March 17, 2017

Passion Projects: How Shea translates a life journey into design

We love what we do—because we get to work with people who love what they do. Whether it’s opening a restaurant that evokes their favorite childhood memories or creating a salon that really connects with patrons, our clients put their hearts and souls into making their lifelong dreams a reality, and we transform that passion into a business and guest experience. And it’s a special challenge and opportunity when couples and partners share a life and are putting their joint ideas into a new business.


Veteran restaurant couple Joan Ferris and Jay Sparks met under the light of kitchen heat lamps, when the two worked for D’Amico and Partners in the Twin Cities—her running the front of house, him running the kitchen. They worked, grew, lived, and traveled together, becoming the restaurant group’s quintessential power couple, until 2015, when they decided it was time to leave the D’Amico nest and strike out on their own.

It was time for Lovechild.

The restaurant opened its doors in La Crosse, WI, last December, and is a true culmination of Joan and Jay’s passions—for the restaurant industry, for food, and for each other. “The concept was just all the things we really love,” says Joan. “It’s a little eclectic, because it’s from both Jay and myself, but it’s inspired by everything we’ve experienced over the last 25 years. It’s really a love letter to our relationship.”

Shea worked with the pair to translate that love into the design, following the same ethos: If Joan and Jay really loved it, that was the direction to go in. We drew inspiration from what Joan and Jay had seen in their worldwide travels and design elements that they’d always wanted to implement in their dream space to create a luxurious space in a historic building in La Crosse’s downtown district.

“I knew that I wanted one room where you could see everything—the bar, the dining room—from wherever you were standing,” says Joan. La Crosse, her hometown and the place she and Jay would escape the hustle of the Twin Cities during their busy career, had just the right blend of historic and modern, energy and calm.

The important thing to me was not just that it was beautiful, but that you’d feel comfortable dressed up or in jeans,” says Joan. We brought the element of opulence that she wanted to the space by way of jewel tones, metallic elements, patterned carpet, and soft velvet furnishings, but contrasted by taking advantage of the building’s columns, cozy brick walls, and arched windows, using them as anchor elements to ground the richness of the finishes.

“It allowed us to have everything we wanted in terms of design,” says Joan. “The Shea team took a lot of crazy, eclectic parts and pieces and put them together in a way that’s magical to us.”

When you start with such passion and translate that through the whole experience, it’s easy for guests to fall in love with a restaurant immediately—and that’s definitely the case at Lovechild. Joan and Jay hear constantly that their restaurant stands out, not just for food and design, but for the service and the warmth that encompasses guests as soon as they walk through the door.


Eric and Vanessa Carrara don’t just have a passion for restaurants—they have an innate drive to please the people in them. From a staff that feels like family to customers who constantly come back, the duo has an incredible set of instincts for making people feel good, down to every detail. It’s a tenet that Eric adopted when he was a kid and suggested to his grandfather that their restaurant use cloth napkins because “they make the guest feel better.”

When IE opened in South Minneapolis on Thanksgiving in 2015, it was evident that their passion had, with Shea’s help, been embodied by the rustic Italian restaurant on Cedar Avenue. Following a trip to Italy when they were dating, Eric and Vanessa would drive around the Twin Cities weekly looking for the perfect restaurant space—and seven years and 200 tours later, they found it. Formerly a Carbone’s restaurant (in fact, Vanessa’s neighborhood pizzeria growing up), the South Minneapolis space held magic for the couple. “The moment I walked in, I knew this was it,” says Eric. “I dragged Vanessa back to the space and walked her through, and told her to picture it down to the stud. Her eyes lit up.”

Of course, transforming a former pizza place into the timeless, approachable, welcoming neighborhood restaurant that Vanessa and Eric had in mind was no small feat. We started by creating seamless layout that gave the option for guests to create their own spaces. “We want guests to feel like they can come off the lake and eat dinner, but also come in for a first date,” says Eric. A central communal table and banquettes bring people together and make everyday celebrations easy, but adding cozy booths and wall-mounted two-top tables gives the option of privacy.

Details throughout the restaurant bring more of the Carrara’s personal story into the design. “Vanessa and I, over the years, collected scraps, pictures, traveled, ate, and worked in the industry,” says Eric. “Every time we went somewhere, we would take note of what we liked, what worked, and how it made us feel.”  That inspiration played directly into our design: A wall made entirely of wine corks saved by Eric and Vanessa flanks the jewel-box wine display in the dining room. And Eric’s father did steelwork projects that bring a little industrial flair to the farmhouse-chic atmosphere, including wall mountings for the marble two-tops and a shelving installation over the open kitchen to display plants and canisters.

“To us, every little detail matters, and we always felt Shea was on the same page as us,” says Eric. And those details are evident throughout the restaurant: The mosaic-covered high-top bar tables give the space a one-of-a-kind vibe, hand-applied stained plaster gives walls an organic feel, and candle-style bulbs give the bar a warm glow. Dark, rich wood and ceiling beams and plenty of greenery (inspired by Italy’s sidewalk planters) soften the space and make it the kind of neighborhood place destined to accumulate regulars. The patio is always packed in the warmer months, and patrons duck inside when it’s cold to indulge in the welcoming environment, warm service, and, of course, a bowl of handmade pasta.

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