Designs for Dining

Creatively fusing retro references and contemporary style, AvroKO’s restaurants set the standard for intelligent downtown cool—even uptown.

When the restaurant Public opened in New York’s NoLIta neighborhood in 2003, its warm, vaguely industrial interior peppered with offbeat visual references—twenties school buildings, courthouses, and other municipal spaces—was a revelation. At a time when most ambitious restaurants favored showstopping, theatrical decor, this was something different: more evocative than literal, without any heavy-handed clichés.

It was the first venture of AvroKO, the design firm started by thirtysomething former college pals Greg Bradshaw, Adam Farmerie, William Harris, and Kristina O’Neal. They designed not only Public’s architecture but also the furniture, the signage, and the clipboard-style menus, which were inspired by WPA-era bank ledgers. Most unusually, the foursome fully owns and operates the restaurant. And Farmerie’s brother, Brad, is the chef, serving up creative Asian-Australian dishes.

“What Public did,” says O’Neal, “was show exactly how we want to work.” The partners created a cohesive soup-to-nuts experience with everything designed—and, in some cases, actually built—by them. “In funding the project ourselves,” she adds, “we were able to do it without compromise.”

Less than a year after opening, Public earned AvroKO two James Beard Foundation awards for both the interior design and graphics. Almost instantly it became the go-to firm for some of the hippest new downtown spots, delivering a string of hits, most notably the Stanton Social, a restaurant and lounge on the Lower East Side that takes design cues from the neighborhood’s old dressmaking and leatherworking shops. What appealed to people in the design and food worlds was the consistency of experience—from the menus to the lighting to the restrooms—and AvroKO’s ability to reference a space’s history without veering into kitsch.

It wasn’t long before uptown restaurants came calling, too. The Smith & Wollensky group hired AvroKO to do the Midtown steakhouse Quality Meats, followed by the seasonally transforming space on the Upper East Side that began as Park Avenue Summer and is now completing its first full cycle with its fourth incarnation, Park Avenue Spring.

“I don’t know how their minds work, but the four of them are constantly on their toes, coming up with cool, spontaneous ideas,” says Craig Koketsu, the executive chef at Quality Meats and Park Avenue. “How they interpret an idea is often so different than how you imagined it—and it’s usually much better.”

This looks to be a banner year for the AvroKO foursome. No fewer than seven restaurants they’ve designed are slated to open by the end of 2008: two in Scottsdale, two in Las Vegas, and one each in Santa Fe, Miami Beach, and New York. The partners are also busy designing a W hotel and a condo project in Philadelphia, planning a pair of restaurants in Castilla–La Mancha, Spain, and overseeing a residential loft development in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Although it may seem a bit early for a monograph, a book on the firm’s work has just been published by Collins Design, an imprint of HarperCollins. (Embattled editrix Judith Regan acquired the project before her departure from the company.)

The book’s title, Best Ugly, “describes something that’s awkward but beautiful or an aberration among a group of beautiful objects,” O’Neal explains. It’s a principle the partners use in their work. “We have a certain disdain for pretty things for their own sake, even if we can relate to that impulse,” says Bradshaw. “We need to have a story on which to hang our ideas.”

The AvroKO studio is just upstairs from Public, in a former muffin factory. There a staff of about 30 works on an expanding portfolio of multidisciplinary projects. The firm has done branding work for blue-chip clients such as Aveda, Adidas, Marc Jacobs, Vera Wang, Starbucks, and Esprit. It designed the 2006 exhibition “Feeding Desire,” a survey of tabletop wares at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. Then there are the smart.space concept apartments (small but sleek living quarters filled with multifunctional furniture and movable partitions) and a line of furniture and lighting that draws from early-20th-century motorcycles, airplanes, and trains.

Despite AvroKO’s rapid growth, the four principals continue to have a hand in all the firm’s projects. “Our work is really a melting pot of our sensibilities,” says Harris. Adds O’Neal: “Now that it’s a proper business, we want to keep the same feel as when we started. We still meet every day and look at things together. We have different interests, but the four of us work on everything, and the healthiest, best projects come from that.”

The partners’ history goes back to the early nineties. They met over beers as undergrads at Carnegie Mellon—Harris and O’Neal were studying fine art, the other two architecture—before O’Neal transferred to Cornell. (Disclosure: I graduated from the architecture school in a class between Bradshaw’s and Farmerie’s.) After college they migrated to New York, where Farmerie and Bradshaw started Avro Design, named after a British aircraft builder. O’Neal and Harris formed the branding and product-concept firm KO Media. The four friends reconnected over more beers and decided to collaborate professionally. They worked so well together that they merged in 2000, and AvroKO was born.

The business has evolved as they’ve gone along, never rigidly distinguishing between architecture, graphics, furniture, or branding. There’s constant creative overlap and cross-pollination. Despite AvroKO’s expansion into new areas, the partners’ hearts remain in restaurant design.

What sets their work apart is their conceptual approach, often involving a kind of cultural and visual archaeology to uncover the history and soul of a space and create a story. At the Stanton Social the designers drew inspiration from vintage kimono patterns for the walls of the upstairs lounge and from traditional herringbone fabrics once found in the area’s tailoring shops for a large wine rack. At Quality Meats the AvroKO team imported the look and feel of vintage Little Italy meat shops: lots of white tile, a row of rusty cleavers lining a butcher-block wall, chandeliers created from salvaged meat hooks. The designers favor unconventional beauty and details that make the utilitarian chic. Glass vases are filled with arrangements of green fennel, garlic, and leeks. “We’re attracted to the weight of materials,” says Farmerie. “We find beauty in elements that have a history, so we look for found objects and use them in new ways.”

