You didn’t choose your favourite bar or restaurant. It chose you. Oh sure, you might think you’re a free spirited consumer of our night time economy but, in reality, you’re as susceptible to mood lighting, snug booths and retro wipe-clean surfaces as the next target demographic.
Our evening spaces – how they look, feel and work – say as much about how we identify ourselves as our music, the premium bottled beer we drink, or the shoes we drink it in (not literally, of course).
Get it right, and a magical chemical reaction happens: the fixtures and fittings, combined with the right crowd, music and management combine to create that most fragile, and fickle of things – an atmosphere.
But for every Korova, there are dozens of bars where that alchemy simply fails to materialise. SevenStreets sees no need in naming and shaming, but you know the sort of places we’re talking about.
“Bars are our last social spaces,” says Richard Eastwood, whose R2 Architecture has been responsible for shaping SevenStreets’ (and, in all likelihood your) nightlife over the past decade or so.
We’re talking in Leaf’s perma-busy Bold Street outpost (above). The cafe-bar’s warmly illuminated interior acts like a beacon to weary, footsore shoppers. It’s practically full. The cafe next door is empty.
“It’s a strange profession,” Eastwood says, stirring his green tea. “You can never put a percentage value on the uplift a good design will have on a client. It’s impossible to say ‘we’ll add 25 per cent to the takings’. But I’ve seen many places with great food and poor design go under. And, conversely, mediocre bars with good design that are hugely successful.”
We imagine Leaf is more than happy. There’s thirty or souls within: hands wrapped around chilled wine or warm tea, animatedly chatting away. They think they’re coming for refuelling. But, let’s face it, you can get a decent cuppa in Sayers. They’re coming because something is operating on them, on us, at a far deeper level.
Eastwood set up R2 Architecture 2001, after working with the city’s Union North architects (behind schemes ranging from Cablehouse flats on Cheapside, to Pan Am and Baby Blue). Since then, he’s been at the helm every time the city’s social spaces have taken the next big stride forward.
“Filini (above) was another great project. I was working on the White Bar, and saw that the architects working on the original Filini only had the adjectives ‘modern and elegant.’ I laughed because I realised I came from that background,” Eastwood recalls.
“The large windows were typical of architects saying ‘Ooh, a view! Let’s make sure it dominates the room…”
As Eastwood rightly predicted, a view’s great, until you want to introduce a sense of enclosure, warmth and romance – elements all good restaurants should have.
“Many architectural interiors seem designed purely for other architects to see in magazines,” he says. “Filini was all about identity. It was a great restaurant, we just had to give it an interior to match,” he says.
Working with design studio BurnEverything, Eastwood integrated the restaurant’s identity into the fabric of the building. The intricately latticed sliding shutters let light in, but worked to create a space as intimate as a confessional, too. “I’d had great food in Filini but knew its interior let it down, so we finally could show that good design lifted takings.” he says.
That clever evocation of a private zone within a public space is, SevenStreets suggests, a recurring theme in Eastwood’s work: we’re thinking of the super-sized booths in Pan Am, and the padded cells of Delifonseca’s snug dockside venture.
“People say they can see when I have done an interior. I’m not so sure, in fact I’d say I try to avoid things that are stylish. At Panoramic (above) there are hints to what that interior is about and pays homage to. It was meant to nod its hat to the ambition of the 70s restaurants at the top of towers and the age of vintage travel. If there isn’t an idea or narrative to a scheme then it becomes a design for design’s sake. What it really needed was a docking station for a zeppelin…”
We mention that, recently, Pan Am, another aircraft inspired interior – is on the up again. Does Eastwood, we wonder, like to return to his past glories?
“When I do, it’s like seeing a girlfriend I finished with years ago, and suddenly realising I’d made the wrong decision. But then, I do try to create things that look better with time…”
Of course, it’s not always as simple as watching your painstaking creations attaining the patina of age and respectability, or the taut leather of the banquettes sagging and creasing harmoniously like so many old duffers snoozing in a gentleman’s club. There’s that other design collateral to consider – the punters.
“These are interesting times in many ways. Liverpool is finally getting a bit of the bullishness that Manchester has. Hopefully Bold Street could become a bit more like Manchester’s Northern Quarter. It would be good to get a concentration of understated bars here.”
As the summer evening turns slowly to dusk, Leaf’s low-slung lighting, its huddle of reclaimed furniture, and its smiling staff create an atmosphere that’s convivial, yet controlled – every element orchestrated. Loosely, but orchestrated all the same. Eastwood grins – “I love seeing a couple leaning together to chat, or standing in a certain way because I’ve put a shelf there, or added a half-hidden alcove. It’s not about how the space looks, it’s about how it’s used.”
“In Panoramic every single item was designed and built immaculately, this place is more organic, and virtually everything is recycled or reused. The floorboards that were removed have been made into tables,” he says. Still, it’s hard to believe a space so settled and approachable is less than two weeks old. Maybe he’s right – Leaf could well be our next favourite place.
R2 Architecture’s Inside Guide to Liverpool
I really enjoy morning coffees in Bold Street Coffee. I love the product and I love the interior. I know clients who would not be able to comprehend a space like this, and would want to make it some 50s coffee shop. Bold Street Coffee is what it is.
The best interior of the last few months is Jamie’s Italian. It’s detailed well and uses great materials. You may hate it because he is ubiquitous but it is delivered really well. Pizza Express on the dock is another well engineered scheme, as is Restaurant Bar and Grill.
There is something wrong with The Shipping Forecast. It’s somewhere that is programmed well but just isn’t quite right. Don’t get me wrong, I end up in there but like most other people it’s because I cannot think of anywhere else to go. Maybe it’s because it is a Mitchell and Butlers pub. It probably slots in their ‘Metro Professionals’ range.
San Carlos is another Italian, but its interior puzzles me. It’s just over the top and up its own arse in terms of its operation. Why the glass fins over the tables? They offer nothing to the scheme and probably cost a lot.
…and The Ugly
A lot of interiors seem to be designed for other architects or designers rather than come from within the brief, or from a discourse with the client. London Carriage Works is a good example. My hatred of the glass shards never diminishes, and ruins a space that should be warm and welcoming.
Palm Sugar, Choapryha and the Hilton are all probably in the same bag. I know we should have some glitzy spaces, where people can go and create an exaggerated version of themselves. It’s just such a shame that too many Liverpool bars seem to create the stage set that leads to women thinking they’re from ancient Greece and the guys are from Scarface.