Dezeen Magazine

Format Architecture designs "delightfully untraditional" Cafe Mars in Brooklyn

Bright colours, neon lighting and expressive furniture create a playful mood inside this Brooklyn restaurant, designed by local studio Format Architecture Office.

Cafe Mars is an Italian eatery located in Gowanus, founded by co-chefs Jorge Olarte, and Paul D'Avino – whose grandfather lived across the street when he first emigrated from Campania in 1901.

White oak arch over light grey bar counter, accompanied by hot pink chairs
Playful furniture throughout Cafe Mars includes chairs with hot-pink arched and zigzag legs

Honouring these roots, the restaurant is designed as a celebration of all things Italy: from the Memphis design movement of the 1980s to the glamorous Amalfi Coast.

"It was important to connect the intent of the culinary experience with the intent of the spatial experience," said Format principal and co-founder Andrew McGee.

The bar and open kitchen framed by white oak panels
The bar and open kitchen are framed by white oak panels

"If the driving force of the menu was to showcase knowledge and love of traditional Italian cuisine, twisted and subverted at just the right moments to create something playfully rebellious and unusual, it seemed only natural to reference the character and movement in [Ettore] Sottsass and the Memphis style with a similar vintage in the architecture and design realm," he continued.

View through arch towards banquette seating and tables with exposed brick above
Above each table in the main dining space is a yellow panel with a hole cut-out, exposing the building's original brick

To enter the 1,100-square-foot (100-square-metre) restaurant, visitors must turn a pasta die door handle sourced from local third-generation manufacturer D Malardi & Sons.

"The detail is a charming nod to the building's pasta factory and Italian grocery history whilst ushering in its restaurant future," the studio said.

Row of white and yellow double-sided banquettes
The custom banquettes are coloured one yellow for every two white

Once inside the long narrow front space, the bar area can be found on the right and a row of back-to-back banquettes runs along the left.

The bar and the open kitchen further down are framed by white oak panelled arches, revealing a bright blue back bar that echoes the same shape.

Dining room with cobalt-coloured seating and exposed brick walls
The "blue room" in the back features cobalt-coloured seating that contrasts the exposed brickwork

A tall, light grey counter forms an L-shape within the first arch, with a lower surface for diners seated in custom chairs by Studio Apotroes with hot pink zig-zag legs.

More seats – this time with white details – face the kitchen area, beside a bright green shelving unit for tableware tucked under the bar counter.

Pendant light with hot pink cord above blue banquette and wood tables
Hot pink reappears in the cords of pendant lights, which have shades made from mushroom mycelium

Opposite, the custom double-sided banquettes have ribbed edges and are coloured one yellow for every two white.

In between are arched yellow panels with circular holes that expose the original brick walls behind, and Stuff by Andrew Neyer globe pendants that hang above each table.

View through black archway into purple-hued bathroom
Pasta illustrations by artist Massimo Mongiardo are found throughout the interior, including in the bathroom

The "blue room" in the back features cobalt-coloured seating that contrasts the exposed brick walls, black window frames and white hexagonal floor tiles.

Hot pink reappears in the cords of pendant lights with MushLume shades made from mushroom mycelium, while bespoke wooden tables have puzzle-piece tops that slot together in various configurations.

At night, colourful LED lights within the circular wall elements, under the bar counter and above the back bar all match a neon sign in the window, which traces the Cafe Mars logo designed by artist Massimo Mongiardo.

His illustrations of pasta shapes can be found throughout the interiors, including in the bathrooms, and across the black-painted roller shutters pulled down when the restaurant is closed.

Black roller shutter covered with colourful illustrations of pasta shapes
Mongiardo's illustrations also cover the black roller shutter on the exterior

"The goal was to strike a delicate balance between fanciful and comforting, transformative and familiar," said Format co-founder and principal Matthew Hettler.

"The design, however loud, becomes a backdrop for a quality experience, and that is something we are excited about."

A neon version of the Cafe Mars logo placed in a window
A neon version of the Cafe Mars logo sits in the window, matching the colorful LED lighting inside

Other relative newcomers to Brooklyn's ever-evolving culinary scene include Nabila's, a Lebanese spot designed by Frederick Tang Architecture, and Usonian-inspired eatery Sereneco featuring interiors by Carpenter + Mason.

Over in Manhattan, the number of Italian restaurants continues to balloon, with Bad Roman and Cucina Alba among the many to have opened in the past year.

The photography is by Nick Glimenakis.

Project credits:

Architecture and interior design: Format Architecture Office
Project team: Clare Hačko, David Hettler, Matt Hettler, Andrew McGee
Construction: Rusk
Structural engineer: Blue Sky Design
MEP engineer: Department of Approvals