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Design of the Times

Jennifer Pfaff

Adam Tihany - hospitality designer - brain behind the HMF design

Photo by Joe Schmelzer

By fitting modern pieces in a traditional room, “we are betting on the fact that they will feed off each other and create the kind of energy that we’re looking for,” Tihany says.

   As president of The Breakers, Paul Leone has an ongoing commitment to preserve the historic Palm Beach hotel while invigorating it with new ideas. There have been plenty of those under his leadership, but one of the most significant took place during the summer.
   Since the 1920s, the Florentine Room had held a prominent place in Palm Beach's social history. It once was the spot where hotel guests took breakfast and lunch. Later, it became a hub of social activity as diners flocked to the French gastronomic experience of L’Escalier or to the Tapestry Bar, which shared space beneath the Florentine’s 26-foot-high, hand-painted Mediterranean ceiling.
   Wanting to preserve the architecture while reimagining the space, Leone asked a prominent firm to take on the project. “I no sooner finished describing the challenge here, and [the designer] said, ‘You know, actually, this is a job for Adam Tihany,’” he says.
   Considered one of the world’s greatest hospitality designers, Tihany (right) has amassed a portfolio of sophisticated international projects: the Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas; the King David Hotel in Jerusalem; signature restaurants for acclaimed chefs such as Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller; and dozens more.
   For Tihany, The Breakers was a rare foray into Palm Beach design.
   Acting as design consultant to Peacock and Lewis Architects, Tihany transformed the Florentine Room into a glamorous cocktail and small-plate lounge that encapsulates Palm Beach’s timeless cocktail culture. Named HMF—short for Henry Morrison Flagler, The Breakers’ founding father—the space, which opened in November, features a wine wall stocked with nearly 1,700 selections; two bars, one of which serves sushi; a theatrical open kitchen with appliances like a Japanese robata grill and a wood-burning pizza oven; oversized, contemporary furniture; and an entertainment area.
   The menu consists of sharing plates, which are larger portions than traditional tapas. The global cuisine, with dishes such as coconut-ginger steamed Venus clams, focuses on bold flavors and memorable tastes.
   In a nod (and a wink) to Palm Beach’s social history, HMF serves classic cocktails, some with a twist, like a modern take on the sidecar that pays tribute to Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway. Only craft beers are served, and sodas are presented in retro aluminum bottles.

The Breakers - the new HMF restaurant - designed by Adam Tihany

The Florentine Room reborn as HMF.

   The wait staff is dressed as though attending the party, and cigarette girls in striking red dresses wander the room, offering items such as cocktail samplings and decadent desserts.
   It all adds up to an authentic, modern vision celebrating Palm Beach’s classic cocktail culture, stirred with Tihany’s worldly influence.
   “We live on an island. Adam lives in the world—in the high-end, affluent, exciting world of hospitality,” Leone says. “That’s been a really intriguing part of working with him, is seeing some of these things through his eyes.”
   PBI recently spoke to Tihany about his influences, his vision for HMF and his take on Palm Beach design.

   PBI: How would you describe Palm Beach design today?
   TIHANY: Obviously, there are some historical references involved when you think about Palm Beach, starting with Worth Avenue. People around the world associate with Palm Beach as a little bit [like] the East Coast version of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. It has a manicured, elegant and tropical atmosphere, [and] it’s an elegant American leisure area resort town, obviously well to-do, so people are in their finest. ... For me, Palm Beach has been always a very sophisticated Bel Air [on the] East Coast. There are great homes. It’s an image you absorb from magnificent architecture; you don’t ever get the impression that it’s a contemporary community.

Crispy Szechuan chicken wraps - HMF new menu items

Photo by Robert Nelson

Crispy Szechuan chicken wraps, one of the small plates at HMF.

   How do you interpret the Palm Beach cocktail culture and its evolution?
   [The cocktail culture] was part of the lifestyle. It was in the early evenings. People would gather, talk, enjoy themselves, and cocktails were served. That’s an iconic image. Mad Men, which embodied the ’60s, has brought to life to our generation how people used to behave socially, what was acceptable. [It’s magical] for younger people to think how elegant it was, how fashionable it was to have a cocktail. Not, “Look at these people drinking.” It’s not even about drinking. It’s about socializing.

