The other evening at Moto in South Williamsburg, brothers and interior designers John and Kevin McCormick were slumped over mini glasses of Guinness, which they’d ordered by the nickname, “Sweet Sweet Baby Jesus.” Surrounded by the peeling walls, rusty light fixtures and creaky Viennese chairs that have become their signature, the McCormicks were discussing the most recent evolution of restaurant decor in New York.
“At one point, it was all French bistro and yellow washes and tin ceilings,” said Johnny (as he prefers to be called), 44, wearing jeans, a scruffy thermal shirt, and a mischievous smile hidden by graying facial hair. He was referring to places like Keith McNally’s Pastis, in the meatpacking district, and the crepes chainlet Le Gamin. “It looked like they all picked up the same coffee table book and bought the same enamel sign.”
Sitting across from him in a crisp dress shirt was Kevin, 38, a former ballet dancer with cheerful blue eyes. “And then it went into like this lounge phase with clean painting and low seating and glass walls,” he said.
“And then it was this industrial design and suddenly everything was poured concrete and brick and black pipe,” Johnny continued.
“I think people wanted a little more warmth and history back,” Kevin said.
Proprietors like Taavo Somer of Freeman’s on the Lower East Side and Matt Abramcyk of Smith & Mills in Tribeca and the Beatrice Inn in the West Village have become public figures of a certain Depression-era nostalgic charm that has washed over the city’s restaurants. But it is Johnny and Kevin whom these men, among others, have called on to come in and beat things up a bit. The McCormicks are not exactly decorators or contractors, while they do both. Rather, they are professional distressors: helping build restaurants and bars where bartenders wear arm garters, ice is cubed by hand, and each dust particle, creaky door hinge, dent and scratch is applied with expert precision.
Johnny rusts, oxidizes, and ages surfaces. Sometimes he uses chemicals to create aged-green copper; other times he attacks light fixtures, bar tops, and doors with nails, keys, or whatever else might be lying around. Kevin, meanwhile, is the wall and ceiling expert: applying layer upon layer of paint and plaster as well as candle wax, or motor oil if necessary, to get a weathered look. They like their places to look as if they “maybe opened 1890, and now it’s 1940 at the latest,” as Kevin put it.
Raised in Minneapolis, neither brother was schooled in design, but they attribute their appreciation for “old, soulful things” to their mother, a homemaker and a dedicated antique shopper. (Dad worked in air pollution control.)
In 1997, Johnny, who moved here in 1989 and worked as a bike messenger and later, a bartender, asked Kevin to join him in New York to open the restaurant Palacinka, in Soho, which they did on $36,000 in 3 months time. (They sold their stake in 2001 and the place closed last year). Shortly after they opened Moto, in which they are part owners, along with photographer and design collaborator Billy Phelps. Fellow restaurateurs noticed the space’s distinctive, sentimental atmosphere. Soon after, Mr. Somer asked the brothers to help him open Freeman’s; Kevin did the walls and Johnny helped with construction. Then, Kevin was asked to paint the walls of the Beatrice Inn and later Smith & Mills, where Johnny also worked on the interior. Most recently Kevin did the ceiling at Hotel Delmano, before the brothers signed on to execute Five Leaves, a restaurant that opened in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in September, financed by the actor Heath Ledger and later his estate.
THE RUSTY KNIFE
Past is paramount to the McCormick brothers–even if it’s a fictionalized past. The retro bathroom with the pull-chain toilet in the basement bathroom of Moto was inspired by the scene in The Godfather where a gun is planted behind a toilet of a restaurant in the Bronx. The globe light fixtures at Five Leaves were intended to resemble gas lights, even though Johnny bought the connecting parts new and then scraped off the lacquer and applied rust. Kevin, meanwhile, likes to scratch 3-inch spots into paint, revealing the colors of phantom past tenants.
The crescent-shaped space at Five Leaves reminded Johnny of a ship, and so the brothers decided on a nautical theme. But as Kevin compulsively applied plaster to the sample boards like frosting to a cake—painting, spreading, smoothing, scraping—he couldn’t get the aged marine paint effect he was hoping for. He walked away for a bit, forgetting to rinse his plaster knife. When he returned a few days later, the sample boards were still disappointing, but something beautiful had happened.
