Shop Visit: Talking with Friends & Family's Taavo Somer

Friends & Family is a design-build company based in New York with an impressive client list and a variety of specialties. Its founder, Taavo Somer, is perhaps most known for his work designing and creating Freemans Restaurant, a favorite hangout spot of mine and many others in New York. No doubt that in a hundred years, when future humans look back at this time period and study our religious obsession with food, Somer will surely be noted as one of the favorite designers of our places of worship. He’s also designed the Rusty Knot, Gemma and Isa.

I got to visit Friends & Family too see some of the new furniture they’re making, and to speak with Somer about his creative process, restaurant design, music, and where he finds inspiration. 

This is an amazing space. How did you find it? What’s the thinking behind it? 

We were looking for the longest time and then our shop manager Justin, I think he was driving by and he saw the sign. He met the landlord and he was like: We want to rent this. He knew that I would love it. We just fell in love with the fact that there’s this constant daylight, and it’s such a cool space. 

The initial concept was to try and bring design and making together -  collapse it -  because so much of my background, I’m an architect by training, we design in our notebooks or the computer, and the making process happens somewhere else, in another country or across the U.S. somewhere. So you’re kind of limited by your inexperience. 

Totally. Right. 

You design I think, not like novicely, but sometimes when architects design furniture it’s kind of off. 

Right the people making it don’t actually…

Inform and educate you.

Yeah.

So what I like is working with Justin and Ian and everyone else. I’ll have an initial sketch and immediately they’ll be like we can do that or that, and it can totally develop further into something I couldn’t have come up with. And I think that’s kind of the core thesis of the shop and of the studio, is to kind of bring the making and the design together, and collapse it. 

So I kind of thought that you guys came out of the Freeman’s, that that was sort of the beginning of Friends & Family. Or is it different?

Sort of because Freemans was the first project. I had worked with Marc Newson on the Lever House with Serge Becker. I worked at Steven Holl Architects in the city and after Steven Holl, I worked with Serge. He’s a product designer, but he was doing the interior of the restaurant. That was like two years working on that, trying to build this giant piece of furniture in this old modern beautiful building, in the Lever House. It’s a cool green building on Park Avenue. 

It was such a difficult project to get it built, and during that it made me think, wait a minute this was designed in Europe for a space in New York, and the contractor is racking his head trying to figure it out how to make it happen. And I was like: Wouldn’t it be cool to design a restaurant with making in mind first? So while we’re doing Lever House, I designed Freemans unintentionally. I had no space yet, but I was designing it. I drew perspective views, and then I just built it myself with some friends. 

Did you have an interior aesthetic in mind as well?

Yeah, but it was all about again making and design merging. And then we did that again at Gemma for the Bowery Hotel, and then we did it again at the Rusty Not and at Isa. And Isa was the most sort of, trying to build furniture. And that’s sort of what was the turning point. We were like instead of using field table saws and chop saws, why don’t we actually have a shop?

Sure.

So that’s kind of how it started. It’s always been a part of my process or DNA, to try and get towards better design by working with makers.

Actually having your hands on the materials.

Yeah. 

How do you think that the design, what you guys are doing now aesthetically, has evolved since when Freemans started in 2000...?

Four

Ok. How would you describe what you make now and the look you're trying to achieve now vs. then. 

The biggest thing that I’ve seen, or am now interested in, is back then you could buy antiques. You could buy found things relatively easy. It was plentiful and it was pretty cheap. Now as that sort of became a style and became very popular, it’s almost impossible for us to compete in the marketplace buying antiques. So probably for I’d say four years, five years, we’ve kind of moved away from buying old things and moved towards making new things. And I think that’s the big shift. It’s cheaper and more interesting to design and make a brand new chair, or desk, or lamp, then it is to try and compete with people on 1st Dibs or at Brimfield. 

Right. That’s another thing I wanted to ask you about. You go into some of the restaurants that popped up in the mid 2000s and late 2000s, and there’s a kind of nostalgia feeling, an almost comfortable nostalgia feeling that they evoke, a lot of them Freemans including. And I love it. But it seems like now there’s more restaurants and public spaces that are bit more… well to get very specific wood is blonder, it’s almost like a cleaner more modern, that’s a vague word to use, more minimal aesthetic. 

Yeah I think that’s accurate. And I think maybe what happened, the nostalgia, I don’t think it was necessarily nostalgic. It was more that if you think of the evolution of design, the first thing you might do is, here’s this classic old thing that’s really beautiful and I get that. And then after you are with that piece for a while or that aesthetic, you’re like, ok yeah I’m kind of tired of that and I learned from that. And you’re thinking starts to evolve to: OK what is so great about this old thing? And then you start to see it in newer things. When we were doing Freemans in 2002-2003, my head was in the 18th century. The 1860s were everything I was thinking about, and then in 2010, I was in the 1980s. And I feel like I jumped 100 years.

