From the corner pubs of Ireland that play living room to an entire village to the fast-food joints jammed with high school students after Friday night football games, restaurants have long served as comfortable spots where locals get together over food and drink. Some may feel as cozy as your own home, but have you ever felt so enamored with the stylish-but-welcoming atmosphere of a restaurant that you kind of wanted to live there? Or at least wished your home looked the same?
That’s what ran through my mind the first time I stepped into Monument, a restaurant and bar that opened in Charlestown in January. With soaring ceilings, exposed bricks and rafters, weathered wood, and thoughtful design flourishes, Monument feels both chic and comfortable, like the converted loft apartment of your most stylish friend.
That sense of “elevated comfort’’ is what lead designer Erica Diskin of Assembly Design Studio in Boston has sought to achieve in projects that include Lincoln, a tavern and restaurant built in a former South Boston department store, and Ledger, a restaurant and bar located in a former bank in Salem. “How do you make something special but still comfortable enough that you want to be there all the time?’’ Diskin asked. And a home is no different, she said. We’ve all been in houses where prized possessions or expensive furnishings make a glamorous impression, but also make it difficult to relax.
Diskin and Eric Aulenback, one of the owners of Monument, wanted to create a familiar, authentic space that honored the 1880 building and fit in with historic Charlestown. “People buy homes here for the character and the richness of the history,’’ Aulenback said, and elements of the restaurant feel like “an extension of what some of our customers have in their homes.’’
Of course, that didn’t happen by accident. So for those seeking a rustic look at home, there are lessons to be drawn from Monument’s makeover — especially if you have a big, loft-like space to work with.
The first is to exercise care with the rejuvenative power of demolition. What is now Monument’s bar area used to be a drab laundromat adjacent to the main restaurant, Aulenback said. But as they gutted the space to open it up, they were careful to look for and retain certain features, like the now-exposed rafters of the wood-deck ceiling. “Single-story buildings from a hundred years ago or more have those most of the time,’’ Aulenback said. “We were crossing our fingers it would be there, and there it is. You can see the wood is really rich, with a nice patina.’’ Another bonus from up high: two openings in the roof, long ago covered up, where the team was able to install new skylights to bathe the bar in natural light.
That warm wood, plus the exposed brick of the far wall, gave the pair a foundation to work from. “We look at what bones we have and build on the strengths of the space,’’ Diskin said. “We were lucky to have the brick and the wood … a wonderful combination.’’
Diskin doubled down on wood, seeking a rustic American tavern look. “I was able to find a barn they were taking down in Newton from the 1700s, and we bought up a lot of those boards,’’ she said. Many of them ended up lining the walls. “We brought them over here and actually cleaned all the boards one Friday evening and lined them up all along the walls to figure out where we were going to put everything.’’
Other lumber, such as the mixed-width hardwood floors, tabletops, and a reclaimed white-oak bar came from Longleaf Lumber in Cambridge. Diskin sheathed the ugly support poles in hemlock to make them look more like rustic beams and clad the black-metal windows in wood frames to soften their appearance. And the booth benches were built from pumpkin pine, whose orange-hued glow graces many historic homes. “It creates a really warm, cozy color,’’ Diskin said.
All that wood also helps dampen the din that can accompany high ceilings — not that you’d dream of lowering them. “If you have the height, keep the height,’’ Aulenback insisted. “Never shorten a ceiling unless you absolutely have to.’’
If a room feels overwhelmingly cavernous, Aulenback said, pendant lighting can make it more intimate. “With really high ceilings, bring the lighting down. That sets a second level closer above you,’’ he said. Diskin outfitted Monument with 18 hanging lights from a 1910 schoolhouse, bought from Olde Good Things, an architectural salvage shop in New York.
In an open space with high ceilings, you can’t have too much lighting, said Karen Edson, a sales consultant at Waterworks in Boston and founder of J&K Light Home Staging in Maynard. For many years, Edson lived in a 1,485-square-foot Marlborough loft in which she put many of these principles to the test. “I found that the vast open space really ate up the light, so you have to have way more lighting than you think you need,’’ Edson said. She installed custom-made drum-style pendant lamps to hang about 8 feet off the floor “to bring down the ceiling height and to take up some visual space in what is a very large volume of area.’’
Another challenge is how to define such a wide-open space. Once demolition at Monument was completed, leaving a big, blank canvas, Aulenback said, they began to fill in the floor plan thoughtfully. “We tried to visualize what you’d see from every seat,’’ he said, making sure every vantage point offered an interesting view. “That even works at home. If I put the breakfast nook here, what am I looking at every morning — a blank wall or the beautiful pantry or the fireplace?’’
Edson said it can be difficult to get the scale right in a loft-style space if you’re not accustomed to it and don’t have a knack for design. “You really have to pull the furniture away from the walls and float it in the room to fill the space correctly,’’ she added.
To create some coziness and define the living spaces in her wide-open loft, Edson used five large area rugs. She also ensured there were enough decorative pieces throughout that it didn’t feel empty. “I mixed secondhand treasures with dumpster finds and [Boston] Design Center beauties for a very personalized look,’’ she said. “I enjoy the hunt for pieces that can be remade or refreshed. … It’s a bit of a passion of mine, bordering on an obsession.’’
Diskin also believes in the power of personalizing through possessions. “You don’t need to ‘knickknack’ everything, but personal objects make a place homier,’’ she said. Shelves above the bar at Monument are filled with Americana-themed antiques that Diskin picked up in Essex. “Whatever your theme is, gathering objects you like and figuring out a way to display them makes it more personalized.’’
When it comes to sourcing interesting items and materials, Diskin shops everywhere from boutique vendors and suppliers to Craigslist and flea markets. “If you find something you like, strike up a conversation with the seller, and they may have more that’s not necessarily listed,’’ she recommended.
Finally, remember that inspiration can come from just about anywhere. The eye-catching host stand at Monument — custom built by Nick English at Charlestown’s Hone Design Collaborative out of salvaged hardwood flooring from South End brownstones — was actually inspired by a piece Diskin saw while traveling. “It was at a bed and breakfast somewhere, and I thought it was such an interesting build,’’ she said.
So if you see a good idea, bring it home with you. It doesn’t matter whether you found it in a glossy magazine, a charming bed and breakfast — or your favorite neighborhood restaurant.