Portrait of a Collaboration:
Deborah Ehrlich and Blue Hill
“What we set out to do here at Stone Barns was to celebrate the old that exists here, and the beauty of the buildings, and then layer on that a modern feeling. We didn’t want to change all that was old about this place. We wanted to highlight it, but wrap it up in a very modern sensibility.”–Laureen Barber
At Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, the table is as reliable an indicator of the date as any calendar. November brings with it a full spectrum of produce—purple kohlrabi, lacinto rainbow kale—from the greenhouse and the field, as well as a fresh harvest from the pasture, home to lambs, pigs, and hens. In the forest, Bourbon Red and Broad Breasted White turkeys prepare for their seasonal spotlight. What remains constant, whether the kitchen is working its magic with ice spinach or Cosmonaut tomatoes, are the streamlined decanters on each table. These hand-cut crystal vessels were made especially for the restaurant in collaboration with glassware designer Deborah Ehrlich.
“We try to make sure that our food and drink is presented on really special pieces, not just things that you can buy at a restaurant supply store,” says Laureen Barber, co-owner and design director of Blue Hill, which also has a location in Manhattan. It turns out that a good decanter is hard to find, as Barber learned when diners kept asking to purchase the group of vintage ones that have lined a windowsill in the main dining room since the 2004 opening of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in a former dairy barn on the Rockefeller estate that includes an 80-acre working farm, all part of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.
“There is that incredibly profound silence that happens when you encounter something indescribable. It happens here at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Your mind is just in a different place. It’s like reading great literature. You’re sort of floating. What’s strange is that you’re talking about real things. There’s tablecloth, ceramic, crystal, vegetables, meat, charred bones, all these physical things, but it adds up to this otherworldly experience.”–Deborah Ehrlich
Futile shopping trips to find a modern match for the antique decanters led Barber and general manager Philippe Gouze to Ehrlich, who happens to live and work nearby—on a farm and in a stone house of her own. After an initial meeting at her Hudson Valley home, the designer crossed the river to have the dining experience that has earned Blue Hill it a steady stream of breathless reviews and prestigious awards. “It’s hard to say without insulting many people in your life, but you will never feel as special as you do here,” says Ehrlich, seated in the lofty and luminous main dining room. “I immediately got a sense of the subtlety, the inexplicable quality, of what they were doing and the graciousness of how they do it.”
Soon Ehrlich, Barber, and Gouze, along with executive chef and co-owner Dan Barber (brother-in-law of Laureen), were sitting down to develop their dream decanter. “There were a lot of elements involved, including an in-depth understanding of the service process, the needs of the sommelier, and Laureen, as a very visual person, was there steering it towards an elegant resolution,” says Ehrlich, who describes the decanters (two for wine and a water carafe) as the most challenging thing she has ever designed.
“If you look at a lot of decanters, they are funny-looking,” says Barber with a chuckle. “Many of them look like geese—or wine bottles.” She envisioned a modern, pared-down version of a Lobemyr vessel, something that would appear to float off the table while fulfilling the sommelier’s request for an elegant, one-handed pour. Ehrlich refined Barber’s formal concept, carefully adjusting the proportions on paper, her preferred work surface.
“We understand each other—what’s important, what can be set aside. Ultimately I think that at Blue Hill, there’s a real cohesion of a beautiful experience, and that’s pretty much where I start. So it’s a good match. It was a great collaboration, and it’s very, very hard to collaborate.”–Deborah Ehrlich
The finished products--hand-blown, hand-cut, and hand-polished, like all of Ehrlich’s work—strike a perfect balance. “Down to the last millimeter, she designed it perfectly,” says the detail-oriented Gouze, who was as concerned with achieving the optimal volume and aeration as he was the aesthetics.
“People often say you design one shape and then you make it bigger sixteen times and then you have a collection. What I found out is that the feeling disappears,” says Ehrlich. “It’s important for me to design to scale—to have a feeling, in my hands, of how big something is really going to be. It does start with some integrity, and then if you can keep the integrity, you end up with a pretty nice experience.”