Who's got the look?

27 October 2005
Who's got the look?

Ten years ago the average person in the street would have been hard pushed to give any opinion on design, let alone name any famous interior designers. Today, it's a different story. Love them or loathe them, programmes such as Changing Rooms, Grand Designs and their numerous spin-offs have all helped change the way we think and talk, while influences from the UK's thriving design industry have filtered down to the high street.

In short, the UK has become design-savvy. People's tastes are more sophisticated than ever and it's no longer just design students or trendy media types who can spot a Philippe Starck toaster or a pair of Tom Dixon chairs. And for the hospitality industry that means that customers, whether they're in a bar, restaurant or hotel room, have increasingly high expectations of their surroundings.

James Lohan, author of the hotel guide Mr & Mrs Smith, thinks that design has become hugely influential. "Good service and food isn't enough any more," he says. "When people go out or stay somewhere, the place has to look and feel right, too. After all, people make huge efforts with the interior design of their houses nowadays, so when they go to a hotel, they expect the wow factor."

But what exactly is that "wow" factor? For Lohan, it comes not just from furniture and fittings, but by creating the right ambience and mood, too. "Lots of places look beautiful in photos but when you walk in, there's no atmosphere," he says. "When somewhere feels right, it's usually because they know who their customers are and there's a level of care, whether that's making sure the music isn't too loud in the bar, or that the lighting isn't too bright."

Interior designer and hotelier Kit Kemp, of Firmdale Hotels, believes that design has to be imaginative. "So many places are formulaic, with that institutional look and nasty chipboard furniture. But there's just no need for that any more because there are some wonderful designs out there."

So, design obviously has to look good, but does that mean it has to be fashionable? Not necessarily. As Kemp puts it, "People see straight through gimmicks and trends. You don't have to have ridiculous bendy chairs or impractical wall surfaces to make things interesting."

Currently designing the interiors for the group's newest property in London's Haymarket, due to open next year, Kemp feels that quality and attention to detail are more important than keeping up with fickle trends. "It's about doing things properly," she says. "That might mean working out how materials will look in different lights or seasons, or even just making sure that a bedroom is as wire-free as possible."

Style and longevity Being too fashionable can have other drawbacks, of course, such as high costs. Patrik Wennerland, managing director of contemporary boutique brand Myhotels, which designs each of its hotel interiors individually, believes in balancing style and longevity. "You need very deep pockets to be cutting-edge because you have to keep updating things," he says. "We've learned the hard way that being funky isn't always cost-effective." He adds that the wear and tear in hotels and restaurants is "phenomenal", and that it's important to work with designers experienced in the sector. "It's all very well looking great when you launch, but you have to keep that up, so furnishings need to be practical," he says. "We've got some leather-clad bar tables, for example, which look fantastic but are a complete nightmare to maintain."

Nevertheless, design is clearly an industry that's influenced by trends. After all, what else except fashion could explain the popularity of the stark, minimalist look of the past decade or so? Things move on, though, and fans of bare white walls and uncomfortable furniture might be disappointed to learn that those once-banished words chintz, carpet and comfort are making a big comeback.

Designer Daniel Hopwood, who's currently refurbishing the suites at the five-star Berkeley hotel in London, home to the uber-cool Blue Bar designed by David Collins, agrees that comfort is a key factor nowadays. He explains that rich colours, luxurious fabrics and gentlemen's club furniture such as old chesterfield sofas and chairs are all becoming la mode once more. "That sense of luxury is filtering down. That's partly because of rising living standards, so a DVD player in the bedroom or a large bath is a requirement but what's the point of being in a room that's uncomfortable?" he queries.

Looks, comfort and durability aside, it's important that design in any hotel, bar or restaurant, works on an operational level, too. Issues such as health and safety may also have an influence on the look and layout of a building. For Patrick Reardon at hotel architects Reardon Smith, whose clients include Claridge's and the Grosvenor House hotel in London, functionality should come first. "Design can cover the obvious things, like easily accessible fire exits or making sure a building is secure," he says. "But it's also about guests not having to traipse down long, dead-end corridors to try and find the bar, or feeling as if they're in a goldfish bowl because the swimming pool is overlooked by reception," he says.

Once you've got the layout right, other design fundamentals such as lighting can make a huge difference. "Even if an interior's amazing, it won't work if it's badly lit," says Rob Honeywill, senior designer at Maurice Brill Lighting.

Honeywill, who has worked on lighting designs for Sketch in London, and the Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai, where the lighting budget alone was a cool £2m, says the most important thing to consider is the function of the space. "Lighting creates a mood but it's got to be tailored to suit your audience," he explains. "More and more operators require lighting schemes nowadays that can be flexible enough to work for all-day dining, for example, and then create an intimate, night-time feel."

