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The award-winning team at Avroko has emerged in the past decade as one of Manhattan’s hottest restaurant design groups. The design and architecture firm has an insider’s perspective as it also owns and operates a number of New York restaurants including Public, which won a couple of James Beard awards, the prestigious food industry prizes, for the team’s design work in 2004.

Established in 2000, the firm is led by architects Adam Farmerie and Greg Bradshaw, and graphic designers Kristina O’Neal and William Harris. I meet Farmerie and O’Neal for lunch at Caffé Falai, an Italian restaurant close to their offices near Little Italy. Though it is not one of their own designs, Farmerie says he has become almost addicted to the place, which has mirrors covering the walls and three ornate chandeliers over a counter dividing the dining area and the kitchen.

What distinguishes Avroko’s design can best be summed up in the title of their hefty book, Best Ugly (Collins). The term is used to describe something that is beautiful and charming in an offbeat, awkward, and obtuse sort of way. Their approach is evident at a recent conversion, Quality Meats on West 58th Street in New York, where butchers’ cleavers hang on the walls, the chandeliers evoke meat hooks and modern, elegant surfaces are juxtaposed with ruggedly exposed brickwork. This look sits comfortably with a menu dominated by sizeable meat cuts.

They are also known for salvaging items from the original space that might otherwise be discarded and for reusing them to startling effect. “In many instances we do a reskinning rather than a full renovation,” Farmerie explains.

O’Neal says inspiration for the Best Ugly idea came from her travels in Asia and particularly from looking at gardens in China where one ugly plant will be placed to accentuate the beauty of the others around it.

In Hong Kong, they are creating a restaurant space out of two floors of what O’Neal describes as a “nondescript office building” that has provided them with plenty of the ugly side of the equation.

The firm’s four partners originally met almost 20 years ago at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Having reunited in 2000 to set up Avroko, the friends decided to cross the line from being architects and designers to becoming restaurant operators. They opened the 1930s-inspired Public in Nolita in 2003 with Farmerie’s brother Brad as the chef. The restaurant earned a Michelin star this year. They also own the next door Monday Room, a cosy, luxurious space with dark woods and leather chairs, and last year opened the funky, bustling Double Crown, which has a bar attached called Madam Geneva.

O’Neal and Farmerie say that working with top restaurateurs and chefs, such as Alan and Michael Stillman in New York and Michael Mina on RN74 in San Francisco, has made them better designers and better restaurateurs.

They are clearly passionate about their work as restaurant owners. O’Neal speaks enthusiastically about the time she spends at the flower market buying for the restaurants while Farmerie laughs as he tells me about the long shifts he puts in at their restaurants after his day job as an architect.

Outside the US, the firm has worked on restaurants in Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore and India. Now at work on their 19th restaurant, O’Neal believes their approach is evolving and that Best Ugly may have had its day “as we look for new ways to express ourselves”. She says they are now more inclined to look at history for inspiration because the firm believes nostalgia is staging a comeback. Madam Geneva takes its name and its drinks list from a book on the gin craze that swept England in the 18th century.

Should Farmerie achieve his next, personal, ambition and design restaurants in London, its history is bound to provide him with many more exciting reference points.

www.avroko.com

nicholas.lander@ft.com
More columns at www.ft.com/lander

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