Hospitality designer Adam D Tihany redefines the fine-dining experience around the world, not least at the newly revamped Amber in Hong Kong
Adam D Tihany's first day in Milan was spent in jail. It was the late 1960s and most of Europe was embroiled in political turmoil: the spectre of May '68 lingered in France, The Troubles were brewing in Northern Ireland and Italy was entering its Red Brigades years. "I got to Milano in November 1969," as a Politecnico di Milano architecture student, recalls Tihany. He was 21. "After three years in the Israeli army, in a war on the Suez Canal for a year and a half, I get there and there's a fog like you can't believe. I couldn't see anything," he says. "I go to the [school], I'm late, I'm looking for registration and I don't speak one word of Italian. Ten minutes later there's tear gas and shooting and after three years in the army I know what to do." Eventually taking shelter in a police car, he ended up at the local precinct being booked. "Everybody's name was Carlo Marx. I get to the window and I say 'Adam Tihany' when he asked my name," he says with a shrug. After a brief mix-up stemming from a gesture with two dramatically different meanings in Hebrew and Italian, "I ended up in jail." He pauses. "You want to hear about the second day?"
Though born in Transylvania and raised in Jerusalem, Tihany calls himself an Italian designer, by training and by philosophy
Adam D Tihany is a natural storyteller, sporting his hallmark bright red spectacles and casual neutral shades that have him almost blending in with the background at the newly redesigned Amber in Hong Kong's The Landmark Mandarin Oriental. Since opting to study architecture instead of veterinary medicine – the two choices Tihany had after military service that would get him out of Jerusalem – he's become one of the world's pre-eminent hospitality designers, with The Beverly Hills Hotel, the Westin Chosun Seoul, One & Only Cape Town, Venice's Belmond Hotel Cipriani, The Four Seasons Hotel Dubai DIFC and the Oberoi New Delhi, as well as some of the world's most high profile restaurants to his credit.
It goes without saying that Tihany eventually mastered Italian and, with the country's schools and businesses in shambles in the 1960s and '70s, he quickly landed an apprenticeship in Milan. "Two years [after arriving] I was a junior partner," he notes. Though born in Transylvania and raised in Jerusalem, Tihany calls himself an Italian designer, by training and by philosophy.
"My formative years were Italian. When I got to the US I behaved like one, I spoke the language, I dressed like an Italian, everyone thought I was Italian. Most importantly I thought I was Italian," he reasons. "And when it came time to open my business in 1978 I worked like an Italian designer. Meaning design was defined as you giving me a problem and me giving you a solution. It wasn't graphic design or lighting design or product design. I was a designer. Needless to say, I starved for years."
I designed the first grand cafe in New York… It opened in February of 1981 during one of the biggest snowstorms in New York City in years and there were lines outside the door to get in; Andy Warhol couldn't get in
Tihany opened his own studio in New York, where he is still based, after Museum of Modern Art's 1972 exhibit on contemporary design, Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, took him to Manhattan for the first time. "Some American firms came to Italy looking for 'Italian design'. That's how I got there. It's the dream of every Israeli. We had Hugh Hefner and Alfred E Neuman [the Mad magazine cover boy]. That's it. Those were all the heroes at the time," he chuckles.
Though Tihany struggled as a result of his comprehensive practice ("People are uncomfortable without specificity.") he managed to land a few eye-catching projects, chiefly the New York nightclub Xenon, Studio 54's only rival for glitterati in the late-'70s. That led to an encounter with the owner of what would be famed Parisian brasserie La Coupole's American branch, who commissioned Tihany to design it. Ironically, that led to his speciality as a restaurant designer.
