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2016 James Beard Foundation Design Icon Award: The Four Seasons Restaurant, New York City

JBF Restaurant Design Committee

May 02, 2016

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In August of 1959, Craig Claiborne extolled The Four Seasons Restaurant in his New York Times review:

There has never been a restaurant better keyed to the tempo of Manhattan than the Four Seasons… Both in décor and in menu, it is spectacular, modern, and audacious. It is expensive and opulent, and it’s perhaps the most exciting restaurant to open in New York within the last two decades.

Design stands alongside food, service, and location as an asset that can make a restaurant exceptional. This year the James Beard Foundation Restaurant Design Committee established the Design Icon Award to recognize restaurants that have withstood the test of time to become standard-bearers of design excellence and innovation. Our inaugural recipient is The Four Seasons Restaurant, one of the nation’s best examples of a restaurant whose design has inspired and remained relevant for decades. 

When it opened, The Four Seasons redefined fine dining in New York City, and the luxury, modernity, and cost of its space was unprecedented. The restaurant concept was the brainchild of Joe Baum, with James Beard and Mimi Sheraton as consultants. An unabashedly modern yet luxurious space, The Four Seasons not only introduced diners to seasonal menus, but also pioneered the “power lunch” concept, drawing regulars such as Henry Kissinger and Martha Stewart during its five decades.

The space was designed by Philip Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for Seagram chairman Edgar Bronfman, with his daughter Phyllis Lambert acting as patron and muse. The sparse but elegant interior was furnished with classic and new furniture by Mies van der Rohe and interior designer William Pahlmann, while over 100 tableware designs were created by Garth and Ada Louise Huxtable. (Many are now in the permanent collection of the nearby Museum of Modern Art.) The signature shimmering metal-bead curtains were the work of textile designer Marie Nichols. 

Divided into two distinct dining rooms, The Four Seasons consists of the French walnut–lined front Grill Room, home to the power lunch and the clubby bar with its floating Richard Lippold sculpture. The back Pool Room is named after the large water feature at the center of the space. The connective marble corridor was home to the large Picasso tapestry Le Tricorne, now at the New-York Historical Society and just one of the many legendary works of art that have graced the restaurant. 

In 1989 The Four Season was designated a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, ensuring the legacy of this iconic restaurant for at least another 200 seasons. The current owners, Julian Niccolini and Alex von Bidder, have shepherded the restaurant through the last two decades, raising its profile while preserving its original status.   

The Four Seasons was the epitome of power, modernity, and permanence in 1959, and it remains so today. A restaurant that lasts more than half a century is a marvel. One lasting that long in New York is closer to a miracle. The first-ever Design Icon Award recognizes of the lasting importance of the design of The Four Seasons.

Learn more about the 2016 James Beard Awards.

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—The Restaurant Design Committee