Market trawl

High street restaurants too often feature anonymous, almost prefabricated design, but why shouldn’t they exude warmth, charm and a quirky humanity? Clare Dowdy describes a growing chain that combines fast food with an individual look and feel


It’s no secret why uniform design dominates the high street. The same look in every outlet reinforces brand identity and reduces fit-out costs, and its merits are well documented. However, this identikit approach is waning with the consumer, and an increasing number of restaurants are trying a less corporate look.

The quirky interiors of the mushrooming healthy fast food chain Leon is embracing this trend enthusiastically. They’re the work of Paris-based Bambi Sloan, who’s also sourced the furniture for Mourad Mazmouz’s string of ventures, from the North African restaurant Momo to the West End’s Sketch club.

All these businesses buck the shopfit look, and buy into Sloan’s Heath Robinson approach. She spends most of her days trawling flea markets, auction houses and second hand stores in the UK, France and Belgium.

Rather than searching for particular things, she goes with an open mind. ‘I say you should always go to a flea market and never look for anything. Objects find me rather than I find them.’

These finds she describes as ranging from the sublime chic to the absolutely ridiculous. ‘I’m very wary and weary of people who are frightened of bad taste, so they do everything safe, with interiors only in beige, brown and Wenge. I don’t play it safe, I find it boring.’

But there is method in this randomness, and Sloan, who came to ‘decorating’ – not ‘interior design’, as that sounds pompous to her – via the fashion industry, graphics and ballet dancing, is no stranger to creative briefs.

For the nine-strong Leon chain, she dreamt up an imaginary family. She found photos of the fictional founder’s ‘ancestors’ – meaning pictures from the last century of market traders selling fresh produce – and used those as inspiration for the environments. ‘If there are in the future 50 Leons, there won’t be 50 clones but 50 relatives.’ So the Ludgate Circus outlet’s factory floor – of red painted concrete and resin – can be hosed down like a warehouse. Meanwhile, Leon Bankside is in Allies and Morrison’s shiny new – but corporate and cold, according to Sloan – Blue Fin building. Here, she stayed faithful to the industrial feel by leaving the ceiling ducts, and found ‘solutions to bring happiness in there’, like the patterned tiles, which she brought from Portugal and ‘threw down on the floor’.

Henry Dimbleby is co-founder and chief executive of Leon, which is opening in Bristol and west London’s Westfield Shopping Centre this autumn. He explains Sloan’s role, ‘She brings that maverick feel. There’s a real rebellion against people who take a brand and stamp it on the high street.’ He believes that ‘you can’t buy any new furniture that’s nice. If you go around new restaurants, they have a horrible, impersonal shopfit look.’

Leon’s branding was created by Dave. The group’s creative director Dan Rowe ties in Sloan’s contribution to the positioning. ‘Leon’s philosophy was for each of them to feel intimate like your local café,’ with warmth, charm and a human quality. ‘Sourcing interesting bits of furniture adds to the individuality. It’s not about being branded environments, but being a collection of ideas,’ he adds.

Her approach can also be found on the Scottish island of Jura, where she transformed the old house of the head whisky distiller. She designed the upmarket Jura Lodge under the mantra ‘no plastic’, mixing her finds with contemporary pieces to avoid what she regards as the anonymity of luxury hotels. So the reconditioned kitchen fridge once stood in a 1950s Brazilian café, and she sourced a French company that makes old-fashioned fabric-coated cables – updated, of course, to modern health and safety standards – for the lamps’ wiring.

To some, Sloan’s work may sound like a dream job, and she seems to see it that way too. ‘My hobby was the flea markets, I had no idea anyone would pay me to do that.’

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