Sipping Pimm’s Cups and Sazeracs for hours, an attractive albeit hedonistic ritual, is common practice in New Orleans. There the bars are relaxed and the imbibers convivial. That alluringly low-key atmosphere, coupled with the city’s striking architecture, struck a chord with Robert Stansell and Timothy Welsh, the duo behind New York studio Emporium Design. When tasked with their latest project, restaurateur Darin Rubell’s East Village hangout, Drexler’s, it was this Big Easy spirit they hoped to elicit.
“You can just sit in those bars and relax for half a day. They are so comfortable,” says Stansell. “We wanted to recreate that vibe here.” The bi-level space was not unfamiliar territory to Stansell and Welsh. They had also dreamed up its most recent incarnation as Ella, Rubell’s shrine to 1920s-era glamour. Because that lounge was meant to conjure a mysterious bygone Hollywood, it was devoid of windows and heavy on a cool black-and-white palette.
Drexler’s bright, inviting aesthetic.
Amid the transformation Emporium immediately embraced a far brighter and more open aesthetic for Drexler’s. After pulling the storefront back by eight feet and creating a “veranda of sorts, people can sit on a bench with a Southern porch kind of feel,” Welsh points out. Additionally the narrow layout on the main floor—which often led to bottlenecking upon entry—has been reimagined.
“It was a space people avoided; now the communal tables that fill the room draw them in,” says Stansell. Downstairs, where Ella’s old upright piano is a nostalgic prop, the bar is what steals the show, taking the place of the once prominent stage.
While Stansell and Welsh have successfully maximized an awkward space, they’ve also brought it to life through rich details. Patrons sip on coriander-spiked milk punches and creations like the Fireball Sour (Elijah Craig 12-Year-Old Bourbon, cinnamon, lemon, egg white, Angostura bitters) on retrofitted and reupholstered pews salvaged from a church in the Bronx. Emporium’s own bespoke industrial-romantic fixtures illuminate the place, while barkeeps reach for bottles from backbars gracefully nestled inside arches. Then there’s the 40-foot-long centerpiece bar fashioned from zinc, complemented by a backdrop of wrought iron and warm, whitewashed woods. The bar, “worn-in and comfortable,” as Welsh describes it, forges the sense of warmth and intimacy he hopes is found throughout Drexler’s.
Drexler’s retrofitted pew seating and industrial fixtures.
Having been tasked with the designs for Rubell’s nearby Boulton & Watt and his Bushwick hotspot Forrest Point, as well as the casual neighborhood watering holes Ba’Sik and Sekend Sun in Williamsburg and Astoria, Stansell and Welsh are well aware that a good-looking bar must also be functional. From the get-go, bartenders are involved in the design process. They are the ones crafting the made-to-order drinks and the layout, no matter how easy on the eyes, must also double as efficient workspaces for them. For example, Stansell and Welsh strive to customize their beer taps. At Drexler’s, the well-concealed tower is cleverly stuffed underneath the emergency staircase, flowing up to the level above.
One aspect of New Orleans bars that Welsh and Stansell find so inviting is a predilection to evolve, yet remain timeless. Helping instill this feel at Drexler’s is the appearance of two cast-iron bathtubs. These vintage pieces, repurposed as ice bins, are ambient additions, but with the time-strapped bartender in mind, also decidedly utilitarian.