Kate Towill founded the celebrated Charleston, South Carolina, restaurant Basic Kitchen with her husband, Ben, in 2017. It is a bright and airy place that is at once zen and humming, and where the decor and atmosphere are as fresh as the food. But Basic Kitchen isn’t the duo’s only project—far from it. Their commercial and residential design firm, Basic Projects, oversees work from Savannah to Cornwall, England, unleashing creative and inspiring spaces that span two continents. Here, Kate dishes on her longtime relationship with The Urban Electric Co., the music that moves her, and what her and Ben’s plans are for the future.
We’ve been working together for a few years now at this point, right?
I have always been a huge fan of Urban Electric. When we were starting Basic Kitchen, I came to you guys because I dreamt of having your lights in our space. We were even able to do a custom light that you all created with us called the Havana. And, seeing as I use UECo. lights with a lot of our [residential and commercial] clients, as well, it was really, really exciting to use them in Basic Kitchen, especially because it was our first restaurant.
And you have such a unique point of view. What informs how you approach a space?
I would say that practicality is first with restaurant design. You know, everything needs to run smoothly, and everything is going to get so beaten up, so you have to choose materials that will get better with age. With restaurants and in commercial or residential design—everything across the top for us—lighting is so important. I'm not a huge fan of overhead lighting. Low and soft lamp lighting gives a nice glow to your face, which is so much better because all that light coming from above (especially in a restaurant) doesn't make anyone look very good. So when that light can sit low—and Urban Electric has such beautiful shades and glass (that opal glass!!)—it creates a cozy feel that makes everyone feel like they want to drink a lot and be their best selves, basically.
Love that. And to that point, if you had to come up with a list of five design elements that you consider crucial to designing a restaurant space or generally fostering a sense of hospitality, what would the list be?
Again, practicality is definitely number one. It can look great, but if it breaks within the first couple months and it looks beaten up, then that’s the first thing that people are going to notice. I would say comfort is a close second: You want to be the restaurant that all ages can come to and feel good; the tables aren't too tight and the booths aren't too tiny. And lighting is one, too—that warm glow. If you're walking by a restaurant and you see from the street this unbelievable glow from the windows, you're absolutely going to walk in and order a few martinis. And the last one would be a personal element, because you can see inside the world of the people who own it, and you can definitely feel when a restaurant feels like it was stamped and recreated. Things should feel a little off or a little imperfect. We definitely have a lot of that in Basic Kitchen.
So, just on the personal element part of this—and this is big and hypothetical—but if you could orchestrate the perfect table for a meal or a drink, who would you include on the guest list and why?
Dead or alive?
Either. Real or fictional. Dead or alive.
Me and Bruce Springsteen. I love him, and if we had a date at any place in the world, I would be happy.
A table for two with Bruce... I think a lot of people might agree with that sentiment. Okay so just back to some of your design and aesthetic preferences. Do you have a favorite color or pattern that you always come back to?
I love this color by Farrow and Ball called Light Blue. It's like a gray/green/blue paint that changes with the light of day and the location that you're in. We used it in our pub in Cornwall on the exterior trim. In the mornings and at sunrise, it kind of reads more gray, and then at night, in the warmth of the sunset, it has more of a green tone. That color also works for a great bathroom. It's crazy how we just go back to it every time.
When you say “we” you're referring to your husband, Ben, who is also your partner in these projects. You guys fell in love when you picked him up in a truck blaring Bruce Springsteen on the radio, right?
This is true. And therein lies Bruce again. I will never lose my love for Bruce. That's my one ticket out. If Bruce came by in a pick-up truck, I would have to say to Benji and our son, Oscar, ‘I love you guys, but I'm out.’
That's foundational. Alright, so do you have a design secret that you've never told anyone? The ace in your back pocket?
I feel like it's not a huge secret because if you went to any of our projects, you’d see we do it a lot. But maybe the untrained eye wouldn't notice. We always use old, wooden [photo and art] frames. You can often find me scouring the antique shops and picking up the $15 and $20 wooden frames that have some creepy clown inside them. But I pop out the creepy artwork, use the frame and, you know, we have framed some really cool pieces that way... often times I even rip out a couple of old pages of big coffee table books, put those in old wooden frames, hang them on a clean white wall over a great old leather chair and it works. You've created that texture that you need without spending big on art, which we sometimes have to do, too. But we just did an 18-bedroom hotel in Savannah and for that kind of project, we definitely scour the antique markets.
It can seem like a cliché at times, but that mix of high and low really does make a difference.
Yeah, it's so true.
And it's something everyone uses, no matter the caliber of designer, which does make it feel like a secret even still.
It doesn't matter if you have a lot of money or just a little bit of cash, it's a good way to keep it personal.
Let's talk about your approach to the restaurant projects, starting with Basic Kitchen and the Ferry Boat Inn. How does the aesthetic that you guys have cultivated connect with the food?
So I would say first and foremost, as an overview, that the food is bright and fresh and colorful. And when we started the design process for Basic Kitchen, I really pushed myself to not fear color. As I say, in our homes, we often do what feels safe, but in a restaurant white and beige are boring aesthetically in the same way that white and beige food can be boring. When it comes to our fruits and veggies, we're always told to eat as many colors of raw foods as we can and I would say we certainly show that in both our food and design of the restaurant. Hence, the rainbow that our friend Britt Bates painted on the wall at Basic Kitchen. It's a massive six-by-four-foot design that runs over our big mirror, and you walk in and it makes you smile. I'd say that sense of easy-breezy feeling in a place where the food is healthy, as well, gives you a really good sense. Secondly, we are also really inspired by flavors and dishes from around the world so a lot of the items in the restaurant are from our travels: large basket lights from Italy, some tiles are from Morocco. We also have a lot of photos from some of our favorite photographers, and whenever our staff or friends go to faraway places they send us postcards. So we have those up on the wall, too, because our motto is really "cleaner fuel, longer adventures."
We're talking about Basic Kitchen but I think that also translates to the Ferry Boat Inn, as well, which is a quintessential Cornwellian pub that you have brightened up considerably without losing its essence.
Definitely. The Ferry Boat is a 300-year-old pub, and when a lot of the local people of the village (because this is the only place to eat in the village) heard we were going to come in and plaster the walls a warm white and bring in all these old sailing photos and change the bar and make it into an oak bar instead of this terrible, painted vinyl that they had before—well people don’t love change in England and they were nervous. But after the 6-8 weeks it took us to finish the project, we invited the whole village for the opening party and they realized we still stocked their same beer and that we created seating that was even more comfortable—and that we had used a lot of the local villagers’ photos of the Ferry Boat from over the years—they realized we were honoring their traditions, not replacing them.
Other than the restaurants you guys have worked on, what are your all-time favorite places to eat?
In Charleston, I love Chez Nous. They've been our favorite since they opened, and I just think they're so unique in their menu, which changes daily and is always delicious. In the world, I would say the Ferry Boat Inn. Truly. I think about it all the time and I wish we lived closer, honestly. It's like the longest flight, followed by the longest drive, to get there, but it is one of my favorite places in the world.
That speaks to the transportive nature of restaurants in general, right? That wherever we are, we can be anywhere we want thanks to a certain atmosphere or dish or memory of a great meal.
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