L.A. Designer: Thomas Schoos Brings a Berlin-Style “Beach” to WeHo

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On this DnA we talked to Jenny Price about opening up Malibu’s “private” beaches to the public. But here’s a designer who says “screw the beach!” 

Thomas Schoos is an interior designer whose latest project Beach Nation brings the beach to West Hollywood. Yes, you read that right. He and partner Klaus Siegmann have created an outside eatery on busy Santa Monica Boulevard, featuring Adirondack chairs, bougainvillea, blue sky, palm trees, sun, sand and, er. . . no sea. 

It turns out this idea actually hails from Schoos’ native Germany where many cities have so-called ‘Strandbars’: fake beachy environments, often next to rivers, with imported sand, deck chairs and a kitschy drink menu. 

Currently, Beach Nation’s food is brought in from a nearby commissary kitchen, but in the coming weeks will begin serving burgers, fries, hot dogs and a hot breakfast menu shortly from the former Irv’s Burgers, whose building has been designated a cultural landmark (the beloved family burger business has reopened nearby.) 

Thomas SchoosDnA spoke with Thomas Schoos (left) about why he thinks this idea will fly with Angelenos who are wealthy in beaches. 

DnA: Is Beach Nation inspired by “Strandbars” in Berlin?

Thomas Schoos: Yes. But it was actually inspired by a Strandbar called Monkey’s Island in Düsseldorf. They’ve had it for at least six years. Germans love the sun but in Germany everyone is pasty white, so they create the beach anywhere they can so they can enjoy the few sun rays that they can get each year.

And so one day Klaus and I were sitting together at Monkey’s Island and Klaus said we should do a beach themed restaurant/coffee house in the middle of the city, which you can produce anywhere so long as you have enough space.

People want a little soft ground under their feet. People love it. The first thing people do at Beach Nation is put their feet in the sand, and they forget there is no ocean near Santa Monica Blvd in West Hollywood.

You’ll see blue sky, palm trees in one direction and in the other direction you get blue sky, palm trees and Santa Monica Blvd.

It’s really playing off the sandbox idea of letting loose and walking in a big sand pit where you can feel the ground. Also, going bare foot in the sand is very good for your health and balance. It’s a very soothing experience.

The oddity is to not like the sand between your toes.

Strandbar in Germany. Photo by Torsten Maue via Flickr

DnA: How ironic that you took a concept from cold, rainy Germany and imported it to sunny, beachy LA.  

TS: We don’t have a body of water at Beach Nation, and that I think is the ironic part. We don’t call it beach water nation, we call it beach nation so we have sand.

Be happy that you get something like this that’s an oasis in the middle of the city. Trust me, when you go, you will understand.

DnA: Do you own it as well as having designed it?

TS: Klaus and I are co-owners. You have to own a piece of beach no matter where you are. Right? If you aren’t in Hawaii, you can make use of Santa Monica Boulevard.

Do you really think there are people in West Hollywood who find it a drag to go the beach for the sea and sand?

TS: Have you ever tried getting to the beach during rush hour in L.A.?

It’s easier to go to the moon than to go to Santa Monica. It used to be, don’t go on Fridays because it would take forever, but now there’s always too much traffic.

Last time I went to Santa Monica it took three hours. Do you know what you do in three hours? Kill yourself. Somewhere on Wilshire Boulevard. People in Santa Monica don’t want to come here either. We talk about it all the time. We have friends who live in Venice and Santa Monica who don’t want to meet us for dinner because of the drive.

So here in West Hollywood we have 4,000 square feet of exterior space. Blue sky, palm trees, sun in your face, reclining chairs and ottomans. Screw the beach.

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DnA: In your LA Times interview you said “When you go to the beach now it’s don’t bring your dog, don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t, don’t don’t. This space is very do.” But surely Beach Nation is not open to the public? And can people bring their dogs and smoke?

TS: You’re more than welcome to bring your dog, but not in the sand. We can’t have them peeing. But they can be with you. It’s a social space. And animals belong in a social space.

We’re working on our liquor license. You cannot smoke here. But you can have your food, you can listen to music. Hang out with your friends. Congregate. Put your feet up on the table. Relax, put your hair down.

