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  • Writer's pictureJillian Stern

The Wow Factor -- Design Focal Points and Trends to Follow

When you first walk into a room, if it is a successful design, there must be something that catches your eyes. Do you ever find yourself thinking, “Wow! This place has a great feel to it!”? And subsequently, you recommend it to almost everyone you know?

In said location, your gaze is set upon some element. Whether it be a miraculous stone fireplace, an angled ceiling piece or splash of living greenery. These aspects that ensure free marketing from “Instagram-able spaces”, have customers (and their friends) coming back for more, are called design focal points.

This week I was able to sit down with three of elite|studio e’s Project Designers to discuss this key design principle. Keep reading to see why focal points are something your business should be focusing on!

The Project Design Specialists (pictured from left to right) are:

Jim Collins, LEED GA Project Designer with a focus on foodservice design

Natalie Steimle Associate Project Designer with a focus on interior design and foodservice

Lisa Wojcik Project Designer with a focus on interior design

What is the importance of design focal points?


Well, it sells a space! Eye-catching captivation is what people will want to see. It makes them want to spend their time in there and keep going back!


You don’t want to bore someone when they enter a space. Design focal points make places unique and makes them stand out. They draw your eyes into a space, demand attention, and make it known why someone would want to go to your space over anywhere else. More specifically, they create what I would call, a “Wow Factor”. For example, an interesting counter front, a hearth no one else has, or a green wall. Basically, anything that pushes the norm of how people try to design things. It's what makes any place more distinguishable.


Design focal points are necessary when designing a new space because they make each individual project stand out. Each project needs a cohesive theme. A design focal point helps tie in the overall look you are trying to achieve. It adds to the feel that you are trying to convey. Things like a feature wall, or a counter front, are what can truly bring a project to life.

Design focal points foster uniqueness, personality, and distinctiveness, wherever it is implemented.

What are some of the favorite focal points you've designed?


A grand hearth oven is one of the projects that sticks out to me. With tiled walls surrounding it, it highlights this already eye-catching focal point even more! One of my personal favorites was a hearth oven we designed for a financial company in New York City. We essentially placed a giant tiled cylinder-shaped oven in the corner of the space and direct vented it to the outside. A very simple but impactful focal point. Salad islands are also a personal favorite of mine. They are best paired with a soffit, which is a fixture that hangs from the structural ceiling that, functionally, protects the structural ceiling from the elements of the station (such as moisture, heat, etc.), but it is also a simple way to aesthetically add character to the station.


My favorite focal point was the floor of a whiskey company we did in Louisville, Kentucky, using a "concrete burn" (it’s basically a giant stencil). It was a map of the city where the building was located, taking up the entire of the floor. We made an ordinary place to walk, both extraordinary, and memorable. I would even go as far as saying the project itself was a design focal point. When designing focal points, it is important to take into consideration who the client is, and what they wish to portray in their space. With that being said, I designed the salad bar to be a translucent stone, from which the aerial view, takes the shape of a bottle! It is all about the attention to detail, and uniqueness to the space, and this one, was creatively stimulating and one of my favorite projects.


One of my most memorable design focal points would be the Swiss Re transitional space in Armonk, NY. It is a multifunctional area that can be utilized as both a coffee bar, and a bar, for happy hour and other after work activities. A place, being used for most hours of the day, should be as special as the memories made in it. I thought, what could be better, than to further enhance an already magnificent space. I implemented a back lit mirror in the bar, to catch the artwork on the opposite wall. This way the large elaborate mural, that characterizes the whole floor, truly came to life. It created an immersive ambience, and in turn, became the focal point for the project.

What is a muse/inspiration for you when designing focal points?


Primarily, looking at previous projects helps most to inspire new work. As that may seem counterproductive, it helps to see what worked, what has not, as well as how types of design can be improved for a new project. Going to see the spaces I designed in person catapults my ability to create the next best thing for a new and different work. When you see the complete design in person, you are granted a more elaborate perspective on the functionality of the piece, how occupants interact with it, and how it fits within a space.


When I'm trying to find inspiration for a focal point, I start by gaining an understanding what space is given to us. Understanding if there will be any restrictions and if it will be client design driven, helps me decide where to design focal points within a space. For example, if the task is a salad bar, I would aim to incorporate nature inspired elements like organic shapes, natural light and colors, and even live greenery while also trying to tie in elements from the surrounding space. This way, it will blend into the environment, while simultaneously standing out. Or say we have a client that has a highly active grill station. We can try and make it trendy to have a “food truck” exterior or tie in elements like iron, stone, or other harsh materials that have texture, like wood. Or even at a Deli Counter, we can go as far as creating a display to show any artisanal bread for a sandwich, while still making it look presentable.

