The power of one

Miriam Cadji finds out how restaurant and bar chains have reacted since the public began to lose its appetite for brazen branding

Andrée Putman
Andrée Putman

Chain cafés, bars and restaurants were the first to be targeted by global anti-capitalist rioters, who focused their attentions most keenly on the uniform – supposedly inoffensive – shopfronts of Starbucks and McDonalds. Although plate glass can easily be replaced, the anti-branding backlash has left a more permanent mark on public perception. The slightest whiff of corporate culture now leaves a bad taste in the mouth, and restaurants and bars are consciously trying to subvert their more dominant branding. Since the publishing of Naomi Klein’s seminal anti-branding attack No Logo in 1999, public response has swung back toward a more individual, less homogenised look.

Nonetheless, large-scale operators are too canny to let their carefully built up brands go completely – they understand that brand recognition and consistency are important currency on the crowded high street. As such, any move against the overt chain experience still acknowledges the inherent ‘comfort’ that a brand carries. This is especially true now that the economy is beginning to bite: finding security in a winning formula is more attractive than ever. With the gastro-pub ostensibly the only success story of the day, big name breweries are desperate to ally themselves with this quirky genre, and many interiors are being rapidly overhauled in an effort to look effortlessly un-designed. Chains such as the Firkin are busily scouring markets to furnish their bars with second-hand furniture, and ‘ageing’ their leather banquettes – or even ripping them out to replace them with knackered out sofas.

Designers are being asked to walk a tightrope between maintaining a certain degree of familiarity in a tried and tested formula and avoiding a soulless, bland, branded look. A less prescriptive response to every interior is required, and the design manual with its pre-decided palette of materials and colours deemed acceptable no longer applies. Instead, designers are having to find subtler ways of conveying the ‘values’ their client aims to communicate. Any obvious themeing is out, replaced instead with a much quieter language which the sophisticated, brand-aware punter will understand.

Julian Tayler Associates

Revolution Vodka Bar, Sheffield

With 30 sites nationwide, Revolution is a strong brand for client Inventive Leisure. This, Julian Taylor Associate’s sixth bar for the group, is due to open at the end of July. ‘It’s a challenge to make sure we come up with something new on every site,’ admits JTA director Julian Taylor. ‘Undoubtedly, it would be much easier for us if the client had a standard blueprint approach, but this way, we get to improve the concept every time. Ultimately, we aim to supply the wow factor by maintaining a little familiarity, but give each place its own identity.’

Although initially the bars were designed with more than a nod towards Russia, this theme has since receded, and, according to Taylor, there is no strict design brand manual or set of guidelines. Other than satisfying the core values of comfort and ease of operation, the only obligation to every interior is to ensure the vodka (over 300 flavours) is properly showcased. ‘Product display is crucial – it’s vital we push the vodka hard’, says Taylor. ‘We’ve designed bespoke freezers which keep a constant temperature of -5ºC, critical for serving vodka as it should be drunk.’

Each site is chosen carefully, with a commitment to selecting buildings with architectural interest. ‘At Sheffield, there is a mix of double and single height spaces, so one area feels intimate and bohemian, and another is minimal and contemporary,’ says Taylor. Furniture is designed in-house and specification is high throughout, with resin screeds and high-grade hardwoods used on the floors and tables. A 3D surround-sound music system and projectors for special lighting effects have been integrated to help to create a credible shift from day to night, creating flow and atmosphere for drinking, lounging, eating and dancing.

Andrée Putman

Lô Sushi, Paris

When restaurant owner Laurent Taieb first dreamt of opening futuristic Japanese chain Lô Sushi, his approach was simple: ‘I hired the high priestess of design, Andrée Putman, and I told her, “Design the most advanced restaurant you can think of”. Four years on from the first restaurant, the second branch – also designed by Putman – is due to open in June. ‘Although the same principles apply, this one is completely different – consciously so,’ says project director Jérôme Clinckemaillie.

When it opened, the first restaurant boasted up-to-the-minute technology in the form of a rotating sushi bar and plasma-screen TVs. Taieb was keen to update with more avant garde technology in the new venue, but otherwise left the brief open. ‘We were given carte blanche, and the design evolved over a series of discussions,’ explains Clinckemaillie. ‘The client wanted something totally new and free from any preconceived stereotype.’ Where the first restaurant is cosy with dark woods throughout, here, indirect lighting and white surfaces help create a bright interior, despite its basement site. Aside from the minimal aesthetic, there is a large fresco depicting a wave on one wall, reminiscent of Japanese art without overt themeing.

But most likely to cause a stir is the ‘internal communication system’, known as Blind@lô – a system of 65 computers installed around the rotating sushi bar. Regulars will be able to check their e-mails, surf the Web and – most enticingly – send intranet messages to fellow diners. The concept, Taieb says, will replace the newspaper as the acceptable companion for those eating alone. Housed in the new Kenzo HQ and flagship store on the Pont Neuf, the new branch will soon be joined by another venture of Taieb’s, Kong, a Philippe Starck-designed restaurant on the fifth floor.

Stiff + Trevillion
Stiff + Trevillion

Shish, east London

Shish, the second restaurant in a growing chain owned by On Fire Restaurants, is due to open in June. Two years on from the first venue in Willesden, north London, which was designed in part by Farraday Pollard, the new branch will be serving a rather trendier crowd in Hoxton. With a wide-reaching cuisine on offer (simply defined as ‘silk route’, it encompasses central Asian, Mediterranean, North African and Middle Eastern food) ethnic themeing has been wisely rejected in favour of a straightforward, urban response.

Designed by Stiff + Trevillion, director Mike Stiff explains, ‘Our approach was simply to develop the original interior and move it on. There is obviously a link to the first one, but this will feel different – it is certainly not a roll out.’ The changes implemented are subtle and mostly address operational needs from an architectural, space-planning perspective. ‘At times it could be a frustrating process, because the start-point was a prototype that we didn’t design,’ admits Stiff. ‘It was sometimes difficult to introduce significant moves away from that.’ The original restaurant featured a serpentine bar which has proved impractical for staff to run. This has been rationalised at the Hoxton venue to form a simple curve, and the bread oven and open grill are more centre stage for maximum drama.

The quality of the detailing and the specification of materials (terrazzo, concrete and palm wood) have been carefully modified from the first restaurant, with a robust, durable finish in mind. But tough does not have to mean crude, and fine fabric sails are suspended across the ceiling, acting as light diffusers and acoustic baffles, they also partly conceal the ventilation system, which was left exposed in the Willesden branch. With a fully glazed facia, the finished result will be highly visible from outside. ‘The restaurant will read as almost an extension of the street: after all, kebabs are street food,’ explains Stiff.

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