Rock the casbah
With a revamped interior masterminded by painter Izhar Patkin, New York restaurant Chez Es Saada is ready to groove again
Donna Paul -- Interior Design, 3/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
In the exotic subterranean world of Chez Es Saada, a belly dancer sways to Britney Spears's "Outrageous," and photographs by Pedro Almodóvar—taken during the making of Talk to Her—hang on the hot-pink walls. The food is an Israeli, Sephardic, Kurdish, and Lebanese mélange, prepared by a chef trained at the Hôtel Le Bristol in Paris.
A distinctive synergy between design, food, and music rules at this capriciously chic New York restaurant-lounge. "It's a puzzle," says painter Izhar Patkin, also a partner in the venture, which originally opened seven years ago.
Prior to that, the 4,000-square-foot space was the unfinished basement of a century-old school building. Patkin began by lowering the floor 2 feet to achieve a 12-foot ceiling height. The decorative scheme ultimately involved sponged ocher walls, metal furniture, lanterns bought at various Moroccan souks, and a scattering of rose petals on the stairs.
Recently, however, Patkin determined that the 120-seat establishment needed a radical transformation—the explicitly Moroccan influences had just gotten old. So he and fellow painter Kim MacConnel began to conceptualize an astonishing cosmetic makeover, with Patkin's frequent collaborator Alina Slonim consulting on creative questions.
Patkin's modus operandi derived from what he knows best, his art. "Because I'm not a designer, I used a very different vocabulary," he explains. And like many artists, he chose not to follow the rules. Where an architect might have worked from plans or models, this team let ideas evolve. The space was a canvas or, more accurately, a three-dimensional sculpture on which stories would be layered.
In keeping with the narrative quality of his work, Patkin imagined a world where windows ' are neither necessary nor expected: a tent. So he painted the dining room white and covered banquettes and chairs in white painter's canvas—awaiting the participation of MacConnel, a major figure in the pattern-and-decoration movement since the early 1970's.
As MacConnel painted—by the light of one bare bulb—shapes and colors gradually emerged, dancing against the white walls, ceiling, and upholstery with astounding vibrancy. "It was me thinking of Matisse thinking of Morocco. I pushed it to become a riot of pattern on top of pattern," he says. Patkin ingeniously amplified the effect by opting for mirrored tabletops, which reflect the ceiling when patrons are seated. The total immersion is enveloping rather than overwhelming.
For the adjacent Rose Garden room, Patkin resurrected two 25-foot-wide panels of pleated neoprene that he'd painted in 1987 for the apartment of the late art dealer Holly Solomon, who represented both him and MacConnel. (When she moved, the panels no longer fit, so she traded with Patkin for another work.) Tea Time, the more colorful of the dazzling pair, depicts an array of cups, pots, pies, and Jell-O molds. Along a perpendicular wall is Dinner, complete with roses and vines—even chickens.
Lighting was as vital as brushwork. Ever the artist, Patkin mixed and matched parts from the Moroccan lanterns retained from the original Chez Es Saada. Through a process "like collage," he says, he transformed the elements into something new.
Metal gobos, placed in the gates of inconspicuous halogen profile spots, cast patterns that create an interplay of depth and movement—and an alchemy with the painted surfaces. "It's an architecture of longing," Patkin explains. "Of something that includes memories, aspirations, and romance."