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When we sat down with the Canadian-born designer of Israeli heritage, Lionel Ohayon, at his office, the CEO and founder of ICRAVE studio was casually dressed in black pants, a T-shirt, sneakers, and several inches of wristbands. He exuded a confidently relaxed, introspective aura. He has a commitment to nonconventional, forward-thinking creativity, telling us, “You’ll never get an A if you’re afraid of getting an F.”
Ohayon heads one of the most highly sought-after and innovative experiential design studios in the United States, if not the world. Pioneering a young discipline that has yet to attain mainstream exposure, you would only hear of them by word of mouth.
Headquartered a few blocks north of the Flatiron Building in NoMad, just west of Madison Square Park, his are the windows above the corner storefront on 26th Street and Broadway displaying their motto —“Ideas for the brave”—in oversize Post-its spanning both blocks, spelled out letter-by-letter.
Dedicated to the 21st century’s busiest spaces, Ohayon negotiates the art of architecture, technology, and design to tailor a trifecta of physical, digital, and operational components. Whether designing the way people experience hotels, restaurants, airports, lounges, ski resorts, or healthcare centers, most imperative is asking the simple, core question, “What keeps you connected or coming back here?”
“Space is built from emotional memory,” Ohayon opined with the air of a behavioral scientist. To create a meaningful experience, it is important to understand the advance of digital devices, and their interrelationship with basic human nature. Harnessing culture and technology in order to establish communities or neighborhoods, each project is split into essential digital, physical/architectural, and operational elements in his design box. “We often tell people, ‘If you’re looking for someone to design you a really nice restaurant, there are a thousand guys out there that are really, really good at that. If that’s what you want, we’re not the right fit.’ ICRAVE is for the takeaway experience. We want to know: What is the desired end result? How do you want people to feel?”
Having learned in the nightclub world how to perfect layout, flow, and maximize ecstatic mementos, Ohayon is known for making venues stimulate curiosity and interest. He pioneers design that engages people with large spaces: from the way we experience nightlife and trendy restaurants, to the way we experience air travel (some of the world’s most heavily trafficked airports: Toronto Pearson, LaGuardia’s Delta terminal, and JetBlue’s Terminal 5 at JFK), even to the way cancer patients experience health care (internationally renowned Memorial Sloan Kettering). His team was appointed by the Dallas Cowboys Stadium to create several destinations including their private members club north of Dallas in Frisco.
If you have been wowed by “art cars” lighting up the Nevada Desert; lounged with a T-bone steak at a table for six at STK; befriended a star in Manhattan’s Provocateur, Lavo, or Pacha nightclubs; will visit The Star (the official name of the Dallas Cowboys future headquarters and training facility), or attend a Summit in Utah’s Powder Mountain winter 2016—you’ll know Ohayon’s work. In a brand-cognizant world, developers want forward-thinking experiential designers to tie a project together, the physical, virtual and emotional.
Such is the case with the vibrant village of Powder Mountain, a year-round destination on the West Coast high up between Eden and Paradise, in the heart of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. Ohayon worked as creative director to craft the experience and events and shape a community for a tribe of impressive people called The Summit: an amalgam of the wild playfulness of Burning Man and globalized brainstorming of Davos.
Powder Mountain public ski resort, perched on 10,000 acres, bears more than 500 ski-accessible sites. “We exist to convert imagination into action, turn every adventure into a co-venture,” Ohayon echoed the vision of Summit Powder Mountain, a one-of-a kind participatory campus. The program and tailored amenities include invitation-only events, performances, co-working, an artist residency and world-class restaurants connected to a village with walking, biking, and hiking trails. “Extrapolating ICRAVE ideas into a new environment,we broke it down to: live, work, play, learn.” Intent on “thought leadership adventure and intellectual exchange, [Summit Powder Mountain] is a place for people to understand what the world can be, and become a part of that world.”
Ohayon’s work ethic is inspired by his undergrad days at Toronto’s University of Waterloo, and he requires ICRAVErs to engage the process by routinely presenting their projects in development. Everyone is encouraged to participate in a biweekly “Crit Day.” At meetings, teams share weekly updates, project news and new software that colleagues are working with and learning from the industry, including Oculus.
“We’re still trying to solve the same problems,” he reflected during our conversation, “I think of many of the same things as I did when I was younger,” he referred to Waterloo. He earned a degree from the School of Architecture before a brief career in real estate development and launching ICRAVE in 2002 from his New York City bedroom.
Outgoing and plugged into the future, and with the birth of his first child, it’s clear that planets are aligning over the Ohayon house.
This article is published in Whitewall‘s summer 2016 Design Issue.