Interiorssneak peeks

A Modern Rustic Restaurant in Brooklyn

by Amy Azzarito

To say that Taavo Somer is well-known in the New York City restaurant scene is a bit of an understatement. His first project, Freemans, on the Lower East side, set off a design meme that rippled throughout restaurants in the city. In 2004, when Freemans opened, taxidermy, peeling paint and antlers had yet to make their mark in restaurant design.  Since then, countless restaurants have copied his style. When Taavo set out, in 2009, to create a restaurant in Williamsburg, he wanted to let the space dictate the interior architecture. It’s a philosophy he has dubbed “Method Design”.  Similar in principle to the Method Acting approach, Taavo tries to inhabit the space and create a design that works with that particular situ. For a nine month period, he was at the Isa location nearly every day building and designing the space along with Rob Phelps (lead carpenter) and Isaac Nichols (carpenter). They did everything from sourcing the glass doorknob for the upstairs bathroom to building the bar and benches to hand troweling the cement design on the kitchen hood. As the only child of Estonian immigrants, Taavo was raised by parents, who had a strong belief in the value of making things by hand. His mother made jam and his father was always building things around the house. There is no art on the walls of Isa, instead macrame, textile art and ceramics are used as decoration, to emphasize that importance of making things by hand. And his “Method Design” principle seems to be paying off. This spring, Taavo Somer was awarded the 2013 James Beard award for Restaurant Design and Graphics (75 seats and under). Oh and if you happen to go to Isa, try brunch and get the baked eggs for me.  –Amy

All images by de la Barra Photography

Image above: Ponderosa pines are extremely large pine trees native to North America. They are so commonly used in Montana for snow fences that the Ponderosa pine is the state tree of Montana. Taavo knew he wanted a silver wood – silver wood tones come from the wood being exposed to outdoors.  So he tracked down reclaimed snow fences from Montana. Macrame objects are sprinkled throughout the restaurant.

Image above: Of course, Taavo would encourage you to make but if you’d like to shop a bit for an Isa aesthetic here are a few things to get you started. (Product links here)

See more of Isa after the jump!

Image above, clockwise from left: macrame beaded plant hanger $110 | wall wonder mirror $299 | macrame beaded plant hanger $120 | abj glassworks atlas planter $150 | geometric wooden planter $60 | wooden folding chair $14.99 | brass himmeli prisim $49 |amethyst geode $6

Image above: Taavo wanted to incorporate something natural and organic into the design of the bar so he roamed the 38- acres of his property in Ulster Country New York until he found the perfect branch.

Image above: A continuation of the triangular them found throughout the restaurant.


Image above: The lights are actually mockups made of museum board and paper. Until they get replaced with the real thing (it’s on the list!), the waitstaff remakes them every six months so they stay fresh looking.

Image above: The triangles above the kitchen hood are one of Taavo’s favorite parts of the Isa interior space. It’s sort of a modern take on a Tudor ceiling created using a plaster concrete mix and was then troweled and shaped by hand.

Image above: One of the long benches built in place by Isaac Nichols and Taavo.

Image above: The benches were also hand-built by Taavo.

Image above: The filled-in triangles in the ceiling are actually speakers. Taavo’s father, who was a woodworker and engineer, built a wall of circle speakers next to the fireplace in the house where Taavo grew up in. So the ceiling is a bit a homage to his father (Isa means father in Estonian)

Image above: Isa has an open kitchen and the giant stone slab on the prep counter was found in nearby Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Most of the dishes are simple white restaurant ware.

Image above: The downstairs bathroom, with it’s triangulated mirror, was inspired by outer space – particularly the ’60s and ’70s concepts of futurism and space.

Image above: One of Isa’s managers, Whitney Klann, made all the coffee and espresso cups for the restaurant.


Image above: The upstairs room is the location for kids Brunch crafts on Saturdays and a collage night for adults. It’s part of the Isa ethos of making stuff by hand rather than buying things. Not only did Taavo want to Isa’s decor to inspire restaurant goers to make things but he wanted to provide a space for locals to do so.


Image above: Hanging moon mobile.



Image above: The upstairs bathroom was inspired by outsider architecture. The sink was just a stone basin sourced from France and Taavo used a masonry bit, cut a hole in the center and turned it into a sink.

Image above: The bathroom wall.

Image above: The door knob was found at Olde Good Things.

Image above: Taavo designed the Isa sign. The planter bathtub was a little nod to the standing tub planters found just down the street in front of a little artist space.

Image above: The Isa sign was designed with Isaac, and he welded it together. It was also inspired by outsider art. The roof space above the restaurant is used for growing herbs for the bar and the occasional messy craft project – like a recent indigo tie-dying class.

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  • One of my all time fave williamsburg restaurants! Try the breakfast pizza – it’s out of this world!

  • this looks awesome! I went to Freeman’s back in 2007 and loved the vibe. so cool to hear about this brooklyn place!

  • Nice to hear the food is good but as for decor, c’mon, how far back in history can one go to copy ideas? Where will the next “cutting edge” restauranteur turn for inspiration, 12th century castles, Viking ships ~ how about pre-historic caves? This trend to move from modern and return to the old is getting old.

  • Love this place. Outstanding reuse of bathroom toilet parts. Multicolor throne! Will have to borrow that idea!

  • Fresh yo! Ha!!! …so…first…I’m right there with ya buddy! We are so in need of NEW INSPIRATION! ..trying something not tried before! I do dig ideas from OLD..but why not a FRESH SPIN on the endeavor? The triangle architecture I am seriously into semi Mayan-esce-ish! Those macrame plant holders …sold for how many duckettes??? Damn …120$ I could make those in my sleep! Sorry..but that’s MADD pricey! Good thing they are used as decoration for establishment and not selling pieces! And Brooklyn the streets will make you feel brand new! The lights will inspire you??? …now is the rustic look causing us to feel brand new or ancient like our grandpholks???

  • This looks like a cross between Tallinn Old Town cellar bars/restaurants and Estonian timberhouse village taverns. A bit of Nordics in New York. I like.