But while sophisticated lighting systems or extensive refurbishments might suit some budgets, designers and operators alike generally agree you don't have to spend big bucks to make an impact. "You can achieve a lot with one grand gesture in a room," Hopwood says. "That could be a wall painted a dramatic colour, or a large painting or vase of flowers." It's a philosophy that Kemp agrees with. "It's not about money," she says. "You can create a fantastic looking room by just using simple fabrics such as canvas or muslin. Good design is about the level of thought that you put in to make people feel comfortable."

Design trends

"Eccentricity is the way forward. The more different or unusual the better. We're moving away from that neo-shaker, stripped look where everything looks the same. Think patterns on wallpaper and carpet. And cork is becoming very fashionable again on walls and floors. It's hideously expensive but brilliantly practical and it looks fabulous."
Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen, designer

"The clean, white, clinical feel is definitely over. Now people want warmth, comfort and familiarity."
James Lohan, hotel critic, Mr & Mrs Smith

"Trends aren't really important. Design should be more about working with the space you have and having some fun with it."
Kit Kemp, hotelier and designer, Firmdale Hotels

"We're seeing a huge demand for technology in bedrooms nowadays. That demand is pushing things ahead. Whether it's movies, music or wi-fi, people expect gadgetry of some kind in their hotel room."
Justin Pinchbeck, general manager, the Zetter, London

How to light a room

Good lighting isn't necessarily about people walking into a room and saying "wow", says Darren Orrow, director at Into lighting consultants, whose hospitality clients include Carluccio's, Pengelley's, Mint Leaf and hotel brands Sheraton and De Vere. "Lighting can also be about making people relax or encouraging them to stay longer in the bar." He suggests the following tips:

  • The biggest trick to any successful lighting scheme, regardless of budget, is to create different levels of light in the room.
    Use pendants for ceiling lights, then a selection of wall or table lamps at mid-level and stair-tread or walkway lights at floor level.
  • Make sure you have a good mix of ambient and accent lighting. Ambient is the general level of light in a room, while accent lighting adds atmosphere, or drama, by highlighting pictures or creating pools of light in certain spots.
  • Invest in a decent dimmer control system, which can cost as little as £500. Staff simply have to press a button to
    achieve preset levels of light, suitable for different times of the day or night.
  • Be innovative with light fittings. Go to design trade fairs instead of the usual lighting wholesalers. But be aware that lots of people are starting to do this, so if you want a true one-off, you'll have to commission a designer.
  • If you're on a budget, bespoke fittings don't have to be expensive. Lampshades are the most cost-effective option and can cost less than £100.
  • For more technical, contemporary-style mood lighting, LEDs (light-emitting diodes) can be very effective for adding colour and effect.

The rise of the designer bar

In 1994 a savvy Irish entrepreneur by the name of Oliver Peyton opened the Atlantic Bar & Grill. A tribute to classic deco design and lush furnishings, this once run-down hotel in London's West End became one of the city's best all-time bars, where the cocktails were cool, the bartenders gorgeous and the atmosphere electric.

Soon, style bars (as they came to be known) sprung up all over the capital. As cool New York-influenced design merged with the newly arrived cocktail culture, bars such as Mondo's, Riki Ticks, Saint, the Elbow Rooms, Momos and the K-Bar sprang up. Then came the hotel bar. The Covent Garden hotel, One Aldwych and the Metropolitan all had bars that catered for the designer palate, and with Kate, Robbie, Madonna, Kylie et al, the Met Bar became the coolest spot in town, helping (with Nobu) to put the hotel on the map.

It was at about this time that New York-based hotelier Ian Schrager decamped to the British capital, opening the Light Bar, the Long Bar and the Purple Bar at the Sanderson and St Martins Lane hotels. Marking a new high in glamour, each bar was beautifully designed - if a little heavy on the wallet. But that didn't matter. London was going crazy, wallowing in style over substance, with glitzy parties and celebrity premieres - and while the city was rocking, we didn't mind paying.

Now, 10 years on, we've seen the rest of the UK embrace design-led style bars, cocktails and service, with Riks Bar in Edinburgh, Mojo Bar in Leeds and Reform in Manchester, for example, while hotel groups such as Hotel du Vin, Rocco Forte and Park Plaza are also coming up with innovative designer bars. Today, the drinks are better, bar teams have been trained, and great service is what it's all about. Design has moved on, too, with London bars such as Lounge Lover and Cocoon helping to set new benchmarks. Whether the look is glamour, fashion or minimalist chic, there's no doubt that designer bars are here to stay.

