Miracle cure-alls and fevered scientific experiments are portrayed against a background of crackling electrical inspiration at this underground bar in the Megaro hotel. Emma Lake meets the designer
In designing the Hokus Pokus bar at the Megaro hotel in London's King's Cross, Henry Chebaane took inspiration from the area's industrial past and a notorious local quack doctor to create an immersive experience with a surprise at every turn.
This underground bar, which comes complete with the rumblings of passing tube trains, is one of five public areas of the hotel designed by Chebaane, of Blue Sky Hospitality.
The designer explains that he begins each project by writing a story for the venue. He says: "I specialise in storytelling – that's what drives my work. Hospitality is all about hosting guests from near and far, and being a host is about making people welcome and comfortable, but historically being a host has been about telling stories. You have a good meal, you sit by the fireplace and tell stories.
"A complex story can help guests interact with a space. We want to give them more than just food and drink, we want to give them something that causes an emotional response, meaningful exchanges. It's also about living memories. You come to a bar or restaurant to create those."
When he first took on the brief, which consisted of nothing more than "these spaces could be better", the designer went to the British Library to learn about the area. Local industry had once been driven by brick kilns and glass production before the area became today's transport hub. Chebaane decided electricity should inform the design, along with the work of a Dr James Morison.
He explains: "In 1828 Morison started something called the British College of Health. He was probably one of the first truly successful marketeers in the world in the wellness space. He was born in Aberdeen and travelled to Germany, Bordeaux and Latvia before coming to London and occupying a house just a couple of doors down from the hotel.
"He didn't have a range of remedies, he made just one ‘miracle' compound to cure everything, sparking a crazy period in fake medicine. Every new chemical or technology that came on to the market would be turned into another cure-all solution. So when electricity came about…" Let there be light…
Morison's story inspired Chebaane to create an underground alchemy lab where bartenders can create cocktails to delight and intrigue… if not cure. Meanwhile, electricity informed the use of the utilitarian copper piping on the walls and ceiling. A halo-shaped light fixture, custom-made by Chebaane and inspired by the glass electrical insulators on pylons, was made using disparate materials, including a 1950s glass bowl from Finland.
"I always design the ceiling as much as, if not more than, the floor or surroundings, because the ceiling is actually the most valuable real estate you can have from an experiential point of view," explains the designer. "Most of the time it's not considered because you can't sit guests on the ceiling, but it's the most visible part – it's like a giant screen."
The industrial inspiration can also be seen in the tables, the bases of which were created from cut-down fin radiators of the sort used in factories. Chebaane adds: "It's about the ingenuity of British engineering and British science, and how that inspires a sense of wonder."
The bar is a giant apothecary's table, the front of which holds lots of small drawers for storing elements and ingredients, all labelled according to their contents and with some left open to reveal them. Glass bottles and beakers as well as pestles and mortars represent the failed experiments of the past as well as the potential for new creations, but this is not all. Mushrooms grow from a cupboard, while creatures, including mechanical insects, all designed by Chebaane, hide around every corner.
It's not just the physical design that dominates the space. Chebaane explains: "Instead of four or five speakers we have many speakers throughout the bar, so you experience sound like a texture. We installed three miles of cable for the lights, so they are also experienced as a texture. It makes the space immersive – that's not a buzzword, it's the true quality of the space.
"It's reasonably simple to make something that's impressive in a meta way in the architecture, but often once you're in there you get bored because there's nothing else to it. You can see a nice photo online, but once you experience it, it's just OK. Here, there are so many things to look at, to discuss and to question."
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