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AvroKO on Gritty Designs and Fantastical Interiors

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Beauty & Essex, NYC | Photo by Michael Weber
Beauty & Essex, NYC | Photo by Michael Weber

Welcome to Dining & Designing, a column in which Eater National joins with the forces of Curbed National to profile and explore the design of restaurants. Your fearless leader through this untamed wilderness will be Julie Earle-Levine, an Australian, NYC-based writer who has contributed to The Financial Times of London, New York Magazine, and the New York Times, among others. She has both a passion for real estate and a passion for eating.

NYC-based design firm AvroKO has turned heads for its roster of restaurants, bars, and hotels, including the swank recently opened Beauty & Essex in NYC and Lily and Bloom in Hong Kong. The firm consists of four partners (William Harris, Greg Bradshaw, Kristina O’Neal and Adam Farmerie) and holds with offices in Nolita, Hong Kong, and Bangkok. They have a slew of new projects on the go, including Al Molo, a new Michael White restaurant in Hong Kong, an NYC hotel fashioned in one of John Jacob Astor’s old haunts, and a 12-room boutique hotel in an old Russian Embassy building in Bangkok. Here we talk to all them about stuffed hippos at La Specola, long hauls to the bathroom, and their dreams of doing a country house for Tilda Swinton.

Tell me about your major design influences.
Harris: It seems like the most exciting design influences are more like accidental findings. At a recent meeting, Kristina headed a design dialogue on the 400-year-old stuffed Medici hippo at La Specola (Museum of Zoology and Natural History) in Florence, and Adam shared his video of the morning call to prayer by megaphone in the central medina in Fez. Now we just have to figure out how to use them.

What's it like working with Michael White (Marea, Osteria Morini)?
William Harris: He’s a perfectionist for sure. I would call him more of an "authenticist." His design concerns have been more over how French an Italian object might appear, or how to capture a version of modern Italy, as opposed to hardcore materiality and space. It’s healthy for us to work with someone who knows what they want, and he definitely does.

Adam Farmerie: He seems like more of a chair or lighting guy and more of an object man. He wants to know what kind of art features are in the space and why. We bought our goods in Florence for Al Molo to get it straight from the source.

Which other design firms do you love, and why?
Farmerie: Terence Conran—he started in restaurant design and worked his way through furniture design, graphics, hotel design, and museum design, all while owning half his projects and products. He was one of the first to do it all. We are still jealous.

O'Neal: We look at a lot of art—Sugimoto, Uta Barth, Candida Hoffer, Elger Esser, Gursky—they are all quiet minimalists with a big psychological punch.

Tell us about what it’s like within one of John Jacob Astor’s old haunts.
Greg Bradshaw: It has been a relief to work with the real bones of a space, and it’s pretty grand, too. The Gilded Age was all about quality and excess and this space had it in spades. JJ didn’t really pinch pennies when it came to his own showpieces, so we are getting the benefits now.

I love Beauty & Essex—it’s over-the-top glamor. But I hated the trek all the way downstairs (down the double-height spiral stairs, and then another set deep down into the basement) to go to the bathroom.
Bradshaw: Sorry about the bathroom walk. It’s a by-product of restaurant design, where bathrooms have to go in the least important spaces. That is why there is pink champagne there to ease your arrival. Not a bad exchange, right?

The bar in the bathroom serving (complimentary) Champagne helps—a little. As does the extraordinarily good-looking crowd. Did you have any idea of who the clientele would be?
O'Neal: Rich (Wolf) and Peter (Kane) are brilliant when it comes to drawing the young and beautiful set and they are charismatic guys, too. It’s not a surprise that glam folks are showing up. I have to credit the clients, though: when we suggested the dowdy-chic-elderly twist to the space, with outsized jewelry and deco-fantastic bars they let us run with it—probably against their better judgment.

Bradshaw: We figured the same people who showed up to Stanton Social, our last project for them, would be coming to Beauty & Essex. It’s got a Lower East Side appeal, even if it’s more polished than the typical Lower East Side joint.

Does the design reflect other projects you do?
Bradshaw: Yes, there is a huge focus on custom lighting in every room—we do that for almost all of our projects

O'Neal: Our work is split between very real and gritty designs and more fantastical interiors. This one definitely falls into the “fantastical” realm. All of them are based on real places, people, and time periods, though, so we don’t lose the plot halfway through.

What is your dream project?
O'Neal: Tilda Swinton—who wouldn’t love to do her country house?

Bradshaw: My dream project is a small, maybe even tiny, resort somewhere in a very challenging landscape, like a rocky coastline or mountainous area with water. The Aman Group comes to mind.

Head over to Curbed National for the rest of the interview. >>>

· AvroKO [Official Site]
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