Husband and wife team John and Vivian Bencich of Square Feet Studio have designed some of Atlanta’s best-looking food and drink spaces—including Kimball House, The Mercury, Barcelona Wine Bar and Cockentrice—but you won’t find an ounce of inflated ego between them. “We don’t want to be that designer sitting up on a pedestal telling [the client] what to do,” says Vivian.
For the whip-smart duo, good bar design isn’t about chasing the latest fads; It’s about communicating the soul and history of a space in a way that’s meaningful and beautiful, and collaboration is key. In the case of the Kimball House, the client came to the table with a clear mission: to pay homage to a forgotten era of bar service. The Bencichs traveled to New York with Kimball House partner and bartender Miles Macquarrie and partners to find inspiration for the project, eventually designing a space that puts the focus on a centrally located bar with glowing lights and vintage touches throughout. “That metaphor of service and hospitality established everything from how we laid out [the space] to how the finishes worked,” John says.
For The Mercury, they visited several locations around Atlanta and worked with the bar crew to help shape the theme of the design. When they discovered available space in the Ponce City Market, everyone knew it would be a good fit, and a design narrative emerged from there. The owners (also responsible for The Pinewood) had always loved ’40s and ’50s-style New York City bars. “It’s Don Draper having a martini and a prime rib; just simple, good businessman lunch kind of place,” John says.
“Mercury is part of the bigger feel of Ponce City Market as well, so we incorporated the old big concrete columns, which play off the finished walnut and drapery and pair well with the chunkiness of the market,” Vivian adds. “It needed to be a little masculine, so there’s the walnut overbar, sturdy, leather ’50s-style barstools, and marble bar top that has a lot of movement and colors. It works really well.”
Atlanta’s history and existing architecture also informs their work. “From a design standpoint, there’s a lot of old industry in Atlanta that’s moved out, opening up these great adaptive re-use properties,” John says. “We’ve got these great, elegant but industrial buildings that are honest brick, steel and glass.” A prime example is the interior they designed for Cockentrice, a restaurant and bar helmed by what the duo calls, “one of the best butchers in the South.” Located in an old warehouse, the Bencichs left most of the space alone to preserve the industrial feel. “The structure is there, but when you look at what we added in—from the backbar to the seating, the charcuterie display and exposed walk-in cooler—the way we added in this hospitality function is very sympathetic to that aesthetic, because that’s what he’s doing. We didn’t have to change much.”
While most of the firm’s work has been in Atlanta, they’ve begun taking on projects outside of the city in places like Houston and Birmingham. Regardless of where they design, everything project stays grounded in collaboration. “Most of our clients have never hired architects, but they’re designers in their own right—they design cocktails—so we learn from them as much as they learn from us.”