The Art of Good Restaurant Design

Get to Know Ian Martin, the Brooklyn-Based Sculptor Turned Restaurant Designer Behind Apotheke and Pulqueria in New York’s Chinatown


At first glance, Doyers Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown appears to be just an alleyway hidden at the junction of Division Street and the Bowery. On the corner, a hand-pulled-noodle shop sits next to a Taiwanese chop house—nothing out of the ordinary. But at the right angle of the V-shaped street, there’s a large wooden door, and above the door hangs a sign that reads, “Chemist.”

You might think that you’ve stumbled onto an old apothecary. And once you enter—that is, if the bouncers allow you through the door—the gold-leaf ceiling and the medicine bottles filled with brightly colored liquids behind the bar won’t dissuade you of that illusion. The interior of Apotheke, with its marble bar, its sconce chandelier, and its newsprint wallpaper, has a distinctly steampunk vibe, which is quite different from the world outside its door.

Crafting an experience begins with a holistic approach—no single element can overpower another.

This was exactly the effect that Brooklyn artist Ian Martin was trying to achieve when he helped the sibling team of Heather and Chris Tierney, old high school friends from Indianapolis, Indiana, design and construct Apotheke.

“The neighborhood enhances the experience by providing a contrast,” Martin said. “But it’s not a neighborhood bar—it’s an experience.”

Apotheke

Crafting experiences remains at the core of Martin’s design style. He synthesizes artful wall murals, meticulously selected reclaimed-wood furnishings, and ambient lighting of various depths and hues to create an immersive environment. Martin’s skill as an experience artist has roots in sculpture and mythology, making his designs particularly interesting—especially for those who look closely enough to interpret the symbols.

A Journey Through Time

The story of how Ian Martin went from an undergraduate sculpture student at Indiana University to having a hand in Apotheke, as well as its sister restaurant, Pulqueria, is a story that spans continents. During his time at Indiana University, Martin became fascinated with relics, particularly ancient ceremonial masks, objects that, he said, “connect people to the gods and stretch across time and cultures.”

Designing for a small space is similar to writing poetry: part of the art is learning how to work within certain boundaries, certain rules.

After graduation, Martin traveled to China and Cambodia, and there his interest in ancient cultures only deepened. From the Far East, he went west to Italy, where he studied with Antonio Fava, a renowned Italian mask maker who also runs a traveling theater troupe. Martin and the rest of the troupe would spend months constructing sets, writing plays, and making masks. But after two months on the road, Martin was ready to return home.

“That was the end of my performing career,” he said, laughing. “But I still have it in me.”

Apotheke

These experiences live on in Martin’s design. The mural he created for Apotheke illustrates his interest in ancient cultures, as well as his flair for the dramatic. The mural features the Rod of Asclepius, the ancient Greek symbol for health and medicine, except in this case Martin used the image of a muddling stick in place of the rod. He topped the image with a double-headed eagle, paying homage to the Old World roots of Apotheke.

A Bold Move

In 2007, Martin arrived in New York City from Indianapolis to attend graduate school at the New York Academy of Art. While Martin trained as a sculptor, he also kept himself open to the ideas and techniques of other disciplines. “I wanted to acquire skills so I could utilize them whenever they might come in handy,” Martin said.

And those skills would come in handy when, just a few months after moving to New York, up-and-coming restaurant owners Chris and Heather Tierney asked if he would be interested in helping them gut an old Chinese restaurant and then convert the raw space into a bar. Martin was able to call on his background in stonework, ceramics, carpentry, and painting for this project. Martin and the Tierneys built all of the restaurant’s banquettes and ottomans by hand, in addition to customizing all the light fixtures. Along the way, Martin also acquired new skills, like how to rewire a 100 year-old building and how to install plumbing. In 2008, Apotheke opened its doors, and its patrons have been enjoying the bar’s ambience and experience ever since.

“With molds, you can create anything, using any material. That way, when you create one design, you can move it between materials.”

That boldness, that thirst for the new, is even more evident in the next Tierney project that Martin worked on, Pulqueria. Puqlueria, which opened in 2011, is an underground Mexican restaurant and bar just down Doyers Street from Apotheke. For this space, Martin and the Tierneys blended traditional Mexican architecture with art deco elegance. But what makes Pulqueria so special is the namesake drink itself. Pulque is an ancient Mexican drink made from fermented agave nectar, and Pulqueria was the first bar in New York City to serve it. “Mexican food in Chinatown was a bold move,” Martin said. “The pulque was what made it work.”

But the space itself also makes Pulqueria work. From the mosaic‑tile floors in the bar to the hand-painted tables in the restaurant, Pulqueria is a feat of not only design but also of artistic vision. The skill that came in most handy during the construction of Pulqueria, and the skill that remains Martin’s favorite aspect of any new design project, is mold making, a skill he learned back in his undergraduate days. To construct Pulqueria’s 1,000 pound mural, Martin used plaster formed in—you guessed it—a wax mold.

Apotheke

“With molds, you can create anything, using any material,” Martin said. “That way, when you create one design, you can move it between materials.”

Martin’s massive Aztec-inspired sculpture mural consistently earns recognition and approving nods from restaurant critics, stylists, and patrons alike. A focal point amid the moody, colorful décor, Martin was careful to create visual interest with the mural while maintaining balance with the rest of the nightspot’s design. Crafting an experience begins with a holistic approach—no single element can overpower another.

Small Space, Big Design

Martin recently finished work on a Pulqueria pop-up in the new open-air Bowery Market, on the corner of Bowery and Great Jones streets. One of their neighbors is an outpost of Butcher’s Daughter, another Tierney creation. Martin said he found designing for a small, temporary space inspiring. Because the material and labor cost so much less, there is also less pressure and less commitment—and so the imagination can run wild. “It’s like being constrained and yet liberated,” Martin said. “It allows you to really explore.”

Martin explained that designing for a small space is similar to writing poetry. Part of the art is learning how to work within certain boundaries, certain rules. And rules, Martin believes, help create great design.

No Accident

Martin moved to New York City to become an artist, but along the way he became a restaurateur. He is still happiest while working in his home studio, in Ridgewood, Queens, but his small shares in both Apotheke and Pulqueria afford him the time to focus on his true passion—sculpture. Through his work with Apotheke and Pulqueria, Martin has also forged connections to afford him new challenges as a designer and artist. In 2013, Martin was commissioned to create a bust of the author Henry James for an Annie Leibovitz photo shoot, which was featured in the September issue of Vogue.

“The benefit of being a part of creating something like Apotheke is meeting people,” Martin said. And every designer knows making connections is invaluable to sustaining a successful craft.

Martin and the Tierneys have new projects planned for the future, and while Martin couldn’t divulge any details, you can be sure these new ventures will feature great food, great drinks, and great design.