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.