Scrawled in bright neon lights across the exposed brick wall of the Xan Creative offices in Five Points are the words “Enemies of Sameness.” The phrase serves as a nice conceptual introduction for the work performed by Melissa Friday and her small team of designers, who have been responsible for an incredible array of the most imaginative interiors in Denver dining.
The team sees Melissa acting as creative director and founder, her wife Stephanie Friday serving as marketing director, Regan Horacek as production designer and Dana Ensing as interior designer. Wrigley — the Fridays’ dog — is also an ever-present feature of the office, though his role seems to be a bit more loosely defined. The small team allows for a collaborative workflow that could not be replicated in a larger firm, and the particular synergy shared by the four has allowed Xan to become an unassuming powerhouse. “It was completely by design,” said Melissa.
Melissa notes that all four members’ experience in the food industry helps them to think about restaurants from a functional standpoint — herself having helped open the first Walnut Brewery and doing a stint at the kitchen at Alfalfa’s Market in Boulder. Xan’s resume in Denver and beyond is astonishing. The group has developed projects in Chicago, Houston, Austin, Phoenix, Milwaukee, San Diego, Colorado Springs and as far as Belize. While Denver doesn’t necessarily have a look per se, the sheer breadth of projects Xan has been involved with certainly could suggest that they are helping to establish one. The team has worked with Josh Wolkon on Vesta, Ace Eat Serve and Steuben’s. They did Illegal Pete’s and Snooze. Olive and Finch, Los Chingones, both Postinos, Comida, Bacon Social House — all Xan. The team has designed for most of Paul Tamburello’s locations including Dang, Adrift and Sweet Cooie’s. They refurbished the iconic Cruise Room and built out the Great Divide Barrel Bar. They’ve worked with Drew Shader on Atomic Cowboy and Denver Biscuit Company. The list goes on. “We make spaces that people want to be in and they don’t even know why,” smiled Melissa.
Not only does Xan cover art direction, the team approach projects with a deep well of practical knowledge as to how to actually make a restaurant run. “Will that bathroom look clean while it’s dirty?” laughed Melissa of the exhaustive attention Xan places on minute details in both aesthetics and utilitarian design elements.
Melissa has a deliberately-honed knack for helping clients actualize their vision, putting her own creative spin on things without dominating the project or final result. At the core of the firm’s success is the focus on listening — when an interested party comes to Xan, Melissa will carefully assess their plan by asking pointed questions and truly taking the time to understand what it is they are trying to achieve. “We listen first. It’s not our space, it’s their space,” she said. However, Melissa is careful with how she chooses who to work with. “We like places that want to make a statement.”
While Xan certainly caters to the client’s demands, Melissa and the team know the value of their contribution. “We have strong opinions and we let them be known,” she said, admitting with a smile, that she will be boots on the ground to “a really unhealthy degree.” While there isn’t necessarily a unifying aesthetic across all of the projects, Melissa doesn’t shy away from bringing her own artistic vision to the table. Through an adept combination of sourcing and building products from scratch, the group has managed to actualize dreams many restaurateurs may otherwise have deemed impossible. The typical turnaround on design is six to eight weeks with a year to 18 months following for buildout.
The adoration lauded upon Melissa and her team from past clients is widespread — all citing her no-nonsense approach, general kindness and willingness to set clear boundaries. “She pushes back in a really healthy way,” said Postino founder Lauren Bailey, who had been doing her own designs prior to involving Xan in the two Denver locations. “She wasn’t trying to come in and make it about her,” she continued. This was echoed by Grow + Gather co-founder George Gastis who went as far as to say, “other than me and Jeff (Johnston, the other founding partner) she was the single most important person on this project team.” Both he and Tamburello made note of her ability to act as an advocate, using her seasoned management skills to work with construction teams. “She’s worked with so many contractors you can’t bullshit her,” said Tamburello. Xan’s city-wide fingerprints showcase the value of consideration in producing fruitful creative partnerships. “I would consider her hopefully a friend for life,” said Gastis.
All photography by Adrienne Thomas, except where noted.