Dark Design: Empire Hotel Rooftop

imageNew York City, like no other, shines through its constant state of flux, through the destruction of historical monuments and the erection of new edifices. This modernist tendency subsides only infrequently under the pitiless pressures of development. Thus the massive neon red-light signs gleaming proudly upon the roof-deck lounge of the Empire Hotel gift the urban dweller with history from the sidewalk and recreation from the bar. (See our gallery of the altitudinous scene.) An express lobby elevator sweeps revelers up to a cascade of interlocking support frames permitting a cultured view of Lincoln Center across the way.

Sir Thomas More believed that human nature could withstand the harshly varying impositions of the seasons — that a sound connectivity with mankind would drive one through the harsh winds of hypocrisy, beyond the hot humidity of subterfuge in summer … well, you get the drift. He suggested we all should be men “for all seasons.” The Empire Hotel Rooftop is a space for all seasons.

That the massive eastern terrace was carefully preserved while integrating cabana and bar is testament to designer Chris Kofitsas’ sense of historicity. The neon lights reflect off adjacent facades to project a powerful feeling of continuity. Without the overly conscious effort seen in most lighting schemes, the signs provide a quiet glow upon loungers. Moreover, a clever wrapped-glass bar oozes out of the support structure to offer truss, beam, crossbar, and booze.

The most impressive though seemingly misplaced furniture concoction stands at the entrance and central bar: “There are over 13,000 concentric pipes in various diameters, cut at the center and glued together into 3” lengths that make up the bar face,” says Kofitsas. This eccentricity beams in contrast to the understated and somewhat flaccid flexibility of the other comfy components. Sir T. More would have appreciated that less is more.

Most adaptively, and consistent with a 365-day-a-year body and soul, a clever HVAC and retractable roof system transforms the western terrace. The Roll-a-Cover system is “built in track with wheels along the base of each panel segment that allows the panels to slide over each other and offer 80% open-air environment, which is perfect for sipping martinis on a starry night.” The massive solar gain of the interior space on a warm day is compensated for not only by AC but by a super-fine mister built within the conduits, which serves to level the elements. Oh yes, here humanity’s party may persist uninterrupted.

From Lincoln Center, we peer back in delight at the prodigious signage that withstands the wildly wandering atmospheric spirals of the city. Let us pray to our humanist Gods that the fickle city we live in veers not toward signage demolition. Let’s hope that this Empire epitomizes not the vicissitudes of Henry VIII, who ultimately came down upon his trusted advisor, Thomas More, summarily cutting off his head.

Dark Design: Nature’s Wood at Kingswood

An image of staggered grass blades fissuring the cement inspired one of Kingswood’s decorators, Jay Bearden (hired by owners/designers Nick Mathers and Lincoln Pilcher). Unruly nature skulks into the eclectic Aussie restaurant and bar upon each stumble-step; see our gallery for a closer perspective. During the day, the ceiling-high front windows reflect a soft green light from the lush garden across 10th Street. But the plants inside possess less the dripping sensuality of a ripened rose, and more the simple beauty of a twig or spray. Juxtaposed against the geometrically framed sky and reflected in antiqued mirrors, Bearden manages to highlight the beauty of a dry shrub.

Set in the West Village, Kingswood contains a lounge, bar and restaurant in its one large room. The front area vibes bistro with simple wooden chairs and one-legged tables. In the evening, the adjoining U-shaped copper bar glows warmly under yellow lamps and sconces. Patrons peer at one another as the space creates a communal, inclusive atmosphere.

Behind the bar, the restaurant tables, built from reclaimed lumbar by Bearden and Pilcher, beckon the beauties. The light brown leather banquets contrast the dark stained wooden tables whose Euro rustic look and proximity to one another create an haute mess-hall.

