Archive for the Architecture, interiors and design Category

Scents and sensibilities (FT Weekend)

Posted in Architecture, interiors and design with tags , , , , on June 27, 2013 by markcoflaherty

“You know, I can’t actually remember what it smells like, but I just LOVE that bottle.” It is the opening Saturday of the No.5 Culture Chanel exhibition at Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and two young women – looking trés bon chic bon genre – are wandering through rows of perfect, transparent Lucite cases housing a vast archive of Chanel No.5 related art and ephemera. Like Dior’s New Look and the revolution of pret a porter, the modernist salvo of Chanel No.5 – which launched in 1921 – changed the world of fashion forever. The design of any new fragrance would become significantly more important than the product inside.

Chanel No.5 by Andy Warhol

Chanel No.5 by Andy Warhol

“N°5 is not a fragrance, but a cultural artifact,” says Jean Louis-Froment, the curator of the Palais de Tokyo show. “It has a unique aura. It is a manifesto.” Fragrances come and go, but the best become icons. Few achieve the landmark status that Chanel No.5, with its own Warhol silkscreen, has. Still, every year, designers spend fortunes and weeks on designs for new bottles. Each has to sum up the brand, and trigger an emotional response as strong as anything they put on the catwalk. They are miniature mass-produced sculptures. This spring, Yohji Yamamoto and Dries van Noten – two of fashions most renowned intellectuals – launched new product.

Yamamoto’s fragrances – both ‘homme’ and ‘femme’ – are essentially a re-release of a range that vanished due to licensing issues in 2005, but with a new bottle design in addition to the original test-tubes which Yamamoto selected because it was “the simplest bottle on earth.” For many, the idea of esoteric Yamamoto doing anything as commercial as a fragrance seemed outlandish. He would, of course, do it his way. A new version has been designed by Vonsung, with an architectural curve reminiscent of Richard Serra, but in glass rather than metal. “The box is origami-inspired,” says Yulia Livne of Yohji Yamamoto Parfums. The bottle itself might be seen to echo the wrap of a kimono, something repeatedly evident in Yamamoto’s own designs.

Several designers have working relationships with big name architects and artists to create their product. Zaha Hadid created a typically amorphous bottle for Donna Karan Woman last year. “Her vision is uniquely graceful and strong,” says Karan. “There’s always a sense of lyricism and fluidity to her shape.”

Dries van Noten’s fragrance is in collaboration with parfumier Frédéric Malle, renowned for the minimalism of his presentation. It comes in the simplest of circular bottles, in an orange fabric-texture box. “It’s a modern aesthetic,” says Malle. “We avoided unnecessary details, very much like Dries’ fashion. It’s crisp and clean, not old fashioned or fussy.”

A stark, modernist approach to bottle design continues to be popular. It’s something that stems from Chanel’s original intention for No.5. At a time when fragrance was presented in the most ornate, rarefied crystal vessels, she commissioned a simple, stark, modernist flacon, and subsequently added a stopper based on the layout of the Place Vendome. “What Coco Chanel wanted was an invisible bottle,” says historian Tilar J. Mazzeo, in her book The Secret of Chanel No. 5.

There are still some dubious visual puns around in the world of bottle design. One might consider the gold bullion container of ‘1 Million’ from Paco Rabanne, or ‘Konvict’, which comes in two chained-together bottles in the shape of handcuffs, as witty and ironic. Or one might not. One of the sole successful and stylish examples of the visual pun is the Bond No.9 range. Each fragrance is based on a different New York neighbourhood, with a visual motif to match. “We use silk screening and engraving and metallization techniques with the theme of the New York subway token,” says founder Laurice Rahmé.

Sometimes, the sweeping iconoclastic visual statement is still the biggest success. Last year Lady Gaga became the latest in a long line of celebrities to put their name to a mid-market fragrance. ‘Fame’ comes in a bottle that looks like something Thierry Mugler sketched late at night and thought better of in the morning; regardless, it sold six million bottles in its launch week. It still has a long way to go to rival Mugler’s own ‘Angel’, which continues to be one of the five best selling fragrances in the world, 21 years after it first appeared. The crystal futurist star-shape of the bottle – produced by Normandy glassmaker Brosse, who were also responsible for early Chanel No.5 – is one of Mugler’s greatest visual achievements. A Mugler-esque sci-fi looking silver stand is now available to buy which displays the fragrance as an artwork.

Parfumier and fragrance historian Roja Dove has his own line of fiercely high-end perfumes which come in bottles adorned with gold and Swarovski crystals. They are some of the most highly priced and successful in the world. He believes that maximalist French glass designer René Lalique has been at least as influential as Gabrielle Chanel in terms of the look of fragrances. “He was the first person to create what we would call today an holistic conceptual package,” says Dove. “Bottle, label and box reflected the intellectual idea of the scent it contained. ‘Nilang’ has two gilded, fantasy lotus blossoms suspended above the bottle as if floating on invisible water. It has inspired many commercial creations since.”

Bottle design can be a truly inspired, and scarce and pristine pieces – including ‘Shocking’ by Schiaparelli from 1937, with its Mae West body and bouquet of flowers around its neck – are highly collectible. Perfume bottles can be as much an expression of modernism as a piece of Bauhaus or Prouvé furniture, or they can have an embellished narrative. One of Roja Dove’s favourite pieces of design is the bottle that Salvador Dali created for Schiaparelli’s ‘Le Roi Soleil’ back in the 1940s. “It’s been rereleased recently,” he says, “executed in Baccarat crystal, in the shape of clouds and a huge sunshine, with doves in flight creating a face in the centre of the sun. It represents the end of the darkness of the Second World War.” It’s a precious as well as beautiful object: originals can reach $25,000 at auction.


Curiouser & curiouser (FT How to Spend it)

Posted in Architecture, interiors and design with tags , on June 27, 2013 by markcoflaherty

Window dressing is largely about storytelling. The festive displays at New York and London department stores are grand static theatre, while fashion designers have risen to fairy‑tale acclaim following debuts behind the glass at Browns on South Molton Street. One of the most influential window spaces in the world is at Dover Street Market, the London offshoot of the avant-garde Comme des Garçons style empire. The store is a barometer for design and visual culture: fashion aside, it was ahead of the curve by showcasing Victorian-style taxidermy years before it colonised the city’s bars and lounges. When the imposing four-storey space gave over its window display to the team behind pop-salvage company M Goldstein last June and July, it was an endorsement of much more than just the company’s approach to art direction. It pointed to a growing popularity for incorporating mainly 20th-century curios, with unique narrative resonance, within interior design projects. These are pieces that tell bold, evocative tales. They are less about the magpie’s capricious eye, more about the modern collector’s gaze.

