Food for thought

The growing crop of chic London eateries could be bad news for designers, discovers Clare Melhuish

SBHD: The growing crop of chic London eateries could be bad news for designers, discovers Clare Melhuish

Is it a sign that the recession is really over, that so many new cafs, bars and restaurants seem to be opening in London? Or is it a new awareness of our European-ness, physically attached as we are now to the rest of the Continent? Whatever the reason, there seems to be a plethora of sophisticated new places in the capital serving food in more flexible combinations and of a higher standard than ever before.

But what of the design content? Judging from this random survey of examples, the sad truth for designers appears to be that, increasingly, the enterprising restaurateur of the Nineties is deciding to do it largely by himself, on a shoestring. Worse, the results are not bad at all. By keeping things very simple, relying on carefully chosen finishes, decent lighting, and basic good quality furniture, the possibilities of making major mistakes are reduced to the minimum.

On the whole, the reaction against Eighties excess and overdesign is still in place. Of all these examples, the DKNY shop and caf in Bond Street has the most conspicuous design input, and this marks it out as more of a New York than a London product. The use of steel, glass and techno-wizardry is in contrast to the English penchant for natural materials, neutral tones, a bit of copper and satinised steel here and there and a smattering of “found objects”, as at nearby Nicole’s, or hinted at in West London’s Tabac – which is reminiscent of the more extreme Eighties fad for baroque-ism.

Minimalism is in, but it’s more of a do-it-yourself sort of minimalism than the highly finished variety of yesterday. On the whole there is a concern to get away from the super-cool of that brand of design, and introduce a more user-friendly warmth and informality into the new spaces, while steering clear of clutter and cosiness. Although white is still popular, colour seems to be creeping back via a range of warm natural tones and textures – witness the strong blue and rust at Atelier in Soho, and Tabac’s plunge into full-blooded yellows and reds.

Likewise, custom-designed furniture is becoming rarer, although the furniture designed by Mark Gabbitas for Atelier is a perfect example of why it’s worth commissioning. Most people seem to be buying tables and chairs off the peg, or even making do with second-hand items by preference.

The most obvious new trend is towards the opening of cafs in shops. This is a very different phenomenon from the old-style department store caf or tea-room, which had a clear functional justification as a necessary refreshment point during the long haul around different floors and sections. The new store caf, serving maybe only one major space, containing one particular product, exists primarily to heighten awareness of a particular designer and his or her label, and to keep people in an environment of artfully heightened seduction long enough for them to drop their inhibitions about spending hundreds of pounds on new clothes.

The whole new caf-restaurant phenomenon is fuelled by the lifestyle aspirations and expectations of a very particular class of people – the so-called “smart set”: metropolitan, cosmopolitan, young-ish, mobile, well-off, sociable, image-conscious and open to suggestion from the media, with a taste for fancy food. The apparent Europeanisation of British culture, in terms of its social and eating habits, is in reality very limited, and the great majority of British citizens will no doubt continue to spend their disposable income in the local pub, themed along traditional olde-English lines.

SBHD: St John

The most striking thing about St John is the wonderful space: in fact, from a design point of view there’s not an awful lot to comment on. Jon Spiteri and Architectural Association-trained Fergus Henderson abandoned the French House restaurant to their wives, and set about creating, with partner Trevor Gulliver from the Fire Station, an absolutely minimal environment for the enjoyment of good food.

The building is an old smoke house at St John Street, near Smithfield market. Hence the height of the main space, being the bar area, bounded by five enormous chimneys equipped with metal racks from which the meat and poultry was originally suspended. The bar itself is inserted into one of the chimneys, while another is a cloakroom. The dining-room occupies what was the meat preparation room.

The design input was confined to painting the entire space white, with grey floors, and inserting new glass screens across the entrance, and a simple metal staircase between the bar area and the dining room. Spiteri and Henderson are adamant that they want no decoration in the space, but some diners have complained of snow-blindness from the dazzling white walls, brightly lit by suspended factory lights – the same model used in Smithfield market – specially made up for St John. Nevertheless, it must be one of the most dramatic restaurant interiors of the moment.

While you’re in the area check out Duna, a small, elegant Italian bistro and bar on Clerkenwell Road catering for the growing local design and media crowd.

Duna’s interior was created by owner Mario Raggio, who says he was inspired by a “Fifties theme”, but the white painted walls, Arne Jacobsen chairs, pale timber tables and copper-coated bar and lighting tracks seem more a product of the Nineties, with its tendency towards natural materials and minimal details, than any other decade.

