Interview with Designer James Gundy

by Marc Jay
05.07.2010

Marc Jay: I’m going to call you the king of all designers because I’ve known you for like 10 years now, I’d like to say. We were at Mandalay Bay together where you’ve created some amazing stuff. Tell us about the latest space that you’ve designed.

James Gundy: The name of the venue is called King Ink and my client is world renowned tattoo artist Mario Barth. It’s a tattoo lounge which includes three tattoo studios, a large retail area and a bar which also opens up to the exterior patio space.

Marc Jay: I remember I came here six months ago, or maybe a year ago, and they were selling candy and sodas, and today it’s totally different. Where did this concept come in? How did you come up with the idea of a tattoo lounge?

James Gundy: Well, really it all started with Mario Barth who is probably the most well-known tattoo artist, certainly in America, probably in the world. He currently has Starlight Tattoo at Mandalay Bay. When he opened the store at Mandalay Bay, he really wanted to get his feet into the Vegas nightlife scene and then he found the space over here at the Mirage, previously the Roasted Bean. It had this old castle, European vibe about it, with the architecture and the big, vaulted ceilings and the decorative corbels and columns. That’s what really drew Mario to the space. He wanted to create a tattoo studio, not a tattoo shop. Tattoo shops are usually on the outskirts with the big neon tattoo sign, dark and seedy, and we wanted to create the high-end, comfortable, inviting tattoo studio. The focus of the project was not to grab the people that want to get tattoos that follow Mario, but to get the people who don’t have any ink at all. You can set up a tattoo studio and grab anybody who really wants to get a tattoo, but how do we create an environment where we can grab the people who don’t have ink at all? Especially in an environment like the Mirage, in one of the best locations in the Mirage, right in front of the north valet, which is right next to the president of the hotel’s office. He’s here a lot, so it’s very important for us to create an environment that was inviting for the hotel's entire demographic. So we created three tattoo suites, which have polished white floors, white ceilings, and a very clean, white light, so it doesn’t interfere with the actual act of tattooing. So, when you ask for a certain type of ink or color, you actually can see the true colors. We’ve then created retail integrated into the walls that surround the tattoo studios, along with retail casework within the middle of the space, which also functions as furniture and table tops for people to stand around at night when it turns into a lounge. Within all of that, the common thread is the retail. You can have the tattoo on one side, the liquor on the other side, but what really holds that all together into the early evening is the retail. The retail and the large oval-shaped banquettes in the middle of the room, which act as your closet, sort of like the big chaise lounges women have in their closets. These are the in-between elements. During the day, we lay out the retail over the lounge, but at night we take those off and these become bottle service tables, so you can sit and hang out.

Marc Jay: I’ve always remembered tattoo shops being small, seedy private-like members clubs that would mist the windows. You couldn’t even see through the windows and now you’ve made this look like a beautiful clothing store, a high end bar, and a tattoo place. Are there any other places in Vegas similar to this one or is this the first of its kind?

James Gundy: No and yes. There’s nothing in Vegas like this. There are a few places in Vegas that call themselves “tattoo lounges,” but they’re not. This is truly a tattoo lounge. It’s 4,000 square ft. (approximately) of retail, bar, tattooing and lounge, and we have a 2,000 sq ft. patio on the outside. So, just by putting a bar in your tattoo studio doesn’t mean that it’s a tattoo lounge. We’re not trying to divide the program. The program is tattoo, retail and liquor. We’re trying to integrate that. What really holds it together is Mario and this idea of “lifestyle” – that’s what this really represents. It’s about the lifestyle Mario’s involved in everyday of his life and bringing that mainstream. By creating the space that we did, when you come in here on the weekends and you see how busy it is and you see the type of people that we have, I mean we’ll have 60 year old people come in here on their way to the hotel, they’re checking out the hotel, they’ll walk in here and walk into the whole space and go “wow, this is great.” Ask them if they walk down the street or walk into their local tattoo shop and ask them if they do that, they wouldn’t, they don’t, so we’re trying to respond to that demographic and of course we get the people in here that know who Mario is – “Oh, we know about King Ink” they walk in here expecting to see a tattoo studio and they’re like “are you kidding me.” This place is amazing. We even get people who come in here in the afternoon who just sit at the bar and drink.

Marc Jay: So I know this is like a small part of your portfolio of what you’ve done in Vegas. I know you have a company here. What other projects have you worked on in the past?

James Gundy: The company is 1027 design management. When I was working for Mandalay Resort Group in Corporate Development, I designed a few projects; one was Moorea Beach Club at Mandalay Bay – the original Moorea Beach Club, not the recent remodel, the original. I also designed 55 Degrees Wine + Design, which was a wine store at the Mandalay Place. I did 3950 which was a restaurant in Mandalay Bay – that was my baby, my first project in Vegas. I also did Bare Pool here at the Mirage which is actually part of the reason why Mario brought me in to this project. The hotel had a relationship with me through Bare Pool and then another client of mine knew Mario and introduced me to him as s I was doing the remodel of the old Forty Deuce at Mandalay Bay, it’s now called The Rose, which opening is pending, but it turned out amazing. I’m very excited about The Rose! It’s truly the first cocktail lounge in Vegas, as opposed to the oversized bottle service nightclub with a five-bottle minimum. People are tired of that shit, you know? People want to go to dinner and have they can go to with their girl or guy and talk, drink and still feel like they are part of the scene without being dominated by people, annoying hosts and overpriced tables. I also recently designed the Bambu Bar at the Mandalay pool which opened last summer as well. I did the Leor jewelry store at the Palms, LBS Burger out at the Red Rock, and Venus Beach Club at Caesar’s Palace.