Simon Costin's home, London

Simon Costin’s home, London

Entitled Scale & Distortion, the Dover Street Market installation – by M Goldstein owners Pippa Brooks and Nathaniel Lee Jones – included an 8ft robot called Cygan, built in Turin in 1957, a pair of supersized, perfectly detailed Balmoral leather boots from Rhodes Rawling of Halifax, a miniature raincoat by Wetherdair from the 1930s, and sets of concave and convex mirrors. They are typical of the pieces in the company’s shop on Hackney Road. “We want to avoid the word ‘vintage’,” says Brooks. “We believe it’s more accurate to say that we sell art, antiques and attire.”

The style of M Goldstein brings to mind some of the antiques stores in Clignancourt Market in Paris; many of the smaller pieces look like curios that have surfaced at street markets. For Brooks and Lee Jones, running a shop is crucial. “It’s about having a permanent showroom, rather then setting up a beautiful stall and then packing it all away again,” says Brooks. It also dictates their kind of customer. “We are a little out of the way here,” she says, “so people really have to want to seek us out.”

Visitors to M Goldstein are drawn to the atmosphere of the space, which is filled with old commercial lettering, paintings, flags and neons, displayed around and on the rescued Victorian mahogany shop fittings. Alongside these sit paintings and ephemera belonging to the late “outsider” artist, recluse and hoarder Reginald Alan Westaway, who died in 2008. Part of the collection includes the single set of clothes that he wore and repaired time and time again, until the individual items became overstitched sculptures in their own right.

Whether placed in a stark and modern interior, or an artfully decorated one, there is a growing demand for the salvaged objects on display at M Goldstein. “The ‘curiosity’ trend is popular,” says Lee Jones, “but our interest is to do with pieces that are more useful or decorative than just a stuffed squirrel playing cards, which I find boring. I’d rather sell a pair of second world war aircraft seats that look like they originated in Rodchenko’s studio.” Many pieces started out life as shop or commercial fittings; their battered edges speak of decades of robust use.

Circus Antiques in London’s Kensal Rise recently sold a gigantic pair of metal spectacles – originally the signage for an optometrist in France – for £1,400. “There’s always been an interest in high-end architectural pieces,” says the store’s owner, Mark Slade. “Now it’s about a more eclectic approach. People in the creative industries, in particular, appreciate the graphic qualities of these objects. Before we sold the spectacles, we had them repaired and then surrounded by neon. We also had a set of signs recently from a circus in Blackpool that were very comic-book in style, which lit up and read ‘flash’, ‘bang’ and ‘wallop’. They sold for £2,500 to a writer who has a house in the countryside.”

Industrial and commercial lettering is particularly popular. M Goldstein has had several McDonald’s letter Ms pass through the shop, while the online store often has sets of wooden public house sign letters, and 1970s red Odeon/ABC cinema signage lettering (from £8 per letter) available. In the US, sells old movie theatre marquee lettering (from $3 to around $60) that is the very essence of romantic, popcorn-scented Americana.

While there’s certainly the demand for these items, acquiring the perfect object for a room isn’t a precise science. Much of the sourcing is a case of rummaging and falling in love with something you never knew you wanted, and the more substantial pieces are generally price on request and subject to negotiation. For many people, active pursuit of pop salvage is simply too time-consuming, but there are some locations worthy of expeditions. Clignancourt in Paris is one of them, as is Sunbury Antiques Market in Kempton Park, the stores along Lillie Road in London and Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market in New York City. It’s also worth looking at and, which, along with some of the more obscure local markets and auctions in the UK, are favourite hunting grounds for the interior designer Russell Sage, a man well known for incorporating quirky elements into his projects. “Often with items like this,” he says, “people have a justifiably romantic idea of them, but they have gone through a dozen different dealers and started out as something that was part of a clearance sale and sold for £10.” The use of macabre Victorian taxidermy is something of a Sage trademark, and while he spends weeks scouring auctions for remarkable objects, it’s also possible to visit Viktor Wynd’s Little Shop of Horrors in London’s East End to pick up an off-the-shelf eight-legged stuffed lamb (£2,000) or a two-headed calf (£3,500).

Simon Costin's home, London

Simon Costin’s home, London

Sage acquired several pieces when the Brading Waxworks on the Isle of Wight closed in 2010, as did Simon Costin, an art director for Fabergé, Yves Saint Laurent and Hermès, who has them on display in his home in London’s Dalston. Costin’s house is a paradigm of the salvage style, but with an emphasis on the darker end of the spectrum. When he bought the house, the previous occupant had painted many of the rooms in a colour he describes as “eye-grating cerise”. Now it’s a shadowy gothic fairy tale. “I’m a collector, but I don’t really focus on anything in particular,” says Costin. “I like things with a story.” An 18th-century glass-topped Italian funeral coffin acts as a focal point for the living room, while shelves on every floor of the house are filled with carnival flourishes, old toys and Doctor Who props. “Visitors always respond to the toys, like my 1920s devil Punch and Judy puppets,” he says.

Playthings from the early 20th century may well have been passed down as family heirlooms, and come charged with nostalgia. In the same way, more recent objects can have great pop currency, particularly if they were never intended for the home. The artist and designer Misha Milovanovich has oversized ice-cream displays and a giant fibreglass teddy bear on show in her home in London’s Ladbroke Grove, next to original artwork by the likes of Julian Opie and Charles Avery. She recently bought a toy shop prop from Circus Antiques – a scaled-up, life-size, Playmobil Indiana Jones – which stands next to her desk. “When I moved in here, it was an empty shell with concrete floors,” she says. “I wanted to create my own little playhouse.”

Milovanovich’s aesthetic will seem too extreme for many, but these items from the recent past serve as a great alternative to contemporary art for interior designers. M Goldstein recently took stock of an illuminated sign from the late 1960s, from a defunct strip joint in Tisbury Court that reads: “Soho’s Live Girls”. At the time, it would have been an invitation into one of London’s less salubrious venues; now, it has a charming, almost melancholy quality to it. In its way, it’s an elegiac piece of social history.

