8 Ideas to Borrow from the Shaker-Inspired Commerce Inn in NYC

Between them chefs Jody Williams and Rita Sodi own five restaurants, all within blocks of each other in NYC’s West Village. The couple’s interests extend beyond the culinary—in addition to getting every bite just right (their trattoria Via Carota is the Remodelista go-to for celebrations of every sort), they create immersive experiences in which design plays a key role. Everything is considered in a Rita and Jody establishment down to the rolling trash bins hidden behind the bar and the sleeve length on the waitstaff’s jackets.

Their latest joint venture, The Commerce Inn, on a landmark Greenwich Village block across from the Cherry Lane Theatre, is a bar and restaurant that takes inspiration from Shaker design and early American taverns. To create what they envisioned, the two chefs spent years immersing themselves in early American cookery and Shaker ways (“they were impressively egalitarian and sustainability minded,” says Jody). They then recruited a large creative team—including architect and Shaker aficionado Ben Bischoff of Made; architect Richard Lewis, who designed Via Carota; and designer/builder Michael Smart of Urban Aesthetics—to consider every inch.

Matthew Williams, principal photographer of our new book Remodelista: The Low-Impact Home, and I spent a recent day at The Commerce Inn as delivery people buzzed, team members got to work, and Jody and Rita warmly checked in with everyone. It felt like pre-showtime for a Broadway production, and every person involved, even every thing, seemed proud to be there. Here’s what we took away.

Photographs by Matthew Williams (@matthewwilliamsphotographer) for Remodelista.

1. Design According to Use

the commerce inn in new york's west village, matthew williams photo. 0

Above: The Commerce Inn, at 50 Commerce Street in the West Village, occupies a longtime restaurant space. “It was antiseptic and almost the opposite in character to what Jody and Rita were hoping to achieve,” says Bischoff, who is a member of the board of the Shaker Museum in Mount Lebanon, NY, Jody and Rita’s go-to source for inspiration. “We worked by interrogating the layout and every finish.”

If you’re surprised you’ve never heard of The Commerce Inn that may be because Jody and Rita want it to remain a true gathering place for the neighborhood. On the menu: milk punch, oysters (raw, pickled, and fried), smoked cod cakes, roasted marrow with mushrooms, and spoon bread.

entryway at the commerce inn, nyc. matthew williams photo. 1

Above: The entry is lined with low stools by George Sawyer of Sawyer Made, a RISD-grad master carpenter who, like his father before him, works in the Windsor and Shaker tradition. Rather than being symmetrical, the built-in cabinets were scaled according to needs: pipes that needed to be accessible are behind the tall size; the other holds matches, business cards, and other restaurant paraphernalia.

Jody and Rita don’t like starting with plans, explains Bischoff, they like to describe what they’re after and to see the possibilities: “We produced limitless full-scale mockups with utility knives and boards, locating the shelves, sizing the drawers, and figuring out the furniture as we talked.” Everything was custom built à la the Shakers: for ease of use, durability, and to impart a sense of calmness and community.

dining room in the commerce inn, nyc. matthew williams photo. 2

Above: Everywhere the eye lands, a good idea awaits. The daily menus are posted throughout on small slate chalkboards. A floor-to-ceiling waiter station is positioned between the front bar and the back dining room.  It’s one of two with purpose-built spots and slots for all of the restaurant’s much-used wares.

Although based on Shaker precedents, the furniture—chairs by Sawyer Made and tables by Tony Visco of Ivory Build in Brooklyn—Bischoff notes, was reengineered to work in a much-used space: the tables have stabilizing steel rods running through their bases and the spindle seats have “the natural give and flexibility a Shaker chair should have, but the legs are slightly thicker to be more durable.”

jody williams and rita sodi, the chef owners of the commerce inn , nyc. matthew 3

Above: Jody (L) grew up in the Lake Tahoe area in Northern California and Rita (R) was raised on a farm north of Florence. They describe what they were after here as “a sense of material honesty, much like the meticulous sourcing of ingredients for a menu steeped in local traditions.” As always, they went to great lengths to avoid what Jody terms “the soul killer elements” that so easily creep in when building to NYC codes.

“Jody and Rita have a real rigor and authenticity to how they approach cooking and entertaining,” says Bischoff. “They wanted things built from real wood and constructed in the manner the items were originally made. There’s no MDF or snap-together drawer parts. All the chairs are pegged and pinned together, not glued and screwed.”

2. Add a Curve for a Sense of Community

the curved dining room at the commerce inn, nyc. matthew williams photo. 4

Above: “Rita and Jody asked that the dining room feel like you’re sitting in a big group,” says Bischoff, noting that that’s hard to do with squared corners. “We created this broad sweep and had Sawyer Made create a giant banquette, so almost 40 people are at what feels like the same table.”

