Grand designs: What makes are great bar?

16 March 2006
Grand designs: What makes are great bar?

What is great bar design? Is it the gorgeous periwinkle blue finish at the Blue Bar or the eclectic mix of decadent furnishings at Lounge Lover? Is it the fantastic lighting at the bar at Hakkasan, or the awe-inspiring design of Sketch? Is it simply the clever design based on the home that makes The Living Room bars so successful, or the understated play on colour that makes the new Manchester bar Cocoa Lounge the latest in cool?

The answer is probably yes to all of the above - they all have a little bit of stardust that makes them special. Yet what makes great design is not just the look, but also whether the customer feels comfortable, the bar tender can work effectively, the waiting staff can serve drinks, and there are enough covers to make the place a commercial success.

Bar design has become big business in the UK hospitality industry, and today's consumers are savvy. They understand style, luxury and comfort, they have access to technology, budget travel and volumes of bar, restaurant and hotel guides. They are regularly told through media publications what's cool, hip and stylish. Whether it's fashion, design or the latest lifestyle trend, the consumer is king.

Designing a bar, however, need not be as daunting as it sounds. Your main requirements are an idea, a budget and a designer. Then, assuming you have a fantastic site and understand the market you're appealing to, you need to follow a few rules. First, your bar must be functional and easy to operate from a business perspective. Second, it must fit the space and the immediate surroundings, and third, it should be attractive to people and make them feel special.

The right designer
Finding a designer is usually the hardest part of the process, but before you start your search, make sure you have an idea of what you want your bar to look and feel like. The idea should come from what inspires you: a picture in a magazine or a memory of a bar you went to in Miami, Paris or Barcelona. Take photos and collect tear sheets from style magazines such as Wallpaper, Architectural Digest and Elle Decoration.

Before you employ a designer, make sure he or she actually goes to bars and understands why people drink in particular bars and not others. Make sure he or she understands the market you're appealing to and can distinguish between a customer in Manchester or London - they may want different things.

Be specific when delivering your brief. It has to include your ideas and, most important, be budget-led. It's no good telling your designer that you want a Ferrari design when you have a budget for only an Audi. Finally, you should tell your designer your time plan, allowing for furniture orders, builder delays and staff training.

Once you've delivered the brief, your designer will present your concept in the form of either mood boards, sketches or layout plans. It will then be up to him or her to bring the design to life, but be involved at all stages to ensure the design relates back to your idea.

Function over form
A primary rule of design is that it must be functional. Furniture, for instance, shouldn't be too big or you're instantly reducing the potential covers of the bar. The trick here is to mix the furniture types, to create different moods and atmospheres within the space and at the same time to maximise the potential.

You may want to bring people into your bar both day and night. Lighting, therefore, needs to be dramatic and practical and designed in such a way that it can be easily managed and controlled by the bar. The soft furnishings, the carpets, the wooden floors and all the finishes need to be functional to the operation, easy to maintain and keep clean.

Designers don't spend time in kitchens or behind bars, so they shouldn't design these areas. When designing behind the bar, talk to a consultant and the bar staff who live and breathe bar stations, freezers, glass wash-machines and racking. The bar has to work from every perspective, in the daytime as well as the evening, and it needs to work both when it's quiet and when it's thumping.

The design also needs to take into consideration the service flow, and how the guest will experience the bar - and that means temperature as well as lighting. Also, where will the toilets be, and is this practical? What about private parties: can an area be cornered off? All these problems must be solved, because if the bar looks great but doesn't work, it will fail.

The design must fit the space and immediate surroundings. When you explain your concept, it's important that your designer interprets it to fit the space. Space is usually at a premium and you must work with what you have. Designers can do amazing things with mirrors, furniture and clever lighting. A great example of this is the Met Bar at the Metropolitan hotel in London. The much-hyped bar is quite small, but with clever use of mirrors, a gorgeous mural, and fitted booth furniture, the bar gives the impression that it's much bigger.

Finally, consider whether the bar is attractive and appealing to your target audience and if it makes them feel special. When you
sit in the lounge at Hakkasan and sip Pink Mojitos, you feel a million dollars, and remember, customers of today dip in and out of luxury. While they may travel by EasyJet, they want to feel they live in a world of designer surroundings, pampering service and luxury comforts.

Obviously, budget dramatically influences whether you can bring together this wow factor, but it's not all about how much money you can spend. Good designers understand what you have to play with, make use of the space you have, and are clever about how they spend your budget.

Naturally, when you set your budget to create your fabulous bar, a designer fee will be in the mix. However, don't forget to include calculated costs for contractors, engineering consultants, fixtures, furnishings and fittings. You also need to set aside money for other things, such as working capital - cash to tide you over, to get you up and running. And you'll need a training budget for your teams, their uniforms, graphics, marketing materials and PR. I know this list is endless, but it's better to be prepared.

Finally, make sure your designer sticks to the time line, make sure you constantly review it, and that you include staff training and dry runs. When the bar is finished and your team are ready, only then can you tell the world.

Robbie Bargh is founder and director of Gorgeous Group, which specialises in hospitality and advises bars, restaurants and hotels on concepts, design, operations, recruitment and training. 020 7091 7492

How should you spend your money?

If I had £15,000, i'd spend it on…

  • Lighting.

  • Lick of paint.

  • Re-cover furniture.

  • Buy some second-hand leather sofas.

