After its debut in 1974, the restaurant Le Cirque quickly established itself as a treasured haunt of Manhattan's privileged set, presenting four-star cuisine in a setting abuzz with social electricity. Then housed in the Mayfair Hotel on the Upper East Side, the enclave's distinctive murals of monkeys dressed as 18th-century aristocrats--sipping tea, dancing the gavotte, and hunting foxes--were a memorable backdrop for the Continental delicacies and charming showmanship of proprietor Sirio Maccioni, who had perfected this sort of "swellegance" as the longtime maitre d' at the chic Colony.
But like a fever dream or a surreal interlude directed by Fellini, the scene at Le Cirque now has been transformed into a Cirque de la Cuisine captured within a gilded cage. Relocated to the New York Palace hotel in midtown Manhattan after a two-year absence, the eatery has been the talk of the town's social scribes and gourmet disciples since opening last May. Garnering even more attention than the subtle variations of Le Cirque's revamped menu have been the remarkable juxtapositions embodied by its new decor. Architect and interior designer Adam Tihany has dropped a New Age circus setting into the Gilded Age shell of the historic Villard House, part of an 1882 Italianate mansion designed by architects McKim, Mead & White. Tihany likens the effect to "parking a Ferrari in the courtyard of an 18th-century palazzo."
To enhance the overtly theatrical ambience, illumination by the New York design firm Focus Lighting is equally dramatic: Flame-crested blown-glass torchieres and neon-edged arcs of steel swirl through the bar, while custom luminaires and towering, striped lanterns of light cast a soft glow amid the giltwork, etched glass panels, and splashes of intense color in the dining rooms. Fittingly, this reinvented restaurant, revved up to meet the new millennium, has been rechristened Le Cirque 2000. This year's model is not your father's restaurant anymore.
As Tihany approached the daunting task of creating a fantastic circus within the landmark space, he called upon Focus Lighting principal Paul Gregory to devise a lighting plan which would emphasize the unconventional interior design without neglecting the remarkable existing architecture. "We began to orchestrate the lighting by first addressing Tihany's designs for the lively new elements in the space: the shapely furnishings, neon rings, freestanding bar, flame torchieres, entry canopy, and so on," says Gregory, who collaborated with colleagues Diana Ades and Brett Anderson. "These arresting elements are set pieces in the space, but they do not come into direct contact with the walls of the original interiors. The new furnishings and decorative details fashion a little jewel within the beautiful enclosure, and lighting assists in bringing the two contrasting looks together."
A lighting plan serving as a design catalyst was a tall order, since the audacity of Tihany's interior elements is eminently rivaled by the opulence of the existing architecture. Built for financier Henry Villard by the illustrious firm helmed by architect and bon vivant Stanford White, the venue's formal interiors were designed in the Italian Renaissance Revival style, inspired by the Palazzo della Cancellaria in Rome. Adorned with gilt and tooled-leather ceilings, Baccarat crystal chandeliers, wainscoted walls, romantic murals, Corinthian columns, marquetry doors, leaded glass windows, and carved marble fireplaces, the interiors sought to transplant a doge's palace to New York for the benefit of its railroad magnate owner. After remaining in private hands until the 1940s, the property was purchased by the Archbishopric of New York (St. Patrick's Cathedral is across the street), which in the 1970s leased it to Harry Helmsley as the anchor for the development of the adjacent Helmsley Palace Hotel. The Villard space functioned as a warren of tea salons and banquet rooms lorded over by the infamous Leona Helmsley until the hotel was sold to the Sultan of Brunei in 1993. For the current restaurant project within the renamed New York Palace, the Villard interiors were carefully restored recently by Harman Jablin Architects.
New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission restrictions prohibited the design team from attaching any part of the new decor to the walls of the landmarked site, so Tihany says he alighted upon the concept of "a circus that had been unpacked in this august space." In terms of lighting, each outlet or newly pulled circuit required direct approval from Landmarks. Focus Lighting worked within such strict limitations to create both dimming and non-dimming circuits throughout the restaurant. "Our goal was to keep the architectural shell bright enough so that it wouldn't fall away from the newer, brighter furnishings and design details," Ades says. "It was a balancing act between the two looks."
