Part Three with Eddie Sotto: Sotto Studios’ latest project: Rivera

Eddie Sotto is a thinker, a visionary and a Disney Imagineer. One of the world’s most respected creative consultants and theme park attraction designers, Eddie is CEO of Sotto Studios in Los Angeles. Join us now for part three of our latest interview with Eddie Sotto.

“Passion is the secret weapon of design. It separates art from technique. It drives the details, takes us beyond ourselves, and is the fire that refines great ideas to their essence. The power within something executed from obsession is practically divine as the guest never sees the effort, only the final perfected result. Passion detonates when the details come together seamlessly and the years of sweat become condensed into a stunning instant when the guest emotionally experiences the work. The fallout is addictive.  If we succeed, they’ll tell their friends it’s magic’.” – Eddie Sotto

NN: Your latest project, Rivera just got a 4 star rating from the Los Angeles Times. Will you describe the unique challenges you encountered during the design of your new restaurant project, Rivera?

Eddie Sotto: Rivera is on the ground floor of a 300 unit apartment complex. It is inside a Bauhaus style building that has a very beautiful interior and exterior space. But main design challenge was that the space is about 200 linear feet long by only 40 feet deep. It is a very unusual rectangular space divided by concrete walls. So to create a single restaurant in that space was incredibly challenging because the space was never meant to be that.

Sotto studios’ upscale Rivera restaurant in Los Angeles.

The other challenge was the audience. Because the restaurant is across the street from (NBA basketball arena) Staples Center where the L.A. Lakers play, theater venues like L.A. Live and the Nokia Theater; there was the challenge of designing something that would be modern yet casual. We needed an upscale feeling, something that was sophisticated yet still casual enough that people would want to come in either before or after a Lakers game.

NN: How did you solve those design challenges?

Eddie Sotto: We conquered that challenge with Rivera by subdividing the space into three smaller spaces connected to each other. It was almost like designing three restaurants. We wanted to create different experiences within one greater experience. In so doing, we designed three areas: Playa, Samba, and Sangre. The challenge was to create these “zones” if you will, without even knowing the menu.

You first enter the highest energy space called Samba. Samba is a bar experience where mixologists make “drinks you’ve never had before.” You don’t just go order a martini in this bar. We use all of our own formulas. It’s almost like a laboratory on a beautiful Rosewood palette.

Samba at Rivera

The second area, Playa, is a non-reservation oriented area. If you can imagine the layout of a sushi bar but infused with Latin flavor, this is Playa. You sit down in a sushi bar arrangement with very elegant surfaces. It is our “Latin beach” story. We created a pier or a beachfront community table with wooden posts that suspend a piece of red marble. It’s all very modern.

Playa at Rivera

Our light fixture represents in Playa the Brazilian sun, and it has golden shells over this wooden dock. Playa has lighter, quick service meals. There are all kinds of different things happening at Playa. We make tortillas there with inlaid flower petals and we bake food there. This is not a Mexican restaurant or a shooter bar. This is gourmet, done on smaller plates and in a very rectangular theme!

The last area called Sangre is off in the corner. It’s the kind of thing you have to discover. It’s a private dining room with a tequila club in it. It’s very exciting! The look and feel Sangre is for the chef who loves sleek, modern, very cold environments.

Sangre at Rivera

This was the design challenge: How make the concept sleek and modern and then make it warm enough and social without intimidating your guests? How do you make the environment a place you can feel emotionally exited about? There’s a way to do it. I think we were able to do it. We used color by using a Brazilian bamboo floor. I found this striped green floor material that we were able to use. We have unique objects in the space which make it very unique and memorable.

During the design process owner John Rivera Sedlar said, “Why don’t we do ‘flights of tequila’ and put them in this very special environment? So I said, “Why don’t we do a first class airplane chair as an inspiration, and design tray tables where the ‘flights of tequila’ can land on!” The result was our custom designed bronze “Rivera chairs”.

Sotto’s rough thumbnail sketch of his first class tequila chair.

A refined thumbnail sketch with a splash of color helps to define three dimensional space.

Sotto’s moresketch of the tequila chair on tracing paper.

A detailed color rendering of the Sotto’s innovative first class Tequila chair.

Sotto complimented his chair design with a Brazilian bamboo floor

Also within Sangre, we have a tequila membership club. Our tequila within is exclusive from John Rivera Sedlar’s private reserve. You can’t buy it in stores. We inscribe each member’s name on the bottle. The bottle has our signature hieroglyphics on the back each member gets a golden key. The key unlocks the bottle and the server actually removes it from the wall!

Tequila bricks within the walls of Rivera in Sangre.

“The specialness is that all of the design elements are derived from the most precious element, the tequila.” – Eddie Sotto

Sotto’s Latin inspiration is present in the video images cycling behind dinner guests at Rivera.

