"I just do more & Sei Less" - Fabolous ft. French Montana on 'Say Less'
Curiously nestled behind an enigmatic mural in Midtown, behind a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it door stands Sei Less, a newly minted Asian fusion speakeasy. With an exclusive flair paired with close proximity to establishments like the Garment District and Madison Square Garden, it's the spot to stop at before or after an event. I was tasked with helping to create an intimate atmosphere with creative branding elements that felt fresh and would fit in within the architecture of Manhattan. New York City is one of the hardest places in the world to truly launch a successful restaurant business simply due to the cutthroat competition, high rental costs, and discerning audiences for whom living in the city has become associated with having a refined palate both flavor-wise but also when it comes to matters of taste and as such, the design of Sei Less needed to feel timeless and simultaneously fresh to pay homage to the relationships fostered on those streets and in those neighborhoods. The art direction of the space, the rollout marketing, and the creative ethos of the food all had to align.
Introducing New York City's best kept secret, a new hidden gem right in the heart of Midtown, around the corner from the Garden is Sei Less, a restaurant I was invited to create the logo and branding for by its co-founders ahead of its grand opening. Building off a rich set of relationships and a history of boutique high end service to upscale clients in the city, the restaurant had a reputation to uphold. I wanted to draw upon the glorious neon tones of the signs you would see in Hong Kong and apply the grunge addled aesthetic of New York city to the mix in a meaningful way that felt like Goodfellas meeting with In the Mood for Love or Chunking Express.
The frenetic blurred cinematography of DuKeFeng meets the epic instrumental haunting melodies of Chinese flavors in one dish. Sei Less collaborated with Sydney based Mural Artist, Damian Mitchell to dream up the sultry mural (inspired by actress Tiffany Chan as our gracious model) that is perched atop the private entrance. Behind its doors was a private and inspired space that allows for people to be themselves and relax, with a design language that speaks to both the deeply respected history of the building and also the freshness of the concept.
Designed for evenings of enviable cuisine and distinctive revelry, the space features seating for 350 guests juxtaposed with a meticulously curated collection of modern art and clean lines, alongside traditional, hand-carved Asian design elements in an homage to the architectural pagodas of generations’ past. Sei Less is the perfect venue for any social situation, whether guests are looking for a romantic date night in a dark corner or a place for a larger party.
To find Sei Less, the speakeasy opening on Saturday night, look for a colorful painting of a woman making the hush sign (with a finger to her lips) and go through an otherwise nondescript door. Speakeasies are nothing new. Formed out of force of necessity when alcohol was basically banned for thirteen years, they existed between 1920 and 1933. But bringing back that closed door private, upscale vibe where the best way to describe the atmosphere is to simply say, "If you know, you know."
From album release parties, to business meetings, to private events, Sei Less does it all with an air of elegant exclusivity. The team behind Sei Less merges decades of exemplary experience to create a speakeasy vibe that is truly unique and working in conjunction with them I developed a mature, clear and demonstrative design direction that teaches guests about the history of the space, while creating a modern interpretation of the original designs that you traditionally saw at these kinds of restaurants. It was a reinvention of the classic Chinatown flavor with the grit of the Manhattan restaurant industry and a bespoke upscale flare that would serve as an homage to its past and the country from which it is inspired.
When exploring inspiration for the logo, I wanted to go with a monogram because I felt like it really felt like an upscale vibe with an air of mystery. Initial explorations centered around a serif traditional typeface such as Bookman, which would eventually go on to become the inspiration behind the font guidance, drawing a lot of it's energy from the plastic "Thank You for Shopping" bags you would get at the bodegas down in Chinatown. It was in this juxtaposition of high and low where the true concept really stood out, it was an upscale location with hole in the wall street cart style food, an energetic yet private watering hole where the design spoke to higher aspirations. The colors were meant to be taken straight from the royal paintings of ancient China as the rich tones such as Lapis Lazuli and decadent Satin Sheen Gold reinforced the upscale nature, but were balanced with the unfinished raw materials of wood and brick or the grunge and drippy dirty intensity of the graffiti covered tunnels of the city.
