Lionel Ohayon and his team at ICRAVE design event spaces you can be part of
Last January, a new nightlife venue opened its doors on the Bowery, an undertaking that even by New York standards was ambitious. Occupying a gargantuan 20,000 square feet of space, it’s not a retail mini-mall, a Century 21 or a Whole Foods; it’s a restaurant and nightlife venue. Its flagship centerpiece, The General, is a multilevel eatery and jazz club featuring the neo-Chinese fare of Top Chef winner Hung Huynh. Intricately constructed in a way that manages to fuse East Asian, industrial and baroque influences, it still maintains a fluid elegance and clean lines. To spend an hour or two in The General, which is owned by nightlife powerhouse EMM Group, one does not simply have dinner — one has an immersive experience. And that’s exactly what the company that conceptualized and designed the space, ICRAVE, intended.
Billed on its website as a “Manhattan-based experiential design & branding studio fueled by innovation and interaction,” ICRAVE is the brainchild of Lionel Ohayon. He oversees a team of more than 30 full-time employees at the company’s offices in NOMAD (aka the wholesale district) — a huge, open-plan style space that, like its projects, isn’t shy when it comes to sensory stimulation. The pulsating beat of lounge music plays on a state-of-the-art sound system, while an archery target is affixed to the wall next to an elevator that’s riddled with arrows, the dozens of misses scarily indented on the metal wall leading to the conference room.
"And then I had one of those epiphany moments. One day I woke up and said to myself, 'What are you doing?'"
Born and raised in Toronto in a family of French Moroccan Jews, Ohayon studied architecture at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture and credits his senior thesis, which focused on the impact of virtual space on real space, with providing the theoretical and practical foundation for ICRAVE.
Ohayon moved to New York soon after graduation, and in short order scored a gig in high-end commercial real estate. “I was running construction for this Russian oligarch,” recalls Ohayon. “The problem was that I was moving away from design for the first time in my life; I had become a developer. And then I had one of those epiphany moments. One day I woke up and said to myself, ‘What are you doing? You’ve spent your whole life trying to make something and here you are with your suit and tie.’ I was literally talking to myself in the mirror while I was getting dressed for work.” Ohayon quit the next day, and started ICRAVE out of his Upper West Side apartment in 2001, a few months before the attack on the Twin Towers.
Founding a start-up — let alone a design firm with a focus on creating structures aimed at indulging the bacchanalian excess of big-city nightlife — in a time characterized by the stark and sobering images of Ground Zero would seem like a case of extremely unfortunate timing, but it actually turned out to be quite the opposite. Indulgent escapism became a necessary psycho-emotional medicine for countless New Yorkers in the months and years following 9/11, a demand best served by new places to gather in an area free of past associations.
After building up their portfolio with a handful of small lounges, Ohayon and his creative team started to go big, beginning with Crobar, a pleasure palace on West 28th Street that helped usher in a new era of high-concept nightclubs not seen in the city since places like Tunnel and Save the Robots waged a pitched battle with mayor Rudy Giuliani and his quality-of-life crusaders. Crobar played to both clubgoers’ voyeuristic impulses as well as their exhibitionism, and was an instant hit, drawing huge crowds and winning a number of design and nightlife awards.
Soon, ICRAVE became the go-to outfit for restaurateurs and club owners who were buying up old warehouses and industrial buildings in the suddenly booming meatpacking district. The company provided the vision for many of the areas hottest venues, including Crobar, Pacha, Pangaea, Tenjune and Provocateur, and eventually expanded their scope to include fine dining, boutique hotels, casinos, airports and product branding with contracts in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Rotterdam and elsewhere.
It was during his nightclub boom that Ohayon first attended Burning Man, the annual weeklong social experiment-art happening-nonstop party in the Nevada desert. It changed his life, and his business. “The one thing about the desert is that it strips you down so that your bare essentialness is sort of revealed,” he says. “In that is a true creative expression. It brings everybody back to their elements, and people are awakened in a way that they otherwise aren’t.”
Ohayon has returned to Burning Man every year, and gives all of his employees the chance to attend as well, at full salary. It’s a somewhat calculated decision, equal parts employer largesse and institutional brainstorming; Burning Man, Ohayon believes, represents the future of how we interact with space. “These days, everything is about how you live your digital life in a physical place,” he says. “The next generation of people in our society, in America, need to be creators, and that’s what happens at Burning Man.” To that end, ICRAVE has embarked on a number of new projects, some of them top secret, that are all focused on empowering the consumer/attendee, including an ambitious re-launch of the historical Battery Maritime Building in Lower Manhattan.
“We’re trying to use what we know in architecture and design, and in sociology to create these places where that message becomes really, really strong,” says Ohayon. “We want to inspire you to understand that you can be part of that creative side, where every person can have a piece of that sense of ownership.”