Simple sweetness quickly becomes cloying to the palate. Richer, spicier or even sour undertones make a dish unforgettable and totally satisfying. The same holds true in design, argues Marlborough Contemporary creative director and Juku co-owner Max Levai. His Japanese restaurant-and-cocktail-bar space, made up of the 12-seat Omakase bar; the 36-seat Izakaya and the 56-seat basement lounge, Straylight, plays with a jolie laide subversion of design conventions. Some of that provocation is bold; some is subtle. But there’s no question that, starting with the deceptively residential entry hall, the goal is to make diners think—or even squirm.
To realize that vision, Levai turned to longtime collaborators (both with Levai and each other) Sebastian Quinn, principal of his eponymous building workshop, and installation artists Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe. They took a divide-and-conquer approach to the design, with Quinn handling the ground floor Izakaya, second floor Omakase and the layout of Straylight and the artists masterminding the look of that underground drinking spot. It helped that creating a seamless flow wasn’t the goal. “Somehow, the discontinuous spaces point towards the arbitrary nature of design—a sense that we’re inhabiting just one of many different possible realities,” says Quinn. “We’re encouraging guests to walk in and wonder if they’ve come to the wrong place or tuned into the wrong channel.”
In keeping with that theme, the “off” qualities become the focal points. In Izakaya, the design revolves around a diamond-shaped Lothar Hempel piece which used to hang over Levai’s sofa. So far, so typical. But, Quinn had a fresh twist on the idea of paintings as FF&E. “The lighting strategy was to illuminate the artwork and let the glow off the large paintings become the main light source for the room.” In other words, no vanity lighting here. In the entry to the space, clinically harsh stainless steel walls and a geometric art piececum-maitre d’ stand push the boundary between spare and Brutalist just a little closer to the latter. Moving upstairs, the ultra-spare Omakase space is almost menacing in its emptiness.
Straylight illuminates the headiest mix of beauty and ugliness. A rework of Freeman and Lowe’s multi-room, dystopian 2012 exhibition Stray Light Grey, this version plays up the disconnectedness of the original and drenches it in design decisions that skew dreamy or nightmarish depending on the perspective. The so-not-to-heaven stairway down to it sets the mood with retro-trippy mauve tones and a giant, unapologetically chipped concrete block (a structural support). Freeman and Lowe turned to digital art formats to add the glitzier side of the space. Signage and videos amp up the visual interest while adding to the surreal atmosphere.
Working that creative conceit into the actual bar meant not letting form rule function. Building on Quinn’s layout within the ultra-narrow footprint didn’t leave much room once the ipe wood tables and bar were in place. So, Freeman and Lowe made the walls and ceiling their playground (and an opportunity for a trompe l’oeil focal point). To compensate for the lack of natural light, they installed what at first looks like a beautiful stained glass ceiling. A second look reveals that its jewel tones are a clever paint job on a simple base of flame retardant-treated canvas. The walls are a symphony of exquisite colors and patterns from far away, but close up they’re adorned with a complex mosaic made with glass pieces and found objects, including a Bruce Lee action figure and a ceramic Native American head.
The takeaway here? Shock value has a new face, and it’s pretty much G-rated. Flouting expectations on lighting patterns, color continuity and sharp shifts in concept from room to room changes the design paradigm. No need to rely on taboo subjects to create a visual frisson. Done with a creative eye, the ordinary becomes extraordinary.
Sebastian Quinn Building Workshop (Izakaya, Omakase and Straylight layout): Sebastian Quinn, founder
Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe, cofounders
MG and Co.
Julius Von Bismark
Susan Te Kahurangi King
Shuya Design Inc.