HOSPITALITYDESIGN: Meet the Minds: Rustam Mehta

Nine years ago, Rustam Mehta joined forces with fellow architect Tal Schori to form Brooklyn, New York-based practice GRT Architects. The pair has a long history—they met in elementary school, third grade to be exact—and followed similar paths that eventually led to the launch of their multifaceted firm, which is behind the design of some of New York’s buzziest restaurants. Here, Mehta discusses pivotal moments and influences, new projects, and more.

Where did you grow up? Did it influence your career path?
I grew up in the suburbs north of New York City and think a lot of the great buildings of the area sunk in, subconsciously. In the ’80s, many friends’ homes were untouched specimens of the midcentury, down to color coordinated bathrooms, telephones, carpets, and kitchens. Not just midcentury—there was such a range of styles executed well from Usonian to Spanish Revival, each typically with interiors to match. It made an impression.

What is your first design memory?
Taking professor Dietrich Neumann’s History of Architecture course as a college freshman and thinking, “yep, this is my stuff, I’m going to be here for awhile.”

Give us a bit of your background: college, first jobs, early lessons learned.
I studied Architectural History at Brown University. I did a lot of reading and writing before taking any studio courses, this has been important to me. When I started my architectural education at Yale, what I lacked in skills I feel I made up with ideas and knowledge of what came before.

First jobs?
Well let’s be literal about that: my first job was cashier at the local IGA supermarket. I really do think this experience, at age 15, taught me speak to anyone, a skill I bring to GRT, where I equally enjoy speaking to clients, engineers, contractors, fabricators, art collaborators, and so on. After college, I worked briefly for Nest magazine, which remains a big influence. The editorial tone was so idiosyncratic, personal, well-read, but not wearing it on its sleeve. That tone has influenced me to this day.

The dining room at Don Angie, a Quality Branded restaurant opened in 2017

What led to the launch of GRT Architects in 2014?
Work! Tal and I were moonlighting when we were hired to renovate Fashion Tower [in New York’s Garment District], and were then hired to renovate a townhouse in Fort Greene [Brooklyn]. We realized it was one of those moments where you have to decide to leave something comfortable—we were both working for firms we respected—to try something new. I’m very happy we took the chance.

We’re loving Cucina Alba, tell us about the project. Challenges and triumphs? Favorite thing about the space?
The primary challenge of Cucina Alba was the unusual L-shape of the space, and the somewhat aggressive faceted bay windows on all sides. We are proud of the layout we came up with. It’s always a coup to provide flexibility in seating while accommodating all diners at banquettes.

We’re also proud of trying new things and pulling them off. We feel the fabric ceiling is a unique, cost-effective response to the need for an access ceiling that also goes a long way to setting the mood we were after. We love the diaphanous feeling created by the anodized aluminum curtains at the bar valence and semi-private dining corral. We are also excited about the custom sconces we designed, we think they support the timeless, breezy mood we were after, and it’s always fun to learn to work with new materials.

cucina alba restaurant in new york

Cucina Alba debuted in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood in August 2022

What about other recent projects?
We just completed our most ambitious hospitality project to date—the 6,500-square-foot restaurant Bad Roman. Not only is it the largest space we’ve designed, its by far the most ambitious in its design language, the number of custom elements, the use of found objects, trompe-l’œil motifs, custom lighting, and more.

What is your favorite part of hospitality design?
I enjoy the fast pace and the people we work with. Restaurateurs have a great energy and know their own needs very well. It sets up a symbiotic relationship that plays to everyone’s strengths—we give form and image to their service and culinary concepts.

What trends are you seeing in hospitality right now?
More clients and designers are excited about taking chances. Less ‘safe’ colors, geometry, materials, and conceptual starting points all feel as though they are having a heyday.

bad roman restaurant columbus circle new york quality branded

Bad Roman, Quality Brand’s latest concept, is situated on the third floor of the Shops at Columbus Circle in New York

What architect or designer do you admire most?
I have so many, but someone who is top of mind right now is Josef Frank, the Austrian polymath who later emigrated to Sweden. He is known for a huge breadth of work from textiles (which we used at Bad Roman), lighting, furniture, interiors, and more. I love that his work has an internal rigor but flew in the face of modernist orthodoxy of the time. He is someone you can’t quite put in a box and I aspire for that, too.

What’s your dream project?
We enjoy the public aspect of hospitality and look forward marrying that side of our work to our interest in culture. We’d love to explore this by building a library, gallery, or community center where the two would combine.

If you weren’t in your current career, what would you be doing?
Working with my hands—fixing bicycles and cars, making parts on the lathe, teaching myself new things like sewing.

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