On a blustery day in October, 2003, a young architect stood at the foot of a long alley, in an ungentrified part of New York City’s Lower East Side, staring at a narrow brick building set back off the street with leaves swirling around it. Inside the space appeared unremarkable, just an empty box with a drop-panel ceiling and linoleum floors. But Taavo Somer saw so much more: In those moments, a cinematic story played out in his head of a rustic-tavern in Revolutionary War-era New York, a place where European refinement clashed with rustic Colonial life.
Nine months later, Somer realized his vision as Freemans Restaurant, a place so richly detailed and visionary that it helped to bring about a renewed love of early-Americana and spawned many a rustic-tavern imitator. It also pioneered a return to place for restaurants in New York and beyond.
“That was the era of everyone looking outside of New York for inspiration,” Somer says. “Most of the restaurants were replicas of France or England, there were a million brasseries. I didn’t know about all those other places. I only knew about New York.”
When Freemans opened in 2004, it was all about New York. And the skill with which Somer brought his vision to life, with partner William Tigertt—from the signature taxidermy to the shelves of antique books, oil paintings, and other era-appropriate accessories—spawned a myriad of imitators but also a larger sensibility: a value to creating an authentic sense of place.
The Freemans concept has now been exported to Japan, a licensing arrangement that Somer brought to life by shipping containers full of antiques and taxidermy around the world and making many visits to supervise construction and installation. Ironically, Somer says, “the Japanese almost do America better than we do—they’re very detail-oriented and methodical.”
Somer also has showcased his ability to create atmosphere in his other New York eateries: Gemma in the Bowery Hotel, The Rusty Knot nautical bar on the West Side Highway and the now-shuttered Isa in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. “I try to design for the intersection between sense and place,” he writes in the intro to his new book, “Freemans,” released in October by Harper Collins.
These days, the place that has most captivated of late is his 18th-century stone house in upstate New York. For nine years the property has served as a vacation home, but this year Somer, his wife and two young daughters, are experimenting with living there full-time — he commutes to New York City several times a week.”As soon as I saw the place, I knew I wanted to grow old there,” he writes.
With its stone walls, wood-beamed ceilings and wide plank floors, the home and surrounding fields and woods “reminded me of my past yet spoke to the future,” Somer writes in the book. “I could picture our lives unfolding there. Everything about the house is crooked, but its imperfections appeal to my sense of what I’ve always liked about design in the world. I want to contribute to it in a way that is equally imperfect.”
Throughout his career Somer has shown a knack for design instincts on the forefront of trends that have become pervasive in our culture: bespoke suits, hipster barber shops and designer T-shirts. The Freemans brand has spawned an adjacent Sporting Club selling men’s suits and an old-school barber that helped usher in the resurgence of the straight-razor shave. Perhaps most surprising is the success of Somer’s T-shirt line, whose popularity at retailers like Barney’s and Colette in Paris, helped finance Freemans.
So what design trend does Somer see on the horizon? As he tells it, his ventures aren’t necessarily calculated affairs, but the result of timing, setting and the cinematic stories that play out in his head. So it seems we’ll just have to wait for his next close-up.