National News

Philip George, Designer of Elegant Restaurants, Dies at 94

Posted June 7, 2018 6:00 p.m. EDT

Philip George, who designed the interiors of some of Manhattan’s most star-studded restaurants and oversaw a short-lived but indelible Moscow culinary landmark — the site of the impromptu Cold War “kitchen debate” between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev — died May 10 at a clinic in Cuernavaca, Mexico. He was 94.

His death, which was announced only recently, was confirmed by his wife, Gail Cowdrey George.

George’s career encompassed several incarnations, but they converged in his preoccupation with imagery: How foreigners in Southeast Asia and post-World War II Europe regarded the United States in the global competition against communism. How airline passengers perceived Braniff’s jelly-bean-colored fleet of planes. And whether diners preferred the elegant, clatter-free aura of Le Bernardin in midtown Manhattan or, downtown, the cacophony of the Big Kitchen at the original World Trade Center or the Market Bar there, which, as George put it, was “a place that was supposed to imply business and market activity, and the last thing you would want is a lot of carpet and quiet.”

George also designed the Sea Grill at Rockefeller Center in the early 1980s. Often with collaborators, including Joe Baum, Milton Glaser and Irving Harper, he figured prominently in the design of the patrons’ dining room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, among other restaurants, Mondrian, on East 59th Street, and Aurora, on East 49th Street. (Both have closed.)

Writing about Aurora in 1986, restaurant critic Bryan Miller of The New York Times said its room “combines a very establishment, corporate ambience (burnished wood wainscoting, muted colors, cushy leather chairs) with a playful bubble theme more appropriate to a trendy yuppie bar — a blend of martinis and margaritas.”

“I haven’t seen so many bubbles since ‘The Lawrence Welk Show,'” he added.

When the siblings Gilbert and Maguy Le Coze opened Le Bernardin in 1986, in the Equitable Building on West 51st Street, they commissioned George for the interior. (It was renovated in recent years.) Le Bernardin went on to earn, and maintain, a three-star rating in the Michelin Guide and four stars from The Times.

French chef and author Pierre Franey once described its kitchen, designed by George, as “the best in the United States and one of the best in the world.”

While working for George Nelson & Co., the New York industrial designer, George was named project manager for the construction of the American National Exhibition in Moscow, part of a cultural exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The show, which ran for six weeks in 1959, featured a geodesic dome in Sokolniki Park housing exhibits on 300,000 square feet of floor space. The displays trumpeted American products with, as one observer said, “a wearying emphasis on credibility, on avoiding the air of propaganda.”

Included were automobiles, television sets and shelves restocked with thousands of pairs of jeans for the taking by Soviet visitors.

“He planned on them being stolen,” George’s friend John S. Dyson, a former New York City and state official, said in a telephone interview. “Soon, all over Moscow kids were wearing his jeans that were otherwise forbidden. He had thousands brought for just this effect.”

On opening day of the exhibition, Nixon, who was vice president at the time, played host to Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union, and soon they were viewing a model of a modern American kitchen. It became the stage for a brief but historic exchange on the respective merits of communism and capitalism — the kitchen, from Nixon’s perspective, representing the triumph of the free market.

Nixon and Khrushchev had been steered to the kitchen by William Safire, a public relations man at the time for the Long Island developer who built it (Safire was later a Nixon speechwriter and a Times columnist), and George was by Safire’s side as Nixon sang the praises of a dishwasher and other appliances.

George would go on to receive accolades from restaurant and architecture reviewers for his interior designs, but in Moscow, he encountered perhaps his most petulant critic. Khrushchev, it seemed, was unimpressed. “You think the Russian people will be dumbfounded to see these things,” he said, “but the fact is that newly built Russian houses have all this equipment right now.”

Phil Basil George Jr. was born on July 22, 1923, in San Bernardino, California. (He began using Philip because everyone was calling him by that name.) His father, Philippos Basileus Georgiadis, a Greek immigrant who abbreviated his name when he arrived at Ellis Island, owned several cafes in San Diego. His mother, who was born in Spain as Josephine Sanchez, worked in the cafes part time.

“As a son of immigrants, he embraced his life as an American with pride,” said Mary R. Morgan, another friend of George’s.

He studied engineering at San Diego State University before enlisting in the Army Air Forces in World War II, taking courses at Pomona College and Yale and working on radar research at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Only after World War II, when he was studying architecture on the GI Bill at the University of Southern California, did he discover an aptitude for design.

One semester short of graduation, George had gone to Paris on a break and was rooming with the writer and humorist Art Buchwald when both got coveted job offers: Buchwald with The International Herald Tribune and George with the Marshall Plan, the U.S. effort to rebuild war-ravaged Europe. His job was to produce a traveling display that promoted democracy and Americanism against the threat of creeping communism in southern Italy.

He performed a similar public information mission in Southeast Asia for William J. Donovan, the U.S. ambassador to Thailand and former World War II director of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency.

George joined the George Nelson firm in 1958. In the early 1960s, he was instrumental in designing the pavilion honoring Winston Churchill at the World’s Fair in New York. He and Irving Harper, another veteran of the Nelson firm, started their own design office in 1966.

In the 1960s, George also plunged into politics, working with the consulting firm David Garth Associates on the graphics for campaigns by Mayor John V. Lindsay and Gov. Hugh L. Carey of New York, Gov. Brendan T. Byrne of New Jersey, Rep. John Heinz III of Pennsylvania and Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles, among others.

George and his wife had homes in Manhattan; Amenia, New York; and Cuernavaca. In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Alexandra George, and three stepdaughters, Amy Kindred Bonanno, Lucy Kindred Galbraith and Jean Kindred Wilmerding.