Eye candy

From restaurant interiors to packaging and cookbooks, design – for good or bad – has always been central to the art of making food look appetising. Clare Dowdy explores this historic relationship

Food has never been more visible: TV shows, newspaper articles and umpteen books are dedicated to the subject. The gourmet end of the restaurant and retail trade is putting more and more effort into its presentation with beautiful, intriguing and mouth-watering food becoming increasingly sophisticated. And at the other end of the menu are the eat-as-much-as-you-like and two-for-one approaches, where quantity is no match for quality.

Not surprising, then, that more than 24 per cent of the UK population is designated obese – that’s twice as many as our closest heavyweight rivals in Europe, the Germans. But let’s not muddle the gourmand with the gourmet, because there are plenty of examples where food is presented to appeal to the latter rather than the former.

In retail design, that could be the visual feast of Fishes, a contemporary fishmonger with outlets in the Benelux countries. The interiors, by Studio Linse in Amsterdam, are studiedly muted, the colour palette boasting just two shades of grey, which is complemented by plain glass and polished stainless steel. The walls and floor are both cast resin.

‘Our starting point was to make an architectural base that would make the beautiful products stand out,’ says consultancy founder Paul Linse. ‘The fish they sell are exclusive and very decorative, almost like flowers, and we put them in a surrounding that doesn’t “affect” them.’

Papabubble, meanwhile, is an owner-designed, 21st century sweet shop, with outlets in Barcelona, New York, Tokyo, Amsterdam and Seoul. It stocks hand-made confectionery such as lollipops, as well as essential oils and organic candies. The carefully laid-out sweets are like multi-coloured jewels and sugary still lifes, and would sing in the blandest of interiors.

In the restaurant world, consumers have long been exposed to the delights of food as theatre, from flambés onwards. Think of the food models on display at restaurant entrances throughout Japan (spaghetti dangling from a hovering fork springs to mind). Those figurines have a cultural history of their own, and their origins lie in the techniques developed for making wax dolls during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Theatricality has been taken to new heights recently by Dans Le Noir, the restaurant concept in Paris and London’s Farringdon where eating takes place in the dark. It’s all about enhancing the sensual experiences of taste, sound and smell, sidelining sight completely.

Dining in the dark aside, the look of food will always be an important part of the enjoyment of eating, and designers of various disciplines have been involved. In the world of print, designer John •

Pawson’s Living and Eating book focused on the presentation, not just of the food, but the table itself.

Meanwhile, Barcelona-based Javier Mariscal is equally conscious of the close relationship between living and eating. When he moved into the old industrial buildings of Palo Alto in 1989, one of the first things he did was plant a kitchen garden. He now has a gardener to manage the plot, and the complex’s restaurant, La Cantina, is frequented by creatives from the 19 studios that are housed there.

And he’s put this fascination with food to good use in Spain’s best-selling cookbook for the past three decades, Simone and Inés Ortega’s 1080 Recipes, which features more than 450 of his illustrations. The 960-paged tome was published in English last year.

A new book, A Visual History of Cookery, does much to bring these food issues together. Editor Duncan McCorquodale charts the cultural history of cookery, covering global gastronomic traditions.

The book makes much of eating as a communal activity, and quotes the founder of the Slow Food Movement, Carlo Petrini, saying, ‘Conviviality is one of the most fundamental aspects of eating together, and I’m hard pressed to think of something sadder than eating alone, without that social rite’.

Running counter to that delight are the modern, Western habits of grazing from the fridge or vending machine on pre-prepared, processed fodder. A Visual History of Cookery acknowledges this phenomenon. After all, according to Eurest (a company providing ‘food choice solutions’ to business), the average UK lunch ‘hour’ is just 28 minutes, and 60 per cent of people in big organisations regularly dine at their desks.

The book devotes many of its pages to the visual delights of the advertising and packaging industries – Pot Noodle packs sit alongside character-based brands like Uncle Ben and (the jolly) Green Giant.

It would be unkind to lay the blame for the current obesity epidemic at the feet of wily pack designers and new product developers, though Michael Pollan, author of In Defence of Food, does point the finger. ‘What is driving such relentless change in the American diet? One force is a $32bn [£17bn] food-marketing machine that thrives on change for its own sake,’ he writes. •

A Visual History of Cookery, edited by Duncan McCorquodale,is published by Black Dog in September, priced £29.95

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