique would be to understand him. Quite simply, we needed to know Chef Lee’s story: his inspirations, his philosophy of cooking and the origins of his love of food.
As with every project, we began by sending Chef Lee our Strategic Questionnaire. This questionnaire serves as a catalyst for uncovering and defining a distinctive and own-able brand story, one that is true and authentic.
What surprised and delighted us in our session with David and his wife Jennifer were his stories about growing up in Mauritius surrounded by a family with an innate love of food. From uncles to aunts to grandparents, they all shared a gift for cooking simple yet delicious meals using ingredients grown in their own gardens or raised on their farms.
This appreciation for simply prepared, honest food has defined David’s career as a chef. His trademark focus has always been the essence of good food; he follows the rhythms of the seasons and balances the familiar with a dash of the unexpected that is natural and intuitive.
We were struck by David’s deep dedication to his craft and his almost methodical approach to creating a dish, eschewing flash in favour of finesse and constantly reminding his crew of sous-chefs to push creativity while staying sensible.
A key theme that emerged from our conversation was David’s desire to push his own creativity while balancing the needs of a loyal clientele who had made Nota Bene such a success. One of his goals was to evolve the restaurant without going too far beyond his customers’ comfort zones, to create a menu with an air of familiarity while still offering those playful, unexpected combinations they had come to expect. In other words, to once again invent dishes that would become classics.
Working from the inside out
Our next step was to meet with +tongtong to see their designs for the interiors. This was essential to ensure that the identity worked cohesively with the physical space.
Like us, +tongtong’s approach is to tell stories through their work. Their narrative concept for the restaurant was transition: the lifecycle of ingredients from seed to plant and from season to season. We were struck by +tongtong’s startling marriage of natural and contemporary elements and how perfectly it reflected David’s philosophy of cooking.
Actual tumbleweeds hung beneath a highly polished black ceiling, while smooth, stark white tables housed panels of richly grained wood. One entire wall featured a wine rack composed of hanging leather loops inspired by the shapes of vine leaves. We were seduced by the beautiful, warm tonalities of the colours and happy to discover that the same themes that had emerged for us had also impressed them. Our session with +tongtong armed us with defining ideas that influenced our design.
Designing the identity
In creating any identity, our goal is to achieve a balance of beauty, functionality and longevity; we passionately believe that an identity should be just as compelling in 10 years as it is at its launch. For an already iconic restaurant, we needed to retain Nota Bene’s stature and clarity while giving it a fresh voice and personality. At the same time, the identity needed to have a soulfulness and humanity that reflected Chef Lee’s process and philosophy of cooking.
Inspired by the interiors, we juxtaposed natural and contemporary elements in surprising ways. The logo provides a strong, timeless anchor. We never use a straight typeface for a logo, but instead design something as distinctive as the brand itself. To that end, we modified the font Simplon to give the Nota Bene wordmark a unique and own-able personality.
We used disparate yet cohesive imagery drawn from photography, illustration and graphics to convey the essence of good food and the elements that come together to create a memorable dish. Sourced from our extensive library of historical books, and from the contemporary art world, the images were chosen for their raw sensuality, exquisite detail and sense of craft. Identifying the artists was a simple process – one was actually a friend of the designer – and we tenaciously pursued them to obtain permission to use their work – from Katrina Penziwal, an up and coming young Canadian artist, to internationally renowned US artist Bryan Nash Gill to photographer David L. Smith.
To express Chef Lee’s process and the lively energy of the restaurant experience, imagery is applied unexpectedly. An image that is straightforward in one application is bisected in another, or simply disappears off the page. This sense of playfulness can also be found in the printed materials through variations in sizes.
A palette of three colours unites the elements, inspired by the tonalities of the interiors and chosen for their contemporary hues and warmth. The light grey had to be mixed specially for the project, as we were unable to find exactly what we wanted within the Pantone system.
The menus presented their own particular challenges. All six menus had to work as a clean, cohesive system that would be simple for staff to use and update on a regular basis. We saw this as an opportunity to add to the brand’s wit and character. In the dinner menu, for example, we deliberately cut the cross section of the tree to create an invitation to the interior.
The menu backs proved particularly challenging, as they needed to be washable, resistant to wear and long lasting. We wanted them to look like the natural grain of wood, and after many, many explorations of materials, found what we wanted in a most unexpected place: the gluing side of a laminate substrate, which you would normally never see. We sanded and treated it with as much respect as we might have done with the front, which gave it a beautiful colour and subtle detail that complemented the menus perfectly.
One very important shift in the restaurant was David’s decision to create more flow and movement between the bar and dining area, while allowing each area to have its own subtle differences. We recommended creating a sub-brand – “NB Bar” – and then set out to express it as a space of conviviality. In the logo, the NBs dance with themselves, conveying the lively energy of the environment. Even the word ‘bar’ moves, appearing in unexpected places. Language also plays a role in bringing the experience vividly to life. For the NB Bar postcards, copy gives voice to the spirit of the space, such as a headline that reads, “We prefer to call it happy hours.”
Once the identity concept was approved, we started the process of bringing it to life in the digital world. For us, this always flows quite intuitively once we understand the role and scope of the site and the content we need to work with. We first met with David and his team to analyze their needs and review past Google analytics to understand user behaviour. We then created the Information Architecture and wrote the content. Once this was approved, we began the design.
From the analytics provided, we knew that the two most frequently visited pages were 'reservations' and 'gallery'. We put a reservation link underneath the logo on the homepage and created a page within the site called “See” to house the images. Here again, we used atypical language to reflect the brand’s unique voice.
Chef Lee had hired renowned photographer Paula Wilson to shoot the new dishes and interiors. We met with her prior to the shoot to brief her on the identity and the type of shots we needed for the website. We curated the final images, choosing a combination of food, process and detail to build an engaging story. Rather than a typical gallery format, we created a constant flowing stream of images, incorporating subtle movements to engage and surprise.
Throughout the entire creative journey we involved David and his team at key stages, from the initial creative presentation to reviewing menu materials to testing the site, working with them to make sure that the identity had soul and beauty and also met their day-to-day needs. It was a wonderfully collaborative relationship, and we enjoyed the exchange of opinions and ideas immensely.
And the feeling on the client side was mutual. Chef Lee had this to say about his relationship with Blok: "Blok met every creative point for my relaunch and truly surpassed my expectations. I'm not the easiest person to work with - very demanding - but they met every deadline required (it was a tight schedule!) with a wonderful professionalism."
Nota Bene’s new interior and identity was launched at a special VIP event for loyal clientele, industry luminaries and media. We’re delighted to report that it has had a wonderful response both here and internationally.
Key Thoughts from Vanessa Eckstein RGD + Marta Cutler
- When a project is personal, it’s important to understand the essence of the person or people behind the brand. In this case, hearing Chef Lee’s stories and learning about the experiences that shaped and influenced him had a profound influence on the identity.
- Have a clear vision and then have the tenacity to pursue it. We knew exactly what images we wanted and were relentless in persuading the artists to let us use them. In the end, we got every single one.
- Exploration is about seeking in unexpected places or sometimes not seeking at all, but being open to the find. This was our experience with the menu backs where we found our answer precisely where we didn’t think to look!
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