Several designers are experts in the field of salvage. Henri Fitzwilliam-Lay works on particularly refined and high-end interiors. Her style mixes the plush, grand elements of Dorothy Draper with the clean, corporate modernism of Florence Knoll and contemporary bespoke pieces by the likes of Rupert Bevan, but she’s increasingly working with collections of 20th- and 21st-century items. “I particularly like working on children’s rooms,” she says. “Collections of items can turn chaos into order, by giving objects definition. Vintage toys also work well in arrangements around the house. I think you can make a collection of just about anything – even my children’s tiny Japanese plastic Gogos figures – and the skill lies in the displaying of objects to create what I often refer to as the ‘still life’. I hunt at antiques fairs, and after a first purchase the rest of the day may be spent finding more and more complementing pieces.” The weathered appearance of an item is also important; Fitzwilliam-Lay has started using old survey maps as wallpaper, “because I love the faded colours.”

James Russell and Hannah Plumb work together as the interior design duo James Plumb, and their rough-hewn aesthetic and use of scavenged items is contemporary yet artfully cobwebbed. “We have just created a new space called The Chalk Room for the menswear store Hostem using discarded items,” says Russell. “Their stories – real or imagined – inspired us. We combined objects so that they felt like they might always have existed like this.” Among the items they used was an old harp case, from Wurlitzer Co of Cincinnati, which they turned into a wardrobe, and a crate designed for carrying a prize stud pig, marked in faded lettering: “Ashville Herd – Pedigree Large White Pig”. The imagery the crate conjures up is eclipsed by the possibilities surrounding it. It could have been a theatrical prop, or integral to a farmer’s fortunes. Like the nostalgia of an old Soho fluorescent sign, abandoned cinema façade letters, a once state-of-the-art robot from a mid-20th-century technology expo, or a set of discarded toys, it may have exhausted its original use, but its dynamic visual energy can be channelled into a new context.

Aesop: the stuff of fables (Financial Times How to Spend it)

Posted in Architecture, interiors and design with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2012 by markcoflaherty

The area around Silver Place in London’s Soho has become a satellite to some of Australia’s most fashionable neighbourhoods. The most luscious flat white coffees in the city are served at Fernandez & Wells, there’s a neon-dinosaur in the window of the Zero10 Gallery and The Society Club next door identifies itself via a chalkboard outside as a “bookshop serving tea and coffee and toast with jam.” These are typical elements of Melbourne’s bohemian laneways. The arrival of a new store for Australian skincare brand Aesop, with untreated-wood floors and row upon row of the brand’s now iconic brown apothecary bottles on enamel shelves, has completed the scene.

Aesop is one of the biggest international success stories in skincare today. At the end of this year, in which the brand celebrates its 25th anniversary, there will be 45 stores across the world – Soho’s being the first new opening of 2012.  Founder Dennis Paphitis started out as a hairdresser with a salon, an idea and a few bottles of his own formulation of rosemary and sage oil in 1987. Inspired by an architectural firm he’d encountered three years earlier in Florence, which had switched from working with buildings to experimental design with recycled paper, he honed Aesop’s imagery. Since then, Aesop has become a creative pioneer in its own right. Despite its determination to fly just a fraction above the radar, its influence on the look and ethos of other skincare brands has also crossed over into fashion retail, restaurants, print media and advertising agency strategy.

Paphitis’s masterstroke is his very visible collaboration with architects and artists. Earlier this year he worked with filmmaker Lucy McRae, who describes herself as a “body architect”, on a serious and arresting short film that mixes offbeat beauty imagery with plasma packs and syringes within the milieu of an operating theatre. It has some of the unsettling body-conscious essence of vintage David Cronenberg. “It’s inspired by physicist Herman Ludwig Helmholtz and his research on human perception,” says McRae. “As he said, ‘Everything is an event on the skin’.” As a visual artist, McRae feels empathy with the historical resonance of Aesop’s presentation. “It feels pre-digital,” she says. “Like a relic from the past that might always have been there.”

Much of the appeal of Aesop is the matter-of-fact nature of the brand’s product. Less is more. As Suzanne Santos, Aesop’s long standing “product advocate” explains: “the very first products that Dennis formulated self-sold themselves because of their difference to what was available. There was no colour or artificial fragrance. The formulation was startlingly new.” Similarly, today, there is no quasi-religious experience promised with your morning toilette, no comparison with the results of surgical procedure and no airbrushed advertising. As Ed Burstell, buying director at key Aesop stockist Liberty, who also introduced the brand to the US at Henri Bendel says: “They launched at a time when there was a general trend for anti-ageing products to make statements that weren’t backed by science.” Instead, Aesop’s focus is on preventative measures, and is transparently scientific. The two main Vitamin C types they use are empirically quantified anti-oxidant free radical scavengers. Free radicals sit at the start of a chain-reaction commonly believed to damage skin, and they are generated in abundance in polluted urban environments. “They were one of the first brands to talk about anti-oxidants,” says Sarah Lerfel from Colette in Paris, the brand’s first French stockist. The Perfect Facial Hydrating Cream (£73) and B Triple C Balancing Gel (£67) are two of Aesop’s most premium anti-oxidant products. Along with perfect form and persuasive function, the Aesop aromas of orange, rose, parsley seed and frankincense are consistently seductive; the house style never veers from a fragrance axis of herbal and citrus, with touches of incense that evoke chapels, Byzantium and stately libraries.

Aesop Paris, design by March Studios

Aesop’s products are cruelty free: they aren’t tested on animals and – with the exception of one shaving brush containing badger hair – 100% vegan. Their ethics make them surprisingly unusual in the modern marketplace. While an EU-wide ban on the marketing of any new beauty products tested on animals is imminent, PETA’s current online directory of the guilty – even if the guilt is by association, as a subsidiary – still reads like an audit of many bathroom cabinets, including well loved brands like Kiehl’s and Aveeno. Big companies are working their way off the list via sizeable investment into alternatives, but Aesop has never been anywhere it. At the same time, Aesop’s formulation shuns the fashionable but arguably shallow marketing drive of “100% organic” – after all, you could, theoretically, formulate organic poison. Aveda-founder Horst Rechelbacher, who now runs the edible body product range Intelligent Nutrients believes there are red herrings aplenty: “It is toxins that count, not whether something is labelled organic or natural”.

The presence of parabens in skincare products has been a major industry and consumer issue, after ongoing studies pointed towards possible carcinogenic properties. Some highly credible companies that cheerlead for antioxidants contain pareabens. Aesop’s range is 100% paraben free, while mixing toxin-free synthetics and botanics, for very specific aims, for a distinct urban consumer who has now developed affinity with the range. A case in point: the Oil Free Facial Hydrating Serum with aloe vera juice (£39) has been formulated to moisturise skin in particularly humid cities. When you’re on your way to your first meeting of the day in Bangkok, it doesn’t slide off your face.

