Friday, February 20, 2009

An Imagineer's Second Life

For most of you a WDI Imagineer is somebody who creates a theme park - or at least attractions for Disney. Whether he is show designer, show producer, sculptor, model specialist, architect,etc... But what happens when a former Imagineer - decides to leave WDI? What do they create if its not an attraction? This is what I will talk about today.

Eddie Sotto is a former WDI imagineer who began as a Main Street show designer/producer on DLP. It is my favorite Main Street. While he was at WDI, he also worked on the development of Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure, and eventually ran his own concept studio within WDI, where his team could explore new ideas. That period yielded many new projects for TDL including "Pooh's Hunny Hunt" or Tomorrowland concepts like "Sci-Fi City", as well as "outside the berm" projects like "Encounter" Restaurant at LAX, or New York's ABC "Times Square Studios" and many others.

In late 1999, Eddie was hired away from WDI to be the creative director of an internet media company, then got involved creating television pilots for Mtv, Current, ABC, and Showtime networks, and eventually in 2004 founded SottoStudios, his own "think tank" where they have been busy designing everything from the Ferrari experience within Steve Wynn's Las Vegas resort to ClubAston, a "Bond-esque" Aston Martin dealership where you design your DB9 at a Martini bar and it is presented to you inside a bank vault.

On January 16, Eddie's latest project "Rivera", a modern latin Restaurant opened in Downtown Los Angeles, just a block from Staples Center (Laker's home) and the Nokia Theater. Rivera is the middle name of the chef, John Rivera Sedlar. A man noted for his gourmet latin cuisine. They met as a result of Sotto bringing in chefs to lecture at WDI on how to better marry the dining experience to the attractions. they later worked on Encounter together and it was a hit.

So, I called Eddie in L.A - who also gently provided me his artwork and some CGI renderings - and had a little interview with him about the Rivera. He explained it this way:

E.S: Form follows food. That was the takeaway from the WDI lectures John gave and it really impressed me. John is amazing at presentation and thinking about the design and food in the same breath. It's all one experience to the guest. He is so into the details that he has flower petals pressed onto each handmade tortilla so they become art in themselves. It's like John Hench said, "it's about the longshot and the closeup". Everything matters to him and every course is an an attraction. This made sense to me. Why at EPCOT do we serve heavy Lasagna for lunch, then eject the bloated guest into the Florida heat, only to put them piping hot on a spinning thrill ride? It's out of sync. How do we rethink places as complimentary experiences, not just rides and restaurants? Experiences are systems. Ever since then I was looking for a chance to work with a Chef. Rivera was there to bring it all together because this Chef sees the room as just a bigger plate".

A.L : So did it materialize as an experience?

E.S: It's a Pan-latin menu (tamales to tapas and more) with a heavy emphasis on Tequila. John wanted to serve "flights" of tequilas, meaning several tastes in small glasses that are custom mixed for each guest. This "flight" notion became the inspiration for the design of our own ultimate First Class seat, of polished bronze with a stainless tray table. The chair stays on the ground, you do the flying. They became the heart of our Samba lounge. To help your mind become airborne, kaleidoscopic "hallucinations" of agave plants, aztec masks, and spanish art, randomly appear and vanish across a 40' video wall.

Below, from the first sketches to CGI renderings to the final result, the "ultimate First Class seat".

A.L : As long as you don't land in the Hudson River...

E.S: "Now that's an experience! See, the one thing chain Restaurants seem to be lacking is "special". What we mean is being truly memorable with a sense of ceremony. What happened to salads tossed at our table, flaming drinks, or special dishes you just could not eat elsewhere? That's why we have the custom tasting chairs. Each chair was designed to fit a plate that John had ordered from Dubai. That's the whole idea of experiential design. It's working the food and the design out in lockstep. Start with the "wow" and work backwards to achieve that. We all opted to be the "anti-chain" restaurant and just make it special.

A.L : What about the design itself, what inspired that?

E.S: "One of the things Sedlar said is that he didn't want a cliche'd mexican restaurant. No Sombreros on the walls. He wanted the food to be the latin flavor. Clean, modern and minimal. Very hard to do and still make it inviting. We had to make it authentically L.A too. One of the inspirations was the concrete blocks of a Lloyd Wright Neo-Mayan Sowden house here in Los Feliz.

Here is a picture of the Lloyd Wright's Sowden House.

So I too landed on abstracting the order and texture of "blocks" with "carvings" as on Mayan pyramids. So that was the inspiration for our exterior grillwork, the R logo, and the wall of 400 crystal Tequila "blocks" that form the walls of our Sangre dining room.

E.S: Each bottle represents a "block" of John's own extra anejo Tequila, each features a member's name while locked into the wall as part of a private reserve. A turn of their key allows the member to remove the walnut brick and "drink the architecture" at their table. If you look closely at the walls you may find the names of some famous Imagineers too. Start with the half consumed bottles!"
The whole experiment was meant to blur the lines between the interior and the food in a way that the story can be consumed by all the senses. When they all play together the result is richer and you tap into emotions and create an experience. (I bet you think I've been having tequila right now!)

E.S: All these elements are very unique (Conquistador Helmet lamps are a nod to LA's Brown Derby hat lamps) and I often get asked who made all these things. In fact, Scenario Design, the same company that has been building many of your favorite Disney attractions (Nemo,Toy Story Mania, DLP TOT and more) built the tasting chairs, bottle shelves, lamps, grillwork and so much more. Without them (and help from Imagineer Deb Gregory) we would not have been able to pull this place off."

Below, a picture of the hat lamp from Brown Derby, 1926 Hollywood...

...And a Conquistador Helmet lamp at the Rivera.

So I guess the things that never change once you leave WDI, is that you never get tired of creating memorable experiences for your guests and doing whatever it takes to wow them."

Thanks Eddie...More coincidental is the WDI address in Glendale is Flower Street, and Rivera is located in downtown L.A in a street called...Flower Street! (The Walt's restaurant in DLP does this too) Could the Rivera be the next Imagineer's hangout? I thought that since so many aspects of this touch WDI and Disney you might be interested.

If you're a Disney fan living in Southern California, you should make a dinner reservation at the Rivera. Not only you will eat great food in a sumptuous decor, but you might meet some Disney imagineers as well. And just keep an ear open, just in case at the fifth tequila they begin to talk about WDI secret projects!

Eddie Sotto's Artwork: copyright Eddie Sotto

Pictures: copyright Rivera - Eddie Sotto


kaicito said...

amazing! thanks for posting.

Unknown said...

Wow. A definite must-visit when I make it out to LA. Thank you!

Matt said...

wow! what a great post!

I try and follow so many Imagineers, because their lives and work are so interesting, and this article just reinforces that.

thanks so much, alain, for putting together such a thorough and well-rounded post - a great mix of background material, visual references, and dialogue! and I love concept development so much, so thanks to Eddie Sotto (an idol of mine) for sharing the process behind the product (visually and explanatory). amazing work!

I know where I'm eating when I hit LA next!

Unknown said...

The Revit renderings came out pretty great. Congrats!