The narrative aesthetic of Israeli design duo B+K

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When your partner in business is also your partner in life, it can be a challenge to keep your office and home lives separate—as Irene Kronenberg and Alon Baranowitz know all too well. “Our daughters say that they have a brother,” says Kronenberg. “He’s called Work, and he’s very high-maintenance.” The pair met when Kronenberg rented a studio space in a building one floor up from Baranowitz’s office. At first their collaborations were purely professional; later they became personal. Over the decades that they’ve been together they’ve learned how to work in order to enhance each other’s skills so that, as Kronenberg puts it, “1 plus 1 equals 11.”

Given the rom-com quality of Baranowitz + Kronenberg’s origin story, it seems appropriate that they are strong believers in the power of story as a key ingredient to the projects they work on. “Stories take facts and figures and places and context and bring them together,” says Baranowitz. “What are people looking for today? They’re looking for stories, things they don’t read in the magazines and on the web. If you can make projects that tell a story, then they are winners.”

There is, by design, no signature look from their design studio. “What Irene and I try to do is be evocative but never definitive,” says Baranowitz. “When you work from an evocative point of view you leave room for people to find their place in a project.” 

“Our approach is all very human. It’s not about style, it’s about understanding human behavior.”
Alon Baranowitz

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What there is, however, is a signature mood: a sense that these are spaces in which stories happen, and that everyone is invited to add to the unfolding narrative. “We ask ourselves, what do people want?” says Baranowitz. “How do they live their lives today? It’s changing by the minute, and has become a very complex formula. Each city is different, each culture is different, and each generation is different, so the plot thickens by the minute. You have to really know how to juggle everything and bring something meaningful and timeless and inspire people. And we have the talent to do that.”

Although they have worked on a wide variety of projects, each one starts in the same way. Before any design work commences, the pair spends time looking and listening. “We start as a clean slate,” says Baranowitz. “We observe, we learn, we talk to people, we do our homework. It’s only when we feel that we have a grasp of what’s going on in the city that we start to design.” This was the approach they took for their first project in Amsterdam, a city that has become important to them both. Almost a decade ago they were commissioned to design Momo, which remains one of the most popular and influential places to eat in the city. “We said that we know the city but not enough to design a restaurant,” says Kronenberg. “We asked to be able to spend some time in Amsterdam. We walked around, visited museums, and got to understand the place and its people at eye level. What we learned was that they didn’t want too much of the ‘wow!’ effect, it’s not something the Dutch people like. We are great listeners and we’re able to hear the stories of the buildings, of the neighborhoods, and of the city.”

Despite being part of the Park Hotel Amsterdam, Momo is oriented towards the street. A bright space furnished with light wood, it makes for an inviting stage that’s open from breakfast until late at night. Mirror-finished panels of steel reflect what’s happening in the neighborhood into the restaurant, further blurring the line between inside and out.

The success of Momo led to other Amsterdam projects, including the W Amsterdam hotel and its restaurants—The Duchess, a brasserie in a converted bank with a vintage, vaulted glass ceiling and an ultra-modern bar, and Mr. Porter, a rooftop steakhouse with clubby leather banquettes and expansive views over the city—plus The Butcher, a burger bar with a fake cow hanging in the window and a speakeasy in the back. Another Amsterdam commission, Sir Albert Hotel, led B+K to create a branch of The Butcher for the Sir Savigny Hotel in Berlin, and then, soon after, to the duo being asked to craft the bold look of Sir Joan Hotel in Ibiza, whose rooms have wood paneling that recalls the feel of a private yacht.

The collaboration with Sir Hotels has been a fruitful one. “Sir Hotels is kind of a child of ours,” says Baranowitz. “We feel very much at home with Sir.” The hotel company reciprocates this sense of ease. “I have collaborated with Baranowitz + Kronenberg on several projects for over 10 years now and each time I am astounded by the results,” says Liran Wizman, the owner and visionary behind Sir Hotels. “With each project, they deliver their unique point of view, while maintaining a deep connection to the overall theme of the hotel. Plus, they have an incredible sense of space and movement. For a hotel project, it’s crucial to understand how people will move in the space. It’s not just about looking great, it needs to work with how people are feeling and behaving at all hours of the day.”

To create the feel of a space, B+K often starts by thinking of it as a place for a character. That is, they imagine a person that might embody the personality of the property. “We think of the Sir Albert as a kind of modern aristocrat, like Mick Jagger or Sean Connery, as it is quite a masculine design, and something about that speaks to the modern concept of aristocracy,” says Kronenberg. “Our approach is all very human,” adds Baranowitz. “It’s not about style, it’s about understanding human behavior. We are very sensitive to people, we love people, and we try to understand what they are like and how they want to enjoy themselves. Someone once said to me, ‘When I enter into your places I feel like they have been there for ages. They are contemporary and relevant and modern in their design, but there’s something about them that embraces me, that captures me, and that makes me feel that I want to stay there,’ and I think that that’s the best compliment you can receive.”

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The preceding article by Stephen Whitlock was excerpted from the “Influencers List,” honoring five visionary architects and designers who are changing the face of contemporary hospitality, in the Design Hotels™ Book 2018. Available now for pre-order, the book features 295 handpicked properties over 500-plus illustrated pages, with behind-the-scenes stories of the artists, designers, architects, and hoteliers who brought them to life. Click here for more information or to buy your copy.

Sunday, April 8th, 2018