“He showed me this knife that was all rusted from the wet plaster, but the rust was also bleeding—almost blossoming through the paint,” recalled Johnny. The knife pattern was reminiscent of the below sea-level part of an old ship. In other words—perfection!
The McCormick brothers’ serendipitous method is a way of rebelling against the boom of shiny, glass, hyper-planned and overmarketed buildings with names like NV (it’s green!) along the Brooklyn waterfront.
“We’re fighting back against all this greediness and the shitty materials in the design of all these spaces,” said Johnny. “It’s like we were comfortable with this depression before it even happened.” He argued for the cultural benefits of economic implosion. “I think the first depression in this country was one of the best things that ever happened to galvanize people. You’re not living large and people come together at restaurants and bars, which are always great places to plan a revolution or make art.” (The appeal of McCormick-customized bars is certainly not that they are Depression-era cheap, however; at Hotel Delmano on Berry Street, cocktails like the St. Germain or the Commandant go for around $12.)
What do their services cost?
“We’re not that expensive, but I won’t tell you because the next project I work on I want to charge a lot more!” Johnny said. “A lot of the work I’ve done has been through friends’ networks so I give everyone a break and I feel like I’m screwed in the end.”
The brothers used to sign up for separate projects, but these days, they almost always come as a package.
“We’re siblings so I can tell him like, ‘Remember the side of that boat that grandpa had? I want it to look like that,” said Johnny. “The next day he’ll come back with a sample and it’s 95 percent what I envisioned. You can’t pay for that kind of communication.”
They have also done non-restaurant projects. Johnny created the worn-in signs for Ralph Lauren’s RRL stores downtown. And before Mr. Ledger’s unfortunate passing, Johnny said, the actor told the owner of Five Leaves, Judd Mongell, that he wanted the brothers to design apartments in the building above the restaurant, which he planned to purchase. “I guess he wanted to have a place for his friends from L.A. to crash,” Johnny said.
Then there was New York entrepreneur Jeff Dachis, founder of the dot com boom company Razorfish, who asked the brothers to work on his terrace in Nolita.
“It’s actually really depressing to work on private residences because I just know that so few people are going to get to enjoy it,” said Johnny. “But we went crazy in his garden with this Fellini 1940s look because we knew that he was going to have a lot of parties and people were going to see it.”
Of course, as with any other design or fashion trend, the McCormick brothers’ special technique is vulnerable to copy cats. “There are a couple of storefronts I’ve pitched ideas to and then I will see that they have taken my sample and had their friend execute it!” said Kevin, obviously hurt. “It’s rather frightening to see. I don’t want people to think it’s my work. It’s not good!”
Like a Jackson Pollock of walls and ceilings, he believes there is an order to the madness of his painting. “As a minimum, there are probably about 20 layers of texture and paint and finishes of wax, oil, tinted plaster, cross-hatchings,” he said. “Often times I don’t know what I’m doing until I know when to stop!”
Here Johnny had to interrupt. “On a side note, some sample boards he’s brought to clients, they liked so much that a they made off with them!” he said. “He’ll say, ‘Can I have my sample board back?’ and they’re like, ‘Well, I have that hanging in my house upstate.’” (The memory alone made Kevin look like he might faint.) Now when he makes sample boards, he includes a disclosure on the back, specifying that the sample must be returned.
Recently, Johnny paid a visit to the bar Wilfie & Nell in the West Village after a few friends mentioned the similarity it bared to Smith & Mills. Indeed, the light fixtures were old, the brick distorted, and was that rust over there in the corner?
“It was obvious that they were inspired, but it wasn’t dead-on,” he said. “Just the choice of name and then to have those influences here and there on the inside, it was like, c’mon!”
Is it only a matter of time before Crate and Barrel or IKEA starts selling a line of oxidized door knobs, rusty lighting and stained mirrors?
“I think it will happen. Maybe not Ikea, but at like Home Depot,” Johnny said. “But you can’t really replicate it. Not to my eye.”