Considering the transitory nature of the customers crowding into most bars (and often of the bars themselves), it might seem unnecessary to spend time considering the design of furniture for such places. And yet, if you’ve watched people banging their shins on footrests, dropping their handbags as they struggle to mount a too-high stool or rubbing their bottoms as they rise from an unforgiving chair, the matter assumes more importance.
Designer/manufacturer Alan Zoeftig, whose steel-framed furniture ranges from airport seating to a plethora of bar stools and chairs, certainly thinks so. Well educated in the minutiae of ergonomics at the then Central School of Art, Zoeftig still works to the practical tenets and dimensions he learnt there. And this is particularly true when it comes to barstools. For a start, the strength of steel is a perfect antidote to all the bashing about to which bar furniture is subjected.”Three-legged stools are a disaster. They fall over. Those with a central pedestal must be rigid or there’s a wobble and people feel insecure. Another important considerations is getting the height of the footrest correct. It can be a horizontal bar, but with a swivel seat you need a circular footrest, otherwise you lose contact with the footrest as you swivel round.”
Zoeftig also pays close attention to the footrests and seat backs: “Ideally, there should be a space of 430mm from the top of the footrest to the top of the seat, but never less than 400mm or it’s uncomfortable. For backrests, 200mm from the top of the seat gives good lumbar support for people of most heights, and usually our backrests are upholstered for comfort. Our Zaz stool isn’t and it’s perfectly comfortable for a short period, but psychologically when people sit for a long period chatting, they begin to think they’re uncomfortable. Zitta, our latest stool, has a very supportive and upholstered back. If there’s a backrest you must have a swivel (Zitta does), or there needs to be an unsociable amount of space between stools.”
Zoeftig thinks fabric upholstery is a problem because stains are difficult to clean; he prefers leather which accommodates the odd stain with more aplomb and continues to look sumptuous. But for sheer practicality it’s hard to beat wipe-clean pvc – “though it can cause perspiration in hot weather”, he says.
Tim Lishner, design manager of Allermuir, trained in the 3D department at Kingston School of Art. He too is specific about the appropriate characteristics for good bar furniture. His company carries a large range and is often approached by designers trying to sell their bright ideas. “Some are excellent but it’s amazing how many are completely impractical – and as suppliers to the contract trade our furniture has to be practical and hard-wearing, particularly for busy areas like bars.
“Stools must have a large enough footprint, or they’re easily knocked over. Definitely no three-legged models. And they must have a sturdy, heavyweight base or they get moved around – to places where the management doesn’t want them – or even nicked. We took on several products we saw at the 100% Design exhibition, including a wooden chair and barstool by Mark Gabbitas called Three Degrees. Designers go for the overall look when they’re designing a bar, and we’re now considering a Gabbitas table to complete the package.
Allermuir also chose the Luna bar stool in blue, designed by the new young firm of Kingston graduates. With a cast and polished aluminium seat and footrest, its splayed legs give it the requisite sturdy footprint and its slender, rounded elegance belies a commercial practicality. A complementary low stool, chair and table are in the pipeline. Another quality about which Lishner is insistent is a good back view, particularly of stools which have a backrest. “That certainly applies to the Gabbitas range, and to the Peter Christian Wafer chair and stool which we manufacture.”
Simon Simpson, a partner of United Designers, works on the other side of the fence. With long-term experience in designing some of the country’s most fashionable bars and restaurants, he’s an important specifier. But furniture for him is just one constituent of the atmosphere he is trying to create. “We don’t look at it in isolation. It plays a major role in the overall look and ambience of a bar or restaurant though.”
Simpson is a stickler when it comes to long-lasting materials: “The restaurants we have been involved with (they worked with Terence Conran on all the Butler’s Wharf restaurants and on Quaglino’s and Mezzo) are not the type which will disappear after a couple of years. We always go for materials which will stand the test of many years’ use, which won’t degrade but which will mature well and take on a patina of age.”
And that applies to surface and structural finishes as well as the furniture. “So with the furniture, we’ll choose marble- or timber-topped tables, and avoid paintwork which is going to chip in heavy situations or metal which gets knocked about. We prefer stainless steel or bronze or something similar. At London’s Chop House, for instance, there is oak furniture which ages particularly well. It’s not cheap, but you save in the long run,” says Simpson.
“It hardly needs saying that aesthetics are a prime consideration for United Designers. And it means we often design our own furniture. It’s again the business of creating a particular atmosphere. We don’t want something which jars slightly. Bar stools must be of a design and height which suit a particular, carefully designed bar. It’s the right combination of a certain look and the right ergonomics which drive us to doing our own,” Simpson concludes.