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A Different Angle of Adam Tihany

Restaurant designer Adam Tihany does not see the world the way you and I do, but he understands what makes us comfortable.
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Fred Thompson, March/April 2009

Adam Tihany is standing beneath the awning of Restaurant Daniel on New York City's East 65th Street, explaining the difficulty of tackling a redesign of one of New York's four-star dining institutions, a place that devotees had loved just the way it was. The first hurdle had been the interior's landmark status, which meant it couldn't be altered in any major way. The second was that his client, the owner and chef Daniel Boulud, a man with a reputation as an absolute perfectionist, had been absent—in China—for the entire renovation. And last, Boulud had required the work be done during a five-week shutdown in August in a city notorious for its glacial pace of construction.

As Tihany walks through the door, he begins pointing out the subtle earth-tone fabrics on the walls, the lighting fixtures, the carpet, and then, as he enters the main dining area, he shows off the luminescent panels that obscure the old balustrades and turn the space between each of the large columns in the room into something more modern, or as he says, fresher. The room now has a cohesive feel, a seamless blending of Old World elegance with a modernist sophistication.

He picks up a plate and runs his fingers over the white-on-white circles, a dynamic half circle within a circle. He points to the carpet, where a subtle brown and tan swirl mimics the same pattern on the plate. And, yes, the same swirl of circles is on the welcome mat outside the main revolving brass door at the entrance. Every detail had been considered, all with an eye toward creating that cohesive "design." And Tihany did it while meeting his three requirements: to impress a new look on the space without disturbing its landmark status, to satisfy Boulud's penchant for perfection and to wrap up in five weeks a project that wouldn't have raised New Yorkers' eyebrows if it had taken years.

"Before, it was decorated, not designed," says Tihany, standing casually in the still empty dining room. "Now it is fresher. But it has a design. And yet we still have let the room be what it was meant to be."

In 2008, Tihany Design celebrated its 30th anniversary. Fittingly, one of the firm's early projects had been to design the original Le Cirque, which Boulud had run as chef and which today is contained within Restaurant Daniel, the original restaurant's dining room now serving as a private function space in this establishment. Since then, Tihany has spanned the globe with his projects as he has designed hotels and restaurants from Prague to Mexico City, from New York to Hong Kong, and from California to Dubai. During the course of interviews for this story, he traveled to Hong Kong and then to Cape Town, South Africa, having just returned from Cabo San Lucas in Mexico before the first meeting. By the breadth of his travels, you might think that he takes every job that comes his way. But he dismisses that conjecture. "It can be a long process of a year or more, so I have to have a personal relationship with the people I work with," Tihany says, suddenly lacing his words with a hint of intensity. "I have to ask pointed and detailed questions. I need to know the DNA of the person before I can design for him." If he doesn't feel comfortable with a person, or his cooking, he won't even think about taking on his project.

Tihany's life as a designer almost didn't happen. He was born in Targu Mures, Transylvania, a region of Romania, on New Year's Day in 1948, to survivors of the Holocaust. They immigrated to Israel in 1950 and Adam grew up in Jerusalem. "We were really pioneers there. My father built roads while he waited to retake the bar exam. My mother sold sandwiches," Tihany says. He joined the Israeli Army in 1966 for a three-year stint that included service during the 1967 Six-Day War. "By that point, I had to get away. With the mood of the country, it was just a burden. My parents weren't wealthy enough to send me to the United States or the United Kingdom, so I researched where I could go and get an education that was inexpensive.

"I discovered that Italy was giving scholarships to Israeli students with a five-year temporary visa," Tihany says. "The two choices were the faculty in Bologna in veterinary medicine, or architecture in Milan. I didn't want to be a vet. That's all I knew about architecture at that point." While attending the School of Architecture and Planning at the Politecnico di Milano, he got an apprenticeship at an architectural firm, where he learned everything from how to sweep the floor to acquiring knowledge more pertinent to his field: making blueprints and drafting designs. "I guess I was good enough at it that they ended up making me a junior partner. I went to school when I could. It was very unstructured, and they didn't care. My education was really my on-the-job training. By the time I finished, I was a professional."

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