A Fine Romance

Meet the couple behind Maman, Manhattan’s most Instagram-worthy new café, and see the downtown loft they’ve decorated in equally irresistible style

Salvaged materials and eye-catching patterns are used judiciously throughout Maman's welcoming interior.
Salvaged materials and eye-catching patterns are used judiciously throughout Maman's welcoming interior.

Maman’s love story starts, in true cosmopolitan fashion, at a bar in Montreal: Benjamin Sormonte, a French lawyer, walks up to Elisa Marshall, a Toronto native and event planner. He tells her he’s a French actor; they exchange numbers, and a couple of days later, “I get a very apologetic phone call, explaining that it was all a lie,” Marshall says.

A Fine Romance

Luckily, she forgives him, and one date leads to another. Soon the two are relocating from Montreal to Toronto, then London, then Ibiza—to help start up a beach club—and finally to New York for the opening of a wine bar called La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels. The couple decide to strike out on their own with a food business that combines their worldly sensibility with South of France–style comfort. The result: downtown New York’s chicest cafe, Maman. “It was something I’ve wanted to do since I was little,” Marshall says. “We were both fortunate to be raised among good food and good families, and we wanted to put that forth in a bakery for everyone to experience.”

Elisa Marshall and Benjamin Sormonte at their café.
Elisa Marshall and Benjamin Sormonte at their café.
A vintage fan and mixers turned pendant lights help set the mood.
A vintage fan and mixers turned pendant lights help set the mood.

A 1,300-square-foot former machinery shop on the fringes of SoHo turned out to be the ideal spot, with its tin ceilings, exposed brick walls, and pockmarked floors. “Other places had completely new floors and walls, but this original floor dates back to the 1920s—it adds so much character,” Marshall says. Fairy lights twinkle in the dining room; a large factory window (transported from Toronto) allows diners to observe the baking process, helmed by Michelin-starred chef Armand Arnal. For seating, the owners assembled a variety of secondhand chairs and brought in pieces from their own home (Marshall’s father just so happens to be an antiques dealer, after all).

A Fine Romance
THE FRESH SIDE OF FRENCH COUNTRY

A hand-hewn artisan vibe meets a mood of feminine nostalgia in the dreamlike spaces of Benjamin Sormonte and Elisa Marshall. Here, four lessons from this work-to-home tour

 

  • COMBINE COMPLEMENTARY SURFACES

    Maman’s look is all about embracing texture, from tin ceilings to exposed brick. The philosophy also applies to the bathroom, where multiple family photos are displayed in a hodgepodge of frames. “It’s an eclectic mixture, but we kept the continuity by having all black-and-white images,” Marshall says.  

  • DEFTLY DRAW ATTENTION

    Only one of the café’s walls—a sliver adjacent to the kitchen—is covered in a bright blue-and-white design. “It’s tricky when patterns are [too] close together,” Sormonte says. “It can become very distracting.” A single intricate accent wall remains in visual harmony with the brick-and-white interior.

  • PLAY WITH PATTERN

    Perhaps our favorite design element of Maman: the four exclusive textile prints created by a close friend of the couple’s, Candice Kaye, and used on the seat cushions and coffee cups. A lighter toile pays tribute to Sormonte’s heritage, a rose-and-peony print integrates their mothers’ favorite flowers, a bold striped pattern represents classic Americana, and a complex mosaic harks back to the couple’s time in Ibiza. 

  • VIVE LA DIFFÉRENCE!

    The unique nature of every piece is what makes Maman feel less corporate, more mom-and-pop. Chairs are of different sizes, silverware is eclectic, and “we have some chips in our plates, and [the plates] definitely don’t match,” Marshall says. What’s more important: backstory. A set of china comes from Sormonte’s grandmother, while a child’s high chair belonged to Marshall’s father in the 1940s.

The café seems made for rainy afternoons.
The café seems made for rainy afternoons.
Leafy plants tower over tables with mismatched chairs.
Leafy plants tower over tables with mismatched chairs.

“Everything we own has to be beautiful and useful,” Marshall says, so the two drew from their vast collection of bunny decorations, brought in their bedside tables as storage bins, and turned an heirloom mirror into a menu board. A carpenter in the South of France was commissioned to create several key elements. “He did the tables, the hutch, the traditional church bench that’s up front, and sanded down a 1929 bread machine and put our logo on it,” Sormonte says. Vintage apple crates were reinvented as bread baskets. Retro mixers and colanders were transformed into hanging lights. And framed family photos are proudly displayed.


Asimilar kind of eclecticism informs the Sormonte-Marshall home, a sixth-floor loft in Tribeca. The couple slowly amassed a collection of vintage pieces, purchasing only what they absolutely loved. “We’ve done a lot of moving these past few years, and all [the previous] places came furnished,” Marshall says. “In New York, we were starting from scratch—which was so fun.” Hardwood floors and white-painted brick provided the perfect blank canvas. Sheer white curtains fall from rods made from gold-painted pipes, while box pallets support two mattresses for a no-frills sofa (or, after some adjustments, a guest bed). “We were looking at a lot of outdoor furniture in Ibiza, and someone on Instagram had used crates to make lawn beds,” Marshall says. “When we came to New York we didn’t like any of the couches, so we just sourced pallets from the plumber next door.”

The industrial vibe is softened by informal floral arrangements and whimsical motifs.
The industrial vibe is softened by informal floral arrangements and whimsical motifs.
A portrait of Marshall's photogenic mother draws the eye above the couple's bed.
A portrait of Marshall's photogenic mother draws the eye above the couple's bed.

In fact, the entire apartment is an ode to functional charm. Wire pendant lights, crafted from cords found online and flea-market discoveries in Ibiza, were assembled by Marshall herself. A workman’s desk from Brooklyn Flea acts as a dining table, and hanging plants and tiny animal heads from Anthropologie bring a bit of the country into the city. “We both love cute and quirky things,” Marshall says.

Such was the couple’s dedication to mindful decorating that they didn’t have dining chairs for a few months. “We took our time finding everything. We weren’t just going to buy something because we needed it,” Marshall explains. So how do things look one year into creating the perfect home? “Oh, it’s not even done yet,” she says. Sormonte agrees: “It’s a work in progress.”

The ever-present bunny collection is testament to the couple's love for personality-laden secondhand finds.
The ever-present bunny collection is testament to the couple's love for personality-laden secondhand finds.

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