Laboratory dynamism aside, Aesop’s presentation has provoked a quiet but visible revolution within a sector of retail. “There are now over 15 companies that use those brown bottles,” says CEO Michael O’Keefe. Aesop’s creative collaborations are similarly influential. Companies like REN now produce provocative, adult-oriented short films, distributed via their website and social media, to support their products. Fragrance company Le Labo echoes the lo-fi Aesop style with its typewriter and rubber-stamp typefaces, and the new Heliocosm store in Paris could, if you squint, be a new branch of Aesop, with its sparse but bold high-concept wood-tunnel interior, bare bulbs and dark refillable flaçons.

The “less is more” approach – reductionist stores that bring the product to the fore; the simple, bookish, sans-serif typography – fits snugly into the lifestyle Zeitgeist, between Camper’s shoes and hotels and the concrete stairwells of Dover Street Market. It’s a self-aware modernism. Like a heavy-twill navy French workman’s jacket, or dinner within the whitewashed walls of St John, it speaks to an intellectual customer who feels they are above artifice and the glossy hard sell. They want functionality, authenticity and restrained luxury. “The Italian design firm that inspired me in the 1980s, called &A, were working with recycled paper as a reaction against decorative Florentine marbled stationery,” says Paphitis. “Aesop is now part of a small movement that’s best described as the Muji-Hermes paradigm. That’s design with the simplicity and utility of Muji and the luxury and materiality of Hermes. They are healthy contradictions. The best examples can be evidenced by the way many serious chefs now treat foraged produce with a sense of preciousness.” That lifestyle Zeitgeist and paradigm is expanding: There’s even Aesop-branded Yarra Valley Cabernet Shiraz and chocolate – “for customers and friends – not for sale”. Both would, no doubt, be a roaring success if made commercially available.

Aesop Singapore, design by March Studios

Aesop Singapore, design by March Studios

Paphitis is nothing if not a perfectionist. The Aesop HQ in Melbourne – housed within an immaculate, industrial building with blacked-out brickwork – is mission control for a team of 300 worldwide. The scores of Melbourne employees sit on black Herman Miller chairs in all-white rooms, at pale wood desks, with black PCs, communicate via email exclusively in Arial Narrow and use only one single style of black pen – a classic Bic. “The least significant details and those that are less publically visible still matter,” says Paphitis, pointing out the empty seats at midday. “We prohibit the consumption of lunches at desks,” he says. “Because people should see the sun, take a break, eat good food and not be tapping out emails simultaneously.”

Aesop’s style of modernism can be habit forming. Many customers use only Aesop products. “I don’t like to see brands or logos in my home,” says Jean Luc Colonna, the managing director of the concept store Merci, in Paris. “I feel better seeing an Aesop bottle every morning in my bathroom than an over-marketed brand.” Sarah Temple, an influential voice in graphic design in the UK and a course director at the University of Arts enjoys Aesop’s alignment with intellect and creativity: “I’ve never been treated to quotes from Hunter S Thompson or directed to art movies before by a face cream. And there’s a strange other-worldliness about the stores, with the dark liquid and stark interiors.” Aesop is playful, but doesn’t play on their customer’s anxieties. As Jo Nagasaka, the architect behind the brands stores in Aoyama and Ginza, says: “The Aesop approach is liked by real women for whom the fantasy of the traditional beauty industry is too extreme.”

Nagasaka is one of a handful of creatives with whom Paphitis has worked to elaborate on Aesop’s visibility. The new Soho store is by designers Ciguë, who also created an installation at Merci in Paris and the standalone Aesop store in the Marais, creating shelving from 427 steel caps from the French capital’s plumbing network. Within Grand Central Station, Brooklyn-based designers Tacklebox fashioned an Aesop booth from stacks of copies of the New York Times; in Singapore, March Studio hung 30km of coconut-husk string in strands from the ceiling – the effect was more art installation than retail space. “They have an earthy, vernacular approach that has more in common with hotel, restaurant or bar design,” says Marcus Fairs, the editor of influential design blog Dezeen. “You can see the same philosophy of earthiness and modesty in other brands, such as Cowshed. And if you walk down Redchurch Street in London, where Aesop have a store, you’ll see many cutting edge fashion brands starting to use the same combination of raw display materials and nostalgic marketing.”

Aesop is intrepid with its openings, arriving in areas before any of their peers would see them as viable. They moved into Redchurch Street after Shoreditch House and Boundary opened there, but while there was still just tumbleweed in terms of retail. “Now the big Italian brands are desperate for space there,” says O’Keefe. “So we’re looking at areas like Dalston.”

As well as having a nose for the next place to be, Aesop pinpoint on-message hotels, cafes and restaurants. In the past that has included Claska in Tokyo, London’s Rochelle Canteen and Hakkasan and, back home in Melbourne, the cavernous Seven Seeds coffee shop, with its exposed pipework and sliding factory doors. It’s also in the toilets of the upstairs, VIP, private tailoring consultation room at Brioni on Old Bond Street. Many loyal customers have come to the brand via a trip to the bathroom during a meal, where they’ve discovered the Resurrection Duet of Aromatique Handwash (£27) and Balm (£67). Even if they aren’t the first brand to make handwash sexy, it’s now their pump dispensers that punctuate the sleekest interiors shoots and showrooms.

Aesop New York City, design by TACKLEBOX

Aesop New York City, design by Tacklebox

The rise of Aesop has gone hand in hand with a mainstream interest in typography: The font Helvetica inspired a feature length documentary and Simon Garfield’s Just My Type, “a book about fonts”, is a best seller. Many customers love Aesop for its simple, modern mix of serif and sans-serif fonts: Aesop doesn’t have a logo per se, it’s just “Aesop” in Optima Medium. “You can communicate as much with a font as a photograph now,” says Rasmus Ibfelt, Managing Director of the e-Type design agency, which also runs the typography store Playtype in Copenhagen. “Aesop’s labelling takes everything that is usually on the back side of a product and puts it on the front. It’s a strong reference to pharmacy products.” It’s a style that sits comfortably with the brown glass and rubber and glass pipette of the best selling Parsley Seed Anti-Oxidant Serum (£39). It’s about simplicity, authenticity and credibility.

