The empire's new clothes
Sheila Kim -- Interior Design, 7/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
A master of clean lines and subdued colors, not to mention oversize mirrors, Vicente Wolf isn't necessarily the designer you'd picture among the gargoyles and stained-glass windows of New York's landmark Tudor City. Nevertheless, the Interior Design Hall of Famer chose the neighborhood for his restaurant venture, L'Impero—its name is Italian for the empire.
Wolf co-owns L'Impero with veteran restaurateurs Scott Conant, Chris Cannon, and Jane Epstein, who gave Vicente Wolf Associates free rein in conceiving the space's design. Their only condition: that the 3,800-square-foot interior make everyone look beautiful. To achieve this, Wolf combined existing details of the restaurant's 1928 building with hallmarks of his own contemporary aesthetic.
Setting the scene is an entry courtyard paved in brick and cement and ringed by Gothic windows, which Wolf simply treated with schoolhouse shades in off-white linen gauze. The foyer's slate floor was equally appealing. "Old-fashioned flooring like this can look so out of place," says Wolf. "But I thought it would be fun to make it work." And work it does. The slate's brown, copper, and blue-green tones dictate the color palette of the entire restaurant.
In the lounge, Wolf placed a sofa upholstered in tobacco-brown bouclé and club chairs and ottomans in blue-green leather around a cocktail table topped by frosted glass. A ceiling fixture in hammered copper reflects the floor's shimmer.
The slate floor ends after the entry, so Wolf carpeted the 125-seat dining room. But the color play continues. Custom leather-covered chairs—some greener, others bluer—are paired with bleached Louis XVI–style chairs with backs in a teal weave. More tobacco-brown fabric covers the banquettes on the rectangular room's lower level as well as the bottom half of the walls. "Complexions reflect well off dark colors," says Wolf. Upper walls are draped in the same off-white linen gauze found on the courtyard windows, and copper reappears on tabletops via custom chargers. Free-floating wall-mounted mirrors "draw your eyes to the room's perimeter," Wolf explains, to increase the sense of space.
He says he chose to retain an exisiting, elevated dining area to the right of the main dining room "because it created an intimate zone as opposed to one vast room." This smaller area can become still more private with the drawing of floor-length curtains, also off-white linen gauze.
In the lounge or either dining area, the task of making people look wonderful falls on lighting in addition to color. Paper-shaded steel sconces are of Wolf's own design; tall cast-iron tea lights clip onto tables. "The light stays out of diners' eyes," he explains. "Instead, it bounces off the lacquered ceiling to create a glow."
Wolf is aglow himself these days. His restaurant has received accolades from not only customers but also the judges of the 2003 James Beard Foundation Awards, who named L'Impero first for Outstanding Restaurant Design.