We also put together a video display. I had the opportunity to shoot 500 images of agave plants and then created “hallucinations” on video monitors that run while you consume tequila from these chairs. It’s a surreal view of Latin history. and culture. We wanted to blend a cultural message with the environment.

NN: Sounds exciting! What was your overriding theme for the restaurant, and how did you arrive there?

The overriding theme for the restaurant from an architectural point of view was to embrace the roots Latin culture. But our challenge was to make it Latin without drawing on stereotypes like your typical sombreros, Latin colors and things one typically sees in Latin restaurants.

To address this we drew on inspiration from the owner. John the chef is very much into the Anasazi and the Aztecs, the Mayans and the Incas. I took this concept and infused it with what is “LA” about Latin culture. Frank Lloyd Wright had a lot of houses in Los Angeles and used fantastic blocks that had pretty images to them. And some of them had a Mayan feel. This also influenced me. One of the inspirations was the concrete blocks of a Lloyd Wright Neo-Mayan Sowden house here in Los Feliz.

To execute this inspiration we created everything from the architecture with elaborate modular grillwork. The same grillwork put together also became the chair. Even our product, a beautiful bottle of tequila, became one of the building blocks. The idea is that we have brick shaped glass bottles with brick shaped caps that were all carved with our inscription. Our Aztec influence reached as far as our logo!

Lloyd Wright Neo-Mayan Sowden house here in Los Feliz.

Latin inspired grillwork at Rivera

NN: I can tell that this project is very close to your heart. Why is Rivera, the Restaurant project so special to you?

I think what makes this project special to me is that we have created an environment where everything comes from a pyramidal, almost pre-Columbian inspiration. The brand, the experience and the logo are all part of this environment. We pull the brick out of the wall and you can drink the contents in a custom designed chair. The product is what you drink. In a way, you consume the architecture. So the design and the story and the experience is completely seamless because it even envelops what you consume.

Too, I have never had the chance to design a chair that matches the grillwork and design the brand from beginning to end. Rivera is very personal and special because I tried to channel not what I would do, but what the chef would feel. My name is not on the door. Rivera is the middle name of the chef. I tried to channel his feelings.

It’s a very big departure for me. People don’t think of me as someone who would design an environment like this. The encounter was very themed to the Jetsons. This was definitely channeling the chef. I think this latest project is true experiential design for Sotto Studios.

This project has a lot of other special elements, too. I was able to bring Imagineers in as investors. Even Scenario Design who builds theme park attractions for Disney became an investor to build many of the most beautiful design elements.

I worked with former Disney Imagineer Deborah Gregory, who was instrumental as a restaurant architect and a lighting designer. All kinds of people came together. But I was able to steer the project and do a lot of sketches and drawings and designs. I was able to my first real chair as a designer, other than a few at Disneyland Paris. That’s exciting to me!

NN: What other exciting projects has Sotto Studios been involved with?

Eddie Sotto: We did a Hollywood Museum exhibit project for Turner Classic Movies. It was a treat holding the real “Maltese Falcon” and playing Sam’s Piano used in Casablanca!

Wynn Penske Ferrari showroom by Sotto Studios

We also worked on the Wynn / Penske Ferrari Showroom at the Wynn Resort in Las Vegas; I think it’s the only car dealership that charges $10 admission. The Club Aston Vault

We developed another project for car lovers; the super secret Club Aston at Galpin Motors in Los Angeles. We helped design it as an exclusive “Bondelicious” themed private club with an Aston Martin DB-9 in the living room.


The large round overhead piece draws styling queues from James Bond’s opening “camera lens”. Powerful circular elements are thematic throughout the Club Aston showroom.

NN: You frequently have interactions with highly successful, extremely strong willed executives like Mr. Wynn and Michael Eisner. How do you sell clients like this on a project?

Eddie Sotto: You paint the emotional need for the client and then show them how your project fills that need. If the project needs inspiration, then you look for what the audience dreams of getting to do in that locale. This is apirational design. In New Orleans it may be sailing with Pirates of the Caribbean. It is important to create the unexpected, the “wow” for these projects in order to sell the client.

Beyond that, it is the project’s ability to make money, either in capacity, media value, or merchandise that sells them. We try to look at the idea or the project’s positioning and then apply it across many platforms to give the client the maximum value. It is important as well to give a great presentation that paints the emotional picture as to how the project will feel. After all, you have to imagine and feel that “wow” to get that first paycheck!

I will admit that we seek projects that I’d personally kill to see or experience. It is more rewarding in the end that way because I have even more invested in the outcome.

NN: Thank you very much. I look forward to the next part of our interview as we talk more about “Fear minus Death Equals Fun”!

Join us for Part 4 as Eddie discusses theme park attraction design and his design philosophy: Fear minus death = fun!

Part Three with Eddie Sotto: Latest project: Rivera

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