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Culintro and Hospitality Design (HD) magazine bring you the minds behind restaurant design. Each month, HD offers a Q&A with America's leading architects and designers on new and upcoming restaurant projects. Know restaurant design: what works, what lacks, and what's in store for the future.

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AvroKO

New York City
www.avroko.com

AvroKO

Five years ago, AvroKO burst onto the restaurant scene with Public, a New York restaurant that they not only designed, but also own and operate, which earned the neophyte restaurateurs two James Beard awards. Since then, the foursome—Greg Bradshaw, Kristina O'Neal, Adam Farmerie, and William Harris—have been asked to bring their attention to detail and undeniably cool vibe to a slew of restaurants in New York, and more recently Las Vegas, Scottsdale, and Albuquerque. "Our original mission was to experience as many facets of design as the four of us could collectively imagine and to build a company along the way," O'Neal says, adding that their Nolita firm now boasts 20 people. And with two self-propelled projects under their collective belt, a recently launched uniform line, a lighting collection in the works, and W hotel in Bangkok on the boards, they are proving they can do just about anything. Between their hectic schedules, they answered a few of HD's questions (they are friends first, meeting in college, and so close that the answered as one voice) about being both the client and the designer, how they find just the right pieces for their projects, and why their dream project involves a submarine.

HD: How did Public come about?

A: This works along with the notion that we wanted to understand various forms of design from the inside out. One of us had a dream that we could own a restaurant we designed...we also thought that it would become a fantastic test bed for designing for hospitality and making sure the design had plenty of practical utility built-in. So that is what we did.

HD: Any lessons learned?

A: Plenty. There is nothing like using your own restaurant designs over a long period of time to see how efficient (or inefficient) they are for service, storage, flow, and durability. Biggest lesson—put more storage space in, always.

HD: You won two James Beard awards for Public. How did that feel?

A: Shocking for the most part. We weren't anticipating any sort of win and at the time we didn't even know what an honor it was to be sweeping the design categories. We were just excited and thrilled to be included.

HD: Your second self-propelled restaurant Double Crown opened last fall. Why did you want to do a second? Why Bowery?

A: The Bowery has an immense, unmatchable energy that we thought would be good for the type of project Double Crown would be become. We had a pool of talented chefs, managers, and staff that were waiting for a new opportunity with us. We also wanted to try on some new design ideas that would be challenging for a normal client. All of that coalesced into Double Crown as a project.

HD: Each project has a smaller, side room—Madame Geneva, the Monday Room. Why was this important for you?

A: The truth is that we just seem to want more opportunities to design rooms. They add to the restaurant experience and provide a variety of spaces for people to enjoy while dining, but I suspect it is our need to extend the ideas just a little bit further that makes us design extra rooms in a different vein.

HD: You are known for your painstaking attention to detail. You scoured all over for pieces for Double Crown. Can you talk a little bit about what you found and where?

A: We made a two-week trip all around Southeast Asia and India looking for interesting and odd pieces. The white soapstone screens and hanging bar pendant lights in the main dining room were found in Udaipur, India. Various other pieces—Chinese tables and blown glass lights in Madam Geneva, wall sconces in the panel room, and the odd sculpture or two—were discovered amongst the absolute chaos and exquisite wreckage of the Chor Bazaar (or thieves bazaar, as it's commonly known) in Mumbai. Of course we always make modern modifications to existing pieces, so much of the metal hardware and hanging systems are custom, courtesy of our fine craftsmen in Brooklyn. The all-encompassing wood screens in the bathroom corridor are Burmese, but were actually found in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We've found that northern Thailand and India seem to be the dumping ground for many amazing artifacts from many disparate cultures—so essentially become a playground for us. Hong Kong, Singapore, and of course, good 'ol northern Pennsylvania were also plentiful sources for us.

HD: Besides your own, one of the most interesting concepts you have done is Park Avenue as it rotates design for the seasons. How was it working on that project? How was it challenging/exciting?

A: This project was a particular challenge in function that we are not normally attuned to. The staff only has a day or so to get the entire installation for the season out and one more day to get the new season back in. Every design decision was based on ensuring that that could happen. It was exciting however to fully flesh out the idea in so many different facets. We had ample opportunity to explore the concept.

HD: Let's talk about projects outside of New York. Most recently Terra near Albuquerque. What was it like working there? What did you want to bring to New Mexico? Same for Bourbon Steak in Scottsdale. What was it like working there?

A: New Mexico has a magic to it that made us all want to stay. The desert areas there and also near Scottsdale were inspiring and we wanted to integrate the natural elements and history of those geographic areas with the industrial flavor that was born from our work in New York. Both projects have a little bit of both in the design.

HD: Is there a city you are watching in terms of growth and design?

A: New Mexico has a magic to it that made us all want to stay. The desert areas there and also near Scottsdale were inspiring and we wanted to integrate the natural elements and history of those geographic areas with the industrial flavor that was born from our work in New York. Both projects have a little bit of both in the design.

HD: Any new city you would like to work in?

A: Well, we're knee deep in New York City again and Asia's been great, but I think we could use some Euro flavor again. We'd like London to be calling.

HD: Is there a city you are watching for development/design?

A: Austin is booming and blooming. Texas appears to have handled the recession a little better than other states and we are seeing amazing things down there.

