All photos: Jeff Martin
All words: Eden Raskin Jenkins
If you have ever walked into a restaurant or bar and thought “Wow, this place is beautiful, unique, and functional and there is such great flow, and wow the lighting here is on point” chances are it was designed by the best friend duo behind Edit Lab. Lauren Winter and Brian Miller are college besties behind the design empire formerly known as Edit until about three years ago when they joined Streetsense to become Edit Lab, and basically declared world domination. Red Hen, The Dabney, Daikaya, The Gibson, Tail Up Goat, Columbia Room, Whaley’s, and Alta Strada are just a drop in the bucket of restaurants and bars designed by the growing Edit Lab team. Needless to say they have some deeply impressive notches on their belt. And while their resume is pretty extraordinary their friendship and dedication to the restaurant industry is what really sets them apart. They live to help their hardworking friends’ dreams come true while creating a more exciting city everyone. And yes, they are so close they can finish each others sentences.
ERJ: What were both of your first jobs ever?
BM: I worked at Dairy Queen when I was 16.
LW: We should answer each others questions by the way. I worked at my mom’s bagel store in Long Island.
ERJ: So, you both have restaurant and food service experience.
BM: I have none after that—I learned everything I need to know from Dairy Queen.
LW: We’re both very much in the restaurant world. We have ownership in some of the restaurants we’ve designed. I’ve always bartended, so I’ve bartended at some of the places I’ve designed and Brian DJs at some of the places we’ve designed. So we’re very involved, it doesn’t just stop at design. We like to go one step further, I think being in the restaurant world and having that experience gives you this insight into how to create functional spaces and great circulation and Brian’s just super smart so he doesn’t need as much experience as me.
BM: We like to really think about how places operate and how they kind of get worn in.
ERJ: That’s smart—it translates to a successful, useful space that everybody relates to. Did you always know you wanted to be architects? Is that what brought you to Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD)?
BM: I knew since I was 5 years old, I never wanted to do anything else.
ERJ: Wow, that’s such a clear vision I feel like most people don’t really have.
LW: I had no idea. I always drew on graph paper and my dad built decks, so I was pretty interested in that with him. There was this stigma when I was younger, it was the early 90s and I had a terrible guidance counselor who told me I couldn’t be an architect and that I should go into interior design. I went to Radford for probably a day and in my first class the guy sitting next to me asked why I was here and I said, “I have no idea. I want to be doing architecture.” And he said, “Well, you should go do architecture.” So I went back home and I helped my mom with the bagel store, saved up and went to school for architecture.
ERJ: Walk me through your career histories a little more. What happened after SCAD Did you have internships? What were your first jobs after you graduated?
LW: I tried everything. I worked in base building I worked in giant buildings. I did residential. I did corporate interiors. I tried literally everything and no matter what I was always jealous of what Brian was doing. He was always in restaurants. He knew what he wanted to do. I wanted to stand by architecture and building until I realized those things take about 10 years to get done, and I just didn’t like waiting that long to see my product. With restaurants it’s generally a year and you get to see it and you know, you learn from your mistakes and what not to do on the next one. Restaurants and interiors are a lot of fun because of the quick turnaround.
BM: During school I worked on and off at Ikea. Then I worked at Core, which is a great firm, and I did a lot of restaurant work and retail work. Then I went to Studios Architecture for about 5 years and did corporate interiors but at the same time I was doing some bar and restaurant and nightclub work there. And then we started our thing.
ERJ: Was it a totally organic decision to start your own business together?
LW: Nope! I got laid off, and had my own LLC or PLLC already, so we decided to try it. Brian did restaurant work and I wanted to do restaurant work—I thought it was fascinating and so we started doing it together. We said this is either going to make us or break us. We’re either going to be better friends or hate each other in the end and we just completely adore each other, most of the time anyway.
BM: It was very tentative. I was, in my job and I was getting some very small freelance work, but that kept growing to the point where I had to turn it down or I had to leave my current job. And this was in 2008, basically during the financial crash but there was this work that we had and we saw this opportunity. For me I made the jump because it was that opportunity to help reshape the city. And I was either going to be part of that or I wasn’t and I felt like it was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss.
ERJ: What’s the hardest part about starting a business with a friend and what the most rewarding part?
LW: Trust is one of the best things. Brian and I completely trust each other, we always have. We’ve never had to question that our intentions are good and we’re working as hard as we possibly could. So you look to the other one knowing you’re giving everything. And even after I was in the hospital having kids, clients would visit, Brian was visiting with drawings and I was working and after that he was very understanding of my lack of sleep and the time needed.
