What is the essence of the perfect bar? Douglas Blyde meets four designers who between them involve all the senses
“The life of a designer is a fight against ugliness,” said the modernist designer Massimo Vignelli. “Just like a doctor fights against disease.”
Whether homely, stark or painstakingly pastiche, the aesthetic of a bar demands that it be comfortable. This can be achieved, I learnt from four committed fighters of ugliness, with calibrated seats, diffused lighting, a considered soundtrack and subtle scents.
I first met Martin Brudnizki at Le Caprice, which brought bar counter dining to London in 1981. Marking the restaurant’s 30th anniversary, Brudnizki had the task of rejuvenating the interior without upsetting its cast of A-list regulars.
“My brief was to change it without changing it,” he said, gesturing to walls where black and white photos including the youthful Mick Jagger had been removed from tired layers of paint and re-mounted on chrome-edged panels. He softened the interior with colour gels to achieve a glow where “women of a certain age look 20 years younger at night.” Meanwhile, backlit onyx panels smouldered at the bar. The majority of Brudnizki”s schemes feature sizable counters. “I’ll always sit at a bar given a choice,” he said.
More recently, Brudnizki envisaged the five piece “Cocktail Collection” of deeply-upholstered, low-level, dense pile chairs and sofas to cosset chic cocktail sippers. Collaborating with British furniture maker George Smith, he takes inspiration from the image of “a 1950s woman perching in Dior with cocktail glass.” They are named Hogarth, Gresham, Almack, and Portland after old members clubs.
Brudnizki has worked with George Smith for over a decade on projects for Soho Beach House in Miami, Cecconi’s in West Hollywood, and The Ivy and Annabel’s in London. He likens the latter’s new incarnation to Alice in Wonderland, “down the rabbit hole, a magical world.” Look out for his “maximalist über-deluxe” take on the forthcoming Coral Room bar at Bloomsbury Hotel too, “packed with drawings by Luke Edward Hall.”
What are Brudnizki’s bugbears? “Funereal black. And I see beige as camouflage, because everything blends in. But peach is ready for reinvention.” He also has a fondness for caiparinhas and, “though a bit kitsch”, the singer Adelina Dóris Brazilian Monteiro.
Rob Wood founded Music Concierge (musicconcierge.co.uk) as an antidote to bars with insufferable music, a result of staff being allowed to choose the tracks. “You hear cheesy dance music in a bar because staff don’t know what else to play. Or a decent bar might have a poor sound system which can’t handle the right music at the right volume.”
Wood winces as he recalls the Phil Collins album on a loop at a new boutique hotel in Greece. “The design team had thought about interior design and service, but no one considered the sound of the bar. It was like being in a Sheffield nightclub in 1985.”
Wood’s work includes Scarfes at London’s Rosewood, The Willaston at Silo in Cape Town and, coming soon, Café Gray at the Middle House, Shanghai.
“If it’s an existing bar we’ll spend time watching it trading. A tough part of the job,” he adds with a smile. “Then we create a concept that fits the bar’s personality and will be aspirational to its audience. We also consider when the ambience of the bar needs to change through the day, scheduling a playlist which automatically plays at the right time.”
Wood’s clients are varied. “We curate music for a bar-nightclub at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, and one at the top of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, Dubai. Perhaps the world’s lowest and highest bars? And how about music for a Blitz-era London tube station, which is what we did at Cahoots, Soho?” Then there was the time a recent Prime Minister and cabinet needed a soundtrack for their election night celebrations/commiserations. “And no, we didn’t play D:Ream…”
Fran Hickman (franhickman.com) places emphasis on acoustics and lighting at Mayfair’s Chess Club, which overlooks the Saudi Arabian embassy. The tall townhouse is part of the Experimental Group, which also includes Chinatown’s Experimental Cocktail Club and Covent Garden’s Henrietta Hotel. “I’m irked walking into space where they haven’t thought about where noise travels. A bar has a lot of people sitting and drinking in one room, so sound is the most important thing.” Hickman praises the lighting at one of her favourite haunts, Chiltern Firehouse. “They pick out plants and bounce light off a table to warmly reflect onto a person’s face.”
Chess Club is in a space which had been empty for eight years (it had seen service as the Games Room, Rags Club and the Peacock Club). “It had a spirit which I wanted to keep, although not necessarily the seediest bits.” Hickman created a mise-en-scene with its own identity, “different to Mark’s Club or 5 Hertford Street, to reflect our more youthful market, but rooted to feel like it’s been there a long time.”
Inspiration stemmed from Renzo Mongiardino and Roberto Peregalli’s Jacamo Bistrot in Milan, “a new restaurant which looks like a timeless nineteenth century trattoria composed of three rooms with different feels. I like going through a journey.” Hickman’s brief – to make the venue feel like someone’s home – resulted in a large, pink, “slightly impractical” sofa. “Nicer than four small sofas which you’d see in a normal bar.”
The counter is no off-the-peg afterthought. Owners Romée de Goriainoff, Olivier Bon, Pierre-Charles Cros are “four Frenchmen in their early 40s who have all run bars.” Hence the superb practical ergonomics for the mixologist.
Hickman’s next project takes her across the Atlantic, where she’s “in talks with Experimental Cocktail Club about doing a bar opposite Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan.”
Master perfumer Roja Dove (rojaparfums.com) brings olfactory identity to the Coburg Bar at The Connaught hotel. “Scenting an interior has become a personal style statement,” he says. Dove believes a signature scent for a space is as essential as for a person. “It is a way for an establishment to own its surroundings. And because the sense of smell is so closely linked to memory, guests go away with a lasting memory of their experience.”
Dove intends his bespoke candle, with its hypnotic aroma of “rose, jasmine, orange blossom, hyacinth, heliotrope and violet sublimated by cedarwood, sandalwood, birch and palisander, warmed by patchouli and mosses on a soft sensual base of amber, vanilla, tonka bean, myrrh, made sensual by citrus and leather, freshened with a note of citrus bergamot” to effortlessly “envelop” the guest, “in the same way a stay at the hotel would.”
Dove is no stranger to distillation, so he turned his nose and nous to a perfume inspired dram. He worked with The Macallan’s master whisky maker, Bob Dalgarno, to produce Edition No 3, which brings another Vignelli quote to mind. “If you can design one thing, you can design everything…”