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A Portrait in Design

Restaurant Architect Adam Tihany Captures Personality in His Work, Redefining the Spaces in Which We Live
| By Mervyn Rothstein | From 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."

Vongerichten says that Tihany "immediately understood my philosophy, who I am, my style. He has a restaurant of his own, and he knows what a restaurant needs. He didn't come in and say, 'This is what I'm going to do for you.' "

For Remi, the designer's own restaurant, which he opened more than a decade ago in Manhattan with co-owner Francesco Antonucci, Tihany created a strikingly long and narrow space of cherrywood, maple and mahogany, with a brightly colored 120-foot-long Venetian mural and wooden flying-buttress arches that curve gracefully, offering diners the illusion of floating under a bridge in a gondola on the Grand Canal. Remi, which in Italian means "oars," resembles more than anything a boat. It now has an offspring in Santa Monica, California.

"The secret of designing a restaurant is not to get people in there the first time but to get them to come back," Tihany says. He and Antonucci have certainly achieved that--Remi is grossing more than $8 million a year.

Owning a restaurant, Tihany says, has made him a better, more knowledgeable designer. "Most designers focus on the dining area, the appearance of the front of the restaurant," he says. "But in truth the relationship between the front and the back of the restaurant is the key to a restaurant's success. Function matters. Are the service stations in the right position? Are they big enough?"

Tihany's office is set up to begin gauging his clients' needs as soon as they enter. "To me, a comfortable chair in a restaurant is of paramount importance," he says. "So we sprinkle some prototypes here and there, and when we do presentations the clients sit in them and I watch to see whether they are comfortable. Afterward, I ask them how the chair was. And if they remember, the chair is wrong. If they say, 'What chair?,' that means they were totally comfortable."

The chairs, he says, illustrate the one factor he believes unites everything he does. "It's a feeling of comfort, of ease, of relaxation," he says. "When people are in a restaurant I design, I want them to smile."

The designs for the new Time Hotel and the renovated King David Hotel are as different from each other as are Le Cirque and Jean Georges, and yet they both have as their goal that comfort, that ease.

"The design of the Time Hotel has a very specific philosophical theme," says Tihany, a design that reflects the trend in boutique hotels like the all-white Delano, in Miami Beach, and the Vermeer-themed Paramount, in Manhattan, hotels that give their guests unique and thought-provoking esthetic experiences. "I found some interesting books on color theory, and out of those I created the concept for the hotel. The rooms are very neutral, except for one splash of color, usually in the bedspreads and the headboards--red or blue or green or yellow or orange. In the room is a booklet with excerpts from the books' essays that connect you to the color via literature and philosophy. There is a fruit dish with fruit that has the same color of the room, so you can taste the color. In the bathroom, the amenities--the soap and the scent--are also related to the color, so you can bathe in it and smell it." He envisions guests returning to the hotel and saying "they want to experience yellow, or live orange, or feel the tranquillity of blue. When they make a reservation they can request a specific color."

The King David, on the other hand, was a renovation of a once-majestic and formal hotel that had lost its luster. "The mission was to restore it to its old days of glory. People when they come to the King David expect to stay at a hotel that hosted the great statesmen of the world, presidents and prime ministers; they expect a certain magisterial feeling," Tihany says. "My mission was to recreate this perception, but at the same time ground the hotel in Jerusalem. Not only the physical location but the design itself pays homage to the city--the architecture, the colors, the history."

The King David project also has a special meaning to Tihany. "It's the project of a lifetime," he says. "It's like restoring the Wailing Wall. I grew up there, so to come back as an accomplished professional and work on something of such importance is a wonderful feeling."

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.

"I found that designing restaurants gave me the opportunity to marry all the disciplines," Tihany says. "It's a microcosmos--it has graphics, it has lighting, it has furniture, it has carpeting, it has drapery, it has china, it has silver. It gives me the opportunity to focus on one field but at the same time touch every other aspect of design."

Another of Tihany's loves is cigars. "I've been smoking cigars for almost 30 years," he says. "I started in Milan as a student. It was the fall of 1969, right after the Red Summer, the student rebellion. Smoking a cigar was a very sophisticated means of expression--it reminded everybody of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro."

His first cigars were not the best--"Toscani, the twisted ones. They were totally vile. They tasted as good as they looked. But the point at the time was not quality. It had to be a down-to-earth cheap cigar that the men in the factory smoked, otherwise you were not playing the proletarian part."

But as time went on and Tihany became more sophisticated, so did his choice of cigars. "As you grow you get interested in the quality things in life--better food, better clothing, better women,'' he says. "Everything you touch and everything you do becomes more sophisticated. You become high maintenance, and the cigars go up with it."

Now, he says, he smokes three a day. "I'm what you would consider a heavy smoker," he says. "In the morning I usually smoke Dominican cigars. I light my first one at about 11 a.m. It's preferably a Davidoff, which I like a lot--anywhere from a robusto to a corona. After lunch, I'll usually have a Cuban cigar--a Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2 or even an Epicure No. 1, or a Partagas Serie D--they've been my longtime favorites. At night, if I have the time, I smoke a double corona--either a Hoyo or a Lusitania or a Romeo y Julieta Churchill--a big cigar. I don't like Cuban Cohibas--I'd much rather smoke a Hoyo. It's the taste. Hoyos are a bit more tightly packed, I think; they're a bit more robust in taste. The Cohibas are a bit mild for me."

