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The Designers Behind Some of Your Favorite Watering Holes

If you look closely, you'll spot Moniker Design Studio's work in some of your most-visited San Diego gathering places
Courtesy of Moniker Design Studio

Mention Moniker Group to the average San Diegan, and Moniker General, the company’s airy, bustling event space/bar/coffee shop/retail store in Liberty Station, comes to mind. But there’s a reason the building looks and feels so great: one arm of the group is a thoughtful design firm with a focus on community spaces. 

In fact, design is at the heart of the company’s roots. “[It] originally started as basically a group of friends that were doing different branding- [and] art-based stuff around the globe, and they didn’t really have a company to do it under at the time,” says James Garcia, Moniker Building Co. & Design Studio’s director of operations. “[They were] just a ragtag group of artists that were doing scattered projects.” They specialized in interactive art installations, set designs, and conference designs.

Inside Moniker Commons designed by Moniker Design Studio and built by Moniker Building Co

After nailing down their first job as a collective—a marketing campaign for a small company in Norway—they sat down to come up with a name. “What is our moniker?” asked one of the business’ founders. The question became the answer. 

Nowadays, the name represents the idea that a blank space—a simple moniker—can foster creative ideas that aren’t bound to any one product, idea, or industry. It didn’t hurt that it also just sounded cool. 

Over the next 12 years, the company evolved to offer a diverse range of hospitality spaces. In addition to Moniker General, they own co-working hubs (Moniker Commons) and event venues (The Lane, Moniker Warehouse)—all designed by their studio. In contrast to other specialized firms, Moniker Design Studio (MDS) doesn’t focus solely on either residential or commercial designs—instead, they take on projects that will foster community

“We do places that bring people together,” Garcia says. “With hospitality, [that’s] creating spaces [where] people can connect [and] be better friends, go on dates, and celebrate things with their loved ones. We want to be able to create an environment that holds a memory for them as they leave.”

While the studio’s aesthetic is distinctive—minimalist, with lots of open space and a sort of rugged but elevated feel—Garcia says that it’s all about the client when the team goes to work on any new project.

The Oaks in Ramona designed by Moniker Design Studio and built by Moniker Building Co

“A lot of what we’re about is taking what the client’s vision is and what their dream is and being able to translate that into a physical space,” Garcia explains. “It’s much more collaborative with the client instead of forcing our own design on [them]. Ultimately, it is a representation of who that person is and what their brand is, too.”

Once MDS understands the vision of a project, they’ll work to ensure that their designs are, first and foremost, functional.

“I think people come to us with so many ideas, and we really refine it and funnel it down to being what they want to show off [for] their brand,” says Emilia Franceschi, MDS’s lead designer. “At the end of the day, it has to work. So it’s bringing the aesthetic and the function together, marrying those two to create something that’s really beautiful for the client.” 

The team constantly considers how customers in a commercial building, for example, might interact with the space. It’s why they added banquet seating to Moniker Coffee Co. “We looked at how people sat for a long time and where they put their legs,” Garcia says. “We [looked at] the angle of where your legs sit and just [tried] to really make it an overall good human experience. Details really matter.”

Full Circle Tattoo designed by Moniker Design Studio and built by Moniker Building Co

The group has tackled about 10 projects a year for the past 12 years, but Garcia says that the Moniker General building is his favorite.

“You actually get to sit there, and people don’t know that you did it. You can sit in the corner and just watch people use it,” he says. “We’re around on a daily basis, and when [we] meet someone [and tell them,] ‘Oh, yeah, we designed that,’ they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, that place feels so comfortable; it’s always very [welcoming].’”

The team hopes those glowing responses will lead to even larger undertakings in the future. “We love that project that comes to us that would like both design and building,” Franceschi says. “The work [from our builders] is so on point, and they’re able to really offer everything to a client. If all we did was very conceptual, and we didn’t end up … creating construction documents, we’re no better than Pinterest, right? We need to be able to have an idea and execute it.”

After all, community is much more than just a concept. It’s the people with whom you laugh, cry, celebrate, explore—and the places where you gather with them to do it all.

By Nicolle Monico

Nicolle Monico is an award-winning writer and the managing digital editor for San Diego Magazine with more than 15 years of experience in media including Outside Run, JustLuxe and The San Francisco Chronicle.

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