3. Use Salvaged Materials Whenever Possible

view of the bar from the entry at the commerce inn, nyc. matthew williams photo. 5

Above: Ripply old deadstock glass sourced from Flickinger in Brooklyn was used in the entry. Michael Smart, who has had a hand in many of Keith McNally’s restaurants, such as Balthazar, worked in tandem with architect Richard Lewis on the design of the front room and built it himself. Smart turned to Jim Morgan of Tall Cotton Supply in Virginia to find all of The Commerce Inn’s reclaimed wood, including the floor and beadboard ceiling.

“The floor came out of an old depot and was completely covered in soot and smelled like a garage, but it cleaned up well,” says Jody.

waiter station marble sink at the commerce inn, nyc. matthew williams photo. 6

Above: The second waiter station has a sink for filling water pitchers. The basin was created from a marble coffee table a client was discarding—Bischoff’s design-build firm, Made, keeps a store of reclaimed parts for future use. “We’d had it for 20 years,” he tells us, “finally the right time came to dice up this lovely piece into a sink.” The brass tap is from Morelli of Bologna, Italy. Scroll down for more waiter station details.

4. Design Doesn’t Have to Be Old to Look Old

the bar at the commerce inn, nyc. matthew williams photo. 7

Above: The general idea for the bar area was Shaker meets old New York tavern/hardware store,” says Smart who went to great lengths to fabricate the icebox-style cabinets, zinc counter, and light with spun copper shades (it’s based on a Shaker chandelier Jody admired in an old photo, and was given an aged look courtesy of an acid patina and an applied dent or two).

Smart has tales to tell about every detail: “For the mirror behind the bar, I purchased new, low-iron mirror, removed the backing, applied a chemical treatment to age it, then applied a new backing. For the drawer pulls and bar taps, we turned the original in wood, made a silicone mold, and had a foundry cast them in bronze using the lost wax technique.”

the bar at the commerce inn, nyc. matthew williams photo. 8

Above: The barstools with cast metal bases were inspired by elevator stools. The walls, formerly painted Sheetrock, were finished with Diamond Veneer Plaster to create a rough, handmade surface. Explains Smart: “The undulations were burnished a little when the plaster was leather hard to add a little sheen and glow, then a coating of wax was applied.” The new transom window lets in air without having to open the door.

5. Hang All of Your Everyday Tools

the bar at the commerce inn, nyc. matthew williams photo. 9

Above: The maple peg rails that wrap around the bar and dining room provide places for customers’ coats and all manner of Commerce Inn tools and accessories, including the menus. These are written daily on chalkboards custom made from Western Pennsylvania slate. The tongs are used to move giant ice blocks of purified water that sit over the  sink in the bar—the bartender explains that serving hand-chipped large cubes means “drinks get less diluted, so you can fully taste the spirits.”

everything in its place at the commerce inn, nyc. matthew williams photo. 10

Above: Everything in its place. The ash basket holds sage and incense. The liners that go over tablecloths are kept in a wooden barrel.

bathroom hall at the commerce inn, nyc. matthew williams photo. 11

Above: An Adirondack pack basket hangs in the bathroom hall. Note the built-in supply cabinet and the ladder that leads to more storage.

soapstone bathroom sink at the commerce inn, nyc. matthew williams photo. 12

Above: The bathroom mirrors and towel holder also hang from peg rails (the latter is based on a Shaker original but had to be angled for wheelchair compliancy). The sink is from Vermont Soapstone.

Looking for your own peg rails? Browse the Remodelista archive for a trove of ideas.

6. In Tight Spaces Consider a Booth for Two

tables for two at the commerce inn, nyc, bar. matthew williams photo. 13

Above: The need for a comfortable amount of space for wheelchairs led to this compact seating solution in the bar.

tables for two at the commerce inn, nyc, bar. matthew williams photo. 14

Above: “The proportions of the booths and tables were difficult to get right,” says Smart. “We made several mockups before we struck on the right one. The goal was to maximize the space for seating while making sure it was comfortable.”

7. Open Storage Lends Accessibility—and Visual Interest

waiter station at the commerce inn, nyc. matthew williams photo. 15

Above: “If you cook, you clean,” says Rita in response to those who say open storage invites griminess. To maximize a small space, plates, tumblers, and crocks are stacked. The jugs are used to serve the restaurant’s cocktails for two. The white plates are by Tafelstern of Germany.

waiter station at the commerce inn, nyc. matthew williams photo. 16

Above: Shallow cabinets hold a lineup of stemware.

8. Every Detail Matters.

waiters in staff uniforms at the commerce inn, nyc. matthew williams photo. 17

Above: The waitstaff wear custom aprons from Cayson in LA and jackets—some by Lady and Butler, others by an Italian source of Rita’s—with swing pleats in the back for comfort and watch-length sleeves that prevent accidental brushes with the food. The Commerce Inn recycles its oysters and wine corks. See you there.

For historic Shaker design, see In the Dwelling House: 16 Design Ideas to Steal from the Shakers.

Here are some notable new examples of Shaker-inspired designs:

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