BM: You know you’re looking out for each other’s interests.
LW: And you know, as well, we have the perks of going to restaurants together and saying, “oh this place opened up lets go there tonight.” It’s just fun to always have that interaction and go everywhere and do stuff together and take trips together. So that’s part of the pros. And the negatives?
BM: I think the hard part is you hang out with them after work and you…
LW: Bitch about work, there’s no escape really. You’re sitting in a restaurant and you say “what do you think about this” or “what about this lighting” or “what did they use there”
BM: But it’s what we really love too.
LW: And we’re constantly learning. I think you know, it’s like a marriage, there’s no walking away, if we get in a fight and we’re mad at each other, you have to resolve it. You have to come to work the next day and put it behind you.
ERJ: Do you have any advice for friends who are thinking of going into business together?
BM: I think the most important thing is to make sure you have a good match of strengths and weaknesses. Like Lauren and I work great together because each of our weaknesses are covered by the other’s strengths. And there are people who I’m great friends with and have a huge amount of respect for, but wouldn’t work with because we’re just doubling up skill sets.
ERJ: What are your strengths and weaknesses?
LW: I’m very organized, and technical and I keep shit in order. Brian makes everything beautiful. We work on all design together, but Brian is much smarter than I am on it. Don’t get me wrong, he definitely needs some vetoes every once and a while.
BM: Checks and balances.
LW: We’re fortunate in that we’re almost one person in how we approach the project and design but it’s the benefit of two people checking the design. That’s the most important part, it is so much fun to go into business with your friend. You just have to make sure you enhance each other’s talents.
BM: We called ourselves Edit because people say “oh it must be so fun to come up with ideas all day for all these projects” and we say “all the ideas are already out there, even the client brings more ideas to the table than you can possibly fit into one project and the best thing we can do is edit them down into a few ideas that fit together.”
ERJ: Is the client super involved in the project and the design?
BM: It varies but the most successful projects are the ones where the client has a very clear vision and inspiration for a project.
LW: We don’t want someone to walk into a space and say that it feels like Lauren and Brian or Edit Lab. We want them to walk in and say that it feels like you the owner and that’s important.
ERJ: What is the hardest part about running your own business and the most rewarding? Separate from working with your best friend.
BM: Getting clients to pay you is the hardest, no question.
LW: The most rewarding is when it happens. Seeing these people that used to work in the restaurants: the servers, the bartenders, the chefs, the sous chefs—who are our friends, opening their own restaurants is really special because you’re rooting for them, you know how talented they are. They’re not just some stranger coming to you saying, “I don’t know what I want” or “I kind of feel like this,” you already know them and what they want. The rewarding part is really seeing our friends succeed in this business.
BM: We feel really honored that people put so much trust in us, because if they’re coming out, especially if they’re starting their first bar, their first restaurant they might be taking out a second mortgage on their house, loans, investors, putting their whole life, their whole reputation on the line and it’s up to us to make sure that money gets spent the right way and that on opening night they’re so happy that they have a huge smile on their face. When those people are our friends when we’ve known them a long time when we see them grow that’s really special to us.
ERJ: And the most challenging?
LW: I don’t know. Brian said getting paid. It is a business but it’s charging your friends essentially. And having those close relationships and drawing that line between business and friendships. And sometimes I don’t draw that line or I take something very personally so I think that’s it, just drawing the line is one of my problems.
ERJ: What has been the most challenging project and the most rewarding project you worked on?
LW: There’s no good way to answer this…I’m reflecting on it and probably all the most challenging projects were the most rewarding. It seems to actually go hand in hand a bit.
BM: I don’t want to talk about the most challenging that weren’t the most rewarding. (both Brian and Lauren laugh) Once something opens you feel like you’ve surmounted these huge obstacles and come out, you know victorious. Some projects you feel really proud of and some projects feel on a different level, like blood sweat and tears went into them. And we’re happy to see that every project opened, but some of them you feel that there’s a couple years of your life that you took off to get there.
ERJ: What do you look for when you’re hiring?
BM: Passion and talent. I think they have to be good, but they have to be really dedicated and interested in this. And not just being interested in architecture– it’s them being interested in what hospitality is and seeing people go out, how people behave, how people interact with each other.