Whatever the connotations, Aesop has become a runaway success. It speaks to a well-travelled, urbane customer. Tellingly, there is only one set of Aesop treatments offered outside of the Aesop stores in Melbourne, Sydney and Hong Kong, and they are three men’s treatments at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo. It’s that kind of a brand – one that collaborates with A.P.C to create the perfect Fine Fabric Care detergent for clothing (£23), calls one of its gift sets Celestial Mechanics, and produces a Ginger Flight Therapy stick (£19) to apply to your pulse points on that long-haul journey at the front of an A380. It represents a new kind of modernism, with a keen sense of play as much as business aptitude. Lying on your back in the treatment room in the basement of Aesop’s South Yarra store, all is serene and white, apart from a single line of text written on the ceiling above your head, a quote attributed to Janis Joplin: ‘Don’t compromise yourself. You are all you’ve got.’

Mid century modernismo (Privatair)

Posted in Architecture, interiors and design with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2012 by markcoflaherty

In the heart of the well-groomed Jardins district of Sao Paulo, tucked away in the shadows of an otherwise non descript street, is South America’s most celebrated restaurant. Dinner at Alex Atala’s D.O.M is a Really Big Deal. Reservations are highly prized, and everything about a visit suggests an extraordinary event, from the double-height, Disney-theatrical front-door to the couples frantically taking pictures of their pretty, floral, green tomato gel salads. Instead of a granita palate cleanser, a waiter spins potato and Gruyere dough over each table, and unfurls it into a perfect swirl on each plate. This is the new Brazil: luxe, a little avant-garde, with incredible attention to detail. And when you visit this new Brazil, you dine on vintage, modernist Sergio Rodrigues chairs, with hexagonal split cane panels. They’re the same chairs that chef Atala has at home, and the same chairs that the first dignitaries to visit the sci-fi white concrete domes of Brasilia sat on. 21st century Brazil is passionately embracing its modernist design heritage. And there’s a lot to love, from the work of Gregori Warchavchik, who built the first modernist house in the country in the 1920s, to Etel Carmona’s meticulous licensed reproductions of pieces originally created by the architects behind the seminal Branco & Preto store in Sao Paulo at the start of the 1950s.

Brazilian modernist furniture from the middle of the last century to the 1970s has, for years, been something of an insider interiors secret. Now it’s gaining momentum and visibility, with vintage pieces by the likes of Rodrigues becoming sought after at auction, classic pieces going back into production, and new designers channelling the aesthetic. Manahttan hotelier and champion of modernist design Andre Balazs furnished his SoHo loft recently with several vintage Rodrigues pieces, which now sit next to original artwork by Bacon, Schnabal and Warhol. “I’ve become very interested in South American design,” he says. “Rodrigues’ work has incredible detail.”

Brazilian design specialists Espasso in New York City and Los Angeles, and Silvia Nayla in London, attract clients who have an attachment to the quietly flash and au courant mid-century modern aesthetic, but who want something less obvious than the usual Scandic suspects. Brazilian modernism has an organic and seductively tropical element to it that makes it unique. And unlike its international cousins, it hasn’t been done to death. If there’s an equivalent to the Eames lounge chair, it might be Rodrigues’ generously upholstered Poltrona Mole, which first appeared in 1957. When it won first prize at the Concurso Internacional do Móvel in Cantu, Italy in 1961, Arne Jacobson – one of the judges – hailed it as “the only model with up-to-date characteristics… not influenced by passing whims, and absolutely representative of its region of origin”. But even the Poltrona Mole, for all its awards and recognition, hasn’t ventured near the precipice of design cliché. There is no bargain basement “inspired by” copy available online, just the $10,150 model, made to order via Espasso. Pieces by key Brazilian designers run at a premium through their scarcity. Isay Weinfeld’s Huguinho bar sells for $20,500, while Warchavchic’s Leque magazine holder goes for $18,600. This is serious investment furniture.

You can still customer order Rodrigues’ work direct from his atelier in Rio de Janeiro, and select from myriad models, leathers and finishes. He’s still there, larger than life, with his iconic Yosemite Sam moustache, working on new designs in his Botafogo workshop. In the late 1960s, his work become more playful, and he switched from being a master of modernism, to a practitioner of post modernism. His more recent pieces – like the 2002 Diz chair, which appears on the balconies of the Hotel Fasano, the chicest beachfront property in Rio – pay homage to both movements. But it’s still all distinctively Rodrigues. “I don’t care if people say postmodern or modernist, I just do what I like,” he says. “When I create a piece, I’m my own client. I always think that if I like it, then someone else will.”

Rodrigues’ style is organic and slightly wild. It is passionate and sensual – the Mole chair invites you to spread out and sprawl. If there are shades of the sharpness of Italian modernist Gio Ponti in some of Rodrigues’ work (and indeed in the work of much of the Brazilian modernists), then there are also more savage hints of horn and tusk-shapes, and pure Amazonian spirit in their wooden frames. “I’ve always worked with wood,” he says. “When I was a child, my uncle was a carpenter, and I studied with him. We had so many types of tropical wood at our fingertips, and it became a major feature in my work. Even if I work in metal, I still add wood to it, because it changes the meaning.”

Most of Rodrigues’ early pieces were crafted from jacaranda, but from the 1980s onwards – when the sub-tropical tree neared extinction from over-logging – he shifted to eucalyptus, cinnamon, cedar and ivory palm. A walk around the Ipanema branch of Arquivo Contemporaneo, the multi-levelled store and definitive showroom for Brazilian design in Rio, confirms that wood remains the focus for most of the country’s designers. There are the svelte and bow-legged chairs by Aristeu Pires and Jader Almeida and squared-off tables and sofa decks by Bernardo Figueiredo. All are crafted in wood. Then there are the pieces from the Etel collection, produced by Etel Carmona – Warchavchik’s aforementioned 1930 magazine holder, the Poltrona MF5 from 1950 by Branco & Preto, and the beautifully ornate Cacos console by Carmona herself.

There is a strong eco-slant to much of this work. Carmona established the Aver Amazonica factory in Xapuri in 2002, founded on the principle of producing pieces from sustainable sources, in an ecologically sound manner, and in a way that was respectful and supportive of local communities. It’s an ethos shared by many of the key Brazilian brands. “Most of our current designers work in wood, and all of them use only ethically sourced materials,” says Cassidy Hughes, the manager of the Silvia Nayla store in London. “There is something magical about so much of their work, as if they’ve been pulled from an enchanted forest. Hugo França’s pieces highlight the beauty of wood in its natural state, yet each one is still a completely functional piece. And Paulo Alves’ Pedra stools combine traditional wood carving techniques with modern technology.”

