NEW YORK — In all likelihood, Jim Walrod isn’t the first person you’d think to hire to design your new Italian restaurant.
The tall and lanky 40-year-old design guru tends to curse — quite a lot, in fact. He smokes like a chimney and wears a silver skull ring. When he’s disparaging an interior he thinks is generic, he refers to it as “second-rate W Hotel.” At the Standard Downtown in Los Angeles, he placed the furniture at knee height for better accessibility during sex. And of the many objects in the Rock Hudson-inspired, space-age bachelor pad that Walrod created as The Park restaurant in Chelsea, one is a 24-karat gold penis.
So, a partnership with Jimmy Bradley and Danny Abrams — whose restaurants include the fairly conservative trio of The Red Cat in Chelsea, The Harrison in TriBeCa and The Mermaid Inn in the East Village — wasn’t necessarily an obvious fit.
“When we met him, we decided to take a chance,” says Abrams, who hired Walrod to work on his new restaurant, Pace (as in “peace,” in Italian), which opens next week on North Moore in TriBeCa. “We wanted something very different than the Harrison.”
Though it’s the biggest restaurant yet for Bradley and Abrams — there’s room for 125 diners inside, 60 on the deck and a private dining room downstairs — it’s one of the smaller spaces Walrod has outfitted.
“The scariest part of the whole project was the clientele,” Walrod explains. “They’re in TriBeCa and they’re yuppies. You hope they take something away from the design.”
The restaurant’s interior was inspired by a Giò Ponti plate that Walrod found in pieces at a flea market in New York. If intact, it would be worth something in the mid-five figures, and it’s currently being framed at a shop down the block. The artifact served as the model for an acid-etched mirror behind the bar that’s been treated so that you can actually see through it, as well as a mural on the wall that Walrod used to play off the art you’d find in your average Little Italy or strip-mall Italian restaurant.
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“You get these goofy murals in these goofy Italian restaurants,” Walrod says, using one of his favorite descriptive words.
But Abrams was initially opposed to the idea. “I said it was like wearing a Halloween costume on Nov. 1. And now, people come in and ask when it’s going to be completed,” he says, laughing.
“I told him it wasn’t going to look like the mural in Charlie Sheen’s apartment in ‘Wall Street,’” Walrod counters.
To complement such menu items as stuffed rolled wild boar and risotto with veal cheeks, Walrod wanted to create a space out of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 film “The Conformist,” which takes place in Rome during World War II. “It’s the best movie Bertolucci ever made,” Walrod explains. “I wanted to capture that pride of Italy. I wanted to make an Italian restaurant I would go to where you walk in and don’t feel crappy.”
As for the specific details of the decor — lightbulbs at the bar that use mercury, a beautiful multicolored chandelier at the top of the stairs, chalkboards and Twenties office furniture in the private dining room, the 40,000 linear feet of molding papered through the restaurant — “I have secrets all the way through,” Walrod says.
He admits his crew had to work overtime to capture his eccentric vision, which was also inspired by Futurist Italian art. “They quit every other day,” he says. “They walked home with respirators on.”
— Marshall Heyman