From the Archives: Mr. Chow

by John Loring Photographed by Harry Benson
Thursday, November 2, 2017

This article was originally published in AVENUE’s December-January 1980 issue.

In September 1907, the now legendary Cafe Fledermaus opened on Vienna’s Karntner Strasse. It featured dramatic black and white interiors, worked out collectively by the avant-garde artists of the Wiener Werkstaette. The chairs, tables, and flatware were designed especially by Josef Hoffman, other fixtures were by Koloman Moser. There were sets for the Fledermaus Cabaret by the then twenty-year-old Oskar Kokoschka and programs by Bertold Loffler. and Gustav Klimt. If a cafe-society watering hole could be thought of within the lofty romantic German notions of the Gesamtkunstwerk, “the universal work of art,” this was it.

A like galaxy of the twentieth-century design genius was once again assembled for outfitting the liner Normandie in 1935. That floating palace of arts and leisures included furniture by Jules Leleu and Alavoine, “deco” silver from Christofle, lacquer panels and doors by Jean Dunand, and murals by Jean Dupas and Paul Jouve. 

The nearest New York came to its own public Gesamtkunstwerk was the well-intentioned and grandiose Nelson Rockefeller/Donald Deskey scheme for Radio City Music Hall. 

That situation changed in October with the opening at 324 East Fifty-seventh Street of London-based Michael Chow’s new New York restaurant, “Mr. Chow.” New York cafe society now has its very own, if somewhat second-hand, “universal work of art.”

The restaurant’s high-ceiling, glittering black-and-white interior has deliberate schoes of both the Normandie and the Cafe Fledermause, of French Art Deco and the proto-deco style of Vienna’s Werkstaette.

“I don’t want ‘Art-Decoish,'” Chow asserts. “I wanted the real thing,” and the real thing is clearly what he has.

Clients enter from Fifty-seventh Street through a magnificent and monumental pair of glass doors sculpted around 1915 by none other than Rene Lalique for the great French courtourier, Jacques Doucet’s, avenue du Bois studio. (The Metropolitan Museum’s Twentieth Century Design Collection boasts nothing grander.)

Niches in the vestibule contain exquisite vases by Decorchemont and Dunand. The chairs in the main dining room are, almost predictably, “Fledermaus” chairs designed by Josef Hoffman, circa 1907, and remade by Thonet, the Vienna firm that produced the originals. Much of the silver plate hollow-ware is original Normandie Christofle silver marked with its C.G.T. monogram for the “Companies Generales Transatlantiques.” Two majestic sets of lacquered double-doors by Jean Dunand, also from the Normandie, ornament the lower-level dining room. There are also alabaster and gilt-bronze wall sconces made by the great “ebeniste-decorateur’ Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann for his Pavillion d’un Collectionneur, shown at the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Decoratifs.

Ruhlmann is a favorite of Mr. Chow and his ex-model wife, Tina, and they amassed an imposing collection of his finest work before the acquisitive world of international auction houses drove prices beyond the reach of anyone without elaborate resources. Although the Chows keep their Ruhlmann masterpieces safely at home, the new restaurant has not only Ruhlmann wall sconces but an albaster chandelier from his home in Paris’s rue Lisbonne; Ruhlmann hardware; and even barstools of the master’s design, which Chow rightly says, “looks ridiculously good.”

Lalique is further represented by frosted glass panels of nymphs and bacchantes that identify the appropriate W.C.’s. The restaurant’s tables’ center pools of light echo Lalique’s illuminated glass tables of the 1920s. (The perforated tole vases that ornament each table are naturally after designs by Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser.)

It would be unfair to imply that Michael Chow is simply a gifted collector and interior designer with an active and advanced taste for early twentieth century objects. 

His career, as he cheerfully points out, has been varied – aside from his successes as restauranteur/designer in London and Beverly Hills (New York’s Mr. Chow is the third to open.), he has been an actor appearing (if only briefly) with Monica Vitti in Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise and going on, as he explains, to his largest role – two minutes in Marco Polo. He was very much a part of London’s “Swinging Sixties” and the works by artists like Richard Smith, Ed Ruscha, Patrick Caufield, and Peter Blake that counterpoint the deco purity of his new eporium attest to his lasting friendship with the present-day world of arts.

It would also be misleading to suggest that Mr. Chow is a mini-museum of modern art, “The collection,” he stresses, “has become functional again in a totally integrated interior.”

“People not like us, people not into this nonsense of collecting, react to the place as ‘beautiful,’ ” he says, and he has spared no effort to make it both a beauty and a comfortable beauty. 

Table tops are luxuriously and subtly padded. There is a profligate use of table linen. Wood and glass screens, reminiscent of those in London’s Connaught Hotel dining room, provide protected ingles for intimacy. (“How safe one feels with them, how naked one feels without them,” observes Chow.) The lighting is masterful – Chow believes as a design rule that “Lighting houses space as much as a space houses lighting.”

Their attention to detail took the Chows as far as Cararra, Italy, to choose a block of pure white marble to be cut for flooring, and the resultant floor is as gleamingly flawless as every other detail of the interior. 

If New York’s reaction to this restaurant’s decor is one of delighted enthusiasm, its reaction to the food may be mixed. Amateurs of Chinese cooking, who take pleasure in scorching their palates with all the peppers of Human and Szechuan combined or testing their daredevil courage on sea cucumber with dried shrimp eggs, may be disappointed to find the cooking of extreme subtlety and simplicity – International Chinese modern cuisine, elegant and understated – in an Art-Deco ambience, probably better fare than the chow at the Fledermaus, though not as good as the Normandie’s.

There is no organized entertainment, but New Yorkers can be counted on to animate Mr. Chow with their own brand of gaiety, which falls precisely between Normandie and Fledermaus – between joie de vivre and Schlamperei. 


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