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A Portrait in Design

Restaurant Architect Adam Tihany Captures Personality in His Work, Redefining the Spaces in Which We Live
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

Adam Tihany, architect and designer, is sitting in his office in New York's Greenwich Village, a Cuesta-Rey robusto in his hand. "What I really am," he says, "is a portrait artist. I paint portraits of my clients--not their faces but their personalities. And I paint those portraits not on canvas but in space. And instead of oils or watercolors or acrylics, I use concrete and metal and wood and light and color. And tables and chairs and ceilings and walls and light fixtures and banquettes. And silver and china. And, sometimes, moving circus sculptures."

At age 51, Tihany is an acclaimed master of his true medium: restaurants. In the last decade Tihany has created some of the most popular and successful restaurants in the world. The New York Times has called him the premier restaurant designer of the '90s. Among his creations are New York City's most praised new restaurants, Sirio Maccioni's Le Cirque 2000 and Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Jean Georges. The list continues across the country and around the globe: Gundel in Budapest; Wolfgang Puck's Spago restaurants in Las Vegas, Mexico City, Palo Alto and Chicago; Bice in New York, Washington, Beverly Hills and Paris; Biba and Pignoli in Boston; the new 160 Blue in Chicago, and chef Thomas Keller's Bouchon in Napa Valley. Tihany also conceived the new Aureole restaurant in Las Vegas, and he is redesigning the new Sign of the Dove restaurant at the Metropolitan Life Building in Manhattan.

But Tihany, who speaks five languages--Hebrew, English, Hungarian, French and Italian--does not live by restaurants alone. His current projects include renovating the King David Hotel, in Jerusalem, the new Time Hotel in Manhattan, and the lobby, restaurant and lounge of the Fontainebleau Hilton in Miami Beach. He has designed silver-plated cigar ashtrays and intricate china for Villeroy and Boch, interiors for a Disney cruise ship, and a Martini glass for Bombay gin. The Moschino flagship store in Manhattan is his design. And he has created a sleek, modern cigar store--Freyboy--for Manhattan's newly renovated Grand Central Terminal.

His minimum fee for designing a restaurant interior is $250,000 (it can be several times that for larger projects), which isn't bad for a Transylvanian reared in Jerusalem, who never ate at a restaurant until he was 16 years old.

"I have a magic formula," he says. "I listen to my clients. I try to have a little less ego than they have. I don't have the need to put my stamp, my point of view, on everything. I don't need to prove myself on every job. My goal is to make my clients look as good as possible. I try to understand their personalities and reflect those personalities in the design. Very early in my career I decided that I didn't want to tie myself to a particular style. What I wanted to create was a sense of permanence, to make an impact with something that will last a long time--a very long time."

Tihany pauses. He takes a long, slow puff of his Cuesta-Rey. It is, he says, "a lovely cigar," a wonderful way to start the morning. He smiles--but then there always seems to be at least the start of a smile on his face. He is ever graceful, charming and knowledgeable, relaxed and easygoing, with a gentle, self-effacing humor. But beneath the smile and the charm lurks a not-so-hidden toughness, the attitude and demeanor of brilliance and fortitude. A former Israeli soldier, a veteran of 1967's Six-Day War, he grew up in a land continually under siege, and he learned early what it takes to endure and succeed.

Le Cirque 2000 and Jean Georges are opposites in design--and superb examples of Tihany's ability to sculpt a restaurant in the shape of the restaurateur. Jean Georges is cool, with neutral colors and large windows, a refined reflection of the Champagne-colored, mirrored glass and light-bronze windows of the Trump International Hotel and Tower, at whose base it sits. Le Cirque 2000 is a joyously evocative juxtaposition of subdued nineteenth-century New York elegance--dark woods and paneled walls and ceilings, gold leaf and mahogany in a landmark building--with the lunatic exuberance of a circus. Originally designed in 1882 by Stanford White, one of the signature architects of the Gilded Age, the Villard Houses now contain Le Cirque 2000. In five of the rooms, Tihany placed green couches, red and yellow leather chairs, colorful rugs, a silk circus tent--and a giant neon sculpture with a clock moving back and forth on a tightrope.

"I think it would have been impossible to reverse it," Tihany says, "to put Jean Georges in the Villard Houses and Le Cirque in the Trump building. Look at the two men. Sirio is an Italian from Montecatini who has been running successful restaurants for decades; Jean-Georges is Alsatian, half-French, half-German, a young, ambitious chef. Sirio would wear a fine tailored Italian suit; Jean-Georges walks around in Prada or Donna Karan. So for the Jean Georges restaurant, the idea was to match his image with the restaurant--spare, contemporary, clean, yet sexy. It's not a clinical-looking place at all. It has warmth, and it's very chic, like he is.

"Sirio may at first seem reserved and traditional, but deep inside he's a joyous, funny ringmaster," Tihany continues. "When we first saw the Villard Houses, we were aware of all the restrictions. It's a registered interior landmark. You can't touch anything. So Sirio and I had an open conversation--we've been dear friends for years, and I renovated the old Le Cirque for him on East 65th Street. I said, 'Sirio, we have two ways to go here. We can restore this to perfection and put in a period decor, and at best you're going to have a museum. Or we'll restore everything to perfection and we'll do the equivalent of parking a Ferrari right in the middle and bank on the tension between the old and the new making it work.' And without even hesitating for a minute, he said, 'Bring in the Ferrari. I want to have fun. I don't want it to be stark. I have three rings here, and I want to be the ringmaster.'"

Vongerichten and Maccioni say they are thrilled with what Tihany has wrought. "He's a great visionary," Maccioni says, "and with each restaurant he gets better and better. He is the easiest person to work with and the most reliable in producing exactly what I'm looking for."

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