Balena, designed by Karen Herold, showing where the two buildings meet.
  • Balena
  • Balena, designed by Karen Herold, showing where the two buildings meet

Yesterday, in the first part of my interview with restaurant designer Karen Herold of Studio K, she talked about the philosophy that goes into her designs, of how a restaurant works and serves its customers.

In the second part I ask her specifically about how some of her designs came about, including Balena (which was carved out of an already existing restaurant), Landmark (from the same Boka Restaurant Group), Embeya, and the upcoming GT Prime. But first, she tells me why interior design appealed to her in the first place back when she was studying fashion.

Michael Gebert: You mentioned that you started in fashion design. How did you get from that to working on 10,000 square-foot spaces?

Karen Herold: I already knew when I was two years into fashion that I didn’t want to do that. I was already into textures, like the burlap, and fashion was about making very tiny things, it was too . . . finicky. My friend and I, when we were working on our projects we would skip the places where you normally go to look for fashion ideas and we would go to Home Depot. We would go to look at bolts, I loved looking at hardware like that.

When I first saw Balena, I was surprised that there was so much open space in it. Because there’s never that much open space in a restaurant in the city, a two-story main hall like that. How did you get away with that?

I’ll tell you—I was there when they were building [Landmark, the previous restaurant in the space], because my ex-husband was in the Royal George Theater. And I saw them building it and I would look in and I saw the cobblewood floor and I thought, this is beautiful.

And as days progressed I was like, what’s going on? And it was getting less and less and less. And in my opinion, whoever that designer was, they raped that building. That was a gorgeous building that was raped by this weird catwalk, which really created very little additional seating for the space it took—it was a big price to pay for some random seats up there.

So the way it is, there are actually two different buildings, two different addresses. And there were a few big issues. It was set back, and the other building extended out the back, they were kind of zig-zagged. And the entrance was recessed. So they had no street presence and that’s why no one ever knew it was there. There was no daylight, so that’s why no one ever wanted to go there in the summer.

When Rob [Katz] and Kevin [Boehm] wanted to do a new restaurant there, I said, well the good news is, you just need to demo. And if you demo it, you’ll be 90 percent done.

Then we extended the facade to the front, so we made it look like it was one larger building and you know it’s all one restaurant. And we did the same in the back—we built a wall in the one building to square it out with the other room, and the room behind that became a private dining room.

That building just had architectural mistakes that if you fixed them, everyone would feel better. And that’s something that, once it’s done, no one would know what the issues were. I mean, there is a lot of open space but it’s just vertical space; the tables are all close together so you can actually fit that many people in.

One thing I like to do for most of the restaurants I do is that I like to create different levels of energy. So you come in the room, it’s like, let’s have a drink, it’s late night, it’s a very high-energy kind of mingling type of deal. But you go up on the second floor, that’s a date night on Saturday night kind of feel. There’s three different levels of energy there, and I feel like I have a very different night if I go upstairs than if I sit at the bar.

One design of yours that I think is especially beautiful is Embeya. And it’s interesting because that’s a restaurant with Asian influences. How did you suggest that without going into the obviously rich area of Asian restaurant cliches?

Yes, Chef [Thai] Dang is Asian, but his partner Attila [Gyulai] is, what, Hungarian. And there what was fortunate was that Attila assembled a team, very early on, and I was part of that team. And he is a very, very straightforward person, there are no levels to how he operates. I think it’s how he was trained to open the Four Seasons here. He’s very straightforward about delivering the customer experience.

  • Jason Little/Embeya
  • Embeya

So he shared these photos from a research trip they took, and there was one photo in particular that was of an ancient door with green moss on it. And that became the key to it for me, which we made into these walls of plaster with dark green mixed into it. Then it was just a few other design elements, but it’s very simple. I feel like if you took one more thing out of the design, it would no longer be Embeya.

Another design of yours was Wood, which I was surprised by because with the name, even given the double entrendre, I expected, I guess, something woodsy, and it was very 1970s with the smoked glass and so on.

It’s funny you say that because the idea for that that they came to me with was “70s porn.” That was a side project that I did for some friends. I don’t know if you ever saw what the space was before, but talking about plain rectangles, that’s what that space was. So the smoked mirrors—people say I made it look twice as big.

So you’re working on two steakhouses now—

Yes, but I don’t even think about what the food is, they each have their own personality. One of them, Maple & Ash, is on the Gold Coast, it’s replacing The Hunt Club. The Gold Coast is very . . . [she waves her hand to indicate poshness] so it’s going to be like that. But I’m not trying to do steakhouse—is there a steakhouse look?

There are cliches, I guess, like wide red leather chairs—

So I’m not going to do that. For GT Prime, I think it’s going to reflect who [chef] Giuseppe [Tentori] is now. I mean, he’s still Giuseppe, but I think he has more confidence now about himself and his position. So this design will reflect that.