Cocktails of individuality

Bar operators are using design to create single-concept or ‘chameleon’ bar interiors for visitors to use throughout the day. Guy Woodward raises his glass

Up and down the country, bars and pubs are increasingly serving as catwalks for consumers to be young, free and mingle. Given this backdrop, it is imperative venues give off the right appeal. Unless a bar can come up with a timeless look, it faces the prospect of appearing dated within an alarmingly short period of time. Consequently, the bar fraternity is among the fastest moving retail sectors when it comes to refreshing interior design.

The challenge for bar operators is to remain at the cutting edge of fashion within the confines of a permanent environment. And like fashion it seems there are definite trends repeated in this winter’s most happening bars.

The quest to be all things to all men is the holy grail of bar design. But can it be achieved through a single, permanent look? The success of branded chains in delivering a uniform vision that appealed to lunchtime through to evening clientele suggested it could.

Yet Slug & Lettuce owner SFI recently issued a profit warning that sent its share price tumbling, while Wolverhampton and Dudley Brewery has been seeking a buyer for its under-performing Pitcher & Piano chain. Whitbread meanwhile has relaunched the identity of its Brewers Fayre pub restaurant chain through The Big Kick Company in a bid for modernisation. And there is a pronounced reaction against such uniformity in today’s trendier watering holes.

‘Attaining an individual look, even within a chain of venues, is becoming more important for the retail bar trade,’ says Suzie Crouch, editor of the Global Design Register’s quarterly report on design trends in the retail sector. ‘What people are going for is concepts.’

Crouch points to the feedback bar owners have been receiving from customers, which reveals a clamour for individuality within drinking environs. It is a theme that the sector as a whole is embracing.

Fusion has just completed the design of Genevieve in west London, based on the gaudy home of rock bad boy Lenny Kravitz. Fusion director Roger Gascoigne says there is a reaction against a corporate feel, in favour of mixing materials and furniture and creating a sense of being home-spun and undesigned.

‘Old is the new new,’ claims Gascoigne. ‘And achieving this type of loose branding is much easier for smaller, independently owned groups.’

Andrew Waugh, director at architect Waugh Thistleton – responsible for such London hotspots as The Light and Waterway – agrees.

‘More people are looking for a personalised experience,’ he says. ‘And the target audience has become much more discerning in terms of what they expect. But the common thread holding it all together is individuality.’

‘I think chain pubs are a nightmare,’ says Laurie Morgan, marketing director at the Noble Pub Company. The group specialises in buying old-style pubs, and then investing up to £500 000 converting them into more contemporary offerings.

Morgan is an advocate of so-called ‘chameleon’ bars, which change their feel within the course of a day, and the company has worked with Rodney Fitch & Co on this front. Daytime delis become night-time DJ booths or bottle bars, allowing the retailer to deliver a two-pronged environment.

Steve Wilkins, managing director of bar owner Lewis & Clarke, agrees chameleon bars are the way forward and maintains that it is possible to design a venue capable of transcending the various trading posts. The group is building a portfolio of 12-15 London bars, each with a different style, but capable of attracting both business lunchers and night-time revellers.

‘We’re aiming for a multipurpose venue where usage changes, but the environment doesn’t,’ explains Wilkins. The group has employed Fusion to deliver a range of venues that Wilkins refers to as ‘siblings, but not twins’.

And Noble is taking responsiveness to fashion a step further. Among the 34 sites it plans to open between now and Christmas is the Colour Bar in Manchester. The bar, which was converted from a Rat and Parrot venue into a concept bar, is being designed in conjunction with Crown Paints. The interior colour scheme of the St Anne’s Square venue will be transformed every quarter in an attempt to reflect the shades of the season.

‘Colours are seasonal, just like fashions,’ says Crown’s media and communications manager Arif Bangi. ‘Hopefully, by constantly refreshing them, we can stimulate people’s imagination.’

Noble plans to roll out similar sites in London and Glasgow, with a view to further expansion.

‘I am constantly amazed by operators who invest a sizeable chunk of money in a venue and then never revisit it,’ says Morgan. ‘All it needs is a lick of paint.’

It seems the days of All Bar One-style chain venues are well and truly gone. With bar interiors starting to change with every season, interior designers should be licking their lips at the prospect of a heady cocktail of potential commissions that could be on offer.

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