"I single-handedly designed the first grand cafe in New York; it was 225 seats. It opened in February of 1981 during one of the biggest snowstorms in New York City in years and there were lines outside the door to get in; Andy Warhol couldn't get in," Tihany remembers with another laugh. "That made the papers the next day and we became the hottest restaurant in New York City." As an "Italian" designer, Tihany created everything from the furniture, tableware and lighting to the uniforms and menus. The restaurant closed after a couple of years, but, he says, "that was the birth of the profession."Since that birth, Tihany has worked with some of the world's most renowned chefs, the most crucial connection in restaurant design. "Chefs have culinary language. When they can't explain to me what they want me to do I ask them to cook for me. I look at the food they'll be serving and imagine going into the establishment that will serve that food," he explains. "How do I control the environment, and how do I build the story for diners so that when the food comes to the table, not only are they not surprised, they've been expecting it? That's what the food deserves… This is all about [them]. It's a portrait of the chef; it's a custom suit. This has nothing to do with me. This is how I view my projects." Tihany has put his mark on outlets by Thomas Keller (The French Laundry), Daniel Boulud (Café Boulud), Jean-Georges Vongerichten (former Robb Report Best Restaurant in the World for Vong, the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong) and Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck).
Also on that list is Richard Ekkebus's two Michelin-starred Amber. Tihany and Ekkebus's partnership goes back 15 years, all the way to the first iteration of Amber in 2005. Which raises the question: what was wrong with it that it demanded a redesign now?
"Nothing," Tihany shoots back immediately, though he admits that not only were diner habits changing, Ekkebus himself was. "We all seek immortality. We want to design spaces that will last forever. Richard came to me four years ago saying he was thinking of repositioning Amber – even though everybody loved it — because he was changing. 'We need to mix things up.' I said find another space."The new Amber retains the original restaurant's DNA, but is an almost feminine, more casual space with plenty of natural light and dominant curving forms. The warm, neutral tones are more inviting and the curving volumes create pockets for more intimate gatherings while maintaining a seamless connection between staff and guests. The old golden rod lighting has been replaced with a seven-tonne bronze ring chandelier. A wine bar has been added; tablecloths are a thing of the past. Out is formality and in is approachability to go along with the increasingly fluid definition of "fine dining", a concept Tihany nonetheless considers key to cultivating tomorrow's master chefs, a factor that must be reflected in the space."There are some great chefs with a truck whose tacos are as tasty as anything by Keller or Boulud. But the 60 young people in [Amber's] kitchen, under Richard's tutelage, are the key to the future… If a young person doesn't dream of being the next Mies van der Rohe there isn't a future for architecture," he argues. "They need role models. For the next few generations no one is going to want to be president. It's the same in restaurants. These are the stars of today that keep the flame going and we need to do these temples for them so people can come and pray."
Aside from Amber, Tihany – an Interior Design Hall of Famer, Honorary Doctor of the New York School of Interior Design, and a former member of the Pratt Institute's Board of Trustees are just a few of his accolades – also designs for Holland America, the upscale Seabourn line, and is creative director for both Costa Cruises and Cunard, which will be rolling out a new ship in 2022. Cruise liners offer a peculiar challenge in that they have no fixed location from which to draw cohesive design inspiration and can easily feel generic despite each operator having its singular direction, clientele, national personality and history.Tihany points out Costa's forthcoming ship Smeralda will be themed around 'Italy's Finest" for interiors (the ship will also have a design museum), whereas UK-based Cunard will tap into the line's British heritage with a contemporary art deco interpretation that recalls the heyday of Transatlantic sailing. Talking of Seabourn, Tihany says, "We aim to capture the romanticism of early explorers with spaces that showcase the quality and design of tools and clothing associated with exploration, the spirit of adventure and the thrill of discovery."
For the immediate future Tihany is off for a deserved vacation in Tel Aviv and some good coffee. "I promise you, the best coffee in the world outside Italy is in Israel. Who knew?" After that it's back to New York and more reverse engineering on his next restaurant. "When I look at a project, I see it finished, then I try and take that and put it on paper. It's a reverse process," he says. A restaurant owner, he still starts with the basics: are the chairs comfortable, can you hear your conversation, is the light right? Those fundamentals, Italian-st yle completism and genuine creative joy go into Tihany's design recipe book. "If you don't want to make people happy, don't do this," he concludes. "Go off and be a veterinarian or something."