FEATURES : DESIGN

The Brothers Haslegrave

Design

One afternoon in late winter, Evan and Oliver Haslegrave, the brotherly design duo behind half a dozen New York City restaurants and shops including the Manhattan Inn, duckduck and Goat Town, sat side by side, at matching timber drawing desks in their Greenpoint loft. Each leaned over his work table, uncapped a black technical pen and hovered its inky tip just centimeters above a completed architectural draft while a camera flash strobed onto their shoulders. Evan tried to hold still for the camera while he spoke, “Hand-drawn drafts are beautiful… but they are really time-consuming! We draft to pass ideas back and forth, to work out concepts—then we render CADS for clients and contractors.”

The photographer paused to modify her aperture settings, and the brothers relinquished their drawing poses. “We’ll generally have an idea of what we want in a space. It’s usually just cultivating a pool of ideas or inspirations and then tailoring each stage as we go,” Evan said. Between the brothers, ceiling moulding ran unexpectedly upward from the wooden floor boards, intersected the wall at a diagonal and projected back out to hold the base of a lamp four feet above the ground. “And it’s always better to let the space take you to a certain level,” Evan said.

Oliver and Evan grew up in a small town outside of New Haven, Connecticut with their younger sisters, Hadley and Morgan, where their mother worked in financial services at Yale and their father was the lead architect at a residential remodeling firm.

At an early age, the children were drawn to their father’s work, so he allowed them to help with his construction projects. “It was a huge part of our lives. As children, some people have babysitting jobs. Ours were cleaning up job sites,” Evan said. The boys then employed their knowledge of construction at home, where they demolished things around the house to build couch forts, outdoor forts and every other sort of fort imaginable. “Tons of things were deconstructed and reconstructed, about as much, I think, as parents could stand—or maybe even more than they could stand,” Evan remembered with a smile.

Oliver left home in 1997 to attend Wesleyan University, where he received his bachelor’s in Film and then moved to New York City where, some years later, he was hired as a literary fiction editor at Brown Publishing. Evan moved to Brooklyn in 2007 to attend Pratt design school, so the brothers moved in together.

They both waited tables for a few years to cover their rent and other expenses. Evan tired of the night owl lifestyle, so in 2008 he left the restaurant industry and began working as a handyman. “We had to keep the lights on,” said Oliver, with a shrug of his shoulders and an impish smile. As he relaxed this gesture, Oliver leaned against the back of his chair, a curved seat made of blond wood which was covered in black pen markings. It was the prototype for the white-tiled booth seats that he and Evan had dreamed up for Goat Town restaurant in the East Village.

Evan glanced at Oliver and returned his smile. “Oddly enough,” Evan said, “New York Magazine named the handyman business Best of Services in 2008, so it was way more work than I could handle.” It was around this time that Oliver began helping Evan with his handyman work.

Shortly after their business was featured the brothers were asked to design a bookshelf for a residence in Brooklyn. “The project was to disassemble this big old colonial entertainment center in Cobble Hill,” Evan said. “The clients wanted to do a library on their mezzanine level that also went up to their rooftop, so we designed a staircase that was also bookshelves, that kind of wrapped around.” The clients were so pleased with Evan and Oliver’s work that they invited the brothers to renovate their East Village business property. “They were like, ‘We have this bar and we want to redo it,’ and that’s basically how it went,” Evan said. This was their first major design project, Elsa.

Elsa is described by her Yelp reviewers as a cozy and unpretentious speakeasy with an “adventurous cocktail list.” In memory of the Blind Tiger establishments that grew in popularity during Prohibition, Elsa’s beer tap is disguised inside a vintage Singer sewing machine. Adorned with salvaged wood and lit by candles housed in mason jars, Elsa always draws a heavy crowd.

Working on Elsa allowed the brothers to imagine themselves giving up their collection of jobs and focusing solely on design. By the time that Elsa served her inaugural tumbler of Old Fashioned in late 2008, Oliver had quit his editorial job, and Evan had left from Pratt. The brothers retained their handyman work until the following summer, of 2009, when their design work became more substantial. They called themselves “hOmE,” a close-to-the-heart acronym that combines the first letters of their forenames with those of their sisters’: Hadley, Oliver, Morgan and Evan.

