For sushi's rising son, industrial designer Karim Rashid creates his first restaurant
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 2/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Vacant for a dozen years, a former Norelco shaver shop underneath a kung fu studio—in a gritty part of Philadelphia, no less—might not seem a worthy signature space for Masaharu Morimoto. As the executive chef at Nobu, Robert De Niro's lower Manhattan sushi hangout designed by Rockwell Group, Morimoto helped launch the fashion for Asian-fusion cuisine, then widened his cult following as a macho-Ginsu samurai on the Food Network series Iron Chef. But Morimoto placed his faith in Stephen Starr, the impresario behind trendy Philadelphia restaurants Buddakan, Tangerine, and Pod. Starr, in turn, put his trust in New York designer Karim Rashid.
Already known as the king of happy plastic housewares, Rashid says this new challenge was "no different from designing a product, except for scale. The criteria are the same although, as an industrial designer, I want to control the entire environment." Over more than 14 months of development and construction, with a total of 10 site visits, he created nearly everything in Morimoto's 5,000-square-foot interior.
As it came together, with the assistance of DAS Architects, the restaurant demonstrates how clarity emerged from complicated initial concept sketches as cost and feasibility were factored in. For instance, Rashid initially envisioned chef Morimoto center-stage, in an open presentation kitchen at the heart of the dining room. However, because the volume is 200 feet deep and only 22 feet wide, that notion was scrapped. "We went through four or five iterations," Rashid reports. The presentation kitchen and sushi bar ended up at the rear of the building so as not to block traffic flow.
At the vestibule, Rashid had planned to punch through two levels, down to the subbasement, to create a bar with 40-foot ceilings and access via spiraling, Guggenheim-inspired ramps. A later scheme proposed a transparent aquarium in the small space between the vestibule floor and the ceiling of the basement bar. Instead, diners now enter the restaurant across simple bamboo tongue-and-groove flooring. (The 3-inch Chinese bamboo planks are also used for ceilings at Morimoto.) And the bar is on the mezzanine, overlooking the main dining room.
One wall in this bar was to have displayed a reclining, naked Japanese woman in continuous-motion animation supplied by lenticular technology, which incorporates slices of stop-action images not unlike a hologram. Ultimately, Starr judged the idea too risqué. Still, the woman makes an appearance at the restaurant. Shown from the neck up near the entry—chastened, though her lids are smudged a sexy peacock blue—she winks oversize almond eyes, smiles, and blows kisses from a floor-to-ceiling lenticular billboard affixed to an electroluminescent polymer panel. Behind is the stair to the mezzanine.
Rashid's 6 foot–tall serpentine sculpture of black fiberglass marks the transition from the vestibule to the dining room, where the low bamboo ceiling ascends in a wave to a height of 20 feet. Bolted to the floor in a grid are acid-yellow frosted-glass tables, a variation on a Rashid design for Curvet. Most of the 140 black-and-cream leather Aphex chairs, which he originated for the Japanese manufacturer Idée, are also fixed to the floor. (Disabled diners can wheel up to the two 10-person tables, which have loose chairs.) Half-height frosted boxes of plate glass act as dividers. Concealed beneath them are LED strips that set the glass softly aglow—cycling between synthetic cyan, magenta, green, orange, and lavender at a pace so slow that the shift barely registers at a conscious level.
As with most of his products, whether plastic housewares or lacquered fiberglass Pleasurscape installations, the glass booths have a hard modern edge. This feeling is only partly softened by the blobby, 3-D lava-lamp shapes in the bas-relief plasterwork of the sidewalls. "The clients were very afraid it would be cold," Rashid says. At Starr's request, the designer moved toward natural materials and warmer lighting. So the bamboo ceiling undulates, and the plaster bas-reliefs are highlighted by incandescent spots in coves above and below. However, Rashid resisted the "easy" ambience of flickering candlelight, instead affixing slim, futuristic electric lamps with frosted-glass tubular shades to each table. "Candles," he says coolly, "drive me crazy."