Appropriating Sigmund Freud’s concept of Eros — life energy and the source of human desire — an embodiment of flora flourishes. Dynamic tensions of budding bosoms and flowering wallpaper kick Kingswood by the gentle intrusiveness of a libidinal energy. Vegetal arabesque motifs crawl along the walls as part of an ornamental verticality. The bathroom, a botanist’s dream, demonstrates an effort to contain nature; flower illustrations neatly illuminate the enclosure.

Arriving at the focal point of the main dining area, bramble curls out of the dark-framed window panes. Altogether, the controlled linearity of the architecture creates a backdrop for other symbols of Sex: clustered (mating?) butterflies and peacock feathers, whose sole function represents the essence of the libidinal drive.

“The uncontrolled Eros is just as fatal as his deadly counterpart, the death instinct [Thanatos]” wrote Freud. If the upstairs is bubbling with budding spray, then the subterranean level has a darker allure. Slated to open next month, the downstairs greets visitors with jars of crimson pebbles and solitary Japanese fighting fish. Cast in a dramatic light, the scene looks like the laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein or an installation by Damien Hirst. In one corner, a creepy puppet hangs suspended in a glass case. And all in all, an aura of Thanatos infuses the downstairs — consider zebra-print pony leather benches, petrified sea vegetables, and ancestral portraits of the long deceased.

Dark Design: The Clover Club

imageThe original pub (short for “public”) leveled society’s strata of intelligentsia, wealthy, witty, and common … hence its popularity. One thousand years of common drinking history supported conversation from the substantive to the flippant. Oft kept quiet from meddling community outsiders, however, have been the “secondary pubs”: spaces — containing the local riffraff and rarified — positioned down the rabbit hole. Brooklyn’s beauty, the Clover Club, offers just such a “back parlor,” a lap of intimacy, velvet, and fire for educated drinking and communication. (See our gallery of the space.) This secondary space draws the daring and self-selected trouble-making crew crying out to communicate salacious stories. Behind the curtains and down the steps, a husky cast-iron fireplace covered in marble stimulates curious conversation.

The Clover Club nominally deceives; the bar contains no members and welcomes the Smith Street community, one rich in the self-celebrated culture class of the city. “Work is the curse of the drinking classes,” Oscar Wilde stressed. The Clover Club invites a melting of class distinction and a mingling over sophisticated alcoholic concoctions from owner Julie Reiner. Surely, the Victorian-inspired interior would have drawn Wilde on a midafternoon young buck hunt.

With the pub analogy, we do not imply the aesthetics of such; indeed the tin ceilings, lanterns (bell jar fixtures), intricate, tiling, dark mahogany wood, and antique sconces all speak to a unique Northeastern American response to the English-of-origin watering hole. Keen to mount an historical authenticity, owner and design director Michael Brais showcases a late-19th-century mahogany bar shipped from an American hardscrabble mining town. The historically common exterior vertical signage and interior mosaic floors recreate many an American public venue, most now downed by bulldozer.

The Clover Club lights low; in the rear, a careful play between flame and chandelier soothes the synapses. The walls lined with a silk-ish material soften the reflective floor sheen of fire-to-wood. With such calm, one wishes that the massively glazed storefront were transposed with colored stained glass, and that exhaled corrosive mist would fill the lungs. But wait, this is not a pub! On the contrary, one visually engages the streetscape ebb and flow in a “thank you for not smoking” California sunny way, while the frothy barstools are, as the owners say, “designed for guest to stay awhile.”

Named after a bygone lounge of literary libations in Philadelphia, Clover promotes a centuries-old tradition of warmth, openness, community, and a dash of the dodgy secondary “pub,” producing a true public destination. Brooklyn celebrates and cherishes its openness to the underworked cultured masses, which allots masses of daydream time to lie about in the clover.

