The Nouveaux Totalitarians

It all started with the soaps: thin white cakes shaped like oversize dominoes stacked in neat tall rows in glass-tiled bathrooms. They were disappearing nightly. But then, that was the idea. Never mind the matches or business cards. Every restaurant had those. Only Public had the soaps.

These weren’t fancy soaps by L’Occitaine or Kiehl’s. These plain-Jane soaps were created by AvroKO—the visionary group of young architects and designers who pulled off an unprecedented sweep of the restaurant design and graphics categories at the James Beard Awards last May for their work on Public, the avant-garde Australian fusion spot on Elizabeth Street.

Since the James Beard Awards, AvroKO has risen from obscurity to A-list with its work on Odea, a trendy Nolita lounge inspired by Shakespeare’s Tempest; Sapa, Patricia Yeo’s cool, stony French-Vietnamese restaurant; Zozo’s Juice and Grille, a colorful Lower East Side lunch counter; the soon-to-open European Union in the East Village; and the just-opened Stanton Social, a sumptuous duplex designed as a tribute to the old Lower East Side’s haberdashers and seamstresses.

Each space is markedly different, demonstrating AvroKO’s willingness to subsume design to the concept at hand, rather than impose a signature. “They have a very modern sensibility, but it’s an eclectic and inclusive kind of style,” says Belmont Freeman, chairman of the James Beard Foundation Restaurant Design Awards committee. “They are willing to accept a lot of found conditions. Rather than obsessively custom-designing every detail, they salvage architectural elements and furniture items and put them together in a way that is not the least bit nostalgic or cute. They also have this wonderful consistency between architecture and graphic design, which I think sets them apart. There is a seamlessness and a total holistic approach to design that’s very appealing.”

This quartet of thirtysomethings, easily mistaken for an aging rock band, met over beers fifteen years ago at Carnegie Mellon. A few years later, they reconnected in New York: Architects Greg Bradshaw and Adam Farmerie had founded Avro Design (named after one of the first mass-produced airplanes), while graphic designers William Harris and Kristina O’Neal had created Ko Media, a design and identity shop. After collaborating on a few projects, they joined forces in 2000. AvroKO aims to be a one-stop shop for architecture, interior design, and graphics, extending an aesthetic from the mood of a space right down to the matches—or bars of soap. That approach goes beyond the look of a restaurant to the way it works—AvroKO owns and operates Public, which gives it a unique insider’s perspective. It sees the details that are often missed in the quest for a stunning visual effect—where a sink or a service station should be, the right table size, the way to arrange the room for optimum flow. “Our designs are based on what we want the end experience to feel like, and we try to achieve that as honestly as possible through materials and objects, hopefully avoiding a lot of theatrical or non-utility-based elements,” says O’Neal. “We call it ‘integrated psychological design.’”

The process of turning integrated psychological design into reality takes place in an airy loft above Public—a former muffin factory where the team spends hours around a heavy square wooden table piled high with magazine clips, hand-drawn line sketches, doodles, architectural plans, fabric swatches, computer-generated models, cups of coffee, and treats for their bulldogs, Chopper and Wally.

For the Stanton Social, owned by Richard Wolf (Tao) and partners Peter Kane and chef Chris Santos (who worked together at Wyanoka), AvroKO referenced the social clubs of a bygone era in the restaurant’s open-table layout and in the menu, a take-and-pass affair peppered with classics and modern city fare. The team also nodded to the Lower East Side’s early-twentieth-century heyday—for example, the shape of the backlit wine wall in the downstairs dining area was inspired by a classic man’s herringbone-suit fabric.

The end result is a space layered with details, like tiny Seurat dots that blossom into a realistic picture at a distance.

But AvroKO is not just changing the backdrop to the way we eat. It wants to change the way we live, too. For the past two years, the architects have been experimenting with an apartment design called On May 14, they will unveil (and sell) two studio spaces on Waverly Place and Greene Street, each fully outfitted with Jetsons-like features: movable walls, elevator-like platforms, multi-purpose furniture, and “green” appliances. (The 650-square-foot space is $747,500; 550 square feet is set at $632,500.) By 2007, they intend to apply techniques to an entire building in lower Manhattan.

In a sign of their ambition, the architects’ idea of a better life goes beyond mere efficient use of space. The current plan also includes a curated library of books as well as aromatherapy products, a fully stocked wine locker, and—just to make sure you get your exercise—a pair of fold-up Dahon bicycles. “We are prescribing a whole lifestyle for people that will keep you social and cultured,” says Farmerie. “We are taking this beyond the architecture of the space and into the architecture of your life.”

The Nouveaux Totalitarians