The twain shall meet
Versed in the ways of East and West, TonyChi and Associates designs Yè Shanghai, a modern restaurant in a Ming dynasty house
Monica Geran -- Interior Design, 1/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
For Tony Chi, designing restaurants is a way of life. If he's not en route from Bangkok to Geneva, completing hospitality projects, he's in Hong Kong, working on Alain Ducasse's latest culinary venture. But one particular restaurant in Shanghai has special meaning for the Taiwan-born head of his namesake New York firm. "My first design project in the motherland fulfills my innermost childhood aspirations," he says.
Yè Shanghai restaurant occupies an early 17th-century bi-level house, one of about 40 in the trading capital's former French Concession to survive the Cultural Revolution. (In the 19th century, such a house became known as a shikumen, meaning "stone gate.") In 2001, Elite Concepts of Hong Kong took over the deteriorating structure and hired Chi to reinvent it as a restaurant that's perceptibly contemporary yet visibly respectful of the past. Completed last year, the 3,500-square-foot 110-seat establishment has been drawing both locals and out-of-town visitors to China's latest boomtown.
The proportions, the flow of space, and the liberal use of artwork at Yè Shanghai approximate those of an imagined Chinese nobleman's house. To the uninitiated, distinctions between historical and modern may blur, suggests Chi's wife, Tammy T. Chou, whose responsibilities as vice president of TonyChi and Associates include furnishings selection, color direction, and purchasing. Those in the know, however, would see that Yè Shanghai is not as all-out Chinese as it might seem. Some elements and materials-indigenous stonework, teak beams, the slate roof-do indeed spell old China, but many of the "antique" carvings and sculpture are, in fact, contemporary. And some design choices are out-and-out alien to Chinese culture and architecture. Semiprivate dining areas lack solid enclosures; modern teak frames support Ming dynasty scrolls; booths seat guests side by side rather than vis-à-vis. Other deviations include a veranda, nonexistent in traditional Chinese buildings, a balcony for dining, and an art gallery.
Diners enter via the art gallery, where ancient pottery and contemporary paintings are for sale. From there, two routes present themselves. The first is up, to the main dining room, which is sheltered by the teak beams supporting the original slate roof. A large private dining area at the rear features a 26-seat table, 16 feet in diameter, with an immense lazy Susan, 8 feet across. Four smaller semiprivate areas, screened by sliding wooden panels, also open off the main space.
The less formal option is to proceed from the art gallery to the ground floor's glass-roofed veranda, called the sky lounge. Here, windows look out on a stone alleyway, and a row of eight tables is surrounded by slat-backed teak chairs. The 45-foot-long custom light fixture overhead comprises 16 crystal-bead shades, each fitted with three blown-glass bulbs. To one side are four booths with walls lined in bamboo opium mats and ceilings surfaced with grass cloth. At the far end of the sky lounge, a private room offers a communal dining table seating up to eight people. The room is enlivened by Portuguese artist Nuno Barreto's acrylic on canvas, rendered in the palette of traditional Chinese red and dynastic blue. The imagery of the 90-by-96-inch triptych follows Shanghai's recent history-from the glory days of the 1920s and '30s to the political turbulence of the '40s-and ultimately proclaims the brightness of the city's future.
PROJECT TEAM: DAVID SINGER; WILLIAM PALEY; STEWART ROBERTSON; JEFFERSON LAM. DRAPERY FABRIC (STAIRWELL, PRIVATE ROOM): FABRICUT. CHAIRS (DINING ROOMS): COVINGTON INDUSTRIES. OTTOMAN LEATHER (GALLERY): CORTINA LEATHERS. CUSTOM CARPET: TAI PING CARPETS. ARCHITECT OF RECORD, GENERAL CONTRACTOR: ATELIER OF DESIGN INTERNATIONAL.