Marc Jay: You were born in California. How did you end up in Vegas and how did you fall into the design business?

James Gundy: Well, my parents were in the military. I was a military brat, so I traveled a lot. When it was finally all said and done, I ended up in Phoenix, Arizona, where I went to college, went to Arizona State. When I graduated from architecture school I moved to Las Vegas and then I went to work for Circus Circus Enterprises for corporate development and we were in charge of all development of all properties within the corporation. I worked for the vice chairman of the company, Bill Richardson. We built Mandalay Bay, subsequently we changed our name to Mandalay Resort Group. When I first worked for Circus Circus Enterprises I was an architecture intern for the in-house architecture staff and then the company decided to basically outsource architecture and design so they closed that department. Bill Richardson asked me to work in development with him as a corporate project manager of development and I jumped at that opportunity. Even though I was in corporate development, I wasn’t designing – I was managing designers and contractors and helping manage development for the company. But my design background really enabled me to communicate with the designers we hired and this was helpful in development many of the projects we built over the years. At some point, the right move for me was to resign from Mandalay Development and I opened my own design firm and I’ve been working ever since. I have always been a hard worker, a serious person and I take a lot of pride in what I do. I have been very fortunate with the opportunities that have been given. If it wasn’t for Mandalay Resort Group and Bill Richardson (someone who I have great respect for) in particular, opportunities would’ve been hard to come by and I would not be where I am today.

Marc Jay: I can only imagine that in Vegas, with its ever-changing casinos and buildings, that being a designer here must keep you incredibly busy. Plus I hear the budgets are quite big. Is this one of the best places to work?

James Gundy: If you’re in hospitality design there’s only one place to be and it’s Las Vegas. There are other cities in Asia, there’s Dubai, Miami, LA, New York – but for hospitality it’s really about Vegas… and Asia, those are the hot spots. But, you know, the economy has really got a strangle hold on everybody, so you don’t see the huge projects like there were here – the $30 million nightclubs or the $15 million restaurants. What you see now are more refined projects, more boutique projects, places like King Ink. You have somebody like Mario, who is very well known in his industry and who is appealing to people here, and we bring him in, build this space for a reasonable amount of money. We didn’t spend $30 million, but we didn’t spend $200 thousand either. We spent the right amount of money for the market and for our expanding demographic!

Marc Jay: When you get a project, what is the most enjoyable part?

James Gundy: That’s a difficult question because the things that I like are also the things that I hate. It’s like a new girlfriend – you’re excited in the beginning, but after two or three dates you’re over it. We all know how that is (laughs). When you don’t see her for two months, you’re like “Oh, I’ve got to call her back up again” (laughs). It’s the same thing with design. At the beginning you’re excited, you meet a client, they have so much energy, and then you get started. All of a sudden you hit the roadblock, whether it’s personality issues, or design issues, or money issues, you always end up with roadblocks along the way. No matter how long you practice, those roadblocks are still difficult to get by. But at the end of the day, when the project is over, you look back and it’s every moment, every argument, every design change, the good and the bad that make up the total journey or experience. In the end, that’s what you I come to appreciate and cherish about my work.

Marc Jay: Have you ever had any crazy situations where you’ve underestimated your budget and halfway through realize you need a bigger budget or does that never happen?

James Gundy: It can happen. First of all, every project goes over budget. Period. It’s inevitable. I learned a long time ago working at Mandalay Development that it’s just about minimizing the damage. I learned this on the development side, because not only do I design the projects, but I’m also the owner’s rep on all of my projects. That means that the client hires me to be in charge of construction, purchasing, and managing the general contractor. So, when you do that as the designer, if I’m in charge of the budgeting and I’m the designer, I have complete control over the process. I can give the client the best product, in the shortest amount of time, for the price that they want. Sometimes clients becomes the middle man between the designer and the contractor and then budgeting problems arise, they start finger pointing, but that doesn’t happen on my projects because the owner hires me to manage this process as well as design.

Marc Jay: What is the biggest budget you’ve ever worked on?

James Gundy: Not including major hotel/casino development. Mix restaurant at the top of The Hotel was in excess of $20 million. It turned out beautiful. Those numbers were more of a product of square footage than the design. That’s not the most expensive per square foot. The most expensive space I’ve designed, per square foot, was 55 Degrees at Mandalay Bay. That project was very expensive and it was only about 2,000 square feet. I think we spent about $1.5 million on that space.

Marc Jay: Have you ever done residential design?

James Gundy: I have done residential design in Las Vegas. They have been large-scale condo-type projects, loft-type projects and they’re usually for clients of mine in the hospitality industry. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t do residential work, but it’s very involved, it’s personal, it’s where somebody lives and this type of project can be very time consuming but I am always up to the challenge.

Marc Jay: If people want to get in contact with you, how would they track you down?

James Gundy: They can email me at [email protected].

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