Restaurant design

IT SEEMS IRONIC that any alum of the high-profile Rockwell Group would crave anonymity. But Nancy Mah and Scott Kester, co-principals of Nancy Mah Design in New York, say they want to be invisible. The partners share a fantasy of creating two restaurants side by side so different in mood and concept that nobody could ever trace them back to the same studio. “We’ve found it important not to have a signature style,” says Mah, defying an accepted formula for successful restaurant design.

In fact, the year-old firm indulges in color, pattern, and fantasy–classic Rockwell obsessions. Among its projects: a walnut-paneled bakery in Nagoya, Japan, that feels like an Hermes boutique; two Manhattan sushi restaurants where both food and decor are splashed with hot Latin color; and a soon-to-be-completed downtown New York club based on a tiki bar theme. Can the apple fall far from the tree? Or has what Mah calls “the wow factor” of restaurant design taken over the whole forest?

Mah, 37, and Kester, 40, met at the Rockwell Group early in 1999 where they worked together on Ruby Foo’s, a pan-Asian restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Kester had been there a year and Mah for two when they left to open their own studio; they received the commission for the second Ruby Foo’s shortly after. (David Rockwell declined to comment for this article.) Though the partners don’t see a family resemblance among their current projects, the self-trained Mah, who, while at Rockwell, helped complete Michael Jordan’s The Steak House in Grand Central Station and Nobu in Las Vegas, believes she inherited a taste for sumptuousness and whimsical coloration while employed at the powerhouse. “I’m definitely a bolder designer now,” she says.

“Being as theatrical as possible and creating a big first impression are both important lessons…for some kinds of spaces,” Mah believes. But she and Kester want to create interiors that deliver beyond the threshold. They take pride in turning the most undesirable table in the house into what Kester calls “the fat-guy table.” By building a wall around the service station at the upscale Manhattan nightclub Lotus, for example, and elevating the back booth on a platform, they transformed what is essentially a social Siberia at this style-conscious club into a shrine-like alcove. And at a time when theme-park excess is at a premium, the partners note that diners relate strongly to details like the textured underside of a table “since people’s hands tend naturally to fall there,” says (ester.

Such subtleties have practical roots. Mah worked as a restaurant hostess, waitress, bartender, and manager before trying her hand, in 1989, at designing Poiret, a small bistro in Manhattan. Her years of observing the choreography of waiters and diners informed subsequent design commissions for New York’s Bryant Park Grill and Lutece. She learned that the job “wasn’t all about what the space looked like, but more importantly about making it flow so that customers would feel wonderful as they walked in,” she says.

Kester, a Harvard architecture graduate who began designing eateries for the Niemetz Design Group in Boston, agrees with Mah that human interactions offer the most compelling part of restaurant design–“focusing on the whole flow of how people face each other or hang out at the bar or just get their coats,” he says.

Neither Mah nor Kester looks to other interiors for inspiration; in fact, their favorite restaurants are “owner-designed,” which is to say, not designed at all. A neighborhood Japanese restaurant that changes its flowers three times a day strikes exactly the right note of intimacy for them. And though their commissions are highly art directed, the partners try to match the same spirit of spontaneous accommodation. For the Miami nightclub Rumi, for instance, they tempered the room’s challenging dimensions–17 feet wide with 35-foot ceilings–by introducing six-foot-high banquettes. Under the designers’ own lighting system, the seating areas feel like little rooms. “People want to be part of the action,” explains Mah, “but rarely do they want to be the center of it.”

Mah and Kester’s designs are eye-catching–and yes, they can border on spectacle–but for clients, the real beauty is in turning every table into a Cinderella story. “If you can get an extra seat in,” Mah says matter-of-factly, “that’s another $40,000 to $50,000 a year.” Psychology class is over. Economics class has begun.

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