Setting the surreal scene just inside the front door, the Grand Hall entry is festooned with a colorful tent canopy designed by Tihany. Focus Lighting incorporated luminaires on both the inside and outside of the tent to illuminate the surrounding architecture and billowing folds of fabric (the heraldic tent panels will be changed seasonally). Six Tech Lighting Aero MR-16 fixtures are set within a gold metal collar supporting the top of the tent, "since there was an existing duct right there to accommodate the wiring of the luminaires," Ades says. The tent pole supports three more Aero fixtures, while additional units highlight the existing fireplace frieze, downlight the maitre d' stand, illuminate adjacent artwork and surrounding tables, and cast colorful accent lighting upon the tent curtains.
The Gold Room Bar is the center ring of Le Cirque's interior scheme and represents the design team's high-wire act. The room's 35'-high (11m) gilded and vaulted ceiling, pre-Raphaelite friezes, and sculptures are all highlighted by cove lighting and Altman Stage Lighting ellipsoidal reflectors hidden along a balcony. New to the space is Tihany's immense, freestanding backlit bar bracketed by four 17' (5m) flame-like torchieres. Both the bar and the torchieres are composed of 10 fixture types, either custom luminaires or custom installation of standard fixtures.
"The back bar wall is an example of using standard fiber-optic illuminators with custom light bars between glass combined with gold foil to make a spectacular shimmering wall effect," Gregory says. The glass-paneled bar front and back bar wall are end-lit from behind with Optical Display Lighting fiber optics cast into rods so that all the fibers align to form a band of light shooting out from the glass. "Rosco mirror foil set behind the fiber optics adds a little more sparkle to the background," Ades notes. For an additional layer of light, 20W G4 bi-pin lamps illuminate the bar shelves.
The towering blown-glass torchiere flames, which Tihany uses like beacons set in ringed-steel cone cages, are each internally lit with a custom Satco ball--a 20W bi-pin quartz lamp encased in a translucent white glass sphere. "The lamp softens the light into a beautiful white glow that works well with the blown glass," Gregory says.
Yet the Gold Room's truly showstopping attraction is a pair of custom neon-edged ellipses spanning between the torchiere towers overhead. Throughout the evening, a mobile clock navigates the ellipses like a futuristic high-wire performer. The neon elements, custom-designed and installed by Chris Freeman Design, are actually powered from the bases of the torchieres and from within the bar. The clock itself is a custom framework designed to function on a 12V wire system with an integral moving car and custom light fixture. And if this effect still fails to mesmerize bar patrons, there is a videowall that broadcasts live closed-circuit views of the master chefs at work in Le Cirque's kitchen.
"In the bar, our task was to take the designs of the sculptural elements and make them function as lighting fixtures," Ades says. "It was like putting a huge lamp in the middle of the room. The neon ended up lighting the ceiling and providing general illumination, as the backlit bar lights up the faces of the patrons sitting or standing at the bar. Every element assumes the role of a huge lighting fixture, because we didn't have many other spaces to place lighting equipment."
One main dining room, the Hunt Grille, again illustrates the team's careful consideration of old and new interior components. "The Grille is a lofty wood-paneled room with a tooled leather ceiling that is incredibly detailed, so we punched up the ceiling with light," Gregory says. "We also had to light the envelope of the room so it didn't just read like a black box."
To solve the Grille's ambient lighting dilemma, Tihany and Focus Lighting collaborated on the design of 11'6"-tall (3.5m) light towers that feature alternating horizontal stripes of opaque red and glowing, internally lit sections. The units, set against the paneling along the room's perimeter, are fitted with Starfire Xeneflex striplights. "The towers serve as sculptural elements in themselves, while creating a lot of ambient light," Gregory says. "The illuminated bands act like big candles, with the diffused light softly illuminating the faces of patrons at the tables. We even kept the tops of the towers open to throw more light onto the ceiling."
A painting above the Grille's ornate fireplace is uplit with a Lucifer Lighting custom brass striplight fixture that merely rests on the fireplace, to retain the landmark integrity of the room. "Without lighting, the painting would have gone completely dark," Ades says. "It wasn't in Tihany's design to put lighting up there, but that's just an example of how we all collaborated on making the lighting enhance everything in the space."
