How Robert McKinley Designs a Kitchen

"We can talk and cook, and it just becomes a really nice little nucleus."

Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. In collaboration with Domino magazine, we’re focusing on the intersection of design and home cooking, and speaking to leaders who inspire us. Robert McKinley is an interior designer and founder of Studio Robert McKinley, an award-winning design firm specializing in hospitality venues like The Surf Lodge, Sant Ambroeus, and Hotel Joaquin. At one of the bungalows he designed in Montauk, Robert cooked local striped bass with his wife, Kate, and chatted about his approach to designing hospitality spaces.

When I was in college, I got a part-time job in the mall at Tommy Hilfiger as a cashier and salesperson. I was 20 or 21 years old. I was enrolled in a marketing course and had to do a special project, so I asked the guy that would come from Manhattan to do the window displays if I could assist him for school credit. He agreed, so I did, and he was like, "Oh, you have a knack for this." And before I knew it, I was doing window displays.

One night, at a concert, I met the manager of the Emporio Armani store in Manhattan, and I called her probably twice a week, every week, for three months. She finally allowed me to come in and do an overnight display project, and they ended up offering me a job. I was there for six years, and we did all kinds of big event designs, which is really where I cut my teeth in designing spaces. Then I had some friends that were party promoters and they were opening a nightclub, and I begged them to let me design it. Meanwhile, I think I was the only one willing to do it for the amount of money that they had. And just like that, I was in business.

And just like that, I was in business.

Photo by Kate Nauta

It was a success, and everyone really liked what I did, even though I really had no idea what I was doing. I hadn't been formally trained. I was drawing plans on a piece of loose-leaf paper with a ruler and learning what scale meant. I just went on to design the next one and the next one and the next one, and I picked my head up at one point and said, “Oh, wow, I'm an interior designer.” And that's sort of how it happened.Photo by Nicole Franzen

When it comes to designing, the number-one question I ask myself is, What is the emotional response we are trying to achieve?

When it comes to designing, the number-one question I ask myself is, What is the emotional response we are trying to achieve? Where do we want to take the customer? What do we want them to feel like when they're here? Do we want them to feel relaxed and chilled out, or excited and adventurous? Do we want them to feel sultry and sexy, or is it a really sweet, sort of cozy place? These are all things that really have to be the seed, in my opinion, of everything else.

Then I start to think about references that kind of allow us to get there. Sometimes it's a place. Sometimes it's a town. Sometimes it's a texture. We're designing a home right now and really starting with the texture and feeling of an old, weathered sunny evening. Like, late-afternoon sun-based concrete by the seaside with a light breeze. I remember being a kid sitting on the edge of a curb and feeling that warm sidewalk that was all beaten up, with moss and rocks coming through. And then you start to build what that feels like and looks like. So that's how we approach it.
Photos by Nicole Franzen

The new bungalow, Etna, is a departure from the past two that we've done. It’s a single-story, flat-roof concrete structure and almost Mediterranean in its architecture, which is not common out East. We're leaning into that a bit more with these espresso-colored poured-concrete floors, lyme-washed white walls, and natural woods with some rattan and very clean lines. With the kitchen, we have these open shelves where we display dishes and plates and all of these pieces that we really love. We love the texture of them. And then on the island we have this really beautiful integrated stove by PITT Cooking that's directly in the stone of the island.

One of the reasons we put it on the island is because, first of all, anytime you're entertaining people end up in the kitchen. If you have the stove against the wall, you're sitting there with your back to everybody. So we did it the other way so that you’re in the middle of the party and it's really fun and interactive. We have some stools on the island so guests can sit right in front of us and we can talk and cook, and it just becomes a really nice little nucleus.Photo by Kate Nauta

I've always been in and around food and design and music. I feel that design and food and music are all central, and they have to coexist; otherwise, a space doesn’t really feel alive.
Photo by Kate Nauta

I made roasted striped bass with cherry tomatoes, capers, Spanish onions, some white wine, olive oil, and garlic. Striped bass are in season here in Montauk, and they couldn't be any more fresh. First, we cut the fish into fillets. You could do it whole, but usually striped bass is thick and has a really nice consistency. Then we sliced Spanish onions as thin as possible, but you could do shallots as well. Then we used a fine microplane to get the garlic almost like a paste. We put that in the pot first with some really good olive oil and some salt and put it on low just until the garlic starts to get fragrant. Then we added our onions and started to sweat them down a little bit, to the point where they get slightly golden and translucent.

Then we simply put in the fish, some beautiful cherry tomatoes, a generous amount of capers, and some white wine. Some fresh oregano is also nice if you have it on hand. Then just let it cook on medium for about 30 minutes. You want it to be very dense with the fish and all of the liquid so that you have a nice almost-broth that starts to happen in the pot. When the fish is cooked through, you plate the fish, and then grab a spoon and take all of the tomatoes and onions and capers and spoon that on top of the fish and eat. Delicious.Photo by Nicole Franzen

Read the rest of the stories from our design series hereherehere, and here.