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While the name hOmE would lend itself well to a pair of residential designers, Evan and Oliver are more interested in working on public spaces than homes. “Restaurants are wonderful and thematic,” said Evan. And who better to design the layout of a restaurant than two brothers with experience waiting tables and tending bars?


Evan and Oliver’s experience in the food service industry has proven to be one of the secret weapons of their design. The brothers know that the organization of a restaurant or bar, the size of its tables and the orientation of its seating are all factors that affect the ease with which its occupants can navigate the space. Oliver explained, “If you go in [to a restaurant] and have a nice time and everything is smooth and everybody’s happy… It’s very much like a suspension of disbelief you’re entering a world that’s different. If you start seeing the cracks in how it’s working and not working, then your reverie is broken a bit. There is a lot that you can do, and often in seemingly small changes, that can really affect how people feel in the room. Ideally you can make enough of those changes that the room becomes as cohesive as possible.”


Manhattan Inn, hOmE’s piano bar and cafe in Greenpoint, is a successful demonstration of this objective. From the sidewalk, Manhattan Inn appears first as a warm wooden door and an unassuming tin sign. At the bar in the entryway, the smell of grits, morning muffins and sausage bleed from the kitchen while sunlight casts in from the adjoining back room. When guests are seated in the back hall during weekend brunch hours, natural light spills through the ceiling window and focuses on the open body of an ivory grand piano. An unshaven man in his mid-twenties animates the keys as visitors are assigned a seat in the conch-like spiral of tables which spread over two separate levels. From either the ground or the elevated stage, patrons can make eye contact with nearly every other person in the room.


“Our idea was to make that room totally focused on the piano,” said Evan. “And we raised the seating so that… every person has an equal vantage point.” On the day that Evan and Oliver decided to circumscribe the Manhattan Inn’s back room with raised seating, they went to Build It Green!, an environmentally-friendly non-profit in Astoria that salvages refuse materials from local building projects and sells them at a discount. “Some staging company on Broadway had just dropped off the stage to the Little Mermaid, which was 4′ × 8′ panels with feet on them… It wrapped all the way around the space, like just two feet shy. It was perfect,” Evan said with a wide smile. “You’re literally sitting on the stage to the Little Mermaid with hardwood flooring on top of it,” he added.


Whenever possible Evan and Oliver use old materials in place of new ones. Many of their supplies, like long beams of Douglas Fir, tin ceiling squares and dented door knobs, come from Build It Green! “Ideally, we don’t rule out using anything,” Oliver said.


Evan sat on the edge of his chair, adjusted the fine suit jacket that he wore with faded black denim trousers, and narrowed his eyes. “It’s funny that sustainability is a question… There’s so much material out there that just should be used… and for the projects that we do, it feels totally natural,” he said.


Reused materials do indeed feel very natural in the rustic spaces that hOmE has created. But while their designs up unto this point have had a unifying visual presence, Evan and Oliver are in no way married to any certain aesthetic. “More than anything we like to create a space that is comfortable within the dynamics of the neighborhood, and then push it,” Oliver said. He added, “We try to create something that has character and a history.”


Historical locale have a deep appeal to Evan and Oliver, which is one reason why they so exuberantly accepted their most recent assignment, which is housed inside a 19th century landmark building in Tribeca. Once completed, Little One will include a basement kitchen and two stories of dining halls capped by two floors of apartments. This combination restaurant and residential space is their biggest project yet. “It has a really cool history in that Yoko Ono and John Lennon spent a lot of time there and tried to make the building the Nutopian Embassy so that he could have diplomatic immunity or something to that effect,” Evan said. He illustrated the space with his hands while he talked about it. “It’s a brownstone that’s only about 15 feet wide and 50 feet long, so essentially it’s like a boat.”


