In her atelier, three flights up in a converted warehouse in postindustrial Kensington, silent occupants mark the long march of Meg Rodgers. There is the music stand (an early woodworking project). There are the cats (Sarah and Rocky, once local strays). There is the exquisitely handcrafted divan (from a furniture-maker friend). And shelves of books, among them The World of Islamic Art, still tagged on pages that inspired the colors for her 1994 breakout restaurant interior of the Striped Bass.
Tacked to her office wall are her old black-and-white Maine license plates.
They trace the evolution of a "craftswoman," as Rodgers was once known, long situated now at the top end of the city's restaurant-design world, her 15-person shop - Marguerite Rodgers Interior Design - expanding and rebranding as it begins to offer collections and proprietary products while embarking on its fourth decade.
We caught up with her last week, and asked the woman who created the singular moods at Rouge, Fork, Susanna Foo, and, lately, Volver, how it all began.
You veered from fashion design studies at the Philadelphia College of Art in the early '70s. How'd you decide to get into woodworking, seeing as class photos show you as the only woman in the program?
I got an internship - pleaded for it - with Clark Fitz-Gerald, a metal-and-wood sculptor from my hometown in Castine, Maine, where my dad was admiral of the Maine Maritime Academy. Once I got my hands on a chain saw, and the hand tools and a chisel, I was hooked.
So was it a summer lark, carving away on a rocky bluff above the Penobscot River?
He [Fitz-Gerald] would say, "Find what inspires you to go up the hill and get the stove going." He said, "OK, no vacations, you work every day, write a journal every day." To this day I keep a journal.
Did you think of settling back there?
After graduation, I wanted to build a post-and-beam barn there, and I did it. Cut down the trees ourselves on my parents' property. But I didn't spend the thousands of dollars for the woodworking machinery [to turn it into a functioning workshop], finally. I realized I'd become a city person.
When did you first get a taste of the hospitality business?
Since I was 15, I'd worked waitressing jobs. I said I had a doctorate in waitressing. Did you ever see Dirty Dancing? I worked in a place in New Hampshire - Wentworth Hall - exactly like that. We wore pink uniforms with white aprons, and every mealtime the maitre d' would line us up and run a finger along our calves to make sure we were wearing stockings.
Sounds a little creepy.
Not so much. He was always apologizing. One summer - and this was in the '70s - I made $10,000.
You set up your own restaurant one winter, didn't you?
There was no restaurant open in Castine after the season. So we got into one [that was closed]. One of my girlfriends was the bartender. One was the waitress. And one was in the kitchen. We made denim tablecloths. We'd get the townswomen's recipes for the best chili, for the best fish chowder, for the best apple pie. We served quiche and chicken salad with grapes and walnuts, grilled cheese. We got the New York Times delivered on Sunday. We got rid of the Fryolator!
How'd that go?
If we had a jazz combo, if we had a snowstorm, people would cross-country ski down to hear them. People would drive an hour and a half for brunch.
Philadelphians had seen the decline of Bookbinder's. So the all-seafood Striped Bass was a dramatic new destination on the city's menu. How'd you come up with that smoky look - the palms, tented entry, dining courtyard, soaring columns?
Neil Stein [the owner] never told me what it should look like. He told me how he wanted it to feel. He kept using words like sexy and hot. I noticed the ceiling stenciling - it was an old brokerage house - looked very Moorish. So I wanted to evoke that mood. The days of the 19th-century gentlemen painters like [the Orientalist artist] Edwin Lord Weeks. I started renting movies - Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca. . . . I'd get a Scotch and make myself a bowl of popcorn and do a movie marathon.
Did the restaurant commissions flood in after that?
Actually, it was more very high-end residential projects. Owners said they wanted someone to make their house feel like this. Especially Shore houses.
How would you say the restaurant design sensibility has changed since the '80s?
In a lot of aspects, it's come full circle . . . more natural, authentic looks, reclaimed wood from old beams, hand crafting. That's why I try not to do things that are trendy. "Timeless" is the look that we shoot for.
New dining projects in the pipeline?
A branch of Ellen Yin and Eli Kulp's High Street in New York's West Village. A foodery in Kensington that the client is not ready to announce.
Do you cook for your family at your home in Society Hill Towers?
Actually, my husband [architect James Timberlake] does more of the cooking. When I cook, it's more the stuff from our old restaurant in Castine - salads, omelets, a mean grilled cheese.
What ever happened to that barn you built in Maine?