The Madison Room, the other main dining room located on the opposite side of the Grand Hall, is lit primarily by illuminated sandblasted glass screens. Three 3/4" carved glass panels are internally lit with Starfire Techtrac MR-11 striplights wedged between two sections of glass to edgelight the glass. The fixtures also bounce light up to the existing gilded ceiling to add more ambient illumination. "The fixture slots cut into the stainless steel bases of the glass panels were done by the metal fabricators, who did a beautiful job," Gregory says. "The striplights drop in perfectly and are easy to relamp and maintain."
Also in the Madison Room, Tech Lighting curved-arm luminaires drape over the edges of some perimeter banquettes to add another stylish layer of light. Satco ball lamps, like those in the bar's torchieres, cast an even, soft glow. Meanwhile, Lumiere MR-16 bullet fixtures with integral transformers are set behind the banquettes along the perimeter of the room, accenting every pilaster and casting ambient light toward the ceiling.
Upstairs in the restaurant's secondary function spaces, the Library's fireplaces are lit similarly to the fireplace downstairs with Lucifer Lighting striplights. "We also used Lumiere bullet fixtures within the fireplace to backlight different changing displays--statues or floral and winery arrangements," Ades says. "Half of the ceiling in this room is not landmarked, so we were able to install Lightolier MR-16 track fixtures to create some versatility for events planners."
"Careful coordination played a major role in the success of the project," Gregory says. "The Landmarks Commission was very restrictive, to the point of saying we couldn't add a low-voltage luminaire to the chandelier in the Great Hall to spotlight a floral arrangement. If we wanted to add a light strip to a molding to illuminate the ceiling, that wasn't allowed. It took some ingenuity and quick thinking to offer alternate solutions. The restrictions also affected the final budget," he notes. "We had specified a preset dimming system to make it easier for the restaurant operator to balance light levels, but the entire dimming package was cut because the electrical costs to integrate the system into the landmark space would have been extremely high."
Even without dimmer panels, Maccioni and his three sons greeting guests in the Grand Hall have plenty of circus circuits on hand to keep the buoyant ambience aloft. Le Cirque is back in town and more vibrant than ever.
Owner/Clients Sirio Maccioni, New York Palace
Design Architect, Interior Design Adam D. Tihany International Adam Tihany, Rafael Alvarez
Landmark Architect Harman Jablin Architects
Architect of Record Augustine Digneo, Jr.
Lighting Design Focus Lighting Paul Gregory, Diane Ades, Brett Anderson
Neon Design Chris Freeman Design
Electrical Contractor H&L Electrical Contractor
Electrical Engineers Meyer, Strong and Jones
Partial Equipment list
Gold Room (1) Focus Lighting/Modeworks custom clock system (140') Chris Freeman Design custom blue/red neon (4) Altman Stage Lighting ellipsoidal reflectors (12) Lightolier track luminaires (6) Optical Display Lighting fiber-optic illuminators and 30 custom bars (5) Modulightor custom chrome arm luminaires (4) Focus Lighting custom low-voltage luminaires in flame torchieres (4) Mantis Design custom flame torchiere fabric centers Rosco gold foil
Hunt Grille (60') Starfire striplight (16) CSL Lighting track luminaire ceiling uplights (2) Kern/Rockenfeld custom wine case luminaires (1) Lucifer Lighting custom brass striplight/painting accent light
Madison Room (40') Starfire Techtrac MR-11 glass screen striplights (4) Tech Lighting custom gooseneck accent luminaires (1) Ingo Maurer ILO-ILU decorative luminaire (12) Tech Lighting custom cone curved-arm luminaires (2) Lucifer Lighting custom brass striplights (22) Lumiere bullet fixture pilaster uplights
Grand Hall (20) Tech Lighting Aero luminaires/tent accents (1) Lucifer Lighting fireplace frieze uplight
Grand Stairs and Upper Hall (12) Litelab PAR-36 ceiling accent luminaires (6) Lightolier ceiling track luminaires
Library/Drawing Room (2) Lucifer Lighting custom brass striplights/fireplace uplights (2) Lumiere bullet fixture inner fireplace accents
Kitchen (64) CSL Lighting recessed chrome accent downlights (18) Louis Poulsen Cross Guard sconces (26) CSL Lighting low-voltage under-counter task striplights
First-Floor Lounge (20) Leucos Igea glass downlights (4) Tech Lighting cone pendants (8) Eurofase wine room wall-washers