Some critics argue that AvroKO’s top-down designs can be a bit too much. At Quality Meats, AvroKO even came up with labels for the house wine and sparkling-water bottles, with nods to butcher’s diagrams and supermarket steak packaging. Others point out that the rustic sophistication and faux patina has been done before in marquee restaurants such as Balthazar and Pastis. But those places are essentially a pastiche of design tropes. AvroKO’s work involves a distinctly original synthesis of imagery, ideas, and mood.

As the Las Vegas sushi restaurant Social House (completed this past fall) proves, the AvroKO team can do over-the-top as well as anyone when the occasion suits. Tucked inside the Treasure Island casino-resort, Social House features dozens of antique birdcages hanging from the ceiling in a lounge while gilded safe-deposit boxes line a grand double-height staircase and towers of folded newspapers frame leather banquettes.

At Park Avenue, where the decor changes seasonally, the foursome had the challenge of designing around an arguably gimmicky conceit. Says O’Neal, “We wanted to make the references to the seasons subtle and interesting—to give people a thoughtful experience.” The designs are a mix of the easily identifiable and the abstract: the weathered clapboard of Nantucket in summer, coppery globe lights in autumn, and bare branches, white fur, icy crystal, and glass chandeliers in winter. Spring’s green, gold, and purple palette was inspired by New Zealand and an imaginary formal garden procession. Says Harris, “It’s Versailles meets Maori.”

The seasonal approach presents a challenge for chef Koketsu. “The design helps to define the type of food I do and how it’s presented,” he says. “When I heard Autumn was all copper lights and brown tones, I had to make the food extra vibrant; I didn’t want it to get lost in the decor.”

At the end of this year the AvroKO foursome is opening its second New York restaurant that will be completely designed and owned by them, as Public is. Unnamed at presstime, it will be located on the corner of Bleeker Street and the Bowery. Brad Farmerie will be the executive chef, with another chef arriving from London to run the kitchen. “Having total control allows us to achieve a pure and focused result. That has been very satisfying for us,” says Harris.

And, clearly, the approach is working.

Raul Barreneche wrote about Soviet design for the October 2007 issue.

The Best of AvroKO

This year AvroKO has an amazing seven restaurant projects opening, from Las Vegas to Miami Beach to New York. The latter location (not yet named) will be owned and run by the foursome, just like Public, the venture that established their reputation. For those looking to book a table now, a short list of the firm’s finest work to date. —Julie Coe

Public

Dubbed free-spirited fusion, the Down Under–inspired cuisine includes grilled kangaroo, New Zealand venison, and Tasmanian sea trout. The decor, meanwhile, is pure Americana, meant to evoke the New Deal era. Bronze P.O. boxes and an oak card catalogue recall municipal offices and libraries. The postal boxes are actually used for Public’s Wine Mailbox Program: Members lease the boxes, and each month they receive a bottle chosen by chef Brad Farmerie. The Monday Room, the lounge next door, also showcases the chef’s wine picks. Dinner, $100. At 210 Elizabeth St., New York; 212-343-7011; public-nyc.com.

The Stanton Social

In creating this Lower East Side spot, AvroKO paid homage to the tailors and dressmakers that once dotted the area. A herringbone-patterned wine rack, for example, was inspired by men’s suiting. Upstairs, lamp shades suggest curvy and boned corsets, while the red lizard-skin banquettes recall a luxe handbag. The menu offers a world tour of small plates, such as tuna sashimi, goat-cheese pierogi, and red snapper tacos, all meant to be shared. There is also a full raw bar and a serious cocktail list—Cucumber-Vanilla Cosmopolitan, anyone? Dinner, $96. At 99 Stanton St., New York; 212-995-0099; thestantonsocial.com.

Park Avenue

Every three months this reinvention of the old Park Avenue Café transforms, from Park Avenue Summer to Autumn to Winter and, currently, Spring. Not only does the menu change (crab with a descontructed gazpacho in summer, venison with pumpkin seeds in autumn) but so does the decor. Wall panels, light fixtures, and cushions are easily removed and reinstalled. Summer’s lemonade-yellow paneling and cattail bouquets gave way to Autumn’s dark-wood partitions and crab-apple branches, then Autumn gave way to Winter’s ivory walls and silver birch, right. Spring uses the greens and golds of a formal garden with purple flower accents. Dinner, $128. At 100 E. 63rd St., New York; 212-644-1900; parkavenyc.com.

Social House

Located at the Treasure Island resort in Las Vegas, this Pan-Asian restaurant is a popular after-hours spot. The menu, by Nobu protégé Joseph Elevado, offers teriyaki, tempura, and sushi, as well as curries and Filipino dishes like adobo and lumpia. AvroKO’s design was inspired by China’s provincial walled cities. A stairwell is packed with bronze card-catalogue drawers, a modern twist on an herbal apothecary. Glass bell jars, some enclosing herbs, add to the effect. A chandelier of opium pipes evokes a colonial past while birdcages, decorative old scales, and a forest of hanging fishing weights call to mind an outdoor market. Dinner, $100. At 3300 Las Vegas Blvd., S. Las Vegas; 702-894-7777; socialhouselv.com.