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Great looks are a key aspect of any self-respecting restaurant, yet we know strangely little about the talented people who design our top dining spots. Bethan Ryder goes behind the scenes to profile London’s leading designers
Exceptional restaurants are about so much more than superior food. We want to enjoy remarkable cooking, naturally, but we’re also looking for an experience. At the heart of that is design.
The design of a great restaurant is rooted in psychology – the way it can subtly, or not-so-subtly, pull our strings. Creating a sense of anticipation is key – intrigue adds to the drama. Just consider the anonymous exterior of Hakkasan: the moodily lit stairway leading down gives few clues to the subterranean temple within. The same goes for many other hugely successful restaurants, from The Ivy’s beguiling diamond-panelled stained-glass windows to Nobu Berkeley St, where little is revealed until you enter.
Destination restaurants are fundamentally social spaces – where it’s all about seeing and being seen – and the best design reflects this. It’s important to provide plenty of opportunity for sight lines: angled mirrors allow the diner facing inwards to still catch glimpses of the room, while mirrored panelling and raised platforms maximise people-watching.
At the same time, a sense of intimacy is important, be it through lighting, semi-transparent decorative screens to divide tables, booth seating or dining niches. All these elements form the basis of an elaborate pecking order of good and bad tables.
The small group of entrepreneurs responsible for London’s restaurant revolution of the 1980s and 1990s recognised the crucial role of design. Sir Terence Conran helped kick start the changes with Mezzo and Quaglino’s, while other influential operators creating brilliantly designed spaces included Chris Bodker (Avenue, Circus), Oliver Peyton (Atlantic Bar & Grill) and Alan Yau (Wagamama, Hakkasan). The look of these new restaurants was part of the buzz they created. If design had always been seen as important, now it had become pivotal.
Today, the global downturn poses new challenges for restaurant designers – times of crisis are often a spur to creativity. Inventive pop-up venues such as the Double Club in Islington, a collaboration between Miuccia Prada and artist Carsten Höller, will continue to spring up, their temporary nature allowing more of an opportunity for daring and experimental design.
Multimillion-pound ventures such as the famously upscale Sketch will be fewer, but statement restaurant design isn’t dead; it will simply adapt to the times. Interiors will be set out to soothe and reassure rather than shock and surprise, so expect a rise in rusticity and natural textures. And because in difficult times the desire for escapism is stronger than ever, look out for an increase in design that harks back to days gone by.
So, who are the people at the forefront of shaping restaurant design today? On the following pages, we profile some of London’s leading players and their distinctive styles.
Bethan Ryder is news and travel editor of Livingetc magazine. Her book New Restaurant Design (2007) is published by Laurence King (£30).
Irish-born architect David Collins’ numerous projects have defined glamorous destination dining and drinking in London for more than 20 years. Together with his Fulham-based team he has revived our grand hotels, creating sophisticated and elegant interiors at the likes of Claridge’s, the Berkeley’s Blue Bar and the Edwardian-inspired Connaught Bar.
As for dining, where would we be without the intimate oak-panelled comfort of J Sheekey, Piccadilly’s grand café The Wolseley and über-chic Nobu Berkeley St? Collins, however, is keen to point out that he also has 180 Café Rouges, 60 Dome cafés, 50 Eat cafés and several Chez Gérards to his name; nevertheless, his studio is synonymous with London establishments of serious heritage.
‘We handle them quite sensitively and in some cases have created more out of an old building than what was originally there,’ says Collins. ‘I am good at spinning stories about old buildings, capturing their essence and distilling what makes them special in the first place. Walking into The Wolseley is like walking into a London institution, but it’s only about five years old.’
His studio selects materials carefully (inspired by modernist architect Mies van der Rohe) and collaborates with international artists and craftspeople to create interiors that are often dubbed timeless classics.
Collins’ high profile has made him an easy target to knock. Restaurant critic Michael Winner once criticised his designs as ‘featuring a variety of dreary brown paint’. Undeterred, Collins has gone global in recent years, designing large-scale luxury hotels The London in New York and Los Angeles, a Budapest brasserie and Scarpetta restaurant in Miami. ‘I rarely work in London because I’m more focused on global domination,’ he jokes. ‘However, I do have plans to make Michael Winner’s life miserable by doing a few London restaurants next year.’
Signature style: refined, luxurious, classic interiors, often with a heritage feel. Embossed leather upholstery, elegant dining sofas, parquet or inlaid timber flooring, marble, fine metalwork, handcrafted artisan details.
