Welcome to Interior Motives, our new feature focusing on the design inspiration behind just-opened restaurants, food halls and bars.
There are typically two types of wine bars in New York City: good-looking bars that serve average wine, and average-looking bars that serve good wine. Rarely do you find a place that excels at both design and wine. The sleek new wine bar inside Eli’s Essentials, an upscale marketplace on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, is one of those exceptional locations, where you can drink quite well (particularly if you enjoy Burgundy) in beautiful, well-crafted environs.
Designer David McMurray is largely responsible for the visceral side of that equation, having worked closely with proprietor Eli Zabar and architect Richard Lewis to apply an artisanal touch to the former diner space. McMurray also enlisted local talent in Brooklyn painter Steve Keene to create etched-plywood wall hangings to live among the 19th-century factory lights and other Parisian flea-market finds from the owner’s many trips to France. Here, McMurray discusses his design process:
How did you come to work with Eli in the first place?
He saw a small wine bar that I designed on the Upper East Side called Invecchiato.
What was the initial concept for the design of the space?
When I first saw the space, it had been gutted and the second story was already in place. The most dramatic thing that was revealed was the second story of transom windows, which had been buried in the previous rendition of the space. There was beautiful fenestration and super-high ceilings. I was excited. Eli sent me images of a fantastic reclaimed wrought-iron staircase from an Upper East Side residence that he had found. This became the starting point for the design. I wanted to create a handmade interior and mix high and low materials so that the restaurant within a marketplace would make sense.
Who led the design and construction?
I led the design and was responsible for the overall style and interior finishes. Eli works with a great architect named Richard Lewis who was responsible for the layout and construction. Eli and his wife, Devon, are great collaborators and enjoy shopping for antiques. Many of the elements throughout the space were sourced on their trips to France. They found the beautiful Holophane globes hanging from the ceiling in a Parisian flea market.
What were the biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge was creating a viable restaurant and bar within a marketplace. I began addressing this by combining industrial elements that you might associate with preparing food, such as subway tile and butcher block, with historic elements, such as the beaux arts staircase and the fluted walls, that I wanted to make. From the beginning, I knew I wanted to include Steve Keene’s artwork [on the walls]. His etched-plywood sheets push against their Rococo imagery.
I have known Steve Keene for a number of years. His approach to art is different than many artists. His goal is to make his art accessible. His Brooklyn studio is open to the public every weekend, and he wants everyone to have his work. Much of what he does are paintings, but the work that I was interested in incorporating into this space derived from a different series, four-by-eight-foot sheets of plywood that are etched by a big machine called a CNC router. Keene manipulates drawn interior images on a computer, then the machine carves them into plywood. The pyrography effect is achieved by filling the routed channels with black sand. Keene came to the space while it was still under construction, and we talked about the effect we wanted. I was able to choose from several proposals so that the work was site-specific. The pieces we came up with were the right combination of glamorous imagery and everyday materials that gave me the industrial Baroque feeling I was looking for.
What, if any, compromises had to be made?
As dramatic as the space is, the footprint isn’t as large as you might think. We were constantly coming up against space restraints. The bathroom upstairs was squeezed into a shaft way smaller than a coat closet, but we tried to work with this by surrounding the visitor with kaleidoscopic tile work and a maze-like experience of Keene’s artwork. You might be entertained by the sort of Alice in Wonderland feel.
What’s the most interesting design detail in the space?
There are many elements of the space that I enjoy. Part of my process is not only shopping for handmade elements, but also making elements myself with the artists I work with. For example, I have a background in sculpture. We built the molds and cast the fluted walls and balcony columns ourselves. I created the light fixtures to seat the antique globes that Eli and Devon brought back from Paris. I did a sort of painted strié [French for “streaky”] treatment on the upstairs walls myself. Needless to say, I was not trained as an interior painter, but I think it works! I designed and built the bar face to go with a zinc bar top that was manufactured in France. The wood came from Build It Green, an amazing not-for-profit salvage company in Brooklyn. Also, Eli has a wood shop across the street from Eli’s Vinegar Factory that I love to use. He has a great carpenter that I collaborate with. I always want to create a handmade interior, and Eli’s setup is perfect for that.
How do you feel about the outcome of the space?
I’m very pleased with the outcome. It really came together. We’re still working on the transition of day to evening with the lighting, but I think it’s working. I would like to add some accessories, but now we’re working on Eli’s next adventure. He doesn’t slow down for accessorizing!
Eli’s Essentials Wine Bar
1270 Madison Ave.
New York, NY 10128
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