Anna Polonsky, the French Food Design Pioneer

Born in Paris and based in New York City, the founder of the Polonsky & Friends studio combines her passions for design and cuisine by creating visual identities for restaurants and food brands.
Anna Polonsky with her husband, Fernando Aciar. © Christopher Fenimore

A restaurant’s image is crafted both in and out of the kitchen. Anna Polonsky, the French founder and director of the New York-based Polonsky & Friends studio, takes care of the “out” – everything customers usually see first. This is the visual identity, from the logo on the menus to the decoration inside and outdoors. Polonsky’s role as creative director focuses on both restaurants and other food professions, and she works with clients based in the United States, London, and France. “I have a hard time translating my job title into French, as directrice créative sounds like I’m showing off,” says the talkative, passionate thirtysomething. “But that term best reflects what I do. I’m not a designer, a writer, or a decorator, but I suggest creative ideas and bring together teams to make them a reality.”

Based in Bushwick, a Brooklyn neighborhood in the throes of gentrification, Polonsky & Friends shares its offices with Ostudio, a coworking space for creatives which turns into a restaurant and wine bar in the evenings, and FefoStudio, the atelier headed up by Anna Polonsky’s husband Fernando Aciar, an Argentinian chef and ceramicist. This blend of genres is entirely in keeping with her “panoramic” vision for the company – drawing on graphic and interior design to build brand strategies. This approach has been successfully applied to a pizzeria in Little Italy (Sofia’s), a Lebanese ice cream shop in the Marais in Paris (Bältis), a brand in the Washington D.C. area that sells saffron grown by Afghan women (Moonflowers Co.), and a winery owned by Domaines Barons de Rothschild in Southern France (Domaine d’Aussières).

While the advice Anna Polonsky gives restaurateurs has little to do with the dishes or the menu, the designer has a knack for spotting talented chefs. Last spring, three of her clients – Claud, Txikito, and Falansai – were featured on food critic Pete Wells’ 100 Best Restaurants in New York City list for The New York Times. On the other side of the Atlantic, the studio has also developed the visual identity for Le Doyenné, a restaurant opened by two Australians at the Château Saint-Vrain, located some 30 miles south of Paris and recently named “best restaurant” in France by the Le Fooding guide.

In an ironic twist, it was while working for Le Fooding that Anna Polonsky found her calling. After graduating from Sciences Po, she started her career in this unique media outlet launched in Paris in 2000 by journalist and food writer Alexandre Cammas. The publication – whose name is a mix of “food” and “feeling” – soon carved out its own niche by appealing to a young, partygoing readership interested as much in the atmosphere ofeateries and the personalities oftheir chefs as what was on the plate. Anna Polonsky joined as an intern working with the guide’s editorial coordination team while completing her studies. “I didn’t get much sleep,” she says. “But it was worth it because I learned so much, from working with chefs and managing a team to collaborating with artists and illustrators.” Hired after she graduated, she first managed sponsors and Le Fooding events, which helped to promote the guide. “In the past, food events were restricted to old-fashion tasting sessions. In this way, the guide was among the first to do what everyone has now adopted, inviting different chefs, putting on live music, and playing around with visual elements and staging.”

Rosella, New York City. © Charles Roussel
Fini Pizza, New York City. © Rachael Lombardy
Domaine d’Aussières, Narbonne, France. © Clémentine Passet
Bältis, Paris. © Candice Hauss
Moonflowers Co., Fairfax, Virginia. © Anne D. Kim
Txikito, New York City. © Giada Paoloni

Punchy Colors for the Instagram Age

Anna Polonsky found herself back in New York in 2009 to organize an event, having previously spent a year in the city during her studies at Sciences Po. “We threw a party at MoMA PS1 in Queens to celebrate Le Fooding’s tenth anniversary. We invited French and American chefs, and it worked so well that we decided to open a branch in the United States. I stayed in New York to oversee everything.” Just like in France, the idea was to combine editorial content with events. But while Le Fooding nights were a huge hit in the Big Apple, drawing in stars such as David Chang, Daniel Boulud, and Daniel Patterson, the U.S. version of the guide never materialized.

Anna Polonsky left the venture in 2014, but remained in New York. “I started out helping my chef friends develop their marketing strategies,” she says. “I realized that there were no studios bringing together storytelling, decoration, and design in the restaurant sector. Some chefs are very talented in the kitchen, but their logos have no connection to their cuisine.” She teamed up with a friend, Amy Morris, to launch the MP Shift agency. Their concept took off instantly, and they received the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Restaurant Design in 2018 for the café De Maria in Manhattan. “We were in the right place at the right time. Back then, all interior designers were producing dark, hyper-masculine spaces, and we went in the opposite direction by using white and lots of pop-inspired colors. What’s more, our aesthetic coincided with the rise of Instagram.”

Buoyed by their award, the duo received a series of orders from real estate developers and the elegant fast-casual restaurant chain Sweetgreen. Yet something was missing for Anna Polonsky. “I wanted to stop because we were coming in as consultants on projects that had less and less to do with food. We were losing the storytelling aspect and I was feeling demotivated. I had the impression that I was working on places I wouldn’t want to visit.” In 2019, Amy and Anna’s paths parted, and the latter launched Polonsky & Friends. “I thought about stopping interior design completely, as graphic design is what speaks to me the most, but I still do a little bit for some of my favorite clients.” The studio cultivates a transatlantic image and has kept a handful of French clients, although the young mother of one cannot imagine working outside of New York – a city she loves for its openness, energy, and diversity. “The things I really like in Paris are also the things that annoy me. I enjoy French elegance and good taste. I appreciate respect for history and places. But at the same time, I find that everything is more static in France; people rarely talk about money or ambition.”

To share her foodie favorites and love of New York City, Anna Polonsky started The Deligram, a newsletter she runs with photographer Teddy Wolff. Each week, in words and images, she showcases small-scale, local artisans creating global delicacies such as pastries, sauces, cheeses, kimchi, and cocktails, sometimes straight out of their apartments. Two years after it launched, this chic, sophisticated service has 13,000 subscribers and Anna Polonsky is considering expanding the concept to include events. “That was one of the main things I took from Le Fooding,” she says. “I’m always alert and on the lookout for something new.”

Article published in the July-August 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.