Take a pinch of fresh exotic flowers plucked from the lively displays of a botanical garden, with just a touch of the vibrant brash street art and graffiti of New York City, add in a handful of that fresh zest for life you get on a brand new exclusive Ferrari Enzo with the cherry red paint job, the flashing lights of the cameras from celebrity row at pretty much any Knicks or Nets game, a little bit of that gnarly vintage streetwear aesthetic you sinn in Noah or Awake or Supreme, and top it all off with the upscale premium flavors and ambience that has found its way to the lyrics of pleny of hip hop songs from Hakkasan to Nobu and Carbone on the tracks of Travis Scott, Lil Baby, Future, Drake, Kanye West or Lil Uzi Vert and round it all out with the hazy smoke and mystery of an underground opium den and you get the ingredients of Sei Less.
I was tasked with devising a "dramatic, intriguing and fun" brand that felt like the restaurant was "the type of thing you would see in a Drake music video." The original logo I designed was a schematic take on a pair of iconic Chinese characters and while the client wasn't immediately enamored with this design, it was enough to get me thinking about the opportunities to really push the brand forward.
When the cofounders of the restaurant, Ivi and Dara first approached me and we got to talking about the concept, something that really stood out to me was how similar our journeys were. For Dara, he grew up in a Persian family where it was always taught to go into a viable academically rigorous field like engineering or law, very similar to my own upbringing with Indian parents who fostered a similar mentality around what respectable careers looked like. If it wasn't a doctor or a lawyer there wasn't as much overt vocal support around it. So to become an entrepreneur or a restauranteur takes a ton of courage to forge your own path. For me, I similarly wanted to develop a creative identity and ethos that respected that shared upbringing against the odds. In order to create spaces and opportunities like this you really have to trust your dreams and your vision, and that is largely how this project came to be, it was that shared vision that spurred it along.
Something that became evident quite quickly was the importance of taking motifs like traditional patterns and floral arrangements and positioning them throughout the space to really reinforce the overall brand ethos. As the art director of the space, Ivi did a great job of working together with the interior design teams to match the energy of the brand touches on the plates and coasters and menus to work with the decor and atmosphere. Using things like the image of the geisha in a powerful way repeatedly throughout the space really was something we wanted to capitalize on wherever we could to immerse people into the space.
I started talking to the customers to get a better sense of how to really capitalize on the opportunity we had to create a brand that was both exotic while still feeling familiar and instantly recognizable, so finding a strong common character that bridged the gap between these two was key. The eureka moment came in the form of a universal gesture for 'be quiet' derived originally from sign language where you put a single finger up to your mouth to indicate to people to hush. Taking the flipped "L" shape that the hand makes, I was able to tie this to the monogram logo and create the effect of the L being held up to the S as if doing the gesture typographically,.
Sei Less, born of an enthusiastic exploration of Chinese regional cuisines and a desire to share the flavors and cultures, is all about offering those traditional flavors with a modern twist. As such, the design language is Inspired deeply by traditional Chinese illustrations and the iconic cinematography of the films of Wong Kar Wai, but also the futuristic neo-noir techno orientalism of films like Blade Runner, Ex Machina, Akira, or Ghost in the Shell.
I wanted to stay true to the roots of the cuisine but execute the branding with modern design practices that would make it feel fresh and true to the grit and grind of Manhattan. With this, our result is a brand that showcases fun, creative, whimsical illustrations and warm, bold, colors. The aesthetic is inspired by historic Hong Kong-style cafes and their cultural significance in serving affordable, Canto-Western food. The deep reds and foggy neon glow of the lights created an atmosphere of mystery and secrecy, something that would appeal to the clients that we were catering to.
Drawing from the disparate but related subjects of sport, film, cuisine, and music I was able to put together a refined and cohesive design system that would function as a flexible framework within which the restaurant and all of it's associated spaces could function in a sustainable way. With Yumeji's theme wafting through the air in the background, I explored the rich red tones of the typography from Akira and paired that with the ghostly overdrive inspired techno futurism of Blade Runner.
