Come and Get it

They must have made a comical group: the pinstriped emissaries of an asset-management firm on one side of a conference table and Studio Gaia principal Ilan Waisbrod on the other—in jeans and shirttails, sporting a head of unbusinesslike long hair. "They seemed skeptical at first," the architect admits with a grin, remembering his preliminary go-see to present proposals for the New York firm's 18,000-square-foot cafeteria.

Executives were willing to look beyond personal appearances because, Waisbrod continues, "They realized that someone who knew hospitality design could bring a totally fresh viewpoint." Seeing photos of his W hotels in Mexico City and Seoul, South Korea, and examining several animation walk-throughs of the cafeteria space convinced management to give Studio Gaia the job. When Waisbrod staged a private presentation for the CEO, he said, "I give it an A. Build it just like that." And walked out.

As requested, Waisbrod's plan included a canteen serving hot and cold food, plus four private dining rooms. "That was old hat for us," he says. A much greater challenge was to maintain an unobstructed view from the entry to a window wall on the far side of the main dining area. "We had to pack in 300 people without sacrificing privacy and intimacy—and that sight line," he explains.

Key to the balancing act, three freestanding round booths form a row down the center of the canteen. Each is essentially an enormous banquette that curves around small separate tables. The banquette's seat back is silk-screened with fall foliage, bamboo, or lavender, as is a coordinating canopy.

The natural imagery also helps Studio Gaia to achieve a warm, vaguely Scandinavian aesthetic despite a penchant for hard surfaces: a surfeit of glass, steel, and marble, rather than wood.

Outside the booths, rectangular sheets of glass—back-painted grass green or lemon yellow—are mounted as floor-to-ceiling dividers at the head of select tables. "That's typical of what we do: establishing spaces, or suggestions of spaces, within a larger area," Waisbrod says. A series of full-height walnut gates produces the same effect.

"We were able to go decidedly upscale for the finishes, and the furniture is residential," he adds. In the reception area for the private dining rooms, for example, Ron Arad's undulating Victoria and Albert sofa and chairs strike a regal pose beneath a glowing red, orange, and yellow piece from the company's collection of photography.

The private dining facility's reception area, the main cafeteria, and an entry hall are linked by flooring of marble from Iran. "We clearly needed a synthetic or a stone, something that could stand up to heavy traffic," Waisbrod says. "This marble has a warm, consistent veining that's a bit like beech wood." But it certainly costs more, taking up a chunk of the $18 million budget. Fine dining, for sure.

BY: Maria Shollenbarger
PUBLISHED IN: Interior Design DATE: March 1, 2006