Of the many tributes delivered since Larry Bogdanow’s death on June 29th quite a few people spoke about Larry as a forager. This description referred to his passion for collecting wild mushrooms, ramps, purslane, goose foot, and violets around his Upstate property and distributing them by the brown paper bag-full to friends, employees, and the kitchens of some of his restaurant clients. But forager also goes a long way in describing Larry as an architect.
Foraging is an activity that causes no harm to the environment and encourages regeneration. Larry, who specialized in restaurant design, gained renown early in his career for using salvage materials. For him, foraging also meant poring over catalogs looking for mundane industrial materials that could be put to a higher purpose. One of his proudest examples of such foraging were the two layers of bronze window screens he used to make a shimmering moiré, vaulted ceiling at Savoy in Soho.
Larry first set up shop in the Soho loft that he bought communally in 1973 with six friends. After a brief stint at Beyer Blinder Belle Architects in the mid 1970s, he came back to practicing on his own, doing design work in the metropolitan area. I met Larry in 1981 when he advertised for an assistant. When he offered me the job, I accepted with the caveat that I had never worked anywhere for more than a year and a half, and I couldn’t guarantee I would stay with him any longer than that. That was fine with him, he said; I stayed 24 years. There was just something about Larry that drew people to him and kept them there.
In 1984 Danny Meyer walked into the office and hired us to design a restaurant he was calling Gorgonzola. Though none too taken with the name, Larry found in Danny a kindred pioneer spirit. Certainly, neither were worried about the wacky outpost location of the restaurant that came to be known as The Union Square Café. That was the beginning of a string of more than 150 restaurants, bars, and hospitality venues designed in the Bogdanow office.
His office was run more like a commune than a business. His time at a major firm left him convinced there was a more holistic way to practice architecture. Staff people were hired on the basis of creativity in their portfolios rather than their skills in putting together sets of documents. Larry always felt the latter could be taught but the former was innate. And they stayed for years and were fiercely loyal. As they got older their children would sometimes drop by after school. Music was constantly playing but not just any music. Larry foraged deep into his extraordinary record collection and put together compilation tapes of songs according to a theme, mood, or idea. It was an office where an employee who discovered that a six-dollar-per-square-foot corrugated copper foil, normally used for roofing, worked elegantly as the facing panel for the check-in desk at the Tribeca Grand Hotel was considered a hero. The ability to turn quotidian materials to imaginative uses was, to Larry (the consummate cook), like turning drab leftovers into a gourmet meal.
Even those few times when budgets were adequate, he was uncomfortable resorting to expensive materials. To him, if it was expensive, it was suspect. This trait and the interest in the re-invention of ordinary materials can be traced back to his (and my own) most influential architecture school professor and mentor, Leslie Laskey. Now Emeritus, this gifted teacher and St. Louis artist influenced the entire generation of architects that passed through Washington University from the 1960s to the 1990s. Larry hired many more of Leslie’s protégées over the years.
The Union Square Café, Savoy, Cub Room, City Hall, Beppe, Union Pacific, Rain, Merchants, Kelley & Ping, Kin Khao, Legal Seafoods at Park Place in Boston, The Charthouse in Weehawken, Rubicon in San Francisco, and Caliterra in Chicago are a testament to the breadth of his skill and his ability to design restaurants with that rarest of qualities, longevity. And while many of his clients were small-scale restaurateurs, Larry always jumped at the opportunity to work with corporate clients in the hope that some of his vision could rattle their walls just a bit. He built six major projects at Walt Disney World; he built and tested a new prototype for Starbucks. He completed two prototypes for the Outback Steakhouse Corporation in their home base of Tampa. One of them was the flagship for the very successful Lee Roy Selmon’s chain (even though he had never heard of the famous football star or his team the Tampa Bay Buccaneers).
Larry’s goal was always to make people comfortable and welcome and want to come back, whether they were dinner guests at his oversized table at his loft home in Soho, his dozens of employees, or the millions of patrons who ate again and again at his restaurants.