This contemporary-vibe concept is the brainchild of an ensemble of NYC hospitality tastemakers including Joseph Licul, co-owner of Harbor Rooftop Nightclub; Dennis Turcinovic, former managing partner of Delmonico’s Restaurant Group and co-owner of Harbor Rooftop Nightclub; Dara Mirjahgiry from Jue Lan Club and Philippe Chow; Ivi Shano formerly from Jue Lan Club; and Dream Hospitality spearheaded by George Karavias.
I was introduced to Dara and Ivi by a great friend of mine, Lance Fresh as we would often end up at their restaurants after a big game at MSG or Barclays or after the latest Travis Scott concert or sneaker event in the city. Jue Lan Club was a favorite of guys like Kevin Durant and James Harden and Dara had built a long history with a loyal customer base and wanted to make sure that this launch for his new concept was an homage to this history and continued their kinship. As can be seen in the episode of Taylor Rook's "Take It There" Interview Series I had the pleasure of working on while I was at Bleacher Report, Kevin talks about how far back he goes with Dara and this focus on family and creating a trustworthy circle was key to the energy behind the creative as well.
Picture the iconic oner from Goodfellas, as you enter through the emergency exist and greet everyone on the kitchen staff as you stroll into the main dining area, vibrant and full of life as you see you closes colleagues rivals and contemporaries, the best of the best all congregated in one space. Sei Less is the perfect venue for any social situation, whether guests are looking for a romantic date night in a dark corner or a place for a larger party. From album release parties to business meetings, to private events, Sei Less does it all with an air of elegant exclusivity.
Private rooms that feature stunning details including TVs, provide a sultry sanctuary for any athlete, celebrity, business executive, or privacy-seeking host. A few notable moments since their January launch include Gunna’s album release dinner for his Billboard 200-topping album DS4Ever, NBA superstar James Harden’s birthday dinner with Lil Baby and Travis Scott, and Fivio Foreign’s joint Grammy nomination and birthday celebration.
Things really began to take off when the restaurant received a stamp of approval from none other than Ye himself when the private dining room in the back became the site of an impromptu listening party for the most recent Kanye West album Donda 2. In February 2022, West and actress Julia Fox, who were then dating, came to the Midtown Manhattan restaurant to join 2 Chainz and Fabolous, who had been dining in the graffiti art-covered VIP section.
Sei Less closed to the public following West's arrival and it stayed open privately until 5 a.m., as West played then-unreleased material from "Donda 2" for several hours to a small gathering that would include Dave Chappelle, Fivio Foreign, and a group of record industry executives, at any other restaurant this would be the news of the week, but at Sei Less this was just another Tuesday.
The design and the atmosphere work hand in hand to create a cohesive high end experience. Deep blues and reds cover the walls and seating, while areas like the bar and dessert stand feature dark-colored wood. The rich colors make it all feel luxurious. Right as you walk in the door with the Sei Less logo gently beckoning you in to experience dishes that will transport you across the globe, and an ambience it creates plenty of whispers. At times, it feels so much like a movie or music video set that you expect to see one being shot while you are dining there, the best way to think of Sei Less is not as a restaurant but as a night at the theater. The idea was to have the place feel like it had been there for a century while simultaneously feeling fresh and modern with a flair for entertainment and immersion.
As a part of the immaculate marketing plan and rollout for the restaurant, Dara and Ivi also partnered with the street heat music video team to create a piece of content with French Montana and Fabolous that paid respect to the new hotspot. The fact that the restuaruant is able to move into the cultural lexicon so quickly is a testament to those relationships that were built over the years and the trust in the team that was brought together for this. Knowing that there would be such a spotlight on the restaurant, I knew that all the touchpoints had to look and feel consistent. The ethos that was being cultivated had to fit with the food and branding seamlessly, and that is what we aimed for.
The curated Pan-Asian family-style menu includes signature dishes like Chicken Satay, Edamame Dumplings, and Rock Shrimp Tempura alongside delectable items crafted as a nod to the founding team’s history in NYC like Dry-Aged Delmonico’s Ribeye, and Wutang Salmon. Sei Less will also offer guests a one-of-a-kind cocktail experience, with cocktails like Lychee Martini, Pick Me Up Martini, Yuzu Margarita, and an Elderflower Mojito as well as mocktails, for the sober-curious set, designed to enhance every evening. Make sure to stop by and make a reservation the next time you are in the city, you won't regret it.