Inspiration stems from my passion for creating an experience for the client while also making the space seem intriguing and functional to visit. Sometimes I have too many ideas, so creating small mood boards help a lot as well!


The company itself drives the inspiration for a design focal point. Their background, accompanied with the site itself, are two important factors and defining elements for my inspiration. Blending the feel of the company, marrying the old with the new, and amplifying any characteristics worthy of carrying into the renovated new work, are all aspects that aide my process. What the client is looking for is helpful as well.

In your opinion, what is the trendiest design focal point?


The hearth oven is a trendy item for projects with pizza offerings, and other foods that need an oven. It has the potential to elevate an ordinary space, especially when adding a crazy façade of tile around it. There are a few different façade options & finishes that can be considered that really create the biggest focal point possible.


Green, green, green. Greenery in spaces! People have been striving to achieve the perfect, “Instagram-able space”. Ivy walls, lite up signs, anything that is trendy or “hype” enough to make it on social media. Following what the internet says is 'cool' and creating a 'post-able' experience, can bring in a massive number of customers, that want to have that same experience. In turn, they will likely post about it, thus granting more free marketing, drawing more people to the business. Under counter lighting and slat counter fronts are also very trendy now. They add texture to your average salad bar or café.


White countertops. Everyone is looking for a clean, modern countertop. Especially in the midst of a global pandemic, a common theme I have noticed is the intention to have a ‘clean’ look. I actually can’t remember last time I used a dark one!

How do you decide on a focal point for each individual space?


The space determines the design focal point. It depends on the layout given: how walls and lighting interact with each other. It is also necessary to consider the food offerings and stations the client requires. For example, a hearth oven. What offerings the client wants determines what focal points we have to work with. It is very project specific.


Sort of the same process as mentioned above with what decides my inspiration. It depends on if the client gives us direction, as well as understanding restrictions of the space (if any). Some projects present the opportunity to have free range. When we do get these opportunities, mood boards are our best friend! They help us nail down a “theme” for the client. But for some projects where we do not have this opportunity, I like to either find a feeling they are trying to evoke, or see if they even want to represent the company colors, in some way. For example, if it is a school, I would incorporate school colors, and design a focal point around that.


Deciding on a focal point depends on what the client is looking for, the space, the materials being used, and the budget. A lot goes into each design, including the atmosphere of the project. Each project is unique, and I try to embody the culture of the client, and what it is they are requesting. For example, Swiss Re, as I mentioned earlier, was looking for something high end. Their space was modern, so it made sense to think about incorporating the other artwork in that space. To boot, the company is incredibly proud of its art collection, thus reflecting a mural on an adjacent wall.

Jim, as a certified LEED GA Project Designer, why should companies consider sustainable design focal points?

In the best interest of the clients and the planet, we have to focus on equipment that stores and conserves energy, especially in the foodservice world. Unfortunately, this isn’t done enough, and I would like to see it more often. Clients that are interested in energy conservation, sometimes don't realize how beneficial this is in terms of both alleviating energy costs and helping the environment.

Sustainability is the future. I want to address the necessity to emphasize the importance of this to a client. It is important to consider it when designing a new space because you are contributing to greater good. That is where the industry as a while is heading, as you can have a direct impact on the contributing to global warming, decreasing carbon footprint, increasing cost efficiency, and saving on the back end, because the client would be using less energy.

Sustainable design focal points also promote health and wellness. They take into consideration sustainability, energy conservation, when tackling food preparation. Take the impossible burger for example. It is sustainably prepared, and the process itself is fascinating to the point that consumers become more interested in getting involved in sustainability.

What do you consider to be the most sustainable type of design focal points?

Some examples of sustainable design focus points include living walls and hydroponic gardens. These should be incorporated wherever possible. When you incorporate living things into spaces, it can even inspire those in the space to be sustainable, and to learn more about the subject.

While the ultimate goal of hydroponic gardens is to reduce the use of soil, there is also opportunity to hydrate these plans with sustainability in mind. More specifically, decrease the use of potable water by watering these gardens with collected rainwater. This provides the opportunity to educate all occupants and guests, potentially incentivizing them to also find ways in their lives to reduce water use and to think in a more sustainable way. It is fascinating, inspiring, and contributing to energy conservation overall. Plus, these planters, and added vegetation, gives any space a brighter, greener look!

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