The hit restaurants Double Knot, Bud & Marilyn’s, Harp & Crown, and Cheu Fishtown all have something in common. The interior designer behind them is Kate Rohrer, a Bucks County-bred graduate of Moore College of Art.
We sat in her Fishtown office, Rohe Creative, while her all-female staff of five worked in silence on computers. Though her firm has a dozen or so projects in various stages (including a new restaurant called Louie-Louie and an expansion of White Dog Cafe in University City, as well as a renovation of the Moshulu), “we’re still a baby company, I feel like,” says Rohrer, 34, who lives with her 5-year-old son and her partner, Ryan McLoughlin.
Tell me about your work.
I’m an interior designer, but, generally speaking, I think there’s a stereotype that’s involved with interior designer that refers to decoration. A lot of times, people think I’m an interior decorator. They’ll tell me, “Oh, will you do my house? Can you pick pillows?” Sure, yes, but we’re definitely more on the side of architecture. We’re not licensed, but we do all of that side of the process. I was always a creative person. I was always dreaming of what I could make and trying out new things. I’m sure my parents would tell you crazy stories. But I knew I wanted to do something creative, and when I was applying for colleges, I was really thinking that I wanted to be a fashion designer, which is hysterical to me because I wear the same outfit every day.
You must have done some decorating while you were growing up.
My parents were giving me an allowance. I had made basically a project schedule of a budget on how many allowances I needed to get until I could purchase the furniture that I wanted for my room. I had mapped it all out for my mom. I think it was through the Ikea catalog or something.
Moore didn’t have a big campus life or social life. (She started there in 2001.) I was living in an apartment a couple of blocks away. My friend at the time said, “You need to come work at Continental. We have so much fun. You’ll meet people and you’ll also make a lot of money.” I was a server, and then toward the end, I was bartending. Nights and weekends for five years. All through college and in interior design specifically, they want you to touch base on all aspects of design. There’s health-care design. There’s commercial design. There’s retail design. We learn all of those things, and usually what happens is you gravitate toward something. Mine was always restaurants. My thesis project was a hotel in the National Building in Old City. Which they actually just knocked down, which breaks my heart. Remember that big, orange building with the amazing old sign? I had done basically a hostel, really vibrant youth hotel thesis project, which I thought would have worked. Obviously, working at Continental for Starr Restaurants, watching what he could do and how he was hiring these really star-powered designers to just transform the spaces was so cool. They were in and out of the restaurant a lot. I felt close to that and inspired by that. Then, working as a server and a bartender really just allowed me to study people and how they use the space and how guests use the space and how servers use the space. Ultimately, I think it’s made me a better restaurant designer.
What’s the hard part about your work?
For me, the creative part comes easily. The business aspect of it is super-challenging, especially in a smaller city like Philadelphia, where not a lot of people want to pay a premium for an idea. I’m not saying that we come at a premium. We’re definitely an affordable, small company, but …
Can’t architects also do what you do?
I don’t think so. Yes, they can, but I think we bring more of an inclusive, holistic approach. A lot of architects are very clean-lined and contemporary. I’m not saying that’s good or bad. But I think when it comes to restaurants, it’s about engulfing somebody’s senses into a concept. We absolutely, on every single project we take on, basically put ourselves through a learning curve. Is it Japanese? Is it Mexican? Is it whatever it may be? I think that’s something special that interior designers do.
Let’s talk about Double Knot, which is a coffee bar/cocktail lounge upstairs and a Japanese izakaya downstairs.
Double Knot was a concept that Philadelphia hadn’t seen before. I think it was pretty difficult for lots of reasons — the main being, how do you transfer from a daytime coffee bar to a nighttime cocktail lounge? It still needed to have a little bit of the flavor of what downstairs had. Downstairs is special in its own thing. There was a lot of common thread, design wise. Woods and metals. Just lighter materials upstairs vs. downstairs, where it’s dark and moody.
Right, but you tend to not like bright — though Cheu Fishtown is bold. I’m thinking of Bud & Marilyn’s at 13th and Locust Streets.
For the most part, we like dark and moody, loungy.
Is the dark and moody restaurant in vogue now?
I think so. I think it makes people feel comfortable. I think people look good in that sort of lighting. You’re going to have this flickering candlelight. It’s the perfect romantic setting. Downstairs at Harp & Crown, there’s this sensuality with the darker woods and leathers. Softer velvets. People are more in tune with that stuff now and how it makes them feel.