  • New signage.

    I had £50,000 i'd spend it on…

  • New bar top.

  • Light fittings from Tom Dixon.

  • Paint and wallpaper.

  • Recondition floor.

  • New furniture, including banquette seating.

  • Mirrors.

  • Digital art.

  • New menus, identity, collateral.

If money were no object…

  • Lighting designed by Arnold Chan.
  • Furniture custom made by Ilse Crawford or Christian Liagre.
  • Vintage mirrors.
  • Virtual wallpaper walls.
  • Tom Dixon/Swarovski-designed chandelier.
  • Leather walls.
  • Custom neon lights.
  • Eames chairs.
  • Black opaline walls.
  • Basaltina floors.
  • Baccarat crystal-encrusted carpet.
  • Vintage Cole & Son wallpaper.
  • Graphics by North Design Agency.

Robbie Bargh's Top 10 UK bars

Babington House, Bath

Babington House is the outpost to London's trendy Soho House, designed as a shrine to relaxation, indulgence and pampering. The "adults only" Martini Bar is the main watering hole, designed by Ilse Crawford with chill-out furniture, open fires and gorgeous lighting. The bar is the ultimate naughty playground for adults.

Blanch House, Brighton Blanch House hotel bar, restaurant and style centre of Brighton is most defiantly up there with the best of British design. The bar, described by bar cognoscenti as the best watering hole outside London, is a tribute to the ultimate style bar. Modern and sexy, comfortable but elegant, this bar is straight from the pages of a design magazine and complemented by award-winning service and fabulous drinks. Owned by designer and legendary mixologist Chris Edwardes, the bar at Blanch House is up there with the good and the great.

Lounge Lover, London

You'll find this opulent and camp, decadent and daring theatrical bar designed by Hassan Abdulla in the back streets of Shoreditch in London's East End. With spectacular chandeliers, beautiful antique glass tables, and eerie remnants of dismembered dolls' houses, Lounge Lover is packed with curiosity-shop clutter. A complete breath of fresh air, this design is a slap in the face to anal chic minimalist bar design. I love it!

Hakkasan, London

Designed by Christian Liagre and created by Alan Yau, the restaurant and bar stands alone as one of the world's most timeless designs. Everywhere you sit, whether in the "cage" or in the Ling Ling Lounge, you'll experience pure theatre. The colours, the finishes, the lighting, the use of mirror, slate, wood, and glass make this one of my all-time favourite designs. The slate back bar wall is brought to life by a dramatic rotating lighting technique. This is the ultimate design bar.

The Living Room, Leeds

"Home, but not as you know it." Well, the creators of this highly successful bar chain (the Manchester bar is pictured left) aren't wrong there. It's low-key and underdesigned, with emphasis on bringing out the best of the structural features and creating a home for its customers. All the bars have quirky design features such as grand pianos, walls clad with framed pictures, billiard tables, booths, leather banquettes and open fires.

Apartment 195, London

An example of design on a budget. It was designed by Brigitte D'Angelo and mixes old and new, budget and design. The vast, rectangular room is dominated by a beautiful ornate vintage bar, original fireplaces and modern Scandinavian chandeliers. Chocolate-brown leather sofas are offset with modern slate coffee tables, standard lamps, shagpile carpets, heavy curtains and modern art prints. A true example of affordable design done exceptionally well.

Salvatore at Fifty, London

Located on the historic 50 St James's site this bar is located in a rather grand casino. The design, by Jeffrey Beers, is based on "new luxury" and decadent surroundings. The bar is 25ft long and is the centrepiece for the opulent, "grand minimalist" style, and celebrates cocktail-making. Glassware, bottle displays and innovative mixology add to the luxury look and feel, with Salvatore Calabrese, a cocktail bar icon, bringing in the "wow".

The Woods, Bristol

The Woods is a demure, sophisticated bar that brings together the magic of 1950s glitter balls, carved wood from India, brass lights from the Far East, and an interesting collection of framed insects and animal horns. It's antique store meets curiosity shop. Designed by Justin Carter, exotic but down to earth, this bar is a great design find.

The Blue Bar, The Berkeley Hotel, London

David Collins at his best, this is very much the dream hotel bar. Decorated with its market profile in mind, the look and feel is elegant, swish and the sort you would expect in an A-list superstar's apartment. With periwinkle blue paint finishes, black crocodile flooring, rococo mirrors and white onyx bar at the centre, this bar is not for the faint-hearted. The design is luxury with no budget. Complete hedonism on a stick, it's got the wow, the chutzpah and all that jazz rolled into one.

Lonsdale, London

Notting Hill wouldn't be Notting Hill without its token designer bar. The Lonsdale, while popular with the good and the great of this trendy neighbourhood, is also the perfect hang-out for low-key evenings of cocktails and bar bites. Designed by Fusion, the main bar is a chic, slick polished lounge with long bar, banquettes lining the walls and ultraviolet uplighting giving off a space-age effect.

Northern Restaurant and Bar 2006

Looking to get up to speed with what's happening in the bar, restaurant and pub world in the North? Drop in at the Northern Restaurant and Bar show, which takes place at Manchester's G-Mex on 27-28 March. Leading suppliers, mixology and culinary demonstrations and the inaugural Northern Hospitality Awards, held in association with Caterer and Hotelkeeper, are all part of the cocktail. Further information: or 0161-237 5155.

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