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04.16.2008
The Storytellers
Guided by an abiding curiosity about the past lives of buildings, objects, and neighborhoods, the partners of the design and concept firm AvroKO have developed a distinct visual language for some of New York's most popular restaurants. Their aesthetic may have been duplicated, but their narrative-based approach makes it hard to match.
At the Park Avenue [Season] Restaurant, snap-on upholstery, mountable wall panels, and pendant lamps can all be easily changed and stowed away until next year.
Michael Weber/Courtesy AvroKO

“We like to think of ourselves as the most open-minded clients we’re going to have,” said Greg Bradshaw, principal of the downtown architecture/interiors/fashion/book/concept/ ethos/lifestyle/design firm AvroKO, which he heads along with Kristina O’Neal, Adam Farmerie, and a very tired—that evening, at least—William Harris. The four of them were sitting at the end of the bar at PUBLIC, their first venture as their own clients, and were talking about everything from the just-completed transformation of the restaurant Park Avenue Winter into Park Avenue Spring (on which Harris has been working non-stop), to their plans for a new restaurant on the rapidly gentrifying Bowery, to joking about what exactly O’Neal’s SAT scores were, and what exactly they mean.

The four, who met when they were eighteen, each have different approaches, personalities, and skills, but together they make up a coherent and collaborative whole. Initially, however, they operated as two firms, Avro Design (Bradshaw and Farmerie) and KO Media Studios (O’Neal and Harris). After many years of collaborating, the two firms merged while working on PUBLIC. Their ethos is research-driven as much as it is fantastical, interpretive as much as creative, and conceptual as much as style-conscious. The firm has become known mostly for its historically referential restaurant design, clear in everything from the Lower East Side’s Stanton Social, which adopted the neighborhood’s long history of tailoring with a herringbone-riffing wine wall, to PUBLIC—the restaurant they own and above which they work—where they took the discarded fixtures of municipal buildings from the 1930s and recast them, so that an old library card catalog is used to store old menus.

Bradshaw talks about the process of collaborating (on a good day) and struggling (on a bad) with a client. “Most clients don’t have briefs, or an idea of what they want to do,” O’Neal explained. “If they’re coming to us, it’s often because they’re looking for a concept or a name—for the tabletop, the interior design, architecture.” So how do they make something—the boudoir-inspired upstairs dining room at Stanton Social, the gastropub-meets-manor-kitchen of E.U.—from nothing? “We try to apply information based on what we’re feeling on the location, space, and chef,” O’Neal said. “And then we find the seed idea.”

The seed for Stanton Social, then, was a gender-specific interpretation (silk florals upstairs, manly leather downstairs) of the neighborhood’s fashion history. The seed for E.U. was to turn the kitchen inside out, embracing the theater that restaurants have become in the last few years.


YUKI KAWANA
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And for Park Avenue [Season], the seed was a cheekily literal take on the current craze for food that is fresh, seasonal, and local, and a recognition of the fact that people like to eat differently in different weather. Switching from one season to another is a 72-hour process that completely transforms the space at the same time as the chef is transforming the menu. In the most recent transition from Winter to Spring, AvroKO replaced a spare white motif with one that Bradshaw described only as “Green!!!” Not literally, they all jumped in to explain, but more the idea of what “green” could be—by swapping out cushions, changing the lighting and fixtures, and re-coloring the wall. “Everything had to be flexible,” Farmerie explained of the firm’s design, which was as much about creating the details—quick but stable snaps, packing systems, storage ideas, and an installation plan—as a look.

AvroKO’s adoption of restaurant-as-stage is one sign of the way in which the firm co-opts the contemporary ethos without adopting the current trend. It’s easy to see the horse head jutting out of one of PUBLIC’s walls as just another example of the urban-rustic style currently fashionable in restaurant design—weird taxidermy, rusty farm implements, and un-ironic waistcoats—until it’s just as easy to remember that not only did AvroKO come first, but they’re already onto the next thing. “The design that we’re doing in New York now is shifting away from that,” O’Neal said of the craze for old brick and dark wood. “It starts as an ethos and then gets translated down as a trend,” she pointed out. “So what you wind up with is a flat version of what should be a dynamic experience.” 

So. How to keep things moving? 

“Neon!” Farmerie said, and it’s a sign of how thoroughly defined AvroKO’s overall aesthetic is that none of the group—especially him—took it seriously. “Our design is driven by our desires and wants and needs, and that’s driven by the landscape,” Harris said. “And if that landscape starts to shift, then we’ll shift as well.” Their Bowery restaurant is a perfect example. When the Bowery Hotel was under construction two years ago, homeless men took shelter under the scaffolding; by the time it opened, the glitterati that fill it every night had forgotten this. “It has so many histories—its rock-and-roll history, its life as a restaurant supply center,” Farmerie said of the neighborhood. “But I think there’s a sensibility of invention that’s always been on the Bowery.”

“It’s about not making things too precious,” Harris added. “Many designers can get very wrapped up in quote-unquote design.”

Instead, the four are looking to push things as far as they can. How far? “It’s like the title of the book; it’s the best of the worst,” Harris said, talking about Best Ugly, a book on the firm’s design philosophy that has just been released by HarperCollins. “It’s not conventional, it’s not traditional, it’s not so self-conscious—you just have to let things float and trust yourself enough.” How do they know when they’ve pushed it too far? “It’s when all four of us are looking and we all say ‘that doesn’t work,’” O’Neal said.

It’s clear, talking and listening to them, that the way they work together can’t be easily broken down into Bradshaw and Farmerie: architect or Harris: designer—much as they like to break it down into personalities like, “Kristina: smart one.” The number of sentences that go unfinished and the ones that go lovingly heckled is a sign of just how entrenched these four are in working together. “Before PUBLIC, we were like individual cowboys working together,” Harrison said. “And with PUBLIC, we were like a gang!”

Eva Hagberg