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Taavo Takes New York

How the Founder of Freemans Built the City of his Dreams

Somer plots his empire, New York City, 1999

Armed with only a skateboard and an architecture degree, Taavo Somer arrived in New York City in 1997 to search for bohemia. With Carlos Quirarte, who would become his first business partner, Somer scoured the city looking for fun. “We’d go all over downtown and be like, ‘What’s going on?’ but we couldn’t find the party,” he says. “So, we decided to make our own version of New York.”

Almost twenty years later, Somer has masterminded a string of highly successful enterprises—restaurants, a dive bar, a barber shop, a men’s boutique, and a clothing line, Freemans Sporting Club—each of which manifests his design aesthetic and unending attention to detail. In his soon-to-be-published book, Freemans (Harper Collins), Somer recounts his adventures along the way.

First-generation immigrants from Estonia, Somer’s parents ultimately settled in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, in a house his aerospace-engineer father built by hand. “I didn’t really fit in. On the bus in the third or fourth grade, the other kids would tease me, saying I was a Nazi or a Russian spy because my name was different and I looked different and my lunches were different—bagels or brown-bread sandwiches with liverwurst and cornichons,” Somer says. “In order to fit in, I became something of a chameleon, which I still am in many ways. I even pretended to like the Grateful Dead because that’s who the cool kids were into. I had the stickers on my car and everything, but I never listened to their music.”

From magazines, a certain idea of New York City became lodged in his brain—a collage of black-and-white photographs of downtown artists and hedonistic nightclubs. At fourteen, Somer had an epiphany on a school trip to the Whitney Museum of American Art. “I saw my first Donald Judd box, and I was moved to tears. It was crazy. My art teacher was very surprised—‘You’re crying over plywood?’

 

The tiki-inspired barroom at The Rusty Knot, Somer’s West Village saloon. Photo by David Prince

“That Judd sculpture gave me license. It represented this freedom you could find in New York—to be anything, do anything,” he says. “As I got into the scene and met visionaries like [restaurateur] Serge Becker, I realized that he was doing that and [hotelier and nightclub owner] Eric Goode was doing that, making up their own versions of New York.

“When we started designing restaurants, around the year 2000, I didn’t think the restaurant scene was particularly cool,” he says. “Everything was fake French or fake Italian, looking to the Old World and this sort of nostalgic idea of a French bistro. Back then, the cool thing was, ‘I’m in a band, I’m in a hip-hop group, I’m a DJ,’” he says.

In 2003, after stumbling upon an eccentric space in an alley off the Bowery on the Lower East Side, Somer opened Freemans, a homey, American-fare restaurant stuffed with vintage taxidermy. No one could find the place, but it quickly became a hot spot. Now, more than a decade later, the area is littered with chichi shops and restaurants.

“Things have shifted,” Somer says. “I’m not meeting anyone that’s in a band anymore. Chefs have groupies now! It’s cooler to be a chef than it is to be a DJ. Now, if you’ve got enough online followers, some backer might decide to open up ten restaurants based on your name.” New media has changed the way we build a restaurant or throw a party, he observes, adding, “I think what’s happening now and in the future will be simply online images of your pancakes or your hand-tooled barstool.” He’s only half-kidding.

Somer’s latest restaurant, Le Turtle, is an entirely different animal than Freemans.

 

A “Serge” chair, named for Somer’s mentor, Serge Becker, awaits completion at his Brooklyn workshop, Friends & Family. Photo by David Prince

“Le Turtle is directed toward this new creative class. In my head, it’s represented by, say, an imaginary graphic designer named Tomae or something. He lives between Paris and LA—you don’t really know where. I see him in New York, but then I’m in Tokyo and he’s there at the airport. Globally, this character is everywhere and listening to, of course, some obscure hip-hop—some Tunisian-Parisian rapper who lives in Iceland. [This creative class represents] the new connoisseurs of global products. There’s a French-ness to it because I always think of the French, particularly Parisians, as being able to merge things that don’t make sense together.”

“In a way, that’s how I conceived of the interior of Le Turtle: there’s this collision of different building materials, a juxtaposition of rough and smooth, polished and dull, expensive and cheap. The ceiling is Styrofoam, but it looks like wood,” Somer explains. “Some of these people, that’s how they dress. They’ll wear a cheap Disney Mickey Mouse t-shirt with a Lanvin skirt, and they’ve got crazy high- heeled shoes, a tote bag that cost a dollar, and an Hermès handbag—all these things mashed together. I think we’re doing that in our heads now all the time.”

 

 

Certain old-school New Yorkers tend to bathe in nostalgia for a city that never really existed, gnashing their teeth at the mad rents, the invasion of the oligarchs, and the tasteless new glass cubes blooming like mushrooms all over town. Somer embraces the changes. “There will always be searchers and seekers here, no matter how much money they make,” he says. “It’s interesting to grow older in New York. If you’re in some rural town in Ohio or North Dakota, you can just quietly retire and crumble into dust. But living in New York keeps you on your toes. You have to keep dancing.”


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written by Max Blagg
10.26.16
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