Yeah.

And now I’m like in 2015. I’m trying to be in the present, and not look at the 90s or anything, just look forward. 

Do you think it’s possible to design a space. I shouldn’t say possible. How hard is it to design a space that remains relevant or timeless for 10, 20, 30, 50 years. I’ve been thinking of restaurants in New York and there are only a handful that are really unchanged over a long period of time. Do you think of that as a designer, or are you like this is for the moment, if it’s not here in 20 years whatever? Do you understand what I’m saying?

Yeah I get it. I think when things are surface driven, I think they kind of fall apart. As a parallel with music. For me, I think music is a good way to think about things. So if you think of how there’s some music whether it’s rock or whatever, there’s something so elemental and, off the top of my head I’m thinking of Talking Heads, or The Beatles, or The Rolling Stones, or Genesis, there’s something so primitive yet modern about it that it resonates with you, whether it’s when that music came out or right now. It makes sense to a five year old, and it makes sense to someone who doesn’t speak the language. 

It’s like mastering the form and putting your take on it. 

Yeah. Right. And I think that sometimes there’s music that’s a little shallow. This is the song of the summer! And it’s this plasticy thing, and it’s like I hate it so much but I’m listening to it! But you know in a month you’re not even going to want to go near it. 

So where do get inspiration when you’re designing. What are you looking at right now? What’s sort of interesting right now?

A lot of times I look at more what’s happening in fashion, because fashion is faster. If you look at a scale of what’s the fastest design and what’s the slowest design. Architecture and interior are the slowest. Fashion is the fastest. Music is fast. So in terms of kind of seeing the reflection of where the sensibility of the moment is, I kind of look at those two things, music and fashion. 

You can kind of see, and you mentioned this modern or minimal thing, and maybe it’s already over, but there’s this huge resurgence of sort of Memphis style. Last year, the year before. Are you familiar with those guys? The Italian collective. 

I don’t think so.

That was this whole color thing that’s happening.

Like what? How would you describe it?

I would describe it like….it’s hot pink. It’s like 80s. 

That’s happening a bit with motorcycles right now, people are doing really colorful things.

It’s like acid color, it’s a little...this is Memphis (shows me his phone).

Ahhh ok.

You see that happening in clothing.

Do you like that? Do you try and move towards that?

It depends. I remember studying Memphis in architecture school and there was something so discordant and bizarre then. I still feel the same way. But it’s like with music sometimes. I remember listening to Sonic Youth Daydream Nation, and I hated it. I just could not get into it but my friend who was a musician was like “Dude Sonic Youth is the best!” So I said ok, alright, I’m going to take your advice and I just kept listening to it and one day, I was like oh my god! It clicked for me and I got it. 

So I find sometimes with things that repel me at first, I kind of have to sit with them longer and kind of let it in.

Yeah totally. It’s funny. All the music I really like, I didn’t like when I first heard it.

Yeah.

And all the songs I really likes when I first heard them, I don’t listen to them anymore. 

Right, well think of food. The first foods you really like as a kid, you like salty, cheesy, fatty foods. Most kids hated broccoli and Brussels sprouts and kale, and then you’re older and you’re like, I kind of like that stuff more.

I think your tastes evolve and become more nuanced and from a design perspective, part of you kind of has to separate yourself personally from it. My goal is to try and be a medium or a vehicle through which design can go. I’m not trying to force myself on something. And I think the best time that can happen, is if you can make or design something or a piece of music that resonates in that moment, in that time. Because it’s not about you, you’re just there and you happen to help form that. 

Yeah. Totally. Is there anything you have in mind that you want to work on that you haven’t? Projects that you haven't done that you want to? Sort of dream projects or whatever. 

It’s sort of a catch 22. You’re like, wouldn’t it be great to have our own woodshop and then we can build all our own furniture all day long, but the reality is it’s kind of like a recording studio. You have this great setup, but then you have to pay for it. So I think we spend most of our time doing pay-the-bill-work, and not so much fantasy dream land let’s-build-ten-chairs work. 

So that would be the dream. Let’s actually spend some time... As I’m getting older, that’s the most luxurious thing there is. To actually have time, to be like: I’m going to sit and draw and think for a couple hours. With Freemans, I wasn’t married and I didn’t have kids and my job situation was pretty minimal. I had a lot of time on my hands and I spent a lot of time designing and thinking. And as I’ve gotten older and more business, it’s like my time is like going down like that. My dream would be to have more time to design and think on some new stuff. 

All right, well that’s, I think awesome. 

Oh cool.

Thank you very much Taavo. 

Yeah, thank you.