Chef Mario Carbone fondly calls designer Ken Fulk a “wizard” for the spell Fulk cast over him and his partners as the interiors mastermind behind Carbone in Aria. At the Las Vegas iteration of that hip New York red-sauce restaurant, Fulk has created arguably one of most aesthetically rich dining rooms in the city. It all started two years ago when Carbone’s partner, Jeff Zalzanick, called Fulk out of the blue after having stayed in The Battery, a hotel Fulk designed in San Francisco. Fulk talks to Vegas Seven about chandeliers, napkin rings and why he doesn’t believe in ‘no.’
What kind of magic have you worked on Las Vegas?
It feels like magic at times, the stuff we do, but of course it all involves lots of hard work. I can remember being 4 years old, and I was always creating experiences, whether it was at the dinner table for my family or the holidays. It was in my DNA. I was destined to do something in Vegas. It’s a larger-than-life place that requires magic. Everything is a little bigger and a little bolder and little sexier in Vegas. I believe all roads have led me here.
Carbone is such a specific New York moment. What happens when you bring that to Las Vegas? What does that look like? I remember when Mario’s partner, Jeff [Zalzanick], called me. I was in the south of France and he said, ‘Would you have any interest in doing a restaurant in Las Vegas?’ and I’m like, ‘Now we’re talkin!’
What’s the backstory behind the chandelier in the main dining room?
It’s from a Ferrari dealership in Philadelphia. Back in the ’40s and ’50s, they built these glorious car dealerships. It was eventually torn down and this is the light fixture from it. So … pretty sexy, a Ferrari dealership chandelier … who knew? If they only built dealerships like that now we might be more excited about our cars.
Do you collect anything?
I do, oddly. I have a couple of weird collections. I love rituals, which again is something that Mario and crew love. When everything falls away, life is about the experiences. I collect napkin rings. They were practical [once], because you didn’t wash your napkin all the time. So I actually have ones [engraved with] proper male names and they are not so easy to find because you often only find initials. I have Nigel, Skippy, Otis … When I have dinner parties the guests will become who their napkin ring says they are for the night.
Oh, that is the story of my life. Don’t put you elbows on the table? Oh, my God, yes, put your elbows on the table. Tables are for talking and for eating and personalizing and for emoting. There is nothing precious about it. I’m very much the “power of yes” guy. I believe the ability to say yes is incredible. We grow up and we learn when to say no and how to say no and the things that are right for us. But as we mature, we start getting smaller and smaller and more narrow. The “power of yes” is the ability to say yes to things that you don’t even quite understand how you can make happen yet, but you are just willing to figure it out—when we have lots of rules we eliminate possibilities.
Is there any type of space that you are scared of?
Fear is the enemy of good design. People are afraid of not being seen as tasteful enough or afraid someone’s not going to like it. I like being sort of unnerved by something, because then I feel like you have to be on point. People say to me, “no wonder you love your job; because you’re a serial entrepreneur, you are always trying something different.” For instance, I would love to do the sets for an opera. We haven’t done that. How fun would that be to do? Or the sets for a movie or stage a fashion show. I don’t know if ‘scared’ would be the right word. You don’t want to fail. Nervousness makes you more successful and, of course, we all screw up. Our finest hours come when we are a tiny bit afraid.
We primarily run a business that does high-end, private residential interiors, however we also do a whole list of things. But at Sadelle’s [Major Food Group’s new gourmet deli concept in Manhattan], we did all the branding and graphics, from the custom wallpaper in the bathroom and the wraps on the bagels to the business card, the logo and the awning.
Is there a space in Las Vegas that you want to makeover?
Mario, Rich, Jeff and I, [we all have a] fondness for the Sands. I think we would like to create a small hotel concept that has 30 rooms, where the entire thing is an experience like a private club with the feeling of the old Las Vegas Sands … on a smaller scale. I love to tell those tales. Something that feels like it’s always been there, but it’s also modern and fresh.
What’s next for 2016? How are you going to top this year?
We are opening a big New York studio. It was supposed to happen this year, but construction was delayed, so it will open just after the first of the year. We are working on some more projects with the Major Food Group guys, doing a couple of hotel projects, and then it’s more wonderful residential fun.