The hieroglyphs decorating the lamp shades at Thomas Keller’s Per Se restaurant in New York should seem familiar: Those same symbols are the ones that adorn the tags inside your clothes and describe how to launder them. The designs are in fact a reference to the French Laundry, Keller’s restaurant in Yountville, Calif., and on a more ethereal level, they are meant to parallel the wit that the chef displays in his dishes.
The lamp shades, and indeed the entire appearance of Per Se, is the work of Adam Tihany, who, since 1980, has designed more than 150 restaurants, including Charlie Trotter’s C in Mexico, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Jean Georges in Manhattan, and Sirio Maccioni’s Le Cirque 2000 in Manhattan (now defunct). Recently, Tihany completed the Summit restaurant at the Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs, Colo., and he is redesigning the restaurant and bar at the Hotel Jerome in Aspen, Colo. Born in Transylvania, raised in Israel, and educated at a design college in Milan, Italy, the 58-year-old Tihany, who maintains offices in Manhattan and Rome, calls himself a hospitality designer. Although he established his business by designing unique settings in which to dine, now only half of his commissions involve restaurants. The rest are hotels, bars, boutique shops, and collaborations with manufacturers such as Christofle, for which he cocreated the K + T line of silverware. His other current projects include the Joule Urban Resort, a hotel that is scheduled to open later this year in Dallas, and a 400-room Mandarin Oriental that will open in 2009 in Las Vegas.
Tihany does not follow a particular formula when creating a restaurant design, but on more than one occasion he has begun the process by asking the chef to prepare for him dishes that will appear on the menu. “I look at the way it is presented and how it smells,” he says, “and I picture myself at the entrance of a restaurant that will convey a message that is appropriate to that kind of food.” With Per Se, Tihany’s fourth project with Keller—a chef who unites briny oysters with pearls of smooth tapioca—he wanted to reflect the chef’s sensibility in clever details such as the lamp shades. “I don’t care if no one else gets it. He gets it,” Tihany says. “Chefs trust me enough to let me put their personalities on display.”
It is not clear what the 40-foot wine tower at Charlie Palmer’s Aureole Las Vegas says about the chef, but it is perhaps Tihany’s boldest innovation. Referred to as “wine angels” by the restaurant, staffers attired in black catsuits and attached to Peter Pan–style theatrical wires rise along the sides of the transparent tower to retrieve the selected vintages. Tihany says the idea for the tower came to him late one night following a visit to the unfinished space. Frustrated and unable to sleep after fruitless hours of sketching ideas for the restaurant, he turned on his hotel room TV and watched the film Mission: Impossible. “I saw Tom Cruise dangling on a wire and thought, that’s it,” Tihany recalls. “Someone has to fly up and down to get the wine.”
Ultimately, Tihany’s success lies in his ability to create designs that prompt diners to cross the threshold into the restaurants. “Let’s say you’re looking at a restaurant that you’ve never heard of, and you don’t know if the food is good. Your first impression is the design. If the place looks good to you, you’ll give it a shot,” he says. “If the food is bad, you won’t be back, but at least you came in.”
Tihany Design, 212.366.5544, www.tihanydesign.com