Designed by Martin Meijer, chief creative officer of Mojo, an up and coming interior design, project management and architecture firm, Atisuto is a new Japanese restaurant in Dubai’s Galleria Mall on Al Wasl Road. While the AED2.2mn restaurant space itself is rather small, its concept and amount of detail work push the boundaries and help form a creative narrative that is unforgettable.
Salem Bin Dasmal, the CEO of Silver Spoon, had requested a Japanese restaurant that offered casual dining. His brief to Meijer visualised the kind of restaurant you find in a back alley of Tokyo, not glamourous or glitzy, but rather marked by its long standing in the city’s street culture and good food.
“I ended up coming up with a story, a kind of dialogue to really build the brand around, because I know Salem really wants to roll Atisuto out, and this one is the first of many, hopefully,” explains the designer.
“So I wanted to create a really strong identity that would connect the people, and that’s why the environment is quite busy—I would call it maximist almost. So how are we going to do this, I asked. Well, I pretended the space was a warehouse, the kind you might find in Manhattan or the east end of London. Artists, poor artists as often they are, have basically squatted in this place because it’s free. And these artists, because they’ve got no materials, have expressed themselves freely on the walls and floors. This is the narrative I created for the space, and the dialogue that we built upon.”
Upon entering the restaurant space, visitors are welcomed by graphic imagery complemented by laid-back furnishing. On the right side are wooden tables made by materials recycled in Sharjah and manufactured locally. On the left side, a sushi bar invites seafood loving customers to have a seat amid multiple Bonsai trees.
While Meijer sourced the wood from Sharjah, he had them manufactured by Panthom Decoration to be as rough as possible so that he could polish them with bees wax later on. According to the designer, the natural material allows for a matt finish that is more natural than the chemical finishes often used. The wood was used to create the tables and seating, which follow natural, relaxed shapes reminiscent of the simple backstreet restaurants in Tokyo.
“I did some research and obviously tried to use some recycled material to make the furniture which goes along with the industrial feel,” explains Meijer. “And because there were cost restraints and because in Japan, making things as simply as possible is seen as quite beautiful, the chairs and tables are quite simple.”
Separating the tables from one another are massive mild steel bars that create a subtle, cage-like feeling. Customised specifically for Atisuto, the rusted steel bars create a new volume within the space, as they cut the height of the space in half.
Above the seating on the right, images of Japanese culture are hung. A local artist contributed to the space by colouring in parts of the images with red, which gives a provocative element to the old photos of Japanese streets.
The calmness of the paintings hanging on the right wall is contrasted by the horizontal strip of graffiti above where the wall meets the ceiling. Designed by famed street artist Ruben Sanchez, the artwork incorporates the elements important in Japanese culture like wind, water, fire, earth and sky.
The left side of the restaurant houses the sushi counter, upon which numerous bonsai plants create a line of vision from the front of the restaurant to the back. Behind the sushi counter are graphic images sourced by Meijer from online image archives. The graphic images evoke comic style art and remind visitors of the fictional artists who once inhabited the space and left a piece of their culture. Disguising the colourful and graphic artwork is mild steel panels that display circular voids.
“The idea behind the imagery at the back of the counter, posters which I took from various image archives, is to represent aspects of Japan and this is meant to reflect the art drawn by the artists. What happened then, is that we covered it with the mild steel panels and the circular shapes are barrowed from the Cheese Grater building in Business Bay, which was designed by Reiser and Umemoto.
“Also in the beginning, the brand was going to be called Oishi, which means tasty, and they were going to use a circular format – so the design started by including a lot of circles in the design. I kept the circular designs because it’s quite nice and they represent infinity.”
Above the sushi bar are giant lighting pendants whose obvious inspiration came from the Asian fans women used to stay cool. Their round shapes are connected to the round voids in the metal structure above the seating on the right. Metaphorically speaking, the rounded fan-lights are the circles cut out from the mild steel frame. It’s a design element that speaks to the continuity and coherence of the space.
Connecting the left and right side of the restaurant is a cement floor that displays a Japenese poem spelled in Asian characters.
“The kanji and hiragana writing on the floor is a poem selected by my friend Michael Rofe called The Iroha. It is a Japanese poem, probably written in the Heian era…The first record of its existence dates back to 1079. It is famous because of its perfect pangram, and in the same time an isogram, containing each character of the Japanese syllabary exactly once,” explains Meijer.
According to the designer, due to research on the poem, it’s been revealed that the last syllable of each line of the poem reveals a hidden sentence which can be translated to mean “die without wrong-doing”.
Meijer adds: “Some of the characters on the ground are covered because I wanted it to be as though the artists left the writing here and we’ve had to work with it.”
The restaurant also has an outside area that continues its overall design theme and includes massive planters from Dubai Garden Centre known as “Buddha’s Belly” due to their shape. From every corner of the space is a thoroughly thought-through element of design that not only adds depth and narrative to the creative space, but also makes it larger than life.