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Inside Houston’s New MAD House — Striking European Design of River Oaks’ Hottest New Restaurant Brings Madrid to H-Town

A Spanish Master Shares the Secrets of City's New Showcase Spot

BY // 06.19.19
photography Public Content

It’s a push and a pull. It’s a tension. You can’t sum it up with just one word. The creator will tell you it’s yin and yang, and that’s just how he intended it.

The striking interior design of MAD — Houston’s most anticipated new restaurant, the sister concept to the ballyhooed BCN — defies definition. You can’t even boil it down to simply “vibrant,” “futuristic,” or “avant-garde” — although those are all pieces of this dazzling puzzle, complete with a dash of Picasso.

“It’s day and night,” world-renowned interior designer Lázaro Rosa-Violán tells PaperCity, all earnestness. He’s sitting in the far back left corner of the Madrid-themed restaurant, which opened today (June 19th) in River Oaks District. Rosa-Violán adjusts his perfectly round-framed wire-rimmed glasses.

MAD marks the Spanish designer’s first foray into Houston. Rosa-Violán is probably best known for Soho House Barcelona. He has done projects across Europe, Mexico and in Washington, D.C.

At Houston’s new MAD, bold colors riot all around him, a churning sea of blues and splashes of terra cotta reds and oranges. Not just the plush banquettes and the soft pillows, but the neon indigo lights framing the private areas with contrasting red and blue tile udnerneath, and the striking orange, almost reticulated, orb light fixtures hanging from the high-as-can-be ceilings.

“For the blue, the idea for me was to bring the sort of spirit of the Mediterranean to Houston. To bring sort of a touch of the Catalina coast. It’s very symbolic,” Rosa-Violán notes, gesturing to the pale blue velvet chairs on the far side of the room.

Animal Fever

  • J McLaughlin - Card Deck 1 - Animal Print
  • J McLaughlin - Card Deck 1 - Animal Print
  • J McLaughlin - Card Deck 1 - Animal Print
  • J McLaughlin - Card Deck 1 - Animal Print
  • J McLaughlin - Card Deck 1 - Animal Print
  • J McLaughlin - Card Deck 1 - Animal Print
  • J McLaughlin - Card Deck 1 - Animal Print
  • J McLaughlin - Card Deck 1 - Animal Print

“And Madrid — it’s a red city. Because you see, this is not red. It’s terra cotta red. Most of the houses in Madrid are terra cotta brick. It’s sort of a shock when you arrive from another city to Europe because it’s so red!

“Red brings a lot of energy to the space. And blue is more calm, more light.”

The designer glances around the space, peppered with nods to Space City, like the custom sculpture of the Cassini-Huygens gleaming from inside a glass case, the lunar-inspired light fixtures dangling above and the satellite-style light at the entrance. It’s a mix of warm and cool, vivid colors with sharp metallic accents.

“The colors — the moon and Mars,” he says.

MAD interior design (Photo by Public Content)
The eclectic, tongue-in-cheek mural was designed by Rosa-Violán. (Photo by Public Content)

Rosa-Violán set out to capture the spirit of Madrid and hold it in the palm of his hand. He’s brought it all to life at MAD.

“In the 1980s, after Franco’s time, Madrid became the most sparkling city in Europe for some years. Sparkling and naïve at the same time. And colorful. And very complex. I want to remind of this time — the gastronomy, the party, the music,” Rosa-Violán tells PaperCity.

The multi-dimensional Madrid calls for a layered approach to the space honoring it.

“We have a lot of different scenes. We were creating a sort of island over the bar, where we wanted to create the focus of all the energy,” the designer notes. “It’s the heart of the place.”

A dynamic, kinetic art installation hangs above the bar, with a life of its own.  A series of massive gold-tone mirrored rectangular prisms rotate slowly, sleek images of the restaurant flitting across their surfaces. It’s at once intricate and simple, straightforward and complex.

The design is a Rosa-Violán original, like all of the custom furniture, wall coverings and light fixtures. He imported all the materials from Spain.

“There are more scenes,” he says. “As a designer, I want to create an experience. We created a lot of different scenes.”

He means the dining areas flanking the bar, studded with orange banquettes, and he means the private rooms within, against the walls, awash in a blue glow and casting off sparks with blinding chandeliers. There’s space for 122 diners to have whatever customized experience they wish.

“It’s like an arc of energy. With all of the different scenes, you always wish to come back. You can have tapas, you can eat lunch,” Rosa-Violán gestures to the bar, the mirrors spinning above.

“Or you can have dinner there,” he says, waving a hand toward the closest private room, recessed in the wall as an idea spot for people-watching. “The private spaces sort of wink to the nightlife of Madrid,” he laughs.

MAD interior design (Photo by Public Content)
There are many private rooms tucked away, bathed in blue light. (Photo by Public Content)

The open kitchen is a scene in and of itself. Brutalist art springs from the resin relief mural, inspired by Gaudi’s iconic Sagrada Familia.

A New Restaurant World

MAD inspires more than the double take. Maybe a triple take, maybe even quadruple. Blink as you walk in and you might miss the Chihuly chandeliers. Color is one thing, metallic accents another, texture yet another element.

As if those aesthetics weren’t special enough, a signature, tongue-in-cheek mural adorns the wall outside.

Rosa-Violán rounds the corner of the building. This will be the first time he’s seen the painting complete.

The playful backdrop features a colorful cast of characters, a Spanish lion sporting a monocle, a moon with a Mona Lisa-smile peering through a telescope, a 1950s bombshell balanced on a tightrope.

“It’s surreal,” Rosa-Violán laughs. “There was an expression in Madrid everyone was saying at that time — ‘de Madrid a Cielo.’ From Madrid to heaven.”

If you’re lucky, you’ll find hints of hidden characters, like Queen Isabella II embodied in the curvaceous acrobat. She was known for sneaking into flamenco parties in costume and for having many, many lovers. Rosa-Violán won’t say who, but one character represents King Charles III, also known lovingly as the Best Mayor of Madrid.

But not every element is a mystery. Why does the lion wear a monocle?

“To see,” Rosa-Violán laughs. The mural may be in a different style, but it echoes what visitors to MAD find indoors.

“It’s a reflection of the inside — Spain living in a new time.”

And, finally, the time has come for MAD in Houston.

For the PaperCity exclusive on the food (and restaurant owner Ignacio Torras and chef Luis Roger’s vision), read Annie Gallay’s story.

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