Robbie Bargh, manager of creative consultancy the Gorgeous Groupwww.gorgeousgroup.com

Design clinic

Ask Laurence Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen might have made his TV name with Changing Rooms, but he started out designing interiors for bars and restaurants. His latest design project is the Greenwich Park bar in London. Here, he tackles some common design queries.

How can I use lighting to create an intimate atmosphere? A lot of bars and restaurants are overly lit nowadays. Most customers actually want the complete opposite. Nobody wants to feel as if they're eating in a hospital. To make things intimate, you really want as little lighting as possible. Think sensual, soft and seductive or take a leaf out of those 1970s tandoori restaurants with their low lighting and deep-red flock walls. Everybody looks sensational in these places, and if people feel sensational when they come to your restaurant, they'll come back. Effective lighting needn't be expensive, either. Pendant lights, which focus light just above the table, make things cosy for diners, or use pink- or red-tinted bulbs. And it's easy to re-create that 1970s bistro feel - just light tables with candles in a wine bottle.

Any suggestions for making a room look bigger? Getting the layout of a restaurant or bar right can be a tough call. Obviously things need to work operationally. But forget squeezing in more covers for now and try to be imaginative with space. Get into your customers' mindset. Go to your hotel, bar or restaurant as a punter and look at the place with a keen eye. Check out the clutter, for example. Are the waiter stations clogged up with old till rolls and sticky pots of marmalade? If so, get rid of it all - nobody wants to see the minutiae of a business.

Mirrors can make rooms look more spacious and you can light mirrors for a warm glow. Colour can also make a big difference. "Hot" colours, such as reds, oranges or dark browns tend to make rooms smaller, while pale or "horizon" colours can open them up. Large spaces painted in pale colours can look chilly, though, so think about the overall feel before you dive in. Think about your furniture, too. Personally, I love built-in seating - it's a clever way of maximising space.

What do you recommend for improving acoustics? Not being able to hear properly in bars and restaurants is one of my biggest bugbears. Live music's all very well, but it's usually some guy miked up as if he's playing Wembley. But I digress. One piece of good news is that carpets and fabric are coming back in nowadays, because that spare, spartan look really doesn't help the noise factor. If "less is more" is your thing, though, and you've got wooden floors, there are some tricks. One simple solution is to buy up some large canvases (you can buy them from any art shop). They'll absorb enough sound to take the edge off things, and, of course, your diners get something to look at. Wallpaper, rather than bare white walls, will help with noise absorption, too. Remember that any soft, curving edge will bounce sound around, so lampshades are another good idea. We're back to that 1970s tandoori restaurant look…

Recent openings

Hotel Endsleigh
Designed by Olga Polizzi, Rocco Forte's younger sister, Hotel Endsleigh is a 16-bedroom, Grade-I listed Regency country house set in parkland on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon.
Design: Spacious rooms, huge fireplaces, a mix of antique furniture and original features, including wood panelling in the dining room and ornamental gardens.
Wow factor: Hand-painted wallpaper in the bedrooms, an en suite bathroom converted from a chapel in the Duke's Room, and the outside terrace made entirely from sheep knuckles.

Hotel Endsleigh
Milton Abbot
Devon PL19 0PQ

Malmaison Oxford
Malmaison's latest property is a Grade I-listed building converted from a Victorian prison in the grounds of Oxford Castle.
Design: The hotel is made up of five interconnecting buildings, including the original prisoner wing (the Italian Job's prison scenes were filmed here) and governor's house. Each bedroom was created by knocking through two prison cells, with a third cell forming the en suite bathrooms. Original prison cell doors, complete with key and spyhole, have been kept, as have the building's high-domed ceilings and enormous iron central staircase.
Wow factor: DVD players, LCD screens and either double showers or freestanding baths in every room. Two half-moon shaped bedrooms in C-wing offer panoramic views over the city while duplex suites in the governor's house feature mezzanine-level sitting rooms, gothic arched windows and a walk-in dressing room. The prison's old execution chamber has been left for guests to view.
Opens: After a two-year refurbishment, the hotel opens at the end of November

Malmaison Oxford
3 Oxford Castle

The Cotton Factory
What: A new £2.5m bar, lounge and dining room, converted from a Grade II-listed building in the heart of Huddersfield, West Yorkshire.
Design: Set over two floors, the 10,000sq ft venue has four individually designed bars and dance floor areas, including a private members' bar. Each has a different feel, from contemporary to 1960s retro.
Wow factor: chic toilets with Karim Rashid designed wallpaper and scarlet red cubicles, walls clad in deep-red glass in the members' bar, colour-changing LED lighting and huge chandeliers.
Designer: Ocean Design

The Cotton Factory
50 King Street

Further information

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