Building The Brooklyn Bar

The design duo the Haslegrave Brothers unwittingly perfected the Brooklyn aesthetic. Now they’re bringing it to Manhattan.

On the corner of Franklin Avenue and Green Street in Brooklyn, Evan Haslegrave is slowing circling a big metal bowl with a can of silver spray paint. Pewter-colored plumes engulf him as he stands back and considers the hunk of metal.

“That’s supposed to be a light,” says Oliver, the other half of the brothers’ architecture and interior design company hOmE, as he emerges from a cellar door in the sidewalk. After building ten bars and restaurants, three retail stores, a distillery and their very own watering hole, Alameda, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the Haslegraves are still hand painting lampshades.

The brothers have become well known for weaving together a certain aesthetic usually generalized as, simply, “Brooklyn.” Though that would not be an incorrect descriptor, their work has proven to be more substantial than the “hipster” innuendos often associated with Brooklyn the adjective. Theirs is a look that toes a line between fashionable and classic. Their projects are replete with clean lines and are mostly safe from the nostalgic tchotchkes that seem omnipresent in Brooklyn-inspired interiors. When I asked why taxidermy and stacks of decaying books never became part of their interpretation of the Brooklyn aesthetic, Evan replies, “It’s probably because we’ve run out of money by the time we get there.”

To be exact, there is nothing exact about the Brooklyn aesthetic. It’s farmhouse tables, white tile, reclaimed wood, pressed tin and everybody-is-good-looking lighting. It’s the hand-sewn linen napkins on the table, the local mayonnaise, rooftop honey, foraged-berry jam, (insert condiment here) and the pretty people who make it. At times, the self-styled Brooklyn is nearly a caricature of itself—an urban-pastoral fairy tale almost creepy in its endeavor to rose color the world. In a way, the Haslegraves have distanced themselves from this aesthetic by dropping the yearning-for-another-time act in favor of elegance. By doing so, they’ve unwittingly defined what the adult version of Brooklyn might look like in ten years when the neighborhood starts brushing its hair, wearing clothes that fit and putting on deodorant. Given the rise in property values these changes are already in motion.

When asked about this Brooklyn aesthetic, the pair gets serious. “Can we talk off the record?” They look at one another, and back at me as if about to relay a big secret. I ask whether it’s maybe a certain ratio of subway tile to reclaimed wood, or maybe the antique toilet levers or those light fixtures that cast the impossibly youthful glow. But when the tape stops rolling, they both look at me intently and ask, “What do you think it means?”

The most current engine they’re building is Chef Bill Telepan’s open kitchen in Tribeca, Telepan Local, which is slated to open in December. It’s an unexpected partnership considering Telepan’s eponymous Upper West Side restaurant is a near embodiment of the style that new-wave Brooklyn seeks to jettison.

Evan and Oliver grew up around men making things. Their father and grandfather were builders. Tall, broad-shouldered, bearded and Carhartt’ed, they look like men who build things. Upon moving to New York, Oliver was a fiction editor and Evan went to school for interior design. They both worked in bars for a few years.

“And by a few, we mean a lot,” says Oliver.

Their experience behind ice wells and bussing tables has instilled in them a dedication to functionality above all else. The pair begins designing with the “engine” of a place in mind. In many blueprints, this is the bar. At Tørst, an experiment in elevating beer drinking, the engine is one long wall of taps and an overhead shelf of hanging glassware. At Alameda, it’s a horseshoe shaped counter with double-sided shelves to make bartenders’ lives easier. “No matter what the place looks like, if the staff can’t operate and deliver, and ultimately make people happy, then what we’ve done matters a lot less,” says Oliver. “Design is in the little things.”

The most current engine they’re building is Chef Bill Telepan’s open kitchen in Tribeca, Telepan Local, which is slated to open in December. It’s an unexpected partnership considering Telepan’s eponymous Upper West Side restaurant is a near embodiment of the style that new-wave Brooklyn seeks to jettison. Even in his 2006 review, Frank Bruni, then restaurant critic for the New York Times, declared the restaurant’s interior dated and its color scheme “questionable.” With his downtown migration, Telepan decided to move outside of the white tablecloth world and into an environment that better reflects his cooking.

“We didn’t want a corporate feel, or an uptown fine-dining feel,” says Telepan. An early supporter and vocal advocate for the NYC Greenmarkets, Chef Telepan remains a devotee to the now-ubiquitous (and somewhat lampooned) local-organic movement, which, it’s worth mentioning, he shares in common with almost every earnest Brooklyn restaurant that’s popped up over the last three years.

In an effort to translate the mellower Telepan into design, the brothers looked to vineyards, fishing towns and Northeastern barn architecture to create a high-ceilinged post-and-beam dining room filled with reclaimed wood and illuminated with an unexpectedly-dramatic chandelier.

What the brothers’ move into Manhattan signifies is a cozier sort of relationship that the two boroughs have settled into. Eyes are no longer rolled when the itinerary calls for crossing over the East River and, more than ever, the boroughs are taking cues from one another. Andrew Tarlow’s Wythe Hotel could very well be transferred to the East Village, while any piece of Gabe Stuhlman’s restaurant empire would not be out of place in Cobble Hill.  The Haslegraves’ have helped further this dialogue by venturing into Manhattan’s nether-regions to give Telepan’s original restaurant a facelift, which included dispatching the green paint Bruni had called “oppressive.”

“Every neighborhood is different,” says Oliver. “And we design with the neighborhood in mind.” Combining this philosophy with the pair’s quick ascendance and the “look” they perpetuate, the Haslegraves are part of a shift in New York’s style, which seems to be increasingly a product of Brooklyn influence.

Likewise, Brooklyn has reintegrated the parts of Manhattan to which it relates best. Projects like Paul Liebrandt’s shiny Williamsburg hotel restaurant The Elm, the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare (a $225 prix-fixe affair that disallows short sleeves in the dining room) and Blanca (a 12-seater in Bushwick putting out a 25-course tasting menu that runs about $350 per head with wine pairings) are all Brooklyn interpretations of the sort of high-end dining you’d expect in Manhattan.

“It seems like, across the board, people are raising the stakes,” Evan says, while Oliver interjects, finishing his thought. “Cocktail programs, coffee programs, finding really good food in every neighborhood in Brooklyn—it’s a fairly recent development.”

Evan remembers a time when corner cafés and artisanal doughnuts did not abound. “It’s wonderful how passionate people have become about drinks and food. When we were kids, there was either the total dive or the extremely expensive joint. Now there’s this wonderful plateau where you aren’t charged an arm and a leg to eat and drink beautifully, he says. “It’s a great time to be alive.”

Whether they realize it or not, the Haslegraves have entered into the lexicon of New York style and their reach is expanding. They’re currently designing a hotel in Baltimore and a private residence in Las Vegas. However, they seem content to tune out and stay close to home for the most part, remaining loyal to their little slice of North Brooklyn. Alameda, of which they’re part-owners, is undoubtedly their local (they live and work across from it) and the engine they can observe and tweak most personally over time—with a well-earned beer in hand. On the occasion they venture out, they drop into Tørst, the beer bar down the street they collaborated on with Evil Twin, or Brouwerij Lane, another ale-stocked Greenpoint staple.

“The best thing after a hard day’s work is a beer,” says Evan. “It’s honestly the best beer you’ve ever had.” Oliver nudges him, “Speaking of which…” Evan nods and looks at his wrist, “Yeah, it’s about beer-thirty.”