After frequently vacationing in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, Derek Axelrod was inspired by the Mexican architecture of tequilerias, and he vowed to bring that Central American flavor to his native New York. Investment banker-turned floral designer-turned interior designer Lesly Zamor met Axelrod years ago, as two former New York City club kids who hit it off right from the start. The pair always knew they would collaborate on a project someday, and now the perfect opportunity presented itself in the form of Teqa Taqueria & Tequileria. This ultra-chic new hot spot, designed by Zamor and his firm SEED Design Solutions, seems better suited for the New York’s trendy Meatpacking District, but instead it’s set in Murray Hill, a neighborhood infiltrated by divey sports bars frequented by the post-college, former frat boy set.
“Derek wanted to do a Meatpacking District feel in Murray Hill because there’s nothing like this for 20 blocks. We had to achieve a delicate balance of a high-end aesthetic, but not too high-end that it wouldn’t attract the clientele in the neighborhood,” recalls Zamor. Axelrod adds, “I like stuff different, more cutting edge. A lot of taquerias don’t have that hip, cool factor. I had the idea of bringing something different from a design standpoint.”
In addition to the interior design by Zamor, Axelrod commissioned head chef Lisa Schoen, personal chef to Derek Jeter and former “Iron Chef” star, and mixologists John Lermayer and Naren Young, who will serve up Teqa’s 64-plus selections of tequila. (Four different types of ice are used depending on the drink ordered—now that’s a precise mixologist!) All these details, painstakingly handpicked by Axelrod, make Teqa an authentic experience.
Zamor used his same design savvy that is responsible for popular New York nightclubs Avenue and Taj Lounge to perfectly meld Teqa’s design scheme with its food and beverage program. Unlike many of the long, narrow, commercial spaces in the neighborhood, this floor plan has a wide storefront, so Zamor’s decision to position the bar at the back entices passersby. A transparent glass divider between dining and bar areas features flames in sconces—an EcoSmart Fire fueled by bioethanol—further drawing patrons into the space. Due to the small footprint, design elements needed to pack a punch without being too busy, which Zamor achieved by maintaining an earthy palette. Wood ceiling beams above the bar, imported from Guadalajara, Mexico, are reminiscent of tequila distilling barrels. Reclaimed wood ceilings throughout the space, end-grain wood floors, cork walls behind leather banquettes, and steel-clad structural columns all reflect natural materials used in the tequila manufacturing process. Dark emperador marble wraps the bar top, pony-hide upholstered chairs mixed in with other leather dining chairs add a touch of whimsy, and bathroom tiles reflect a Mayan influence.
“I wanted to use materials in an unaltered state,” Zamor admits. “In Mexico materials are not all ‘clean,’ so I kept elements as raw as possible, and I wanted to create texture.” The entire space exudes a modern feel with a nod to the history of tequila, from the wooden tables with an inlaid agave plant logo to the blackened wall mirrors with tequila drink recipes etched into them to the custom chandelier at the entry made by designer Johnny Swing from three kinds of empty tequila bottles.
Swing also created what can be called the piece de resistance of the space: Lightwing, the grand light fixture that spiders out over the dining area. “I was looking for one impactful element,” Zamor says. “This piece casts a great low-light level over the whole area.” You can’t really see the source, but 25- to 40-watt bulbs emanate from battered reflective copper plates to cast a moody glow.
While Zamor felt that the six-month design and build-out of Teqa was a lengthy process (he did Avenue in 45 days!), he is extremely pleased with what he and Axelrod accomplished. “I don’t just design to design. I design with functionality, and I love seeing a space go from raw to a living, breathing place where people socialize and interact,” Zamor says. “As an artist, to see people using your art is very satisfying.”
Just after Teqa opened to the public in late February 2011, Axelrod got the nod to lease the two adjacent commercial spaces, which he will use to expand this venture. So his partnership with Zamor and the story of Teqa are to be continued.
Project: Teqa Tequileria and Taqueria. Client: Derek Axelrod, Enzo Third Ave, LLC. Architect: Jeffrey Kamen, RA. Interior designer, lighting designer, kitchen designer: SEED Design Solutions; Lesly Zamor. Contractor: Strictly Structural. Consultants: Tom Ennis Associates. Engineering: Jack Green Associates. Graphics: Sekou. Photographers: Matt Suroff, Joakim Hannerz.
Wallcoverings: Phillip Jeffries. Paint: Benjamin Moore. Flooring: LV Wood Floors. Lighting: “Lightwing” and tequila bottle chandelier, designed by Johnny Swing. Upholstery: Munrods upholstery. Signage: Tribeca Stone.
Location: New York, NY. Total floor area: 2,200 sq. ft. No. of floors: 1. Total staff size: 15. Cost/sq. ft.: $500.