Comparing a building to a boat is the unusual sort of re-imagining that pervades Evan and Oliver’s work. At the bar of Paulie Gee’s pizzeria in Greenpoint, which hOmE designed in 2009, the brothers replaced the handles of the beer tap with junkyard emergency sprinklers, the kind with flower-like metal hats that poke down from the ceilings of commercial buildings. Metal fireplace grates host a drink menu near the restaurant’s entrance and square tables made of recycled wood are held up on the legs of retired pianos. “A lot of salvaged pieces you find, like that old beer tap,” Oliver began, while gesturing to a large metal tap that sat disembodied atop a wooden butcher’s block in his kitchen. “I would be really amazed if they still made them like that. And it’s not a qualitative thing, it’s just that there were certain times when certain kinds of things were made. New materials come along as a quicker means of production,” he added. “And if you want to create a feeling of warmth and history or character, then a new material will not give it to you. Used materials just lend themselves better [to that sort of ambiance.] Inherently, salvaged materials have all of these restrictions, but to use them in a more abstract way, to create something new from them—that’s the best part of the job,” Evan said.

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After the completion of Paulie Gee’s, Paul Giannone, the pizzeria’s namesake and founder, thanked the brothers with a commemorative lemon tree, a nod to the restaurant’s citrus-laden logo. Shortly after positioning the sapling beside the sink in their kitchen, Evan christened it “John Lemon,” a play on the name of the former New Yorker. Oliver prefers to call the tree by his nickname, “Jack Lemon.”


“That one actually took an embarrassingly long time to come up with,” Oliver said.
Evan disagreed, “No… John Lemon just sort of came.”
Oliver was certain that his memory was correct. “He didn’t have a name for a long time,” he said, without looking at Evan. “Cause he wasn’t really a lemon tree! He was just kind of, like, this twig for a long time! And I’d say… just within the past three of four months he’s really started coming into his own,” Evan said, playfully ending the discussion.


The thin green branches of John Lemon had opened during a short burst of warm weather and now reached out over the left trough of the double basin sink. Pre-veraision lemon globules weighed on the plant’s limbs so that the branches hung low beside the sink’s spigot. The spout of the sink was ornamented with vintage glass soda bottles—quite literally a “soda fountain.” In weeks before the spout had been made of a small gardening shovel, but the brothers wanted to try something new. “We needed something to clear the snow,” Oliver joked from beside an ancient record player with tall thin sides and a crisp black disk. To his left was a barrel of small-batch whiskey that was given to the brothers by Kings County Distillery. The fine smokey liquor can only be removed by tipping the barrel on its side and sucking the drink out with a baster. “We did some work in exchange for some whiskey,” Oliver explained.


Evan and Oliver’s 1,200 square foot loft contains an exhaustive collection of well-placed nick-nackery, including a black and white photo of the Beach Boys eating fast food, two dilapidated old-timey butcher’s blocks, and more books than anyone would care to count. The innards of a grand piano are tacked up on the north-facing wall and fallen pennies hide between spaces in the floorboards.


“Lucked out? We refused this place the first time we saw it. It was dark and the floor was painted this horrible brown color,” Evan said, pointing with his foot to a spot on the floor that had survived a heavy sandblasting. After finding no other space quite as large as this one, the brothers signed a lease on the loft and renovated it extensively. “When you’ve worked in the industry for so long, you kind of have x-ray vision and you can see the space without the walls there,” he said.


On the west-side of the apartment, the brothers have a well-stocked shop where they build some of their smaller items that they use in their designs. “Lighting is mostly fabricated here because we really put an emphasis on it. It’s something that we oversee as much as possible,” Evan said. The brothers believe that when a designer works directly with a material, he will develop a better understanding of that material’s strengths and weaknesses. “It’s similar to a doctor not working on a cadaver, but a live patient. If you have experience with the actual medium, you have a better grasp on your design,” Evan said.


One gets the sense that Evan and Oliver Haslegrave have never pressured a piece of wood, a box of bolts or an iron pick axe to be anything that it did not already want to be. Neither have the brothers forced their careers in any specific direction—rather, they have allowed their lives to progress naturally. They are moved along by their congenital curiosity and their adoration of new experiences, their eye for balance and their understanding of social spaces.


Evan lifted his hands to gesture as he spoke, “We like creating these places where you feel, in a comfortable way, all of these crossovers of necessity within one space. There are just so many different levels that have to all function and when you finally get those different things to overlap in the right way you end up with a cohesive, beautiful feeling in the space.” His hands fell to a resting position on his knees and he nestled into the crook of a well-worn wooden chair. He smiled. “It’s about creating that space that we really believe in.”