LW: How do they move through the space, how do they react to the lighting, how do they stand at the bar, where do they gather first, I think it’s important that they’re observant.
BM: I think finding people who always want to keep learning is the most important for us.
ERJ: What have been your highest highs and your lowest lows?
BM: I think there are a few times when we thought a project just wasn’t going to make it through permits or was going to get cancelled or you know there have been a few jobs when we’ve had clients where we just didn’t see eye to eye and we got let go from the job and you can’t not take it personally. I think the things we might have taken as huge blows a few years ago, we might now just absorb as part of our professional life in a different way.
ERJ: How did you get to that point?
BM: I think it’s time, I think it’s also joining Streetsense, growing our own studio, having that greater group of employees. And once you grow you have that whole network of people…
LW: You can lean on them, if you’re having a shit week, you can ask someone to help you and they’re more than happy to. I have a friend that has his own firm and a girlfriend that has her own firm and they don’t have that and it’s so upsetting to see that they don’t have that person to lean on. It’s great that we have each other and the studio to lean on. It’s amazing having a team that helps bring our visions to life. We are lucky to have a team that really takes it to the next level with us, it’s amazing to watch. You say, “I want this or this,” and what they come back with is always more than I ever could’ve thought.
BM: It’s not just that having more people helps us do more work, but I think the work that we’re doing is better than it’s ever been because we have more voices in the room and more talent there
LW: We’re like a family,
ERJ: And what has been your highest high?
LW: Opening night, I mean sometimes that’s a disaster, it’s the best when you see your client, your friend, your husband, anyone opening the business, it’s the best.
BM: We do this every month but for them it’s what they’ve been dreaming about for years and just because we do it so often doesn’t stop it from feeling so special. I also think moving down here to Blagden Alley is a huge high for us, because I don’t think we ever dreamed we’d be at this point when we started out.
LW: We’re very appreciative of Streetsense in believing in our vision, as well as trusting us to make this happen.
ERJ: Was it a hard decision to join Streetsense?
BM: Yeah, it took us about six months. The first time we met with them we said, “Absolutely no way.” The second time we said, “Absolutely no way.” It was probably the fourth time we met with them when we even started considering it and it was probably the twelfth time we met with them we said, “We think we’re going to do it.” Then it took another ten meetings to figure out the details. We joined because we know the people there, we saw them on job sites every day, we met them so many times, they weren’t strangers to us, that’s what made us feel comfortable.
LW: Streetsense wasn’t’ asking us to change anything about what we do or how we approached it or how we market ourselves, which was very important.
ERJ: What have been the top three most influential experiences in your professional life?
BM: I think going to Japan with the Daikaya team was incredibly influential. To go and get inspiration by really experiencing something and thinking about it in a different way and then just being with those people 24 hours a day for a couple weeks, you get to know each other so well and really understand what you’re trying to do in a way that you can’t in a conference room or on a set of drawings. That was really influential for me. Doing the Gibson in 2009 was a really influential point for us. I think it just came out as well as anything. It’s a space that a lot of people ended up feeling very passionate about. We went at it with a whole new lens– we’re going to make the whole interior black and it’s going to be very dim and we’re going to shape this space in a very unusual way and having that work out was huge for our confidence. Saying that if we really strongly believe in something we can make it work.
LW: Red Hen was very influential. Also working at Eighteenth Street Lounge when we first moved here was pivotal for me. Just being in that world seeing how people worked, what was going on and how people were approaching it.
BM: I think Red Hen was really important in terms of shaping a neighborhood. Lauren had moved to Bloomingdale, we had done Boundary Stone, but Red Hen was really going out on a limb for how people thought of Bloomingdale. But Lauren lives four doors down from the restaurant, it’s her husband’s restaurant, so it’s that kind of level of belief to take a vacant building on a corner and say we want to make this into something the whole city can be proud of—something that nobody would have thought to do here. You just have to have faith that it’s going to work and it did. Have faith in your community. You put a lot on the line to make that happen and to see it embraced was really special.
LW: I think joining Streetsense was pretty pivotal too, just having them trust us and support us and allow us to do what we love is huge.
ERJ: Who are your role models?
LW: Brian, Brian Miller.
BM: I wasn’t going to say you. I’m gonna look in my text messages, it’s someone I’ve talked to in the last 24 hours.
LW: It’s true though, I think Brian is a role model for me. I think he’s incredibly intelligent and he pushes me to want to be better at what I do and pushes me to explore further into the design or why I’m doing it or what’s making it so special.
