Last fall, BUILD sat down with three of AvroKO’s four partners at their recently opened Gotham West Market in Manhattan. With current work in 15 cities across seven countries, the design-and-concept firm tackles everything from architecture and furniture to graphics and fashion. BUILD and AvroKO discussed continuity of design, self-propelled projects and why it’s important to glue things down in a restaurant.
BUILD: In addition to designing physical spaces, AvroKO has become a pioneer in creating full branding packages for restaurants, bars and retail shops. How did this come about?
Kristina O’Neal: William and I had concept branding backgrounds while Adam and Greg came from architecture. When we joined forces, we wanted to complete the whole idea of a project by putting our heads together to do everything.
Adam Farmerie: It started with the idea that we should remove the constraints from the traditional model of doing projects. We also took a look at whether or not we should always be working for clients, and that led to a series of self-propelled projects that included everything from launching our own restaurants and bars to creating a clothing line, furniture lines, home-wares and book design. It’s a constant evolution of thinking—the studio is about “what if?” We allow ourselves the freedom to experiment.
William Harris: There’s also a psychological and emotional thread of continuity with this way of working. To be able to manipulate all the different media that goes into a project as a whole is very important to us. It allows us to keep a singularity and authenticity of concept. Not tackling every angle of a project seemed rather antithetical to our goals.
B: You’ve taken on the disciplines of architecture, interiors and graphic design, and you’ve even designed clothing for the servers in restaurants like Beauty & Essex in Manhattan. Is there more territory you’d like to stake out?
KO: We’re now looking at different models that would allow us to do a whole building from top to bottom. This might include being the architects and developers of a 20-unit residential complex, creating the attached restaurant, doing the structural work—everything. In the next decade, we’re putting our minds to real estate development and possibly owning and operating a hotel brand. Rather than continuing to work in the same project model, we’ll continue to stretch ourselves.
B: New York fell in love with AvroKO’s very first restaurant, PUBLIC, of which you’re still part owners. What factors contributed to your early success in perhaps the most competitive restaurant scene in the country?
KO: When PUBLIC came along, we looked at it and said, “This is how we would love to work as a group.” It established a precedent that our projects would be concept driven rather than goal specific. This method of designing united ideas with form and materiality, and because we didn’t have a client, we were able to focus on our own way of working and create a process. To this day, I think our process was formed through that project.
B: The food and drink industry is notorious for paying the bills in meals. What advice do you have for designers who want to work in this industry and make money?
KO: Bill often, bill regularly and stop working when you don’t get paid on time. Because everyone in the restaurant industry is on a tight timeline, the design team often ends up working ahead of the billing cycle to keep everyone happy. Under these circumstances, a designer’s time can easily extend beyond the point at which the project runs out of money. Then there’s nothing but apologies and free meals. It’s a matter of training your clients, and we have been fortunate to establish good relationships with restaurants.
B: What tests does a potential client have to pass in order to work with AvroKO?
KO: Our first step involves very basic discussions about concept, timeline and budget. If a potential client can’t respond to pieces of that equation, we know we may not have the right partner. We like people who are organized, particularly with the hospitality industry. If a group is organized upfront, we find that results are better in the end.
AF: A well-organized restaurant will run better and be more successful and, in turn, the design will look better when it’s filled with a lot of people. We try to determine if the client is going to be successful or if the restaurant is going to close in a year despite all the time, energy and passion we’ve put into it. The food tastes better when the space feels great, and the space looks better when the food tastes great. Those two things go hand in hand, and they’re both dependent on how the restaurant is organized.
WH: So much of it comes down to the client’s experience—whether they understand and respect the design process or if they’re just fishing for the lowest fee or something glitzy. We also have to be passionate about the project, and we want to have fun working with the client. We look to partner with clients that want to push boundaries and be innovative.
B: Are you able to hang out in your restaurants and enjoy yourselves, free from the experience of design and construction?
AF: Once a project is complete, if I was the lead, I can’t go in for a while. It’s just too emotional. It takes me a little while to come back to the decisions that I made. At first, I can’t see the forest for the trees—there’s just too much struggle in the design and construction process.
WH: At some inherent level, we all hate our own projects when they open. We know that 99 percent of the issues bugging us aren’t seen by anyone but ourselves, but it’s still hard to kick back and have that glass of wine.
AF: The other three partners—those who didn’t lead the design—can walk into the space and feel awesome about the finished product though.
B: What risks should architects and designers keep in mind prior to taking stake in a restaurant?
AF: In all honesty, don’t expect to get your money back. We’ve been very fortunate that the investors in our restaurants have all been well looked after and paid out within a reasonable amount of time. Subsequently, they keep funding additional projects of ours. But on average, restaurants fail more often than they succeed in New York. In the restaurant industry, the odds are more likely that you’ll back a horse that won’t win. However, there are benefits to the restaurant industry beyond finances alone. The social advantages are important, and some investors also use the establishments as showpieces.
B: On your website, you describe your projects as being “characterized by a unique convergence between the ideals of the past and an offbeat, forward-looking sensibility.” What ideals of the past do you find most significant?
KO: It’s our version of past ideals—a narrow piece of the past that we find idyllic. No matter the concept on which we’re reflecting, we try and find something that’s just sideways of that original idea. For us, being forward-thinking means that we’re reinterpreting, looking to design in a space where the present, past and future all meet.
WH: We find ideals that will give a certain aura to a project, asking ourselves how can we re-present that concept in a modern way.
B: Found, vintage objects play an important role in most of your work. How do you coordinate finding and securing these objects?
WH: We’re always searching in different markets and small towns; our eyes are always open, and our staff is always on the lookout for found objects. Our whole endeavor in Asia began with trips for sourcing items to ship back to Las Vegas and New York. We have a couple of people who search full-time for objects with unique and bizarre qualities. Our dream is to have a big warehouse someday to stock and pull items from. It’s always painful to pass on an item that resonates with us, but we can’t pull the trigger if we don’t have a project for it at the moment.
B: Do the highly coveted objects in your projects ever grow legs and walk off?
AF: Absolutely. A gentleman was caught trying to take an 18-inch-tall blown-glass horse from one of our restaurants. He tried to walk out of the restaurant with the horse’s head sticking out of his messenger bag. Luckily, the restaurant staff was able to intervene. Now we’re better at bolting, gluing and cementing down every last thing.
WH: Part of the inspiration for providing small complimentary soaps in the bathrooms was to include something special that was meant to be stolen. It acted like insulation against the loss of more valuable items. While we engineered this in a certain way, odd things still occur. An older lady once dropped her purse in the middle of the dining room, and 30 soaps exploded out onto the floor. Fortunately, at three cents per soap, it wasn’t a big deal.
B: With the careful curation of your projects, are there certain details you wish people would notice more often?
KO: Downstairs at the Hurricane Club in Manhattan we inset 1,000 real bones into European wallpaper patterns on the walls. Everything about it was handcrafted and hand set; it was a really elaborate process to get the intended result. It’s one of my favorite details that we’ve ever done and probably the one that’s overlooked more often than it should be.