There was a time, not long ago, when the South Street Seaport was engulfed by the pungent, stomach-churning stench of seawater and fish. For 188 years, the Fulton Fish Market operated there, on the southeastern edge of Manhattan, welcoming fishing boats from across the Atlantic to its slippery decks, a thriving and smelly reminder of the vast ocean beyond the harbor.
In 2005, the Fulton Fish Market relocated uptown, way uptown, to the Bronx, and in 2012, Hurricane Sandy devastated the wooden structure beside it, Pier 17. But New York always rebuilds, and it does so in a defiant march forward, the past be damned. Last year, a decidedly 21st Century structure sprouted on Pier 17: a largely transparent glass cube, four stories high, that looks more like a museum of modern art than anything remotely maritime.
But inside, the sea awaits. The Fulton, a new seafood-centric concept from Jean-Georges Vongerichten occupying a sizable corner of the new Pier 17, opened last week to great fanfare. And for good reason: It’s the famed French chef’s first seafood restaurant, and its location offers unobstructed views of the Brooklyn Bridge and the ever-evolving Brooklyn waterfront.
Never mind that for now, though. Look closer, at the murals that dominate virtually every bit of wall space throughout The Fulton’s elegant, spacious interior, designed by the firm Yabu Pushelberg. Immersive and playful, the murals feel at once timeless and ancient, an homage to both nautical mythology and artistic techniques millennia old.
The artists behind the murals, Diego Castaño and Chandler Noah, say they took much of their inspiration from the novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, published in 1870, when the deep sea was even more mysterious to us than it is now. What we didn’t know, we filled with our imaginations, fathoming a world at at once magical and terrifying, where impossible creatures roamed and beautiful flora danced in the water. We still know surprisingly little of those depths, allowing us to maintain a childlike state of wonder at what must exist just beyond our reach.
“We wanted something that would feel otherworldly and alien,” Noah says of the work. “Some of it was very much unexpected. We wanted it to feel nostalgic, in a way, and have this sort of naïve element to it. But it has a dark element to it as well.”
Comprising 129 unique panels, the murals were produced in just three and a half months by a team of seven artists, including Castaño and Noah, working practically around the clock. Noah created a digital prototype that Castaño then executed with the help of five other painters, first in the studio and later in the restaurant space itself. Each panel is made of a wooden substrate coated with a thin layer of concrete that was then weathered by hand to give the appearance of something excavated from a shipwreck, eroded by salt, water and time. The artists say Italian frescoes, particularly the work of Giovanni Tiepolo, inspired the washed-out aesthetic.
“The process was tough because the material was so thin it absorbed the paint,” Noah says of their technique, which made it nearly impossible to fix mistakes as they worked. “It’s not perfect, which we think adds to the character and nature of it.” Some of those imperfections occurred even after the work was installed, on account of it being installed in an active construction site.
Castaño and Noah say they were inspired, too, by the waterfront location, where the sky features just as prominently as the water. “We thought it was an interesting notion to have both a seascape and a landscape,” Noah says, “so when you’re moving through the piece, it could be both or either.”
Lois Freedman, president of Jean-Georges Management, says they didn’t give the artists any directives beyond “make something sea-like.” What they came back with exceeded her expectations. “When I saw the work, it just looked beautiful, and so ethereal,” she says. “It just fit the space, I knew it would be perfect. And it is, it just makes the space come alive.”
She notes, too, that Jean-Georges has a long history with the Fulton Fish Market. He would go there daily as a young man just establishing himself in New York, in the mid-1980s, to buy fresh fish for the Lafayette in the Drake Swissôtel, where he was the executive chef. He opened his inaugural New York restaurant, JoJo, in 1991, and now has 14 in the city.
Soon he’ll open a new fish market where the old one shuttered 14 years ago, to provide for his new restaurant but also other chefs and the public. Sans the stench.