The key strength of Brazilian modernism – both vintage, from the 1950s and 1960s, and the current modernism redux – is that it fits into the most contemporary of environments in such a fresh and sophisticated way, even in the case of the more directional pieces. Carlos Motta, who is one of Rodrigues’ favourite designers, is the superstar of the contemporary scene. He lives in a beach house on the Brazilian coast that he describes as “very hippie”, surfs regularly, and works entirely in wood certified by the Brazilian Forest Stewardship Council. His work has a truly Latin beauty to it: his raw-surfaced rocking chairs and lounge pieces have a recycled appearance coupled with visual heft, while his Horizonte desk is one of the stand-out pieces at Espasso. He’s one of the most in-demand brands at Arquivo Contemporaneo, and the Museu Oscar Niemeyer staged an exhibition of his work last year in Curitiba. The cover of the exhibition catalogue was a detail of his Mesa Não Me Toque (“Do Not Touch Me”), a glass coffee table with the most extraordinary wooden base consisting of a polished globe covered with immense, menacing, mace-like spikes. It’s a statement piece in more ways than one. Motta created it when he was invited by IBAMA (the Brazilian Department of Natural Resources) to create a piece for a show they were curating. They provided the wood, which Motta discovered was not certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. “I was furious,” he says. “So I created a piece that no one could touch to make a point.” While the Mesa Não Me Toque is an absolute one-off, it’s a testament to Motta’s genius that many potential customers have enquired about orders. This particular school of Brazilian design is absolutely about integrity as much as beauty.




Finding Niemeyer (Financial Times Weekend)

Posted in Architecture, interiors and design, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2012 by markcoflaherty

Aquim is a small, alluring, jewel-box of a chocolate shop on one of Ipanema’s most fashionable shopping streets. Inside, the usual bon bons and bars line the shelves. Behind the counter, there are several extravagant handmade oak boxes housing owner Samantha Aquim’s most rarefied chocolate: QO. Each set is numbered, with its own gold tasting fork, sliding drawer of chocolate discs and three pieces of Q0 shaped into an elegant, s-shaped wave, designed by Oscar Niemeyer. “It’s edible architecture,” says Samantha.

Niemeyer Foundation building, Caminho Niemeyer, Niteroi

If Niemeyer proposed a mid-century fantasy of what Brazil might look like in the 21st century, then Aquim is one of the results, a symbol of a booming economy with an insatiable hunger for luxury and high style: the Q0 box retails at a cool €1,000. It may not be quite what devout Communist Niemeyer wanted, but there’s now an economic energy that fits with his utopian architecture, and with the country already giddy on the endorphins of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, there’s new investment – literally – in Niemeyer’s vision. His work isn’t just a history lesson: though he turned 104 last December, he is still planning and realising new projects while older ones are renovated. At the same time, specialist tour operators, like Cultour in Brazil, sell architecture-themed trips, while the likes of Journey Latin America in the UK have noticed an upswing in requests for Niemeyer tours. “Most tourists still want to see the favelas,” says JLA tour guide Felipe as we drive across the bridge from Rio to Niteroi, its wild, flying saucer-shaped contemporary art museum fast approaching. “The more cultured, literate travellers want to see Niemeyer.”

An architour of Oscar Niemeyer’s Brazil is like a trip to Disneyland for aesthetes, covering eight decades of history, from his first meeting with Corbusier – alighting from the Graf Zeppelin in Rio in 1936 – to today. No single architect has forged such a seductive collection of reasons to visit a country before, while the vogue for modernist Brazilian design pervades the most flash corners of its cities, from the Diz chairs by Niemeyer’s peer Sergio Rodrigues on every balcony of Rio’s most fashionable hotel, The Fasano, to some of the same designer’s 1950s pieces at Alex Atala’s D.O.M restaurant in Sao Paulo. So many of the key reasons to visit Brazil – including carnival, held in the 1983 Niemeyer-designed Sambodrome – are intrinsically linked to modernist Brazilian design.

My Oscar tour took in very long weekends in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, an overnight stay in Curitiba, several days in Brasilia and an afternoon in Belo Horizonte, where I visited one of his earliest landmarks, the 1943 Church of Saint Francis of Assisi.  For such a committed atheist, Niemeyer has managed to craft some of the most dramatic places for worship in the world. Just as everyone should visit the chiesas of Florence for the Renaissance glamour, Niemeyer’s churches are incredible objects in their own right, with the impact and modern drama of the Tate Turbine Hall, amped up with stained glass.

The Belo Horizonte church is a tiny, cartoonish, Palm Springs-flavoured hint at a remarkable and giant career ahead. While the local archbishop once cursed it as looking like “the devil’s bomb shelter”, it’s actually very sweet and now much loved. In cool Mediterranean blues and white, it’s a doodle for the epic wigwam-shaped Cathedral of Brasilia that would be realised in 1958, at the heart of the city he invented from scratch with urban planner Lucio Costa. The wraparound glass and coloured light-filled space of that building is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. You enter via an underground passage, on a vivid Hollywood-red carpet An hour passes quickly, your attention captured by the play of shadow and colour on the floor and altar. It’s a celestial space.

Cathedral of Brasilia

A new church is on the cards for Niteroi, as part of the Caminho Niemeyer, an as yet unfinished collection of buildings intended to inject new life into the area but currently caught in local government red tape. Niemeyer inaugurated the most artful of the collection of buildings – the Oscar Niemeyer Foundation – on his 103rd birthday. When the front gates are unlocked, you can walk around its dome and its curved elevated walkways, but sadly nothing here is as yet ready and open for business. It’s still an emotional and rewarding experience; the Alphaville vacancy of the spaces here are vaguely sinister, and Niemeyer’s futurism has a charming naivety to it – the lines of the buildings predate the computer age, and you can see the hand-drawn imperfection of their curves. While Frank Gehry’s buildings in Bilbao and Seattle look like they’ve formed from pixels, Niemeyer’s clearly come from pencil and paper.

When I visited Niemeyer’s old Rio home, the Casa das Canaos, a short drive past the black steel tube of his Hotel Nacional (to be renovated and reopened for the World Cup), I had the place to myself, apart from the house’s guardian, José, who took charge of things when Niemeyer left the country in exile after the 1964 military coup. “He never came back, but I still work for him,” says Jose. “He’s an amazing man. He always treated me as an equal, never as an employee.” The house is a perfect 1950s time capsule, with white, kidney-shaped, curvilinear roof, glass-walled living room and the furniture that Niemeyer designed himself. It looks as if he left five minutes ago.

