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Food & dining

q & a

Designer Adam Tihany builds restaurants around the food

02qanda - Adam Tihany. (Handout)

Adam Tihany.

Adam Tihany, the creative mind behind many of the world’s most beautiful four-star restaurants and hotels, attributes his career to a bit of serendipity — “like all the good things in life.” The 66-year-old designer, known for his attention to detail, was one of the first in this country to focus specifically on hospitality. “It’s not just the room or the lighting or the furniture. It’s also the linen, the china, the uniforms, the graphics,” Tihany says. “You make sure they all tell the same story and that they’re all tied into the same idea.” Tihany has done dining rooms for Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Wolfgang Puck, Sirio Maccioni, and Boston’s Lydia Shire. “I view restaurants as theaters. They’re not just places to eat. They’re places to experience events and emotions,” Tihany says.

Born in Romania, Tihany grew up in Jerusalem, studied in Milan, and has lived in New York since 1975. Stories of some high-profile designs are in a new coffee table book, “Tihany: Iconic Hotel and Restaurant Interiors,” which includes Le Cirque, Per Se, and Daniel in New York, Apsley’s and Dinner in London, the Westin Chousun Hotel in Seoul, and the Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas (for which he acted as a design consultant for Adamson Architects).

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Q. How did you get your start in New York?

A. Early on I recognized that people here specialized. After starving a certain number of years, I happened to meet somebody who asked if I was interested in designing a restaurant. La Coupole was the first grand cafe in New York. We opened to a huge crowd in the middle of [a] snowstorm. Andy Warhol couldn’t get in. I did the architecture. I did the lighting, designed the menu — all the things I wanted to do. After that, I bought a sign that said “Adam Tihany: Restaurant Designer.”

Q. You write that designing a restaurant for a famous chef is like painting a portrait.

A. It’s no different than making a custom suit. A custom suit fits you and only you. Every seam, every space has to do with your body, your movement, your persona. When a great chef walks into a restaurant, it has to fit like a custom suit. I have to get into the head of whomever I’m doing this for. It’s a very personal process, an intense journey.

Q. How do you do that?

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A. It is very simple. I ask them to cook. Don’t tell me what the restaurant should look like, show me the food. I taste the flavors, look at how the plate is constructed. I ask myself what kind of room would I like to sit in to consume this meal? You want to create places that are classics, that have longevity and are not trendy. I try to seek out the operators and chefs who are not trying to create a hit every night, but a solid reliable place year after year. Not everyone thinks that way.

Q. How did operating your own restaurant, Remi, change the way you design?

A. I definitely became a better designer. The biggest revelation I had was how important it is to balance the front of the house with the back of the house. There is no way you can have a successful operation without everybody being comfortable, especially the people who work there every day. As the restaurant became more known and respected, other chefs would see me as a colleague and not just a designer. I was no longer just the person who wanted them to spend a lot of money on a lot of things they didn’t need.

Q. Many restaurants are so loud that it’s hard to hear across the table. Is that intentional?

A. To a restaurateur, noise means life, success. Lively is good, but overly noisy is no good. It’s something you can very simply and easily correct with certain materials and surfaces. There is no magic to this. The truth is that in cities like New York and Boston and Chicago, real estate is very expensive. Therefore, the operators try to maximize the value of real estate by cramming in as many chairs as they can.

Q. Are there design trends you are ready to see retired?

A. In my world, trendy is a dirty word. I was judging one of the major restaurant and hotel awards, and I would not exaggerate to say 70 or 80 percent of the projects were reclaimed wood, exposed bricks, and Edison lamps. Whether it was a neighborhood trattoria or a chef restaurant, they were indistinguishable. Why would a humble pizza place in Brooklyn look like a fancy restaurant in Norway?

Q. What advice do you have for people at home who want a better dining space?

A. I can only say two things: Hire a waiter and get a chef in your kitchen. Home is the most personal thing. It’s your castle. One of the biggest regrets I have is that no one invites me home because they’re afraid I’m going to criticize something. They always say, “Let’s go out.”

Interview was edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at michaelfloreak@gmail.com.

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