"Cigar smoking," he says, "is a personal experience, a personal moment, a time of relaxation and reflection. I don't need to share the length of my cigar with other people, to sit in a room and discuss it with all the other people smoking cigars. I don't frequent the cigar clubs, because I don't find them interesting. Smoking a cigar is a time to reflect, a private time, a time to think, a time to work."

He has, he says, 26 humidors--"ten of them in the United States. My mother keeps a stock of cigars for me in Israel, which is the best place to buy Cuban cigars."

Tihany makes one exception to his rule on privacy and cigars. About two years ago, he and 14 friends--intensely successful men from Italy, France, Israel, England, Scotland, Singapore and the United States who work in television, movies, medicine, finance, the hotel business and other professions--formed a group they call the Cigar Clan. Once a year they meet for two days. Oh, do they meet.

"We just enjoy each other's company," Tihany says, "and it's rare that we find time to take two days off and get away. It's a sophisticated retreat. So our charter calls for us to meet in a different place each year. One member is the host, and he has to outdo the year before. This year it's Monte Carlo. One year we're going to Israel--we're going to get together in the Sinai Desert in black tie in a Bedouin tent, with chamber music and helicopters above."

In 1997, the get-together, the first, was in Scotland, at the One Devonshire Gardens hotel in Glasgow. It included many tastings of single-malt Scotch, box after box of Cuban cigars, a visit to a distillery, bagpipes and a formal dinner. The menu included Cuvée Dom Perignon '88, Beluga caviar en gelée with asparagus cream, roulade of foie gras with Sauternes, Schlossberg Grand Cru Riesling '93 (Domaine Weinbach Cuvée Ste. Catherine, Alsace), home-smoked lobster with herb butter, Château Latour '81 and fillet of veal, roasted kidney and sweetbreads with morels and Madeira sauce.

"This year in Monte Carlo we had a James Bond theme, with a gala dinner at Alain Ducasse's restaurant, followed by nine silver convertible Mercedes going on a road rally through the hills of Provence to St. Paul and the La Colombe d'Or restaurant. Next year we meet in Havana."

Tihany's love for cigars has also led him to design the new Freyboy cigar store. The New York City shop is small, only 700 square feet, but Tihany talks of it with the same excitement he musters for his major restaurant projects. "It's a completely different look for a cigar shop," he says. "It's very contemporary. No more of that fuzzy English wood paneling and leather couches. It's really cutting edge. The tiles on the floor are smoke-colored. We tried to bring cigar smoking to the year 2000 in one brush stroke. I really believe in cigar smoking. I really enjoy it. I think it should be here to stay."

The tiles are indeed the creation of a true cigar aficionado--photographs of seemingly endless permutations of gray and white smoke, wafting, not in the air, but on the shining floor. At one end of the room is a large walk-in humidor, the cigars all on open display behind a glass wall; at the other end, behind a nine-screen video display of movies and cigar-themed quotes, is a smoking room with starkly modern and comfortable high-tech black chairs, white tables, black laptop computers and white computer mice, where patrons can light up, relax and browse the Internet at their leisure. "It's a place where a commuter can take a break at the start of the workday or at the end," Tihany says.

Tihany's other hobby is cooking. With his partner, Antonucci, and the food writer Florence Fabricant he has written Venetian Taste, a cookbook geared to the Venetian theme of Remi.

"I am by no stretch of the imagination a great chef," he says, "but I can cook a decent meal for as many as 12 people, something simple. One of my favorites is a penne with fresh tomato, basil and mozzarella. I've been cooking as long as I've been smoking cigars. I find it very relaxing. I'm an instinctive cook--I cook by instinct, not education. I have a very interesting taste memory. I can taste something, go home and reproduce it without ever having the recipe. And I also have a very keen sense of what kind of food sells, what people like. Francesco and I do a tasting of new dishes for Remi four times a year, and I can usually say by taste whether or not a dish will do well. When it comes to that, I'm pretty much on the money."

Tihany and his wife of three years, Marnie Mass-- "It's my third and last marriage," he says--have an apartment in Greenwich Village, down the block from his office, and a house in the suburbs. They stay in the city during the week and go to their country home on the weekend, in time for Sabbath dinner Friday night, which they share with Tihany's son and daughter from his second marriage--Bram, 17, and Sarah, 13. "The kids are our lives," he says. "Everything we do is geared to them." The talent for design runs in the family. "Bram is a fine artist," Tihany says. "He designed some of the china for Le Cirque."

Tihany has accomplished much in his 51 years, but, he says, there is much more he would like to do. "My life's ambition," he says after one final puff on his cigar, "is that every great city in the world will have one great hotel or restaurant designed by me.

"I'll have to live at least a few years more to fullfill this goal," he says with a laugh. "But that's what I really want." And knowing Adam Tihany, he's not just blowing smoke.

Mervyn Rothstein is an editor at The New York Times and a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator.