The grand opening of Genuine Superette, a hip café and lunch counter in downtown Manhattan, was one week away. But the walls were still unpainted, lumber leaned against the wall, and boxed-up appliances cluttered the dining room. Meanwhile, three of the four founders of AvroKO--creator of Genuine Superette and one of the world's hottest design firms for more than a decade--were squinting at exceedingly similar wood-stain samples, unhurried and undecided.

"Too sad," said William Harris, dismissing the first one.

"Seattle," murmured Kristina O'Neal, by way of agreement. "We need San Diego."

The pair held the barely varied blond-brown blocks in the light, side by side, and then next to paint chips, deep in an amber-hued contemplation. O'Neal said one reminded her of a California redwood and the 1970s. Harris picked it up.

"Sophisticated," he said. "But is it a little too sophisticated?"

They paused. Adam Farmerie, the third founder, came over. He liked the too-sad one. Everyone stared at it again.

We all know that moment when we walk into a hotel lobby or a restaurant bar, and some combination of light, space, and setting leaves us thinking, Hey, it's nice in here. Farmerie, 43, O'Neal, 42, Harris, 42, and Greg Bradshaw, 45, are obsessed with all the little details that add up to that feeling, the anatomy of a room's vibe. Since they started AvroKO in 2001, their work has routinely won awards on three continents. Those seeking a certain modern-rustic farm-to-table atmosphere regularly ransack their playbook, and the Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons, and Starwood, among others, have hired them for hotel projects from Berlin to Amman to Seoul. They operate nine of their own restaurants and bars as well, making them an unusual double threat in the hospitality world.

Kevin Boehm, a co-founder of the Boka Restaurant Group, which operates 10 restaurants, hired AvroKO to design the 12,000-square-foot Japanese restaurant Momotaro in Chicago--and has since hired the firm for three more, including a steakhouse set in Google's new Chicago offices. He says he loved how AvroKO's partners started with a playful conceit--"What if the characters of Mad Men had set up shop in Tokyo?"--and riffed on it endlessly. They decorated Momotaro's walls with portraits of Japanese executives of an imaginary corporation. The bathroom "wallpaper" is 999,000 pen scribbles. When customers pick up the receiver of a vintage telephone in the bar downstairs, recorded voices speaking Japanese--taken from old movies and commercials--coo into their ears. And, Boehm adds, when AvroKO finished, it promised never to repeat those ideas again.

But how the founders built AvroKO--and how they run it today--defies most conventional management notions. The four founders own equal shares and share creative duties. They've never had defined roles at the company. They are also very close. Every-waking-minute-together close. Other than that of Bradshaw, who since 2013 has run the San Francisco office, their Manhattan apartments are within a few minutes' walk of one another. So are their vacation homes in upstate New York. They've built a separate private office at headquarters, to hone their creative vision without employees pestering them. (Said employees have to buzz to get in.) And every three months, they travel to a remote location to devise AvroKO's next moves. "We share one brain," O'Neal says one day in that private office, where four hulking oak desks face inward, like seats of a string quartet.

"We always put ourselves facing each other, no matter where we are," Farmerie explains. Today, AvroKO has 450 workers and generates more than $30 million in revenue. One unit owns and operates the nine restaurants. Another oversees design projects in 23 cities in 12 countries. And the four founders still prefer to make practically every decision together. What keeps them so tightly bonded are the deeply personal documents they call "magic papers." Snicker at the phrase if you must, but for AvroKO it works.

AvroKO's founders met in Pittsburgh, as under­graduates at Carnegie Mellon. They reunited in their late 20s in New York City. Bradshaw and Farmerie were running a small architecture firm, Avro Design. O'Neal and Harris had an equally tiny graphic design company called KO Media. They decided to team up and design restaurants and hospitality projects, handling everything from the floor layouts to the menus: AvroKO.

Their group dynamic remains like that of a band. Frontman Farmerie is loquacious, energetic, the one you want pitching clients--"About as far over on the extrovert scale as one could be," O'Neal says. "He'd rather take a cheese grater to his skin than be alone."

Harris is the lead guitarist--"the tortured artist," a friend from college says. Harris has a bizarre genius for ambiance. Legend has it that he once asked a bartender to dim the lights just so, and turn the music up one notch--and five minutes later, the college friend swears, "two couples were making out."

Somber, square-shouldered Bradshaw is the drummer, the pragmatic, relentless "workhorse," as two other partners describe him. O'Neal is the bassist, keeping everyone glued together and pushing forward, thanks in no small part to the magic papers, a cherished childhood notion she brought to the team.

Avro's early days were frustrating. Their few clients had small budgets and smaller imaginations. The founders lived from project to project. Farmerie, then nearing 30, felt like he was heading for a midlife crisis. His marriage was falling apart. Work was a grind. O'Neal sensed his distress, took him to a neighborhood bar, and broke out pens and paper.

Ever since she was a little girl, she'd enjoyed drawing life maps. ("You can't be born in California in the 1970s and not be into self-help," she explains.) Life maps took the question "What do I want to be when I grow up?" and reverse- engineered the necessary steppingstones; drawing them on paper visualized them.

She asked Farmerie about his perfect day, his favorite childhood memory, what he dreamed of accomplishing--this year, in five years, by the end of his life. He talked and she wrote.

Next, O'Neal interviewed Harris and Bradshaw. (Individually. "Guys don't want to share their deep emotional desires in front of other dudes," she says.) When she finished, the four got together and she laid out sheets of paper, one with each partner's answers.

"That's a great place to start a company," O'Neal says today. "We weren't worried about the normal things. We said our mission is to get everybody's lists done. To help the others get the things their hearts want."

inlineimage

First, they focused on Farmerie. During his magic-paper chat, he'd reminisced about sledding in snowy suburban Chicago with his younger brother, Brad. That happy memory had unlocked a cascade of others. More than anything, he realized, he missed his brother, who was far away in London, working as a chef. What if they brought him to New York City? Raised money, built their own restaurant, and invited Brad to be head chef and partner?

They hit up their parents. Farmerie's uncle. O'Neal's dad's best friend. Some bond traders they knew. They signed up around 30 investors, who put in $1.2 million--easily the most money they'd ever seen in one place. But by the standards of high-end restaurant development in Manhattan, it was maybe half a normal budget.

They leased a raw, 7,000-square-foot location on a sleepy block downtown. They knew they couldn't afford an expensive look. So they settled on municipal furniture, because they loved how early 20th-century urban buildings evoked earnest optimism, faith in institutions, and the common good. Also, there was a glut of cheap secondhand government furniture on the market--office chairs, wooden desks, walls of post office boxes. They decided to name the place Public, called in every favor they could, and had fun with the theme.

Menus were paper on clipboards, made to resemble bureaucratic ledgers, complete with a rubber-stamped official custom seal up top. They made the maitre d' station a plinth of poured concrete, like the reception desk of an old bank or courthouse. They installed a wall of ornate post office boxes, where each month subscribing customers could unlock little doors and find a bottle of wine or house-made pickles or some other treat. They hung Edison bulbs--the ones in which the threadlike filament is visible inside the glass and casts a soft glow--because it was rumored Thomas Edison once had a lab upstairs. They stocked the bathroom with hundreds of tiny hotel-style soaps marked PUBLIC that customers could take home. The last two choices had little to do with the municipal theme. Neither did the severe metal horse's head they mounted behind the bar. But those touches amused them and felt right, so they went ahead.

Public opened in 2003. The next year, it won an unprecedented two design awards from the James Beard Foundation, the Oscars of the food industry. Other restaurateurs came calling, offering projects. So did resort and casino developers.

"When there are enough details and layers in the design that on your seventh trip to the restaurant you see something you've never seen before, it makes that place continue to be interesting in your mind," says Boka Restaurant Group's Boehm. "Great design gets people coming back." The magic papers had worked. 

 

How close are AvroKO's four founders? One says, "We share one brain."

 

As their company grew, they kept magic papers central to its ethos. Those papers cemented their trust. They didn't need to harbor any secret longing, or worry they sacrificed too much, because they knew the others were working to make each founder's dreams come true. They had taken self-interest and turned it inside out: Rather than everyone bottling up his or her dreams to work for the common goals, at AvroKO those dreams became the common goals. Each year, they took a retreat and refined and updated the magic papers. They published an art book (Best Ugly), a goal of Harris's. They bought and redesigned tiny apartments in eco-friendly ways and flipped them (Smart.Space), a Bradshaw scheme. They produced dresses inspired by vintage nurse and waitress uniforms--O'Neal's dream. They launched a brand consultancy, built an office in Thailand, and developed several more of their own restaurants and bars.

The philosophy informs AvroKO's day-to-day rhythms as well. While rank-and-file employees are bound to a sturdy structure of meetings, time sheets, style guides, and project manuals, the founders bias their workdays toward what they enjoy. (At one recent retreat, the magic-paper question was "What part of your day do you hate?") Sometimes, they all go to the bimonthly finance meetings. Every so often, none of them do.

One afternoon in March, Farmerie, Harris, and O'Neal headed to the basement of Genuine. Upstairs, a power drill whirred and a hammer rapped--a restaurant was taking shape. Below, amid the detritus of a construction site, they were lost in a three-person daydream. They would build a bar down here called Liquorette. They decided it would look just like a liquor store. And, as in a liquor store, people would serve themselves. What if customers could take a bottle right off the shelf and pour a drink? What if a bartender delivered cocktails in mini Igloo coolers? Or what if they had a vending machine, so customers could punch in B-1 and have it spit out a drink?

"Chunk-thunk!" said Farmerie, imitating a drink dropping to the dispenser door. Soon they were all laughing, thrilling to the possibilities.

 

"We make a lot of things very hard for ourselves," one founder admits.

 

But while working their way maximizes creativity, it hinders their ability to get things done. The opening of Genuine Superette was postponed two weeks. A tardy liquor license was blamed. But it was clear there were many, many things left to do. As a crowd of employees--designers, millworkers, project managers, the restaurant manager--were informed of the delay, looks of profound relief flooded the room. Then the partners started riffing again, a dreamy brainstorm expanded to fill the new timeline, and looks of nausea appeared on the worker bees' faces. They realized: Instead of toiling nonstop for the next seven days, they would be toiling nonstop for 21.

At AvroKO, staffers forever struggle to encompass the rampant ideas of their bosses. This sometimes grates on Bradshaw. "We make a lot of things very hard for ourselves," he admits over a solo lunch.

During one recent retreat, Bradshaw magic-papered an idea that complicated things: He wanted to leave New York and open an office in San Francisco. Alone. He told the others it was because he loved the outdoors, and wanted to take his kids out of Manhattan. But once he got out there, he found he enjoyed running the smaller office his way. "We've relied on 90 percent talent and 10 percent management in our history," he says at lunch. "Decision making still gets batted around like a ball between a bunch of cats."

O'Neal says she figured growing apart was inevitable. "I said to William, when we turn 40, we're not going to want to make every decision together." But Farmerie had doubts about Bradshaw's leaving. "There was a little bit of 'Don't leave me, buddy!'" he says. "A little bit of concern about breaking the band up." Farmerie pauses. "Plus, I didn't want to take his whole workload."

Bradshaw moved to California in 2012. (The others have kept his New York desk empty.) But during a recent Bradshaw visit, at a meeting to discuss the Genuine bar, it was clear he wasn't quite in step with the others. "So, Gamma Ray!" Bradshaw said, referencing the name of their previous idea, a Japanese whiskey bar with cheap clocks on the wall and Sumo wrestling videos running on tiny TVs.

"The concept has shifted," O'Neal said tentatively, "more to a liquor store." She finished with nervous laughter, like, wouldja believe it? Farmerie jumped in: Customers might grab bottles from a shelf. To calculate the tab, a bartender could weigh the contents before and after--but then Bradshaw cut him off.

