Women’s History Month might have ended, but why should we stop shining a well-deserved spotlight on those who never cease to amaze and inspire us? Next up in our series are Bespoke Only founder Melissa Lee and associate designer and restauranteur, Erika Chou. The Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary firm recently helmed the design of buzzy eateries Kimika, in Nolita, and Wayla, in the Lower East Side. Beyond conceptualizing the settings of your next sought-after Saturday night reservation, the duo also create intimate and large-scale experiences, events, and weddings. The Daily caught up with the pair to hear how their backgrounds in fashion, hospitality, and design led to this chapter—and to get a sense of what’s still to come!
What are your respective backstories and when did you each know you wanted to pursue design?
Melissa: I studied cognitive psychology in school. Social behavioral analysis has always been something that intrigues me profoundly. How different people think, act, and live is a science that’s endlessly fascinating. Growing up in a family of developers, I witnessed first hand how design can play a significant role in shaping people’s lives. For me, the eventual path leading to designing living space for humans felt natural and almost inescapable. It calls for curiosity of another person’s life and the desire to touch it intimately.
Erika: Pursuing something creative has always been a part of who I am, with a real interest in design developing in high school. I remember being struck by the lettering of Ed Ruscha, an antique table that transformed into a ladder, a restaurant receipt handwritten on parchment in Beijing. I attended NYU and graduated with a Fine Arts and Psychology degree, but it took several years of exploration to find the path that I am on now.
Were you friends before you worked together?
Yes! We met through mutual friends and Bespoke Only designed Erika’s wedding. Apparently Erika had so much fun collaborating from that process, she came back for more and the rest is history!
Tell us about your respective careers before launching and joining Bespoke Only?
Melissa: I started my career originally in PR and transitioned to multiple areas in fashion later on. I’d designed and orchestrated events and campaigns for luxury brands and it was clear to me that I was craving something on a more personal level with more creative freedom. That yearning led me to eventually found Bespoke Only.
Erika: I started off in the fashion industry working in editorial and advertising, producing everything from shows and shoots to massive international campaigns. After that, I decided to switch gears and jump into the hospitality industry, something I had always been so intrigued by, and started from the bottom at the opening of Andre Balazs’ The Standard Grill. Eventually I started a restaurant of my own in 2012, Yunnan Kitchen: one of the first regional Chinese restaurants in NYC which earned 4 stars from NY Mag and 1 from the New York Times. I just kept going from there and at the same time became more focused on the delicate integration of restaurant operations and design. That design and experiential aspect was something I wanted to explore further and a few years later, I ended up joining Bespoke Only to do just that! Being able to diversify my pursuits and have such an amazing creative outlet has been so fulfilling and fun.
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Melissa—with Bespoke Only, what did you want to offer that you couldn’t (then) see other firms doing?
I really believe in transparency and humility, which was what I set out to prioritize when starting Bespoke Only. In the design world, sometimes things can be made to feel intimidating and I knew that’s not the type of relationship I was looking to create with my own clients. I wanted to forge an open, honest, and humble dialogue where as designers our ego will not get in the way when working with people. It should never be about us but the ones we design for.
What were some of your first projects when you launched and what did those experiences teach you about running your own firm?
My husband and I took on a brownstone project in Brooklyn, which became our home and Bespoke Only’s HQ. Living through the entire process as the owner (quite literally—we lived in the house during the construction!) was an invaluable experience of its own. I now can truly say I know how it feels from the other side and it really helps me understand what my clients could be going through. The emotional ups-and-downs are all part of it, and knowing that provides us the tools to manage the expectations realistically and thoughtfully.
Erika—how does your fashion background shape your eye/work?
Most of my fashion experience was on the photography side, so composition, tonal balance, and attention to texture has helped shape my eye. I would actually say my background in restaurants and hospitality has had the most influence in how I work, in terms of experience and fluidity of using a space. This experience has also been integral to our commercial projects and gives us a more intimate insight into the needs of our clients.
Can you fill us in on some recent projects that were highlights for you both?
Melissa: We are currently working on a little cabin in the woods of Catskills. It’s quite a unique property that’s full of quirks, where the client is looking to create a simple Nordic aesthetic. Coincidentally one of our current hospitality projects also happens to share a minimalist chalet concept, but on the coast of Long Island! The two sites couldn’t be any more different, despite their shared muse. I find it so interesting to see how the concept could be played out in such different natures; incorporating their individual DNA into the design and challenging ourselves to dig deeper. I just love that.
Erika: For me, it would be our Park Slope Brownstone project. It’s incredibly charming and pretty as we kept and highlighted a lot of original details, yet it has this quiet strength and serenity achieved through moody colors and natural textures.
What do you both bring to the table that is unique in the industry?
We think the diversity of our backgrounds sets us apart and gives us a more multi-dimensional approach to projects. The fact that we come from psychology and fine arts backgrounds, and not necessarily formal interior design training, lends a certain freedom, enabling us to engage with each project in a unique way. We think the experiences from our past lives really give us an edge in bringing in a rather fresh perspective for unexpected solutions.
What do you miss about working on events?
We miss the energy and that amazing feeling when everyone is in sync and working seamlessly together. We also miss the anticipation and excitement of seeing how a living and dynamic event comes together so organically and beautifully before your eyes.
What trends for hospitality and events do you think will continue to come to the fore in 2021?
We think people will want experiences that are even more focused on tender attention and well considered details, whether that’s through a special coffee service, flexibility of a space, or private dining options. We see the human factor playing a bigger role in the future as people long for the connection that’s been deprived for far too long.
What’s next for Bespoke Only?
We have a roster of hospitality projects in the works that we’re really excited about! We honestly cannot wait to welcome people back to our favorite dining scene in our favorite city. New York City is, and will always be, our home and it wouldn’t be the same without all the diverse flavors that make it one of the greatest cities in the world.