Designers should take a wider view

Does London need another restaurant? That’s what seasoned revellers were asking themselves at last week’s opening of the Zinc Bar and Grill, Terence Conran’s latest venue. Implicit in the question was: “Do we need another Conran restaurant?”

Obviously we do, or else an experienced restaurateur like Conran would surely have set his sights elsewhere for the launch of Zinc, with its long US-style bar, champagne and the inevitable seafood. The formula – for that is what Conran restaurants have become, even down to the arts and crafts programmes for the interiors – is, we’re told, to be rolled to other sites. And with Conran planning a foray into New York, we can be sure he’ll exploit the opportunities there.

The difference between Zinc and most Conran establishments is that it’s not about size. Sure, the silver-grey bar is one of the longest in town, but this isn’t a gastrodrome. It’s not about combining eating, drinking and lifestyle shopping – and there’s no grand staircase. It’s just a bar with what looks like a café attached. Pavement tables are a bonus, and for well-heeled Londoners its backstreet location in Heddon Street, just off the Regent Street tourist drag, has to be a major plus.

What Zinc does have in common with Conran’s other venues – and some of the new London eateries to come out of other gastronomic stables – is that it is a total package. Food, drink and ambience are at one with each other, and for all the modern international blandness we’ve come to expect of the overall experience, quality is high, not least in the service. It’s not just about interior design.

Conran has a strong entrepreneurial zeal, but he and his cohorts understand how a restaurant works and what attracts the punters. Passion underpins this stance, but so too does a broad outlook on life and belief in design in its widest sense.

The same can be said for film-making, and it is significant that screen graphics star Richard Morrison has a good old art school background rather than the more rigid vocational training the average design degree now entails (see Profile, page 16). You can still cross boundaries, if you’ve a will to, and a design degree can count, even outside the design community. But, with the emphasis firmly on academic results, how do we let creativity shine through?

Last month Richard Williams called for a return to apprenticeships in design (Private View, DW 22 August). Fine, but we also need more designers to step outside the frame. How else can a young designer hope to follow Conran into retail and restaurants or turn to an all-embracing medium such as film?

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