Gin Braverman knows what cool looks like. She’ll even give out the formula: lots of low, warm accent lighting, a mix of natural elements and modern touches, and a focal point that’s attention-grabbing but never over-the-top. It all sounds so simple. But if that’s the case, why aren’t we all highly sought-after designers?
“I always hope that every space feels super-unique and not like the last,” says Braverman, whose roster of clients includes many of Houston’s hottest new bars and restaurants. “I don’t want anyone to walk in a space and say, ‘Gin did this,’” she adds between sips of white wine at Public Services, a bar in the old Cotton Exchange building downtown, one of eight (!) local hospitality projects her company, gindesigns, has completed in the past year. Others include the relaxed yet upscale design of Beckrew Wine House in Upper Kirby; the sleek rebranding of Ruggles Green in The Woodlands; a clean, classic makeover for First Ward burger staple Stanton’s City Bites; and The Commoner and The Boulevardier, downtown’s buzzy two bars in one.
Despite an apparent innate sense of Houston-ness, Braverman never expected to call the city home. Raised in a small New York town in the Catskills before moving with her parents and eight sisters to Houston as a teen, she likes to say that she’s been designing since she was seven years old—that is, rearranging the furniture in her bedroom. After high school at Incarnate Word Academy she took off to New York City, where she designed and decorated film sets, before a stint at a commercial design firm in Taiwan and, finally, a return to her adopted hometown.
For a while she split her time between local residential commissions, a New York gig as the lead designer on HGTV’s Home Rules, and stints designing eateries in New Orleans and Dallas, before landing her first H-town restaurant client, downtown’s Oxheart. There, Braverman not only collaborated with local furniture store New Living to build custom tables from reclaimed wood, she fabricated the dining room’s distinctive copper-pipe lighting herself, all the while maintaining the industrial vibe of the historic space.
“It’s about architectural integrity—I will say those two words until I’m blue in the face. It’s about being true to the space. Don’t eff up the building,” she says. “There are so few old buildings in Houston, and I’ve been so lucky to work on so many of them, you just want to do it right. Bring in cool things that juxtapose against it, but don’t ruin it.”
Braverman followed her Oxheart success with an urban feel for Montrose wine bar Camerata, complete with exposed-brick walls and an unexpected mix of seating, eschewing banquettes for a Tetris-like array of rectangular cushions.
“Based on the Montrose area and the people running it, you knew the type of people who were going to be there, and you knew they weren’t coming for the frills or to feel posh. They want to come there and be Montrose and drink amazing wine in a real place.”
It was at Camerata that Braverman’s aesthetic first became evident. The unexpected light fixtures there were a precursor to the gold and white geometric domes she employed to great effect at Beckrew, the cozy orbs in colorful knit casings at Ruggles Green, and the dazzling rope-like fixtures at Boulevardier. Camerata is also where Braverman earned a reputation for creating eye-catching designs with humble materials, using penny tile and letters of the alphabet to turn the wall behind the bar into a focal point. She got similar results at The Commoner, collaborating with local artist Amy Noonan on murals based on faux old-timey ads for tobacco and shaving cream.
Occasionally, Braverman is surprised by the reception her designs receive. She expected a neon-green vision of the Houston skyline to grab patrons’ attention at The Commoner, only to discover that they preferred the perforated light box wall on the staircase between Commoner and Boulevardier.
“We always want to have an interesting focal point. Less is more, but there has to be something,” she says. “We didn’t realize it was going to be the light box, though, until people started Instagramming it like crazy.”
Of course, aesthetics are only part of the equation when it comes to outfitting a bar or restaurant. “I’ll take a fabric and pour balsamic vinegar all over it and rub it in so I can say, ‘this is stain-proof, this can go in a wine bar.’”
And then there are the operating hours, neighborhood, clientele, food and drink, all of which can impact the design. Beckrew has a honeycomb theme throughout the space—on the base of the tables, on the wine racks, in the shape of the pendant lights—that pairs well with an artisanal honey menu the bar serves with cheese and almonds. And though eating and drinking her way through the menu while nailing down the perfect concept isn’t a requirement for the job, “we definitely do it.”
“You have to know your audience, and it just so happens that my audience and I get along,” Braverman says. “Each of these bars and restaurants becomes like a home base. I’m collecting home bases around town.”