Lawson Design: George Lawson
Eclectic: (adjective) choosing what appears to be the best from diverse sources, systems, or styles. George Lawson’s work is eclectic. Founder and chairman of Lawson Design Corporation, he chooses what works best for his clients in the design of interiors and exteriors—and has fun doing it. Have you enjoyed the elegance of Carroll’s Creek Café recently?—a project conceived and implement by Lawson Design. Ram’s Head, Griffin’s, Fran O’Brien’s, McGarvey’s Oyster Bar—they’re all projects of Lawson Design Corporation. From Connecticut to Florida, Maryland to Texas, George Lawson has worked his magic: transforming restaurants, lounges, markets, offices and lobbies into welcoming, comfortable settings.
For over 37 years, two generations of Lawsons have been shepherding commercial projects from inception to completion. Lawson’s work reflects his sense of playfulness and adventure. “Every day, every year is different. Soon as I think I might get bored, something new comes along.” George Lawson has a yachtsman’s eye for solutions that are both elegant and practical. Does the dining space have a structural eyesore in the middle of the room? Lawson designs an exotic fish tank that disguises the flaw. Neighboring shops and residents resisting the idea of a fast food restaurant in their upscale community? George wins their approval and patronage with brass and warm wood tones. A restaurateur wishes to grow his own hydroponic tomatoes in his dining room; no problem, Lawson studies hydroponics. Lush tomatoes are soon hanging from the vines inside glistening glass cases and copper tubs.
George Lawson learned early to appreciate practical elegance in design. He grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, admiring naval ships and private yachts. After taking his degree in architecture at Virginia Polytechnic, Lawson studied interior design at Boston’s prestigious Modern School of Design. He began his career as an architect in Richmond, Virginia, then moved to Washington, DC, where he established Lawson Design Corporation. Each of these moves brought him closer to his yachtsman’s roots, but not quite close enough.
While Lawson lived and practiced in the District, he spent more and more of his free time among the boats and yachtsmen of Annapolis. He admires the economical use of space. Boaters and yachtsmen know how the exterior form dictates interior space. That knowledge, that problem intrigues Lawson. “I try to incorporate interior design with the architecture of the space.” In the early ‘80s George Lawson followed his interests and his heart. He left the big city for a far less traditional office space in Annapolis. Lawson Design moved onto a houseboat docked on Spa Creek.
Built in 1947 by renowned Trumpy Yachts for local writer Carlton Mitchell, the slightly past-her-prime floating office fit George Lawson’s sense of practical design. Parallel Bar, so named for the architect’s and yachtsman’s tool, demanded simplicity and flexibility of her inhabitants. He tackled the design problems of storage, plumbing, electrical, and work spaces with ingenuity and humor—those same qualities remain hallmarks of Lawson’s work. Before long Parallel Bar had an interior appropriate to an architectural design firm, her flaws disguised and her assets enhanced.
Eventually, Lawson Design Corporation outgrew the floating office, but by then George was an Annapolitan through-and-through. Lawson has put his capital as well as his skill on the line, investing with friends and partners in some of the restaurants he designs. For Mike Swift and Jim Deckman, he transformed historic properties such as Griffin’s Downtown, McGarvey’s and Riordan’s. Along with partner Bob Platt, Lawson transformed a funky marina grill into Galesville’s popular Pirate’s Cove Restaurant and Bar.
If you’re thinking you’ve got a good idea of what Lawson’s interiors look like, you’re probably mistaken. Lawson Design’s work is tough to pigeonhole. He knows how to make the space and materials compliment one another: the stone arches in Griffin’s, those mahogany banquettes of Carroll’s Creek Café, and the brass rails and raffia trim at Pirate’s Cove. Guests admire the beautiful surroundings as well as the cuisine.
Have you admired those bigger-than-life murals of jazz musicians and chanteuses decorating the walls of Ram’s Head’s performance space? Have you felt like a star out of a 1940s movie when you slid into an elegantly draped table at Ortanique, the jazz nightclub in Washington? Have you coveted the stained glass at Jasper’s or the antique tools at Rockhall’s Waterman’s Inn? All Lawson Designs, all unique, distinctive, fresh, and just a little bit funky.
Lawson’s eye for detail and eclectic tastes led to a new venture several years ago. Lawson Design Corporation launched Lawson’s-on-the-Hudson, their first retail venture. Years of buying exotic items for various projects left the Corporation with a plethora of props. Why not find a new home for that stuffed moose’s head? There may be a buyer out there for the pair of life-size, carved tribal figures or those 1940s radio-cases.
And there were buyers! In fact, so many buyers that George and his staff could hardly keep up with the demand. They found themselves spending more and more time scouring the markets and warehouses of their suppliers to bring in items for retail sales. Eventually, Lawson said, “Enough.” The firm needed to turn back to its mission, commercial design, and leave the retail market to others.
George Lawson doesn’t work his magic single-handedly. Lawson Design Corporation has a staff of four, including George’s daughter, Kendyl. She joined the firm in 1993. Her degree in industrial design adds an edgy modernity to Lawson Design’s “bag of tricks.” For Four Points Sheraton Hotel in Aberdeen, Maryland, Kendyl Lawson devised a spaceship to disguise the sophisticated sound system that dominates the dance floor. Industrial materials, steel girders and flood lights fit the techno-sound. In 2000, Kendyl was elected corporate president.
When asked where Lawson Design Corporation is going in the next five to ten years, George Lawson responds without hesitation, “I have no idea.” And that is exactly what he loves about his profession. Every project demands a fresh start, with different problems to solve and requirements to meet. George Lawson’s eclectic approach to commercial design seems an ideal fit.