Restaurant designer Ben McCarthy: “Pinterest is a great tool, but it’s ruining design”

by: Nik Addams
12 Dec 2019

You might not know Ben McCarthy, but chances are he’s played an important role in some of your favourite Hong Kong dining experiences. The Queensland native, who carries himself with a typically Australian charming nonchalance, has designed some of Hong Kong’s most beloved restaurants and bars under his Charlie & Rose moniker: Mr & Mrs Fox, Samsen, Franks, Brickhouse, Stockton, and, more recently, Pirata Group’s two-in-one Japanese concept TMK and Honjo, count among his more prominent projects. 

Charlie & Rose Ben McCarthy

His portfolio looks perhaps even more impressive when one takes into account the fact that, before he moved to Hong Kong a decade ago, he had never designed a restaurant or bar. Starting his career at Australian-headquartered international practice Hassell before moving to London to work with luxury design firm Candy & Candy, McCarthy  it was, in that typically Hong Kong way, a friend of a friend who offered him his first project after moving to the city. 

“A friend of mine was a friend of Todd’s [Todd Darling, co-founder of hospitality group IHM],” McCarthy explains. “And he said to me, ‘Todd’s doing this thing, do you want to do it’ and I said, ‘Okay, why not’.” That ‘thing’ was Linguini Fini (the L Place original, for those of us with longer memories) – and from there, McCarthy says, his career designing memorable dining spaces ‘snowballed’.

“I think that’s the nature of restaurants, particularly in Hong Kong,” McCarthy says. “Everyone’s always sniffing about seeing who’s doing what, so it’s always just worked out.” 

Charlie & Rose - Samsen Hong Kong
Buzzy Wan Chai diner Samsen evokes the look and feel (and smells) of a Thai shophouse. 

And it does seem to have worked out: he’s about to add to his extensive portfolio of completed work the second branch of Samsen (coming soon to Jervois Street), and a new restaurant in luxe Beijing hotel The Opposite House. We sit down with McCarthy in Honjo to talk trends, what it takes to design a successful dining space, and how to avoid design-by-Pinterest.    

What do you enjoy about restaurant design?

The feedback you get. You sit in the bar and you can hear people go ‘Oh, this weird’, or ‘Oh, this is cool’ – you don’t really get that sort of feedback with other projects. Also the people involved in running and setting up restaurants are generally pretty creative individuals, and are willing to do things a little bit differently and not take life too seriously which is pretty good fun.

Charlie & Rose Honjo Hong Kong interior
Honjo invites its guests into the home of a Japanese salaryman.

What does it take to design a ‘successful’ dining space or bar?

Assuming I can do that, I don’t know if there’s one particular thing. I think where a lot of designers go wrong is that they focus so heavily on the imagery of how the space presents in photographs – focusing on this single perspective that makes an amazing image and getting so fixated on that, rather than really understanding the experience. For me the best restaurants, the restaurants that I have the best time in, are probably the most under-designed. I think it’s just about really focusing on the user, and we try, where space allows it, to give everyone a bit of a different experience, so you don’t have this sort of mono experience every time you visit. That for me is a successful restaurant: where you can find your own little piece of it. 

Charlie & Rose - Mr & Mrs Fox
Mr & Mrs Fox has become one of McCarthy's siganture projects.

What are your thoughts of designing spaces according to trends?

I hate that. Though I’m probably guilty of it in some respects, because it’s really hard to avoid. But I think you really have to make an effort. Pinterest is such a great tool, but it’s ruining design. Everything’s arched doorways and terrazzos and it’s like, ‘Can we all calm down?’. It all photographs beautifully and the imagery coming out is amazing, but you walk through some restaurants now and you go, ‘I’ve been here before’. And, within reason, you’ve got to steer clients away from it without being a total asshole. But that’s your job too, as a designer you’re supposed to be across what’s happening, and across trends where you can go ‘Let’s not do that, because 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 projects down the road all do that’. 

How can you avoid falling into the trend trap?

We try and drive our designs with a bit of a narrative. To have that to refer back to, it sort of pulls you away from just designing by Pinetrest. Sometimes [the narrative] is more subtle than others, but I think if you have that to fall back on it helps you avoid those traps.

Charlie & Rose - Franks Hong Kong
Wyndham Street hangout Franks is one of McCarthy's most recent fit-outs.

Who drives this narrative?

It’s an evolving thing. For instance with this one I wrote a couple of paragraphs as a bit of a story. You can really go over the top with it, but it’s still gotta be a functioning restaurant at the end of the day. We’ll try and do that alongside the client as much as possible, because it helps them buy into it too, so they know there’s a reason you’re doing it. I don’t like to get too conceptual to the point where you lose people, but it still needs to be something people can relate to.

Are there any trends you’re sick of seeing?

Not really – it’s all trendy because it’s of some design value. It’s obviously appealing to people. But is there any one thing? Not really. Let people keep doing it and I’ll keep doing something else.

Keep up to date with all of McCarthy's designs @charlieandrose