Dark Design: Mummified in Moomia

imageAndre Lazarev’s Moomia Lounge, on Lafayette Street in SoHo, buries a pharaonic crypt under an eastern kasbah. (See our gallery of the scene.) While the venue’s offerings of food, drink, and hookah are not unique, the architectural periods represented are: a hybrid of 20th-century styles. That is, 20th centuries A.D. and B.C., with both contemporary Moroccan and ancient Egyptian décor in the house.

Themed bars both fascinate and disorient. To run into one is reminiscent of meeting a captivating, specialized, and compulsively disordered stranger. Problem is, themes contain an inherent failure to effectuate a fantasy world, frequently resulting in a flaccid, half-conceived motif.

Yet a themed bar does dare to stimulate the imagination and open a window for escapism. The buildout must be unrelentingly detailed if it’s to immerse one in the cacophony of an all-encompassing psycho-geography. Lazarev’s dedication (the Russian designer as well as owner) inhabits every spatial construct here: in custom-fired floor tiles; in handmade mirror frames; in peripatetic murals on each and every wall; and even in the copper bar’s surfaces, which were crafted by Lazarev and his father. The details deluge. Thankfully, the more Spartan (not a classical Greek theme) hotel next door sources the restrooms; otherwise clientele would surely be wiping with artisanal papyrus scrolls.

The space behaves in a quasi-narrative manner, flowing linearly and taking the guest on a journey. The soaring front room, lined with cinderblock walls (perhaps lifted by pulley?), beckons one to behold the great built wonders of Egypt. A 10-foot mirror behind the solidly seated quadrangular bar helps expand perception. (Unfortunately, the fantastic skylight 30 feet above serves no light or purpose in a nightclub.) Stepped blocks channel the pyramids like a stone curtain retrenched by time, secretly opening the way further into the club. One then sinks to a burial chamber wherein lies a gilded pharaoh’s coffin (“made in Malaysia”), surrounded by hookah-laden banquettes. The beautifully deceased and wonderfully inebriated are celebrated by scenes from the Book of the Dead (pic6: Scenes from the Book of the Dead. Where’s the Rosetta stone when you need it?).

Paul Bowles’s post-WWII (and, hence, post-colonial) novel, The Sheltering Sky, explores the theme of “going native”. A laissez-faire New York couple explores French western Africa and its barbaric Berbers. Immersed in the morass of Morocco, loss and discovery come their way. Moomia also instigates a desire to go native — only here, the natives hail from Moscow, and one hopes that the discovery of too many vodkas won’t land one in a sarcophagus.

Dark Design explores nightlife spaces through the art of human aesthetics.

Dark Design: Le Poisson Rouge

Everyone loves red when it comes to a nightspot. It’s even more appealing when you roll over the visual imagery while pronouncing the perfect-sounding French word to describe it: “rouge.” The Moulin Rouge, of course, inspired the great underground graphic art by Toulouse Lautrec, where in the seedy dark underbelly of the cabaret smoke and dinge, the artist captured a whole universe of culture, or rather, sub-culture. Now the Moulin Rouge is just a tourist trap in the “red”-light district of Paris, while Le Poisson Rouge, a new music cabaret on Bleecker Street (see gallery), starts from the beginning and swims back to those late 19th-century Parisian nights.

One of the great mediators of deep communication roots itself through thoughtful, complicated music. Le Poisson Rouge is all about the music. As such, and as it relates to the spatial layout, the founders have looked to create a flexible space that allows for the improvisation of a Charlie Parker sax performance. “Seating, standing, in-the-round” — as well as mulling, loitering, and dithering, we hope — will all be encouraged, as partitions, screens, seats, and stools continuously change location in order to maximize client interaction and spatial misdirection. Yet the performance stage dares to draw the minimized attention spans of today’s party-goers, as quality artistry will always be on display.

Does this also mean the space will encourage the kind of over-the-top revelry seen in the dirty days of the original cabarets? Is art displayed onstage in order to encourage smart banter in the adjacent lounge? As conversation might spill out into the streets after a great theater performance, it seems the quiet couches of the lounge will allow for critical analysis of the performances, as well as a few tasty drinks. Indeed, the headiness of a closely seated performance is always greatly balanced afterward with the lizard luxury of a soft sofa and a hard beverage.