SBHD: Nicole Farhi restaurant

Din Associates is the co-designer – with Nicole Farhi herself – of her new “flagship” store and restaurant on New Bond Street. With a ludicrous sense of her own importance, Farhi describes the new venture as embodying “the complete Nicole Farhi lifestyle”, and naturally the restaurant, accommodating 100 covers, is named Nicole’s. Unfortunately, it may be that her vision as an interior designer is still not quite as assured as her eye for fashion. Despite the flair and expertise of Din, the lower ground floor space, which seems to have been inspired by an ideal of classic, comfortable elegance, has a rather staid, drab atmosphere. It may be partly to do with the lack of daylight, giving the “neutral tones and natural materials” a yellowish hue. A proliferation of scavenged mirrors on one wall doesn’t really help enliven the space, except in a decorative sense. But it may also be something to do with the way the long bar area is separated from the lower level seating area, furnished with a mixture of built-in banquettes and chairs “sourced from Paris”.

The floor is of wide planks of English oak, and walls have a plaster finish. John Harvey of Din describes it as “not a huge design job”, more of a decoration project, using objects bought on shopping sprees with Nicole.

SBHD: Atelier

Atelier is the transformation of a former drinking club on Soho’s Beak Street from a rather dark and gloomy dive into a light, airy, modern restaurant, designed by Gollifer Associates (recent winner of the competition for a National Glass Centre in Sunderland).

Working within the constraints of the space – a narrow slice running back deep into the building – and a minimal budget, Gollifer has created a cleanly detailed but warm interior out of extremely simple materials: ply, canvas, paint, sand render, and a bit of stainless steel.

At ground floor level, the most striking feature is the series of full-height canvas screens, stretched over metal frames by Dirk Evans Metalwork – a cross between sails and blank canvases – which are used to disguise the irregularities of the long party-wall stretching from the front door down to the bar at the back. The screens are tied back to the wall itself, diffusing light from standard light fixtures behind, which can be adjusted between warmer and cooler tones depending on the time of day.

Daylight enters the space from two main sources: the shopfront window on to the street, and a large skylight set about half way back, the reveal of which has been painted in the deep blue of the rust and blue colour scheme.

At the front, light ply panels line the underside of the ceiling where it drops down to box in a ventilation shaft, creating a smooth upwards slope into the higher space, and opening up the view into the restaurant through the windows from the street. The existing timber floor has been stripped, and the original bar re-kitted.

Downstairs in the basement is a smaller party room. The floor has been lowered slightly to give the space greater height, and lined with stainless steel panels picked out of a junkyard, which help to reflect the light. One wall has been turned into a glass-fronted wine storage cabinet, the idea being to create a greenish glow along one side of the space emanating from lights placed on the back wall behind the rows of green glass bottles. The remaining walls are sand-rendered, so as not to overdo the subterranean feel, with ply panels used again to hide existing air-conditioning outlets and act as diffusers for strip lights placed behind them along the edge of the ceiling.

All the extremely elegant and comfortable furniture, in light timber mixed with leather, and upholstery in a range of shades of rust, was designed and made by Mark Gabbitas.

SBHD: DKNY cafe

This is the latest example of the trend towards installing cafs in shops. Donna Karan’s first UK shop (designed by Peter Marino (NY)/Housam Henderson, executive architects), occupying a prime site on New Bond Street, features a small “New York style” coffee bar at the entrance, consisting, very simply, of a free-standing bar made of medium-density fibreboard (MDF) finished in high-quality yacht varnish, and a service counter against the wall behind housing the paraphernalia required for serving coffee, juices and light snacks. The galvanised metal stools against the bar are standard products; the floor is Amtico. Close at hand are the latest New York magazines to flick through, and large video screens show news and fashion reports.

The colour scheme is all white, in keeping with the rest of the shop, and is brightly lit with a mixture of high-intensity artificial light and daylight entering through the facade.

Donna Karan has attempted to create not so much an embodiment of her own lifestyle as an evocation of New York, and the vigorous street-style which has inspired her work, in London. The shop as a whole is intended to convey “the feeling of Manhattan industrial lofts along with the frenetic streetscape”, and “to capture the energy and colourful spirit of Manhattan the minute you walk in the door”.

SBHD: Tabac

This latest arrival on the West London restaurant scene brings an unexpected touch of chic to Golborne Road, at the far end of Portobello market. Owners Philippa Wylie and Bernadette Neville have done the minimum necessary to transform a standard shop unit into a warm and welcoming, but extremely simple, dining space on two floors.

The look and decor was designed by TV set-designer Amanda MacArthur, who is more accustomed to building sets destined for high-impact encounters in technical extravaganzas such as Nintendo. But there is little in Tabac to give that away. Both the ground floor and basement spaces are simple rectangular boxes with yellow plastered walls meeting a dark varnished parquet floor. On the upper floor the window on to the street, framed by full-length red velvet curtains, forms the single focal point, while on the lower floor this is provided by an open fire.

Other decorative elements include a metal chandelier by furniture designer Mark Bell on the upper floor, and studded steel panels to the backs of the doors and front of the curved bar and waiter station – although these latter objects are set so far back into the space that they are barely noticeable. Plain furniture in light-coloured timber and the ubiquitous Arne Jacobsen chairs complete the overall effect.

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