   When conceptualizing the design for HMF, how did you pay homage to the past while still bringing us forward?
   That was the easy part. What I elected to do early on was not to disturb the existing original architecture of the Florentine Room. By enhancing it through better lighting, we created a stage to showcase more contemporary living.
   I am a firm believer that these two things can easily coexist. When you walk into a traditional room, at times you feel you’re in the wrong period. Something happened, and you’re not draped in velvet [laughs]. You think, “This doesn’t suit my contemporary lifestyle. I can observe it, I can look at it, I can appreciate it, but I don’t want to stay here.”
   What I have created is enough tangible design in the room that actually would make you want to stay there. You can be sitting in the room on a contemporary chair, which gives you a little bit of a safety blanket from a contemporary perch, and can observe a traditional room, versus a traditional room dictating the mood. It’s like, for comparison, if you think about the Louvre in Paris. There’s a contemporary object in the heart of an eighteenth-century court. The new makes the old look less stodgy, and the old makes the new look a little bit stodgy. So they work with each other in synergy to create an energy that is conducive to contemporary living.

HMF dining room with bar - The Breakers - Adam Tihany
   Was the vast, open space a challenge?

   To me, that’s not a challenge. This is what I do [laughs]. I work with these kinds of spaces. I haven’t found the space yet that has squashed what was supposed to be done with it.

   I think that the grandeur of the room actually is a starting point for us, and we try to work with it and whatever we put in it has to function properly but also has to be in the human scale. For example, sitting in a very high [ceiling] room affects your psyche a little bit. You feel like you’re in a cathedral or something. It affects your sense of intimacy. In order to mitigate it without dropping the ceiling or putting up a canopy, we designed these very large light fixtures that sort of hover over your head and will give you the same effect as an umbrella. They will give you that nice sense of intimacy without losing the grandeur of the room.
   You walk into some of these big spaces and see people gravitating to corners and areas where they feel more comfortable. They feel more protected. You’re not exposed to the space, and the space affects you a little bit less if you can find a moment of intimacy. I’m well cognizant of all of this, and we try to design a room that will be inviting, fun, sexy and intimate and at the same time will benefit from being in this grand Florentine loggia.

   How did color play a role in the design?
   The Florentine Room has a very beautiful painted ceiling that has exactly 32 colors [laughs]. We took that palette and worked from it. The carpet and the furniture are complementary to the colors of the ceiling except, again, they are done in a very contemporary key. It is a colorful room, for sure, and pretty much in harmony with the existing original ceiling.

Adam Tihany - hospitality designer

Photo by Bill Hughes courtesy of Tihany Design.

   Did you have any ideas for this project that just did not work out?

   Many. It didn’t work out; we move on [laughs]. Every project has some things that you think originally they will work out, and then you get into it and they don’t. But nothing earth-shattering. Just details.


   How did you gather inspiration or research for HMF?

   We obviously do a lot of research about the demographics and about The Breakers. It’s important for me to create spaces that are site-specific, that are not just like a transplant from another planet. In order to do that, you really have to understand not just the space but also the demographics—who’s going to be using it and what is the type of clientele—and try to understand what makes these people tick. We work all over the world, so it’s sort of part of the secret sauce that we have, to try to identify the DNA of the place and then design accordingly.


   What kind of atmosphere did you want to create at HMF?

   Really cool and sexy. It’s a place where you would want to spend time, whether it’s having a small plate of something, the cocktails at cocktail hour, grab a bite of dinner, stay with friends, gather around a meeting place. We just see this as becoming a very social hub, the meeting place of choice—a “meet me at the HMF” kind of thing. That’s our hope.

   Before this project, had you been to Palm Beach?
   Maybe three times. And all three times, I stayed at The Breakers. And so I already had some kind of opinion of what this property was all about and was very excited when they actually contacted me to come and work with them.

   How does this project compare to others you’ve done?
  [The Breakers is] a very important, iconic hotel, so obviously Paul and his team are very involved. They care about every detail, and to me that’s a very favorable working environment. ... They’re very open-minded, they’re very excited about new things, extremely knowledgeable about the business and what they’re doing. That says to me it’s a wonderful opportunity to meet this kind of super-professional hoteliers and operators that really care about doing something meaningful for the community. And that makes Palm Beach, for me, very special.

The Breakers - Adam Tihany designed HMF - bar closeup

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January 2017