HD: Speaking of amazing things, Lavo has been widely successful in Las Vegas as a restaurant, lounge, and nightclub. What is it like working in Sin City?

A: It's a town that isn't afraid of the 'fantastical', which makes it more pleasurable to design into than some of the more conservative cities. It's also like working in a vacuum though, as there isn't any many direct cultural or historical elements to draw on in that context. We like that too. It keeps us evolving as a design firm.

HD: This was your second project with Rich Wolf [Stanton Social in New York was the first]. What is the key to keeping clients? What is the key to success in collaboration between owners and designers and chefs?

A: Learning to truly work together collaboratively is the key to keeping clients. This may sound basic, but it's quite hard to truly do. Knowing when to fight heartily for a design idea because you know it's the best move for the project, and knowing when to let some things slide is crucial. We're lucky in the fact that we own and operate essentially four venues, and that ultimately has been the greatest key in smoothing the collaboration between owners and chefs. We come from both sides of the counter, so to speak, so we can bring a sensitivity to the financial, operational, and design concerns of clients, because we have had to make many of those same decisions, and live with many of those concerns on a day to day basis in our own restaurants.

HD: You are working on a third now with Wolf...any details you can give us?

A: It's in New York, and it's big. That may be all we can say at this point… :)

HD: Okay, on to things you can talk about. You are about to launch a lighting line. Why was this a venture you wanted to take on? Can you give us a sneak peek?

A: We had a large inventory of lighting designs we had never released and we thought it was high time to put them into production. There is a range in the approach to the designs as well so we have a bit of design for commercial use and bit for the home.

HD: Another venture you have recently started in is uniform design line with Mona & Holly. This must have been a major learning curve. How did that come about?

A: This was a huge learning curve but we are constantly on the hunt to grab up new design skills. Its what keeps us feeling optimistic about design in general. Clients are excited about the idea that they can add uniforms under our umbrella to keep the concepts cohesive, and it gives us just one more vehicle for telling the design story.

HD: What do you think is your secret to success?

A: Perseverance, attention to detail, and perhaps being able to create a deeper emotional connection in our spaces. Our strong belief in concept and the holistic thread that manifests itself in our spaces can sometimes resonate with people. Also, having four partners with four very different minds and creative contributions always keeps things fresh, if not a little manic at times. Plus we've had some very lucky breaks. Or if you've read Malcolm Gladwell's recent book, it may just be because we were born in certain fortuitous years. Hard to say.

HD: You guys seem to be on such a roll, so I hate to bring it up, but how have you been faring in the economy?

A: Projects in the states have definitely been less plentiful. Negotiations have been taking longer and budgets are much tighter. However, our expansion to Asia, fortunately, was well timed and so we have been keeping quite busy. The slower economy has also been a blessing in some ways, as it has afforded us some extra time to focus back on our own self-propelled projects (our lighting line being one of them, and a custom bar cart and glassware line in collaboration with Eben Freeman is another). Umm, would we like the economy to recover though? Yes, please.

HD: It seems that you have your hands in many different pots so to speak. It may seem like a silly question, but how to constantly find inspiration for all of your various projects?

A: Travel, travel, travel. We find inspiration in the back alleys, forgotten corners, and odd bars or restaurants in the most random places. Most of our inspiration comes from places that are not considered to be 'designed' in any fashion whatsoever, but have a gritty authenticity, inherent soul, and ingenuity that help us look at the idea of design and living from a much different perspective.

HD: In all of your travels, what are some of your favorite restaurants (besides your own of course) for design?

A: This is always the hardest question. But here goes: Hutong in Hong Kong—killer view and clever use of old hutong village house artifacts in an otherwise glass and steel box. They actually own an old Junk, complete with blood red sails and rocking sound system that can ferry a guest (cocktail in hand) from Hong Kong to the shores of Kowloon (where the restaurant is actually located). You just can't get more spectacular than that. Hakkasan in London. Still fresh as a daisy and amazing after all these years; an innovation at the time and a classic now. Mix in Las Vegas—this always pops into mind (we suppose it's just been burned there—by hot blown glass?). That main dining room was so mind-blowing and inspired so many copycats that it has to be mentioned. La Esquina in New York— down and dirty and drippy and awesome. Any time you can make red tin buckets hanging from the ceiling to catch drips from the leaking streets above look cool, you know you've probably done something right.

HD: You all have such a passion for restaurants and for all facets of design. What's the best part of the industry?

A: Anything can happen in the design of a restaurant. Stories can be told in a way that other types of architectural design usually restricts. There are tradeoffs both ways, but we always love a good story.

HD: Most challenging part?

A: Budgets. They have always been generally tight for restaurant work and now they have been slashed again in the new economy. We always wish clients had a little more to spend on the key features.

HD: What would be your dream project?

A: Luxury hotel submarine. Decommissioned submarines (unfit for battle but perfectly fine for travel) would be appointed with the finest luxury detail. Military chic meets eco tourism to the nth degree. We're calling Ian Schrager right now.

HD: What's next for you? Projects on the boards you can hint at?

A: We've got our fingers in quite a few pots right now, but it's always a bit hush, hush before things open. We've got to be sensitive to our clients and their needs, but will be sure to give HD the scoop once we're cleared for takeoff. You may see things pop up in New York, Hong Kong, and LA soon though. Stay tuned.