This is the story of a job in New York. It is not a fast read, but a longer story about slow beauty and precious memory that should not be rushed. The project is the latest arrival in a vibrant New York address book. A newly cut jewel in the city’s array of gems. It is the result of an intense collaboration between David Collins Studio and American culinary prominence, Chef Thomas Keller – a visionary who became a part of America’s cultural legacy, and certainly the only David Collins Studio client to have appeared in The Simpsons. The restaurant, TAK Room, is the result of a shared uncompromising commitment to unblemished perfection, created in partnership with the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group’s VP of Branding and Creative Development, Laura Cunningham.
It is that increasingly rare specimen; an unapologetic homage to contentment through eating, drinking and flawless service. No convoluted concept or strategy and no explanation required. Aesthetically it is difficult to define. It swerves any notion of pastiche or nostalgia. TAK Room is a cinematic take on erudite, debonair and urbane sophistication that belongs to a timeless era.
How does all of this happen? The following interview was conducted across several sessions with the David Collins Studio team in London. The difficulties in assembling a full team in a single place at a specific time is testament to a thoroughly international project list. The team is represented by Simon Rawlings, Roslyn Keet, Marco Ginex, Lorna Mangan, Pippa Dowdell and Ruchika Rajani. For the readers benefit the answers are uniformly credited to the Studio team and not to individuals. The transcript has been edited for ease of reading.
Graham Erickson: How do you even begin to design a restaurant in New York as a London design studio?
David Collins Studio: Well, the process on this project really started a long time before we were even appointed. There had been a long, exploratory dialogue between us and our client. Chef Thomas Keller and Laura Cunningham make incredibly well-informed and considered decisions. We are only the second interiors studio they have worked with.
In the very personal and highly detailed brief we received, Chef Keller, known for his storytelling, evocatively revealed memories of his mother who ran The International Club restaurant which sat at the top of the Holiday Inn in Laurel, Maryland, serving gorgeous classics of international sophistication to immaculately dressed couples.
He recalled the composition of the rich burgundy, dark wood and Captain’s chairs. The opulent drama of a carefully steered gueridon and the gasps of pleasure at the theatre of dishes being prepared at the table, all seared into the memory of a 14-year old boy and all declared decades later in a design brief which could double as a rites of passage film script.
GE: Why do you think that a New York client chooses to appoint a London designer?
DCS: The client thinks beyond geography. Once he felt comfortable and confident, it wouldn’t have mattered where we were based. He and Laura think internationally and reason that the people who will use the restaurant will be international so the matter of an ocean between studio and project becomes irrelevant. We have a strong legacy of work and reputation in New York which helps. Besides, London and New York are like cities that form a pair with shared ideals and thinking.
GE: There is a certain romance in an outsider’s vision, by which I mean that people who are not from a place have a powerful, different and idealised vision of it. Often this is drawn from literature, film, music or fashion. Do you think the place would have looked different if it had been designed by a local studio?
DCS: That is definitely a valid idea. The distance brings excitement, imagination and glamour. It is worth pointing out that the client is not a native of New York either. Chef Keller and Laura Cunningham were both born in California; she in the Napa Valley area and he in Florida before zig-zagging across the world so they, too, have this outside observation of New York possibly.
GE: And how involved were they in the design process?
DCS: We are very lucky. We work with great clients and Chef Keller and Laura define the idea of a great client. They are challenging, provocative and think and question with formidable skill. Great clients do this, it is not combative or obstructive, it is just passion and respect for the project and we definitely appreciate it and it is what elevates certain works. Chef Keller had put so much into the brief that we knew certain elements and details had sacred importance. Committed clients are only a problem if you do not respond effectively, but here the entire process was inspiring and thrilling. We hope they would, largely, say the same!
Since the opening of The French Laundry twenty-five years ago, Laura has established impeccable service and design standards to Chef Keller’s restaurants and bakeries. Her touch points thread throughout - from fine to casual dining and special projects - always with a focus on service, excellence and an undeniable attention to detail. With her keen aesthetic, she is instrumental, curating every detail to produce unique experiences at every turn.
GE: Do you look outside of interior design references and look to cinema, or other cultural disciplines, for inspiration?
DCS: Well, it is impossible to separate New York from cinema and literature so any New York project takes inspiration, often subconsciously, from movies. We discussed Mies Van der Rohe and Adolf Loos a lot. So, obviously, you discuss Mies and New York and you connect with Hitchcock. It all connects in a loose way.
We pored over endless images and film clips of legendary places like The Blue Fox in San Francisco, Chanson’s in LA and Le Cirque in late sixties New York. Possibly more than looking at the design and architecture, it was the choreographed and debonair elegance, the assertion of masculinity and femininity and the sense of composed enjoyment of the people in the images. And, of course, we would regularly return to that brief.
GE: How do you retain a sense of identity and distinction in a world which is always threatening to look contemporary but, well, all the same?
DCS: We work hard to protect that confidence of vision. Chef Keller was clear that he wanted TAK Room to be overwhelmingly of another world and unexpected. The restaurant sits within Hudson Yards. We wanted to create an inner world that contrasted wildly with Heatherwick’s statement architecture. It does feel dreamlike, the stepping from something so unapologetically modern into somewhere which feels so affectionately familiar. That sense of subtle other-worldliness is something we definitely all committed to.
GE: Even by the standards chalked by DCS, this is incredibly detailed. Do you ever worry or agonise that an average customer is not necessarily going to notice the extent of this attention to very subtle detail?
DCS: We design spaces that we hope people will enjoy spending time in. The specifics and intricate details are necessary, but they do not have to be noticed or apparent for people to have a perfect experience in them. Even those who profess not to consciously notice the detailing are affected by it. Seen, or unseen, they are what elevates a space to the extraordinary.
GE: What is your favourite detail in the project?
DCS: That is a difficult one. The restaurant is composed almost entirely from a series of bespoke, unique elements. Virtually nothing is a standard product. The standard to which every element is crafted in beyond comparison. There is literally nothing that is not finished to couture levels. There is a subtle geometric artwork which flows and undulates through the space, it is absolutely beautiful. It evolved from finding a wallpaper from the fifties in the V&A archives. We worked with the idea of it and extracted a tiny graphic detail which we drew and redrew. We then worked with Dean Barger Studios in New York who reinterpreted it beautifully. In its simplicity it somehow captures something of art deco with a sense of expressionism but rendered in this subtle opulence. It’s just beautiful and takes something from one period and reconfigures it into to make something entirely contemporary. Of course, you don’t have to know all of that to simply enjoy it by looking at it!
Also, the cast glass column lights are exquisite. Their simplicity does not relay the design and engineering insight which informs them. They look devastatingly beautiful. They were cast in New York and they are unbelievably heavy which, again, you may not guess by looking at them. They look strangely weightless. They give a gentle nod to both nostalgia and to the contemporary, so they really define the entire project in a way. Lighting is always a signature of our work so, of course, we get very drawn into the design of it. So, even by our standards, these are gorgeous lights!
Sourcing the aforementioned antique pieces added a thrill and a challenge in equal proportions. Laura Cunningham has exquisite taste and that added a further pressure! With her help, we eventually curated fifteen pieces for the restaurant. We originally wanted to find mid-century Gotham antiques, but the styling brief evolved to be more international. We ended up with a gorgeous collection from New York, California, Italy, London and Paris. The period pieces add a beautiful sense of mystery which we find really compelling.