"Well, what's the reality?" he said, tapping persistently on the table. "Like, how do we charge? And keep somebody from just grabbing a beer?"

inlineimage

"It would be easy," Farmerie said dismissively. "You could have a bar­tender standing there."

"Uh-huh," said Bradshaw. But he couldn't get past his concerns. "I mean, I love the aesthetic, but I'm just trying to think through the weighing and stuff like that. I don't know how that's going to work."

"I don't think we need to worry about that yet," said O'Neal.

"Don't worry about that," Farmerie echoed, more tersely.

But Bradshaw indeed worries about stuff like that. "We find the longest route to a solution, and we get there only after we've changed our minds six or seven times," he says. This wasn't the first time they had re-daydreamed that basement bar. And, he adds, "I wouldn't be surprised if we changed that again." 

Manhattan buildings hide a hundred years' of warps and quirks, and as Genuine's construction kept hitting snags, many of AvroKO's hatchling ideas dissolved. The founders had finally decided on a wood stain--it was just the right amount of sad, they all agreed--but one day it met its doom: The stain soaked into each plywood panel differently, creating an odd and uneven ribboning effect, and had to be scrapped in favor of simple white paint. The old building's ceiling sagged, thwarting a notion of affixing corkboard panels to it.

On the Monday the restaurant was set to open for its first friends-and-family meal service, that seemed, well, screwed. It was around 11 a.m. and the stools were still in plastic. There was no veneer top on the front counter or wood molding around the serving window. The menu boards, which staff had spent six hours over the weekend aligning just so, were slightly off:

  • GRILLED HI KEN
  • SPICY U UMBER

(The lettering kit didn't have enough C's.)

The founders had already nixed lunch service to open for dinner instead, but even that seemed like a tall order. You might expect all this would leave detail-obsessed designers with an extremely unorthodox management style in a state of advanced meltdown. Instead, they were focused and energized, and they and 20 other people worked at turbo speed:

At 11:30, a worker affixed the order rack above the prep counter in the kitchen and Farmerie lugged huge bags of trash out to the curb. At 11:50, two guys unfurled a mural of a mountain, a centerpiece of the design. At 1:39, the first burgers came out of the kitchen for tasting. At 3, the wait staff was briefed about the wines they'd be serving. At 4:03, the menu specials were printed and posted, and C's were taped onto the menu board. At 4:55, Farmerie, O'Neal, and Harris obsessed over the exact placement of a little neon star that went up next to a wall of cassette tapes, and at 5, photographers from food outlets arrived to shoot the place. Tablecloths were draped over the still-unveneered bar, and the place was ready to go. Thirty minutes later, friends and family were arriving, food was being served, and Genuine Superette was a real restaurant. Though, of course, the founders were still tweaking things. They will tweak things forever.

Four months later at the partners' private office, Farmerie is alone. Bradshaw is in San Francisco. O'Neal is in Napa Valley, overseeing the relaunch of their restaurant Ninebark. Harris is on a (personal) retreat.

But Farmerie, as always, is upbeat, going with the flow, adapting. "If it's two, three, or four of us, we figure it out," he says. As they had with the self-serve Liquorette. Even though New York City doesn't allow patrons to mix their own drinks, the founders planned a clever workaround: Customers can take a mixology course, have their photo taken and hung on the wall, and then come in, point to their photo, and "work," mixing and pouring drinks for friends.

These days, with so many other demands on the partners' time, magic-paper goals take longer to accomplish. But they haven't abandoned them: They will soon invest in a hotel development in Napa Valley, a step toward running a hotel themselves. They will launch a furniture line. Meanwhile, O'Neal and Harris are looking to spend more time in Northern California, closer to Bradshaw. "Greg wasn't moving away," O'Neal says. "Greg was the pioneer." Life changed. The founders changed too. Despite occasional frustrations and friction after 15 years of working together so closely, though, you can still imagine the partners pausing inside a private office, mulling all they have created and all they will, and saying to themselves, Hey, it's nice in here.

From the November 2015 issue of Inc. magazine