Major works: The Criterion (1995); Claridge’s Bar, J Sheekey (1998); The Blue Bar (2000); The Wolseley (2003); Nobu Berkeley St (2005); Artesian, The National Dining Rooms (2006); Bob Bob Ricard, The Connaught Bar (2008).
Ilse Crawford has been highly influential in the UK for many years. Not only was she the founding editor of Elle Decoration in 1989, but her modern rustic interiors at private members’ club Babington House pioneered a new breed of country-house hotel. Her work for Soho House also helped boost Nick Jones’s transatlantic brand.
Studioilse has created many spaces loved by the boho media crowd, from Soho House New York to her latest project, the reinvention of Kettner’s in Soho. Her work extends to running the Department of Man and Well-being at the Eindhoven Design Academy and being involved in social housing projects. ‘I think it’s a pity if design gets categorised as being a rather ephemeral, superficial thing, because it isn’t,’ Crawford says. ‘It’s a 3D language that can be used in a really powerful way.’
Keen to appeal to our tactile side, she opts for natural materials and sensual textures and forms. ‘I grew up with modern, Scandinavian style,’ she says. ‘Our work is cool head and warm heart. It’s how we live.’
Studioilse interiors are often described as eclectic. They appear to have evolved organically – assembled and crafted, rather than CAD-created. They might combine timber panelling with decorative wallpapers, and mix Chesterfield leather sofas, a wicker peacock chair and classical wingback chairs with a stark contemporary couch, Ercol timber chairs, stools and simple spindle standard lamps.
Signature style: modern design, Scandinavian influences, sensual, rustic textures, natural woods, a strong sense of comfort and familiarity.
Major works: Babington House (1997); The Electric Cinema (2002); High Road House (2006); Kettner’s (2009).
Self-taught British designer and former Habitat head Tom Dixon may have designed only three London restaurant and bar interiors, but each is an icon. He became a designer-maker using recycled metal in the 1980s and, although he’s come a long way since, he describes his work as ‘British do-it-yourself’.
Always exploring materials and processes, Dixon’s interiors feel wholeheartedly modern and British, with a touch of clean, mid-century aesthetic. For the interior of Oliver Peyton’s Inn the Park he used tubular stainless steel chairs and tables topped with burgundy stove enamel, while on the terrace, wire-framed chairs are paired with classic marble-topped tables and mirrorball pendants lend a dose of glamour.
Nick Jones’s vast East End venue, Shoreditch House, was ideal for Dixon. The result is brilliantly eclectic: the rooftop dining area and pool feel a little bit LA; the indoor dining room is a little utilitarian; while the luxurious lounge features wingback chairs and deep sofas in pink and black, produced in collaboration with traditional upholstery manufacturer George Smith. Meanwhile, at the Paramount bar atop Centre Point, Dixon took the building’s brutalist architecture as a starting point and gave geometric forms a starring role.
Signature style: industrial luxe, mid-century modern influences, sculptural forms, innovative lighting, progressive use of metals and materials.
A veteran of the London scene, Keith Hobbs is the self-taught interior architect behind some of the capital’s most famous restaurants, from the original Nobu at
Park Lane to the more recent Galvin at Windows. As design consultant to Sir Terence Conran, he worked on the likes of Le Pont de la Tour and Quaglino’s, before starting his own agency, United
Designers, 15 years ago.
Hobbs is a proponent of the utterly bespoke, ‘less is more’ approach. The look is understated and streamlined, drawing on the richness of materials. Carefully
considered recessed lighting emphasises natural wood grain and marble surfaces. Independent artists and craftspeople are often commissioned to create murals, rugs or other features.
Although Hobbs shuns the party circuit, he is well known for his celebrity clientele, from the owners of the Clarence hotel in Dublin, Bono and The Edge, to
Bruce Willis, some of whose homes his firm has designed.
United Designers is developing hotel projects across the world, but the Kent-born-and-raised Hobbs still likes to keep busy on his home turf. Current
projects include The Luxe, chef and Masterchef presenter John Torode’s restaurant in Spitalfields, which is scheduled to open this autumn.
Signature style: clean and modern. Pared down with recessed, integrated lighting, with richness coming from natural materials such as timbers, marble and leather upholstery.
Major works: The Metropolitan Hotel, Met Bar and Nobu (1997); Four Seasons Hotel Canary Wharf (1999); Pearl (2004); Galvin at Windows (2007).Major works: Inn the Park (2004); Shoreditch House (2007); Paramount (2008).
Swedish designer Martin Brudnizki’s masterful work on the St Pancras Grand last year marked the end of a two-year period that has cemented his reputation on the London restaurant scene.
