Economic reality is making companies think anew about design - and restaurants are among the most visible results
By: Stephen Bayley
Sunday 11 January 2009
So, will it be like that symphony where, in the last movement, the musicians carry candles and walk off one by one, leaving only a percussionist to bong the final crack of doom? Are architects and designers shutting down their iMac studio displays and walking towards the horizon?
Actually, no. Times of constraint have historically stimulated architecture and design. The profession of consultant designer began in America's Great Depression when a team of cheerful opportunists led by Raymond Loewy, Henry Dreyfuss and Norman Bel Geddes persuaded consumers that life would not be complete without a streamlined, chrome wastebin, so America designed itself out of recession and back into consumerised prosperity.
But there will be changes in our expectations. Every so often, an academic article appears in the Harvard Business Review which attempts to show how fashions in women's hemlines (up or down) and men's facial hair (on or off) can be seen as measures of economic health. It's not pure science, but it's an interesting speculation. In moments of hardship, we feel modest. In periods of prosperity, we feel exuberant. Or, just possibly, it's the other way around.
Other economists argue that we only ever get changes in architecture and design after new sources of energy are discovered. Take a very long view of history and you'll see that's correct: wind, steam, coal, electricity, oil and atoms all have their expressions in great architecture and design movements.
But now that the energy is running out, what are we to make of the condition of architecture and design? The world is suffering from a mass psychogenic malaise: we have - for the time being - lost the future. So everyone everywhere is in psychological retreat.
Architecture and design, the practical arts, are much more closely related to the economy than music or novels. You don't need wealth to write a novel; history shows that poverty is a positive stimulus to literature. Yet the architecture and design of the last century can only be properly understood as the economy made visible. During America's pomp in the 1950s, the now stricken General Motors used to trail prospective automobile designs, known as "concept cars" no matter how empty-headed they might have been, at national roadshows called Futuramas. Alas, all our futuramas are now in the trashcan of history along with GM.
In postwar Italy, the ricostruzione (politically mandated reconstruction) gave architects and designers in Milan an opportunity to build and make new national symbols. The marvellous Vespa scooter is typical. It was actually designed to mobilise the lethargic workers, although its characteristic step-through frame was to allow women, priests and anybody else not wearing the trousers to mount the vehicle while retaining modesty. All that colourful plastic disegno of the 1950s and 60s was trade promotion via applied art.
The International Commercial Vernacular Glass Box (ICVGB) began when Lever Brothers, the detergent and edible fats multinational, built its green, glass headquarters on New York's Park Avenue in 1952. Unilever, as it is now known, is struggling and rumoured to be facing break-up.
Meanwhile, no one will regret the passing of the ICVGB, now facing a recession all of its own. Until very recently, it seemed absolutely proper that Rawleigh Warner, former CEO of Mobil, would travel the world in his bizjet with his architect as hand baggage, making sure that every filling station in every part of the planet looked absolutely identical. It was called "corporate identity". And at just the moment Mobil's ambitions had been realised, someone made the case for context, particularity, national identity and appropriateness.
We have had it with that version of corporate identity. So our straitened times will find their own expression in architecture and design. There is no better barometer of where we are than the restaurant. To mangle Brillat-Savarin's aphorism, tell me where you eat and I will tell you what you want to be. Eating out is a lesson in taste in both senses. Visiting a restaurant has always been as much a tutorial in interior design as it is gastronomy, although the two are closely related.
It was her horrified reaction to the grey rissoles and beige soup served in postwar British restaurants that inspired Elizabeth David to hymn the voluptuous colours and flavours of the south; her book Mediterranean Food was the result. Published the year before the Festival of Britain, Mrs David's book was more influential than the South Bank. It introduced Britain to Europe; little more than 10 years and Terence Conran's Habitat was selling the batteries de cuisine needed to make ratatouille and terrines.
Just the other day, Tony Schlesinger, owner of fast-food chain Spudulike, was showing me pictures of his latest shops and I started thinking how marvellous that such quality of design - bright and optimistic - is now in the factory outlet and shopping-mall mainstream. Spudulike will not win Pritzker Prizes for architecture, but its approach is evidence of changed basic assumptions.
But what of the uncertain future? Two nearly simultaneous London restaurant openings suddenly seem very significant, not for the food, but for what they tell us about our expectations in architecture and design. The first is Bob Bob Ricard, the second is Princi. Both are in Soho, an area that has been a restaurant laboratory for 200 years.
Bob Bob Ricard is the work of David Collins, the London-based Irish interior designer who is the darling of Madonna and all who sail with her. Collins is big-budget. He designed Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and is rightly admired for his glorious reworking of the Wolseley in Piccadilly, where his well-exercised preference for glitter, gilt and glazing suits the luxo-kitsch Viennese concept. But at Bob Bob Ricard, the stencil has shifted and blurred.
At street level, it is a bizarre combination of Norman Rockwell-style American diner with vinyl banquettes, plus terrazzo, perhaps from a Cannes fish restaurant, antiqued mirror ceiling, real as well as metaphorical brass. Something about it that made me write "Directoire" in my notebook. There are buzzers on the tables which light up numbers at the bar so your champagne order can be promptly served. It is opulent and a bit creepy. Downstairs is a crepuscular bar with dark-red leather booths.
Bob Bob Ricard has been fastidiously executed to the wrong plan. It feels foreign and weird, like putting chilli dipping on foie gras. Just around the corner is Princi, an all-day bakery and bar which is foreign, but feels right. After all, this is Soho. "Spirito di Milano" it says in the window. Princi is a concept lifted from Lombardy by Alan Yau. It was Yau's Wagamama (designed by John Pawson) that introduced us to communal, artisanal resto-cool. Princi takes it on.
It is airy, handsome and smart without being demanding. Furniture is by Poltrona Frau, uniforms by Armani. There is firewood made decorative and there are baskets. There is no applied decoration, but the materials speak for themselves: polished limestone, glass and rough-hewn pillars where you stand with a caffè. A contemplative water feature drips along one side of the room. Here - in design terms - is the elemental symbolism of earth, water, fire.
Restaurant consultant Nick Lander recently speculated that we will not be using the word "restaurant" for very much longer because it suggests levels of waste, redundancy, expense and frou-frou that are inappropriate. Princi offers a credible alternative.
Brillat-Savarin also said that eating is the supreme pleasure because it consoles you for the loss of all the others. That's true, but it would be unsettling today to eat in a complicated and expensive restaurant populated by burping customers with grease running down their chins and liveried flunkies chasing their 15 per cent. And it would be financial suicide to invest in one.
We may be more liberal about hemlines and facial hair, but we are becoming stricter about vulgar excess. It's a truly terrible moment for investors in gilt, chandeliers, marble and lacquer. And a great one for believers in good proportions, honest materials, modesty and decorum. Our home economy might needs be austere, but austerity does not have to be ugly or boring.
I promised myself never to use "zeitgeist" except ironically, but only one of the two restaurants mentioned here captures the spirit of the age. The great thing about our new constraints is that both mediocrity and excess are now intolerable. Quality in architecture and design will, however, make everyone better off.