Throughout, red paint, combined with fleur-de-lis-like stencils, are a kind of pastiche postmodern trick to get the mind moving back in history and space. There’s real intent in juxtaposing the creative designs of Carlos Andrade’s colors, designs, and neo-Baroque furniture with the hard and economical edge of concrete and slat floors. One soaks up the memories of the performances in a space that no longer exists, a simulacrum of the 9th arrondissement and the Bleecker Street music blur of the Village Gate. Dancing history is written on the elevated center floor (“an acoustic accoutrement,” says founder David Handler), a last remnant of the more drug-infused and less soulful times of “Life,” the venue’s last incarnation.

Permeating the matte material imagery is a counter from the high tech of the sound- and light-infused performance space, engineered by John Storyk/WSDG, the man behind Electric Lady Studios. Complexity and contradiction coax the mind to think. Founding partners Justin Kantor and Handler have founded a space ready to motivate creativity: “Our vision was to establish the ultimate symbiosis of art and revelry.” It remains to be seen whether a Toulouse Lautrec or two will emerge from this submerged spectacle.

Dark Design explores nightlife spaces through the art of human aesthetics.

Dark Design: Tenjune

imageWhen the doors opened at the Double Seven, the club’s owner, David Rabin, christened it the “VVVIP room for Lotus.” The venue signaled a new nightclub interactivity supported by clear circulatory spaces. It said: “You are in, now you are important; so go where you please.” Tenjune’s owners, Mark Birnbaum and Eugene Remm, have also moved in a creative direction that emphasizes “flow” and minimizes the stasis of private areas (see gallery). Indeed, the basement bar for STK restaurant embodies the punctuated death of the VIP room.

The plentiful nightspots of New York’s Meatpacking District provide potential for what eminent sociologist Richard Florida calls the “scene of scenes” — an area where creative people find stimuli and dialogue with other likeminded cognoscenti. Unfortunately, the area mostly disappoints. Tenjune, however, counters with a club of both high energy spaces for flat-out partying and a (relatively) more relaxed corner for communication.

Tenjune’s ironized stone façade is a subtle choice of faux traditional material, masking the contemporary vibe below. Mark and Eugene’s layout agenda, coordinated by the glossy lines of ICrave Design, first draws visitors into the quintessential meeting point: the bar. This node successfully meshes the crowd.

Mark notes the venue vision required that “there would be no VIP” (socialist words for a club that leaves many behind the barriers upstairs). Management found that celebrities, particularly performers, prefer to be in the mix, interacting with their fans, and on the “stage” (a small centralized platform of intimate visual access and crowd interaction).

Spin 180 from the stage and the material quality increases as one enters a back area known as the “Marble Room.” More money and more luxury would suggest management’s desire to attract more celebrity and more spending (could this have been originally contemplated as the VIP room?). Yet a counter-lux movement plays itself out in these spaces. The powerful now want the popular power of the circular dance floor. It’s high time to have high times in the Obama oval, while the Bush backroom says goodbye.

Though there remains a strict sense of spatial and social separation in the fortified elevated lounge above the dance floor, countervailing fairness is seen in the everyman’s backroom. Here, oral communication is king, the volume can be decreased, and the party toned down to a tête-à-tête. The creatives have a common place to communicate.

The new generation of luminaries wants to mix with those who want to be luminous. The new VIP is not a person, it is a “very important place.”

Still, the public eye is too fickle to be complacent. Get your photo on the Patrick McMullan wall at Tenjune, and now you can stop the flow. The social drive today in the global club of constant animation yearns for cross-class communication in a place (like Tenjune) where every partier can feel, “ahh, this is my space.”

“Dark Design” explores nightlife spaces through the art of human aesthetics.