In Santa Monica you have to park, then you get to the beach. You can’t bring glass bottles. Don’t bring any animals. No music. You cannot listen to music anymore. No service as in getting food or anything else. Everything you would love about the beach is a no. Everything is a don’t. We embrace all of the dont’s that we have to by law, but then there are the other parts that we embrace, such as pets, social activities, gathering, food, service, alcohol (pending) we say yes to. This is community, this is the way you bring people together.

DnA: There have been many beach-themed eateries in LA, specifically the South Seas “tiki” bars and restaurants of the 1950s and 60s. But those are considered lovably kitsch. Are you aiming for high-end theming?

TS:  Would I say it’s a high end restaurant? No. It is easy going. Hang low, enjoy the day, take it easy. Don’t take everything so seriously. And we have the hundred-dollar deck chairs and we have the orange lamps that give a fantastic glow. So there is a balance.

It’s artistic. It’s fun. It’s easy going. It’s not chic. Beaches are not chic. Beaches are relaxing. Nobody says beaches are sophisticated. It’s soothing. Even if you go to Sant-Tropez in the South of France, the beach itself is loose and it’s sexy because it’s not stuffy. It’s not lacquered.

Thomas SchoosDnA: What did the design involve? Adirondack chairs, bringing in a heap of sand? Was it set design as much as furniture design?

TS: It’s both. The deck, the sand, the palm trees that reach into the sky, the beach grass, there’s this really easy stippa grass, it’s that beach grass that’s really easy and whispery. We have two bougainvilleas, the hot pink radiant flowers.We kept it very simple with the palm trees and the grass, and very easy to digest for the eye.

And the furniture has a range of being eclectic, the sharing tables with the wooden legs, with the marble tops. It’s feels very natural. Our place doesn’t feel themed. It’s easy going, it’s very California. And it’s eclectic, also like California.

DnA: But I thought Beach Nation was partially a result of how L.A. is no longer easygoing?

TS: When I moved here 20 years ago, that’s when people still thought it was easy to live in California. California is PCH, easy rider, little beach villages where people get together  and where you just let loose. It was artists, musicians, that this was the city to. And suddenly it became you try and build a house in Malibu and it takes eight years.

So it’s kind of a throwback to that time. There’s still that synergetic spirit of coming to this city and being creative. You still have that. Today the arts and food are big in L.A..

It got closed off in certain areas, but the spirit is still there in the blood of Californians.

DnA: Where did you get the sand from?

TS: It is beach sand. We actually looked at different sand. We got it delivered from a company that deals in different sand products. You can get different coarseness and colors. There’s finer sand, there’s thicker sand, little pebbles. This is nice sand that you put your feet in, it’s just dust.

Beach Nation marble tableDnA: Do people wear beach clothing? Is this a magnet for ogling guys in their trunks? Can women wear bikinis or less?

TS: Oh, no. No but you know, people wear shorts, flip flops, tank tops t-shirts, it’s not a dressy affair where people wear suits. People want an occasional ease during the day even if it’s for 10 minutes. You refresh your batteries for the rest of the day. People from City Hall and people come in from the neighborhood.

Kids play in the sand, it’s very, very cute. It brings people together. In a city where everyone lives close together but still far away from each other this is important.

DnA: What’s happened to Irv’s Burgers next door?

TS: They moved down the street two and a half blocks from us and opened a new location. Small restaurant, same as it was before.

DnA: Situate this project in the context of your previous ones.

TS: Different. But I would say it fits in with my other work. It’s pushing the envelope, which we are constantly doing with our design. Lets take the restaurant I designed Seersucker in San Diego, and Morimoto in Mexico City. Both of these projects, like Beach Nation, don’t feel austere. They all have a welcoming factor to them. I have that currency to make people smile and make people happy in their spaces.

DnA: You are German and you have German colleagues. Are you broadcasting the World Cup in Beach Nation?

TS: It’s all outdoors so it’s impossible, it’s too sunny. Plus I don’t want to have it there for people who want to come to the beach and chill.

DnA: Lastly Germans are famous for staking out the best spots on the beach in Southern Europe and in cities like Miami. Do you carry that in your DNA?

TS: Yes. That’s the reason I love Germany. Truly, I’m not the typical German in a way. I am a hybrid out of both ways of love the sun, love the easy going, but in other ways I need to have my German way. I am German after all. You stay what you are in the roots in a way.

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All images courtesy Thomas Schoos, except the image of the Strandbar, courtesy Torsten Maue via Flickr.