Sensory Delights: Theatrical Design of Ella Funt

Annabel Karim Kassar, a distinguished architect and designer of French-Lebanese descent, unveils her latest project – the design of Ella Funt restaurant in New York’s East Village. As part of the larger redevelopment initiative for Club 82, a renowned New York establishment, the restaurant, situated at street level, is set to bring modern French cuisine to the forefront. Founded by restaurateur Lounes Mazouz, the design by AKK Architects’ founder, Annabel Karim Kassar, pays homage to the historical significance and ambiance of Club 82 while redefining its spatial identity for the present and future. 

Ella Funt, named after one of Club 82’s celebrated performers, is characterised by Karim Kassar’s nuanced use of colour, light, and texture, creating a sensory-rich environment that complements the global influences embedded in the restaurant’s culinary offerings.“For Ella Funt, I used a vibrant alchemy of colours, light and shadows, and highly tactile textural textures to create a sensual ambience imbued with pathos and spatial fluidity. The walls are covered in Moroccan tiles as an antidote to the conventional white and stainless steel of other restaurants,” says Kassar.

Marking a maximalist departure from the current vogue for pared back restaurant designs in New York, Karim Kassar nods to the character and drama of bygone New York treasures; nostalgically referencing the dizzying beauty of the now closed Palio on West 51st, known and loved for its arresting ceiling-high mural by Neo-Expressionist painter Sandro Chia, through artistic commissions and applying her own expressive hand throughout the space.

From the bar and dining area through to the kitchen and restrooms, Karim Kassar carves out a unique character and energy for each space. Vintage oriental tiles adorning the walls work as partitions for the distinct zones, whilst also adding drama to the space. Karim Kassar creates subtle visual interfaces to nurture this fluidity – a softly lit bookcase, for example, bridges the kitchen and dining area lending a cocoon like feel. 

The main dining area has been imagined as a French Salle a Manger for maximum comfort, and features an immersive large-scale mural painted by New York based artist Marcus Jahmal. Kassar introduced a division between a formal eating space and somewhere to enjoy organic wine, cocktails and small dishes, creating a unique point of interest and an element of voyeurism – as a bar for ‘seeing, and being seen’. Discreet lighting embellishes the stirring, sensual atmosphere as Kassar creates pools of light and dark which pepper the space.

The open kitchen invites diners to enjoy the culinary theatre of the chefs at work, whilst the bar offers a comfortable retreat in the day before shifting to become more lively and intimate in the evening, with three private booths and a “whispering bar” to provide added pockets of privacy. 

Kassar pays special attention to the restrooms, insisting they create a lasting memory for guests who visit. 

She says, “There are also pockets of rich colour hidden away. For instance, the “gold toilet” has a window that lets you look down to the stairway into the nightclub. The handicap toilet (often doubly neglected in terms of design) has a floor-to-ceiling series of my own paintings inspired by Cezanne’s sensual Les Baigneuses (“the Bathers”).”

“For me, a restaurant needs a strong sense of place and a certain drama, not anonymity. You should be excited as soon as you step foot into it. With Ella Funt, my wish was to honour the memory of the original Club 82 whilst creating something that felt new and contemporary. I looked to capture a total human experience, there is something for everyone who enters,” comments Kassar.