São Paulo might be as ugly as Rio is beautiful, but there’s a transporting quality to watching the sun set from the rooftop pool deck of the Hotel Unique. It’s an arresting, luxury-packed, postmodern landmark, designed by Niemeyer protégé Ruy Ohtake in the shape of a smile, with huge porthole windows. Anonymous tower blocks and transmitters light up in the distance through the twilight gloaming like a weird art installation – made all the weirder since the government banned outdoor advertising. The Unique is also the closest hotel to Nieyemeyer’s pavilions and sculptures in Ibirapueria Park, the most impressive of which is the Auditorium, with its snaking red tongue rising from a flat, angled white frontage, and its rear – a vast blinding white backdrop with an inset red screen. Against blue sky and green grass, it’s stark and powerful.

Brasilia is, of course, the main event – the UNESCO-stamped mid-century modernist theme park to end them all. At the same time, it’s the city that “no one goes to”, which is partly what makes it so thrilling. Arriving here is like touching down on a different planet – from the runway, Niemeyer’s new TV transmitter, completed in December and resembling a beguiling white triffid, is the first thing you see on the horizon. Wandering between the library, which looks like a giant, beautiful double-iPod dock, and the perfect Moonbase dome of the Honestino Guimarães National Museum, with the Cathedral in the distance, it’s wonderful to be able to take photographs without anyone else in shot. As white clouds part, and speed away, the iconic upturned and downturned domes and H-shaped structure of the National Congress fall into sharp sunlight, as if being hit with a row of theatre follow-spots. Dazzling white against vibrant blue – they’re magnificent.

There are also lesser known gems in Brasilia: the black and red interior rotunda of late president Juscelino Kubitschek’s mausoleum, with its sinister up-lighting, resembles a chamber from the Death Star. Then there’s the perfect curl of the acoustic shell outside the Ministry of Defence and the abandoned, narrow crescent of the open-air auditorium on the road towards the Palace. Close by sits the Brasilia Palace Hotel, one of only two functioning Niemeyer-designed hotels in the country (the other is Hotel Tijuco in Diamantina). Its proportions are long and narrow yet boxy, the bulk of the building elevated elegantly with stilts. Even though it’s always busy, you feel like the only guest. There’s a glossy, JG Ballard desolation to it that’s immensely memorable and strangely attractive. Sitting by its pool in the blazing sun, it looks like any era from the mid-1950s to the distant future.

The real draw of Niemeyer’s work for the tourist – from design nerd to the uninitiated – is the unbridled sense of fun and fantasy it has. He’s more of an artist than an architect: the steep inclines on his buildings often make you feel like the penguins who used to struggle with Lubetkin’s photogenic but impractical enclosure at London Zoo. And Niemeyer’s huge domes are impossible to segment into successful exhibition spaces. But as vast concrete sculptures, how exciting they are! They capture the essence of a time when the world was promised jetpacks. But there’s no melancholy in their nostalgia, just child-like wonder. In the Niemeyer-designed museum in Curitiba, inaugurated in 2002 and freshened up in December, there is a definitive collection of models of his work, as well as several fine collections of varied contemporary art and design. It’s a great destination as these things go, but the most exciting artwork by far is the immense black eye-shaped gallery itself. From last year, a local company began offering Segway tours of the city that culminate at the building. Zipping around the adjacent concrete ramps and walkways and racing around a huge open concourse, the sense of joy and liberation is incredible. This is entirely Niemeyer’s vision of the future, we’re just privileged visitors, invited along for the ride.

Juscelino Kubitschek's tomb and memorial, Brasilia



Mark C.O’Flaherty travelled as a guest of Air France, who fly from multiple destinations worldwide to Rio and Sao Paulo via Paris, connecting with local airline GOL in Brazil 0845 050 5871,, and as a guest of Journey Latin America, who offer two-week holidays focused on tours of Oscar Nieyemer’s buildings in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Curitiba and Brasilia from £3,584 p/person including flights, transfers, excursions and breakfast. 020-8747 8315,

Rick Owens – Shadowman (Metropolitan)

Posted in Architecture, interiors and design, Fashion with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 12, 2011 by markcoflaherty

When the inevitable biography is written, Rick Owens’ life story will read like one of the dark, sensational and glamorous works of literature that he’s such a fan of: an art student from a small town becomes a druggy, bisexual, noir-nailed goth within the LA demi-monde of trannies and hustlers. He studies pattern cutting and hooks up romantically with fabulous, diamond-toothed celebrity restaurateur cum stripper cum lawyer, Michele Lamy. Spotted by Anna Wintour, he takes New York Fashion Week by storm and moves to Paris, to become the most influential designer of the 21st century…

Rick Owens, Paris ©

Right now, Rick Owens is the overlord of high and dark fashion. His collections sell out at record speeds and Rizzoli have just published a coffee-table-sized coffee table book on his work. He’s attracted a cult following for his severe, often sinister, monochrome, draped jersey and leather aesthetic. This afternoon, when he walks into one of the vast, whitewashed, concrete-floored rooms of his 7th arrondissement HQ – its shelves littered with skulls and Kaiser spiked helmets – one might expect an accompanying soundtrack of 5am Berghain Berlin techno, and perhaps for the temperature in the room to drop. Instead he carries a tiny espresso cup and plays Dorothy Squires Live at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on his iPhone. “I like Dusty, but I really burnt out listening to her,” he says. “Now I listen to Dorothy Squires all day long. She has that whisky and cigarettes tone to her voice and I find her really moving.”

His fixation with the late Welsh songstress – and one time Mrs Roger Moore – is far from contradictory. Everything in Rick Owens’ universe fits perfectly into place: the gothic tendencies, the transgressive sexuality, the austere, monastic, concrete aesthetic now translated into limited edition furniture, and the camp… Everything has its purpose. Like the high heels he designs for men, inspired by “the virility of Kiss in concert”. And the bumper-car hi-top sneakers inspired by “gangs in LA using their shoes to anchor huge basketball shorts, in an almost kabuki way.” But there are unusual interests too. He loves the BBC sitcom Nighty Night so much that he sold the DVD in his stores in London and Paris and he’s a huge Gary Numan fan. “I think of Gary when I’m working on every collection!” he says.

