CalArts Student Center & Dining Hall

A project to redesign the neglected Cal Arts cafeteria evolved into a social experiment and arts collaboration. WHY engaged students and faculty in a discovery process that shed light on three key insights: first, that students greatly valued chance encounters with professors and peers; second, that nobody wanted to spend any time in the cafeteria; third, that poor quality food prompted students and faculty to leave the campus for lunch. Drawing from these key insights, the WHY Ideas Workshop identified the hidden opportunities of the cafeteria as a space for encounter.

Key info
Design Architect
Executed by WHY Architecture Workshop Inc.
Valencia, CA
  • Completed 2015
  • 10,400 sq. ft.
Outreach & Engagement Coordinator, Design Architect, Furniture Designer and Contractor

WHY led the outreach process, helping the school to create a project committee and a project management team to define the engagement strategy. It was important that our team went into the workshops without any preconceived notions – the design process was informed first and foremost through collaboration with students and staff. The final design for the cafeteria activates underutilized spaces, increasing overall capacity within the existing footprint by ensuring that each space -- whether seating areas, servery, or workspaces -- served at least one function. The spaces are designed to be inherently “hackable,” providing students with control over their environment.

The WHY Objects workshop also designed custom furniture which accommodates a range of social needs. Rather than installing fixed furniture to prevent items moving elsewhere on campus, we designed lightweight, brightly colored chairs and table segments which stand out easily. The purposefully irregular hexagonal tables can be combined in clusters to support gatherings of many sizes, preserving personal space while encouraging social exchange.

In its first year, the project received a $1m grant for advancing communication, while meal program enrollment and revenues nearly doubled. The café is now known as ‘Steve’s Place’ – the departing request of President Steven Lavine, after 29 years of leading the school.

“We regularly collaborate with artists on museums and gallery projects, but the opportunity to create a new cafeteria for CalArts opened a whole new set of challenges. We were designing for a group of the most critical artists, alums, and art students who said that – whatever we created - they’d hack it anyway."

Kulapat Yantrasast
Project Team
  • wHY architecture
Executive Architect
  • Behr Browers Architects Inc.
Food Service Design
  • Webb Food Service Design
Structural Engineer
  • Inertia Engineer
Custom Fabrication
  • Cinnabar
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