Since forming his studio in 2000, Brudnizki hasn’t looked back – except for design inspiration, perhaps. He has worked on both high-end residential schemes and high-street chains such as Strada, but it was his glamorous reinvention of Mayfair dining institution Scott’s in 2006 that put him on the map. Recent projects continue to show his breadth of talent, from the private Club at the Ivy to Corrigan’s Mayfair to Jamie Oliver’s rustic-flavoured restaurants, Jamie’s Italian, in Oxford, Kingston, Brighton and Canary Wharf.
Brudnizki describes his work as ‘minimalism deluxe’, where minimalism stands for ‘precision in detail, space and the design concept’ and deluxe covers ‘quality of materials and furnishings’. His schemes often hark back to the romance of bygone eras such as the art deco period, with flattering lighting and classic, luxurious materials. ‘I like to use a lot of different materials,’ he says. ‘It’s more exciting to combine timber and glass with metal detailing or high-gloss lacquer with leather and stud detailing.’
His finely crafted concepts are winning him global commissions – Middle East projects such as a restaurant in Abu Dhabi for Sir Rocco Forte, Cecconi’s in LA and an art deco Le Caprice in New York.
Signature style: ‘minimalism deluxe’ – rich detailing used in an understated way, with mirrored panelling and marble and limestone flooring.
Major works: Scott’s (2006); The Club at the Ivy, Corrigan’s Mayfair, J Sheekey Oyster Bar, Jamie’s Italian (all 2008).
Husband-and-wife design duo Tim Mutton and Jo Sampson met while working at United Designers and set up their Clerkenwell agency in 2002. They have handled a remarkable number of high-end restaurant and club projects in the capital, notably the award-winning ‘rock chic’ Cuckoo Club and the pan-Asian restaurant Inamo.
The name Blacksheep reflects their non-conformist attitude; they are ‘house style’ refuseniks. Space planning is their strength, as the new look of the Hilton’s Whisky Mist @ Zeta bar proves. They deliver slick, cohesively branded concepts. The peacock theme of glitzy members’ club Molton House, for instance, runs through the scheme, from the decoration of the DJ booth to the graphics.
Strong on glamour, Blacksheep conjure up decadent spaces. They use rich materials such as dark-stained timber panelling and deep red, purple and gold leather upholstery, bolstered by chandeliers or oversized pendants and coloured LED lighting, recessed or as backlit panelling. They believe furniture is critical to a venue’s personality – an element people often get wrong.
Mutton’s favourite project has been the interactive restaurant Inamo. ‘It’s been a huge success and is a great synergistic example of what we believe in doing as a company. It was different, fun and delightful,’ he says.
Signature style: neat, streamlined look with integrated lighting, strong use of pattern and decadent lighting solutions.
Major works: Cuckoo Club, St Germain (2006); Vendome (2007); Inamo, Whisky Mist @ Zeta (2008); Molton House (2009).
Shaun Clarkson has been painting the town red – and many other shades – for 18 years. His rainbow palette and extrovert pop sensibility have livened up London’s bar and club interiors since he did speedy makeovers for Oliver Peyton’s Raw nightclub between 1991 and 1996.
Charting Clarkson’s career is like mapping the recent history of the capital’s nightlife. Having worked for pioneers Peyton, Eric Yu and Vince Power, he has tried just about every genre – clubs to DJ bars, cocktail style bars to members’ clubs, supper clubs to gastropubs. Of his bars, he says: ‘I’m totally unprecious. I feel like they’re temporary installations. If something looks tired, let it go.’
In recent years he has diverted his focus to long-term projects such as his decadent country-house properties, Norfolk’s Cliff Barns and Carrington House, and gastropubs including Ben Maschler’s recently opened Drapers Arms in Barnsbury. Clarkson’s modern interpretations of Victorian or Georgian boozers show a more organic approach that might feature Chesterfield-style banquettes, mismatched furniture, stuffed animals and the odd salvaged oil painting against a muted, heritage palette. His interiors will never be dull and always have a twist. ‘I want to maintain a sense of playfulness; my job is to create a frivolous fantasy world,’ he says.
Signature style: maximalist – bright colours and patterns, silk-shaded (often oversized) lamps and chandeliers, vintage 1970s wallpapers, sumptuous velvet and silk drapery.
Major works: Jerusalem (1996); Pop (1999); Cheyne Walk Brasserie (2003); Cliff Barns (2004); Odette’s, The Pigalle Club, William IV (2006); Electric Birdcage (2007); Carrington House (2008).
Photos: Ilse Crawford by Joakim Blockstrom; pudding bar, kettner’s, by Paul Raeside; united designers photos by Edmund Sumner & Pablo Faccinetto
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Autumn 2009