In January 1960, my grandfather, a graphic designer and special assistant for Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center, wrote to Restaurant Associates, requesting samples of the printed matter created by Emil Antonucci for their recently-opened Four Seasons restaurant at the Seagram Building.
Cleaning out his studio more than 50 years later, my mother discovered the long envelope RA sent back, chock-full of graphic goodies featuring Antonucci’s elegant hand-drawn line of trees: round pink buds for spring, fat green leaves for summer, spiky red boughs for fall, and stark brown branches for winter. Below, in Chisel capitals, THE FOUR SEASONS, like the stone plaza beneath a line of Dan Kiley saplings.
Because my grandfather wrote to them in winter, the oversize lunch and dinner menus inside feature the winter tree, printed hand-size and looking as if it was painted on the rice-paper cover with a broad, flat Japanese brush. Anontucci’s graphics combine the rough with the smooth, serving, as the potted plants and the Richard Lippold sculpture and Fortuny-clad powder room did, to soften the hard edges of Philip Johnson and William Pahlmann’s modernist interior.
I mention the matchbooks and coat check, menus and place card, stationery and cocktail napkins not to tell you that my career as design historian often feels like a research project into the lives my grandparents lived, but to point out that this ephemera was seen as worth writing away for in 1960, and seen as worth saving for 50 years. And it is perhaps the least famous element of the Four Seasons restaurant design. What will be sold in Wright’s July 26 auction are many more famous items, from custom brass-topped Eero Saarinen tables to the silver-plated footed bread bowls designed by L. Garth and Ada Louise Huxtable, each as considered as Antonucci’s trees.
The interiors gave people a way to experience modernism for themselves, changing the scale and increasing the sensuality of the new skyscrapers.
In the Huxtables’s archives at the Getty Research Institute, there’s a document, likely written by Ada Louise, about their part of the project: nine months of intensive design and production to create more than 100 items including sets of china, glassware, silverplate, and serveware. Eighteen pieces immediately went to the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection; the Dallas Museum of Art owns numerous examples as well. I particularly like the simple pots, designed to go from stove to table, engineered to stack. Dansk and Heller, two European companies with designs on modern American kitchens, had nothing on the Huxtables.
Our job was to translate the unusual food and service requirements of The Four Seasons into equally unusual accouterments of a simplicity and elegance to match the restaurant itself, and to do so in an incredibly short time. It was a designer’s dream and a designer’s nightmare.
When they are dispersed to those who can pay, this orchestral design project, in which Antonucci only provided the string section, will be broken up forever. The Four Seasons was a miracle of design care, miraculously intact for its age, and new owner Aby Rosen’s actions are the equivalent of me throwing that envelope in the trash—but not without peeing on it first.
When Curbed wrote in 2015 that the Four Seasons was "safe" from an over-ambitious planned renovation by Annabelle Selldorf, we did not realize that everything not nailed down by the interior landmark status would be removed, literally hollowing out the victory. (The glamorous downstairs lounges, with their book-matched marbles and upholstered walls, are not even part of the landmark designation.)
And for what? For different chairs (possibly also from Knoll) and different glasses, fresh menus and contemporary silverware. Will it be as nice? No. Will it coordinate with the same panache? No. Might it be more popular with young people? Maybe. But pretty soon the neighborhood reverts to itself.
It’s impossible to read the stories about Rosen’s plans for the space—hustling the Picasso tapestry out, bringing Major Food Group in, researching the dishes on the same 1959 menus I have in my possession, "playing in the J.F.K. world"—without mounting anger. There’s no reason, beyond the new-for-news value, that both a retro Grill Room and "the No. 1 room in New York" couldn’t have co-existed with the current furniture and fixtures. It’s hard to believe elaborate seafood trolleys, made in Mexico City, will look better than the stainless-and-teak carts still plying their trade in the Pool Room (and at the appropriate scale).
They are discarding history, only to replace it with something newer, crasser, and more disposable. It is, as I told Dezeen, an example of interior facadism, preservation that checks a box without honor, and it may be time for the interior landmarks law to get more specific.
Tant pis, you might say (the original seasonal menus, created by Swiss executive chef Albert Stockli, is quite French), except that they are destroying design precious to us all, even if we’ve never bought more than a very expensive martini at the bar.
I’ve never felt comfortable at the Four Seasons: too rich, too establishment, too midtown. Philip Johnson, whose banquette became a seat of power in the architecture world, didn’t know me from Eve. I don’t really care about the food or the maps of where famous people lunched on Eggs on Artichokes, Red Wine Sauce ($3.25), dined on Rare Filet Stroganoff ($6.50), after a hot appetizer of Crisped Shrimp Filled with Mustard Fruits ($1.95).
But I do care about the rooms, which also served, in the evening hours, as a backdrop for generations of bat mitzvahs, holiday meals, engagements, graduations and, very likely, affairs. I’d rather select a roll from a bowl with patina than a shiny new one.
The Four Seasons now stands alone as an intact midcentury hospitality interior, but it was part of a movement toward a new style of luxury in restaurants that said the present day could be as swank, and even more delicious, than the past.
Alexander Girard reinterpreted classic French cuisine in the monochromatic L’Etoile, complete with fashion-forward daisy-shape tables a la Courreges, while also creating the modern Mexican theme park that was La Fonda del Sol at the bottom of the Time & Life Building. Warren Platner turned the top of Minoru Yamasaki’s Twin Towers into a contemporary hall of mirrors, with chunks of quartz sparkling like Louis XIV diamonds, and the base of Eero Saarinen’s dour CBS Building into a black-on-black grill called simply The Ground Floor. Later, Kevin Roche would use mirrors to turn the underground Ambassador Grill into a conservatory, folding the reflective angles of One UN Plaza into its heart. The interiors gave people a way to experience modernism for themselves, changing the scale and increasing the sensuality of the new skyscrapers.
When the pieces of the Four Seasons are dispersed to those who can pay, this orchestral design project will be broken up forever.
The designers of these restaurants were mostly architects, skilled in scenography and the orchestration of detail. Hospitality, and the urging of visionaries like Restaurant Associates’ Joe Baum, gave them the opportunity to run slightly wild with color, mirror, theme. Looking at photographs of these rooms, it is hard to think of the postwar era as merely slick and anonymous.
With the exception of the Ambassador Grill—currently under review by the Landmarks Preservation Commission—and the Four Seasons, these interiors are all gone. The Commission will finally vote on Alvar Aalto’s only work in New York, the radiant 1964-65 Edgar J. Kaufman Conference Center, later this year. We can imagine ourselves sipping a martini or mainlining a margarita there, but we can’t try it.
Which made the Four Seasons’s immutability, and landmark status, that much more important. The best we can hope for now is for a single museum to buy or receive a suite of furniture and tableware, enough to recreate a corner of the restaurant for some future exhibition on this glorious period.
The owners of the Four Seasons say they are talking to both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New-York Historical Society about a gift, the scope of which is yet to be determined. Such a display will likely be a poor shadow of reality, but it would be better than a complete fragmentation of the restaurant as total modernist work of art.
As in-house seamstress Oradell Moore remarked to New York Magazine in 1986, when the restaurant was refreshed by Johnson and partner John Burgee: "When you charge folks an arm and a leg, you want to give them the best."