BM: Obviously Lauren for me. Umm, Jeremiah at the Dabney. Yama at Daikaya would be another one. He’s an operator, who has been in the business for so long, sees design as very important and he’s passionate about it like I’ve seen no other client be with architecture. I feel like I have to play catch up with him sometimes. That’s really inspirational to me and the fact that we can come up with something crazy to do and he pushes it even further. I think the people who take you out of your comfort zone are the most inspirational.
LW: One of the people I really respect in the industry is Virginia of DeNada. She is a mom, wife, she’s just doing what she loves and I feel very inspired by her because she’s just so talented and she’s doing what she loves and she’s doing it very well. And I think she’s an excellent role model.
ERJ: What are the best pieces of advice you’ve been given?
LW: Say no. Saying no is huge. I try to please everyone. I want to do everything for everyone so saying no is a huge piece of advice that I try to keep in the back of my head so I don’t overwhelm myself or take on too much.
BM: I don’t know that it’s advice but I think sort of halfway between advice or influential or whatever. I want to mention Sarah Finlay and Patrick Murcia from Fusebox Gallery—they moved out to California years ago. I worked with them on one of the first projects as an architect. To see, especially, Sarah’s dedication to detail, and the level of care and thought she put into the smallest decision. She really taught me that even the little things matter so much to somebody. To really hold yourself to the highest standard.
ERJ: Is this the advice you would give to your younger self or what would you tell your younger self?
LW: I guess, be confident. Know you’re doing everything you can to make everything successful and don’t hold back when you feel unsure of something. Just do it. Do you.
BM: For me probably take a vacation.
LW: Yeah, Brian doesn’t take any vacation.
ERJ: How do you figure out the work-life balance, especially when you are a parent?
LW: It’s terrible. You always feel like you’re in the wrong place. When you’re at work you feel like you’re supposed to be with your kids, when you’re with your kids you feel like you’re supposed to be at work. When you’re at the restaurant you feel like you need to be doing something else. It’s just you always feel like you’re in the wrong place and you really have to realize you’re in the right place. You’re doing exactly what you should be doing and you’re doing everything you can. You’re fitting everything into a day and there isn’t enough time but you just put the phone down when you get home and play with your kids. You have to be in the moment. I’ll drop everything for my family, of course, but if some emergency is going on at the office I try to just focus on that. If you have to stay late and do a deadline you have to stay late and do a deadline.
ERJ: Where do you see yourself in one year, five years and ten years?
LW: Ten years, I’m retired and Katie is taking over for me. Or Sydney either one. I think this is news to Brian. One year, one year’s tough because it goes really fast. We just started this, so one year is still here. Five years my husband wants to have a winery so I’d like to build a cabin and do something with wine with him while still living and working in the city and then ten years is retired. I would love to retire in ten years.
BM: Same thing for me, one year is here. It’s going to take us a while to sort of grow into what we’ve just moved into and what we’re building now. I think five years it’s…here. Ten years…I think the past few years we’ve started to hire staff and start to really trust other people with our work, its continuing to sort of shape our younger employees and how can we help them grow. We want the people under us to grow as part of a community in the same way we have. And then…
LW: Yeah, I think that’s really important because they have the same goals and vision and I think that’s why we all get along so well and they’re going to be the people creating everything very soon and we hope it’s with us, but we know they’re going to be an integral part of that future restaurant, neighborhood, bar world.
BM: and I think ten years, for me the goal isn’t to grow what we do outside of DC, it’s to grow what we do in DC. We feel so connected to the city and I want to figure out how we get involved with the city on a broader level and start to figure out how to shape neighborhoods and public spaces—these plazas, these civic environments. How do we improve the way everybody experiences their day just a little bit across the city, we really want to have a citywide impact. We learned a lot of lessons creating things on the private side. And I think the long-term goal isn’t to do more restaurants outside of DC, instead it’s to figure out how to do more things inside of DC. And also something we’ve been working on that’s part of our plan now that we’re in our new office is that there’s a big community of people doing great things in DC—the chefs, the bartenders we work with, the fiber artists, the painters, the musicians, we want to figure out how to bring those people together across different boundaries, and just bring all kinds of people together and let them accelerate each other’s learning process. We love being a part of this city so much.
LW: Yeah, it’s truly great. This restaurant world. It’s different than New York, it’s so communal. People root for each other. They want everyone else to succeed. I love it, I love it so much.