By Stephen Pulvirent
"I liken my design approach to method acting. I totally immerse myself, lose myself, and become the project…by the end, the project transforms me into something new." It's this approach that won Taavo Somer and his Brooklyn restaurant ISA the 2013 James Beard Award for Restaurant Design and Graphics (75 Seats and Under).
Somer describes ISA as a "macramé-filled treehouse restaurant" in which diners can find a comfortable experience whether they're Brooklyn-dwelling regulars or visitors passing through. The craft aesthetic goes far beyond design inspiration—Somer designed and crafted nearly every facet of the space, from the tables and stools to the bar and the light fixtures. You could blame this on the better part of a decade that Somer spent as a practicing architect, or on the "primal connection" he says he need to fully engage in a project. Only the Paul McCobb chairs were purchased, though they seamlessly blend with the rustic, homegrown vibe.
Far from a newcomer to the world of design-driven restaurants, Somer is well known in the New York food scene for his runaway 2004 success Freemans—possibly the only restaurant to result in both a spin-off barbershop and a haberdasher—but ISA presented its own unique challenges and opportunities.
The long, thin space was the biggest challenge according to Somer. "It's a real puzzle to cram everything in and still feel like you have a layered space," he says, but blending functionality and visual cues allowed him to create a dining room that is at once coherent and intriguing. The wall of triangular log racks holds the lumber used to fuel the brick oven that is the heart of ISA's kitchen, and both exposed brick and raw wood are echoed across the dining room and flow right into the open kitchen.
When asked what he plans on tackling next after the very public success of this self-described "hippie fort," Somer reveals that he has already gathered a cadre of fellow creatives and they're hard at work on a New York hotel. It's all very hush-hush for now, but if this hotel is anything like Somer's previous projects, you can bet we'll be hearing a lot about it very soon.