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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

(continued from page 2)

Tihany first arrived in Jerusalem when he was three years old. He had been born in Transylvania, a region of western Romania, on January 1, 1948; his parents, Judith and Martin, had come from the same small town, had both been in Nazi concentration camps, and had met after the war.

"There are a variety of ways people who have survived the Holocaust deal with the fact that they are alive, that they have to carry that burden," Tihany says, recalling his childhood. "Some people are totally shut off. Some people make it their life's mission to continue talking about it, to carry the torch. My father, who died 10 years ago, was a lawyer, and he chose to practice reparation law. As a youngster, I couldn't understand why he was doing it. Every single day what he dealt with was the testimony of people about the darkest days of human history. I guess it was his only way of being able to live with the fact that he was alive and everybody else was dead. Every single day at the table when I was a child they were talking about the camps, about how you take a Jew and turn him into soap. Every single day of my young life the question was asked, why did God punish us to stay alive and have to carry this burden? And the answer was, because if we didn't live, there would be nobody to tell the story."

Tihany pauses. "Let me tell you a story," he says. "Both of my parents went through Auschwitz, Dachau. My mother was taken on death marches, carrying her mother on her back. She was 16 years old. A few years ago, my mother was visiting from Israel, and my son, Bram, went over to her one day and said, 'I would be really honored if you watched Schindler's List with me.' Now, after my father died my mother absolutely stopped talking about the camps. And she looked at me and looked at Bram and said it was OK. So we rented the movie. They were sitting, the two of them, holding hands through the movie for three hours. Nobody was saying anything. I was in the other room. My heart was in pieces. But you could see the torch being transferred. You could see that she had fulfilled her life. A burden had been removed. She had been there when they went into the showers. She finally understood why she had survived. It was so he could understand. That was one of the most incredible moments of my life."

He pauses again, and he is back in Jerusalem, in the 1950s. "We started from scratch," Tihany says. "We built our life from scratch."

After finishing high school, as happens with most Israelis, he was drafted into the military. He spent his term, which included the Six-Day War, in the air force. "It was difficult for me," he says, "all discipline-filled activities. I needed to breathe. So the day after my discharge I left to study architecture in Milan." Italian state-owned schools, with tuition of about $100 a year, were his best option.

He attended the School of Architecture and Planning at the Politecnico di Milano, working to help support himself. "I sold cotton jerseys, painted apartments and did all kinds of odd jobs, but finally I apprenticed with a design firm. I made blueprints and did drafting."

Three years later, in 1973, he became an associate. "When I finished school, I started thinking about coming to the United States. I had always dreamed about the United States. As a child in Israel, my two favorite magazines were Mad and Playboy. I used to find four-month-old copies. To me America was a dream. This was the place where I always knew one day I was going to go to and conquer."

Then, in 1976, the opportunity arose--Italian design was hot, and American companies were sending representatives to Italy to look for promising young designers to bring to the States. "One of them came to see the firm I was working with, and they asked if anybody wanted to go to America. And I said yes."

His first major New York job was designing an apartment across from St. Patrick's Cathedral for Adnan Khashoggi, the Saudi arms dealer. The apartment was at the time the largest residential interior in New York. It had 110 rooms--137 doors, "with a waterfall over St. Pat's." The project took two and a half years and cost $8 million, an immense sum 20 years ago. It was, he says, "good training."

Tihany opened his own firm in 1978. Three years later, he was asked to design a restaurant--La Coupole on East 32d Street, modeled after the Parisian restaurant of the same name in Montparnasse. "I got hooked," he says. Now his firm has a staff of 10 in New York and four in a satellite office in Israel.

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