An exterior of a building with a brick facade and a yellow and plum storefront of a restaurant. A sign reads "Talea" and the windows are open showing the interior.
Talea, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Courtesy Alice Gao.

Brooklyn-based Sarah Carpenter & Studio is Redefining Community-Driven Hospitality

Quietly, and with intention, the Columbia GSAPP-trained designer is bringing laid-back hospitality to one of the world’s most fast-paced cities.

In a city of almost 9 million, finding an oasis of calm can be challenging–making the accomplishments of small-but-mighty design studio Carpenter & Mason, now Sarah Carpenter & Studio, all the more impressive. Launched in 2014 with the creation of the first brick-and-mortar outpost of Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, the studio has excelled at designing for community-driven hospitality. With more recent projects, including Williamsburg’s female-owned-and-operated Talea brewery, and cult-favorite eateries Egg Shop, Tonchin, and Tender Greens, the team still hews close to its original ethos of designing spaces for “people to enjoy, to provide a backdrop for life to happen.” 

The studio, formerly co-run by principal Sarah Carpenter and her husband, the latter recently stepping back to full-time parent their young son, was built with the spirit of collaboration. “Having both of us in the same field means that our home will never be complete,” jokes Carpenter, who also recalls that those early, shoulder-to-shoulder design years allowed the pair to experiment and grow. Working primarily by word-of-mouth, each commission so far has been acquired via reference or referrals. 

An image of a woman with blonde hair wearing a beige blouse and jeans leaning against a booth in a restaurant.
Sarah Carpenter
An image of an interior ceiling detail in a restaurant featuring a hanging wine glass rack and dark green velvet curtains.
Ceiling detail at HAGS restaurant in the East Village. Courtesy Seth Caplan

Raised in the Midwest before graduating from Columbia’s GSAPP, Carpenter’s designs foster a small-town feel among the crush of urban life. “I went to high school in a tiny town, and coming to New York City was eye-opening,” she says. “I was a fish out of water, so I think there’s a certain scrappiness to how we work, which comes from my background. I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere–we don’t need that much to go off, just something that sparks our design idea.”

One of the firm’s notable new projects is HAGS, a community-driven, potluck-inspired dayglo eatery in the East Village. “The concept was queer fine dining. A space for everyone to feel comfortable, luxurious, and lavish within,” says Carpenter. The cotton candy pink destination was crafted to capture the exuberant personality of its creators. “HAGS was the project of a lifetime,” she says of outfitting the micro, 800-sq-foot space with refracting mirrors and acid green details. But the mission, primarily, was to enhance the well-being of its creators, another partnership in life and art. “In designing, we asked, ‘how can they experience each other through service in a way that reinforces their relationships?’ There was a lot of thinking about eye contact and movement.” Carpenter notes that design is often only one component of success. “The rest is the owners, the atmosphere. They create the food or the drink. For us to have a successful project, it has to feel like there’s a potential for all those elements to align.”

An image of an interior of a restaurant with wood tables and chairs and two bars. The walls are wood, exposed brick, and terra cotta tile.
Sereneco, Brooklyn. Courtesy Nicole Franzen

Recently the team completed a second Talea location in Cobble Hill, utilizing the same weavers and makers from the original Williamsburg location, with the addition of pops of color paired with Bauhaus-inspired design elements. “Working in New York inherently means that two projects for the same client can’t look the same, but we take that as an opportunity rather than a limitation,” she says, explaining that the studio, which works with many hospitality clients with an established point of view, prides itself on coming to each commission with new eyes. 

“While we have a design aesthetic, each project must be a reflection of the brand, identity, and food,” but with the caveat that the studio must retain some creative control. “Otherwise, it’s just skinning a design that’s already been given to you.” Ultimately, the essentials of a successful creation lay in the floorplan, which is often overlooked for flashy materials and color palettes. “The layout, the flow, and the height–that encourages guests to congregate and gather, and makes a space feel good,” says Carpenter, pointing to the special sauce of her works. “So that is something we really emphasize from the beginning of a project.”

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