Still very much the anything-but-quintessentially American in Paris (he refuses to learn French, believing it’ll take far too long, and he likes the “layer of privacy” it provides), he frequently Channel hops and finds the contrast with London fascinating. “In London the kids are so much cuter,” he says. “There’s a scruffiness that the Parisians just won’t allow themselves. In Paris it’s about APC jeans, white button down shirts and a blazer, and in London it’s all wittier and cheekier.” Owens is drawn to the often acidic and subversive nature of British culture, from early 20th century socialite Stephen Tennant to the 80s “queer” filmmaker Derek Jarman. “It’s that British dry wit I love. I’m reading a lot of Beverley Nichols from the 1920s, which has a lovely Cecil Beaton quality. There is an imperturbability about the British, while the French make a big thing about pretending not to be perturbed, but they are. They’re always indignant.”

When Owens travels to London with his partner Michele, they stay at Claridges – although if he’s travelling alone, he’ll stay at the Savoy “because the deco is more severe, and darker” – and spend their time exploring galleries and museums. “I always return to the Joseph Beuys room at the Tate Modern,” he says. “And I loved the Whistler show at Tate Britain. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been in love with him before. He belonged to the most exciting of times.”

Rick Owens, Paris ©

Owens studied to be an artist, but turned to fashion because “art seemed like entering the priesthood, and I’m too frivolous” – though he now adores the pomp of the contemporary art scene. “I was at the Bermondsey White Cube opening recently and it was like Hollywood, all neon bulbs and epic proportions. And as we were leaving, there was a crowd of people behind the velvet ropes. It was so Day of the Locust, I wallowed in it.” He also moves in offbeat London circles: Lamy backs the designer Gareth Pugh, so there are strong links between the Pugh and Owens labels. “There’s a group around Gareth that have a great allure and mystique,” he says. “That crowd from Ponystep and Boombox are so talented, sharp, fun and sweet.”

When Owens and Lamy are out in Paris and London, they are the ultimate ambassadors for his brand: Michele in a ton of jewellery and Owens’ clothing, looking like a vampiric Egyptian priestess, and Rick with the poker-straight black locks that have become as iconic in fashion as Lagerfeld’s ponytail and Menkes’ quiff. And of course, always clad in black or grey, “even on the beach”. So committed is he to the palette that on the counter of his London and Paris stores there are bowls of M&Ms in varying shades of grey. Monochrome is the only thing that makes sense to him. “It sends a message,” he explains. “It says  ‘don’t look at my outfit, I’m presenting my face to you. You don’t have to look at anything else, I’m not trying to capture your attention with an interesting shoelace’.”

Owens spring 2012 collection is a development of his black and white aesthetic, with dresses for men and prints for women that hark back to the deco of the 20s. “I love that linear modernism,” he says. “It’s aspirational with a simple elegance. And I think it’s quite melancholy, because it’s looking for a perfection that will always be out of reach, forever.” And the future? Before that inevitable biography and the museum retrospectives? More furniture, perhaps a move into colour, but with a promise that it will “never be banal, or Marks & Spencer’s…” And then perhaps a hotel, finished with raw, bunker-like textures and fur bedspreads. “I’d love to create something on a nice coastline, somewhere remote. Maybe in North Africa, which is close enough, but far enough too. And on the top floor I’d create a Gary Numan suite.”

Fine dining detail (Aston Martin magazine)

Posted in Architecture, interiors and design, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2011 by markcoflaherty

On the way to The Herbfarm, a 45 minute highway trip out of Seattle into a rural Martha Stewart fantasia, your driver will ask you what time you want to be collected. If you suggest any period shorter than four hours later, he’ll correct you: you simply won’t be finished. An evening at The Herbfarm is an epic performance, from the pre-cocktail tour around the herb garden to the velvet curtain that pulls back on the kitchen for the introduction of every staff member. And all this before the amuse bouche. The milieu may be classic country cottage, but the evening is a study in contemporary dining, where the food is but a single component in a far bigger event.

“It’s a myth that restaurants are all about food,” says Jennifer Sharp, one of the UK’s most celebrated restaurant critics. “Just as important is the space and ambience, whether it’s balletic luxury at Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo, the cramped, noisy cheerfulness of the Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco, or in Madrid, nearly 300 years of roast suckling pig from the wood-fired ovens at Botin. Every meal, every service, is a performance and the diner is both actor and audience.” Sometimes the elements are obvious, but sometimes they are more offbeat, like the smell of woodsmoke that Mathias Dahlgren traps beneath serving bell jars at his restaurant in Stockholm to evoke childhood memories of nearby forests, or the way fellow Swede Magnus Nilsson has his staff saw shinbones in half in the centre of the room at Fäviken before serving up the marrowbone.

Sur Mesure, Paris

The slick ambience at Vue du Monde, the dining room that relocated 55 floors up the Melbourne skyline this summer into the Rialto building, and which remains perhaps the greatest restaurant in the Southern Hemisphere, is the antithesis of the bucolic twee of The Herbfarm, but it has a similar attention to detail. There’s a radical, molecular, Willy Wonka-goes-classical-French kitchen here, but it’s also decidedly Australian, from the ingredients to the service and the sense of humour. There’s a “post-bushfire regrowth smoking balcony”, as chef Shannon Bennett puts it, with surfaces made from charred and lacquered wood, while the toilets are refined versions of the “outback dunny” and the tables are covered in kangaroo hide.

Design is integral to the way the dining experience works, as anyone who has suffered an evening in an ill advised “pop up” venture knows. The frisson of excitement that you get from a guerilla operation can’t compete with the sense of occasion that, say, a Friday night at the Ritz in London can still deliver. There remains a world where jackets are required and septuagenarian couples foxtrot, while elaborate salads and tartares are crafted at table side, flanked by the kind of refined, charmingly unreconstructed Belle Époque grandeur most frequently seen these days in an episode of Doctor Who just before something explodes.

If there’s one dominant “new look” for fine dining, it’s a return to heavyweight, moneyed, tony glamour. Designer David Collins is a master of it. Restaurateurs who can’t afford him frequently rip off his look with lashings of marble mosaics, croc-textured banquettes and deco-meets-disco flourishes but they just can’t pull it off: it takes a master stylist to get it right. Massimo, the restaurant at the new Corinthia hotel in London, is a largely monochrome, maximalist space that’s a paradigm of the Collins canon: theatrical pillars, sparkle, slightly steampunk jazz-age lighting details and an overall sense of The Special. The charismatic, bespectacled Massimo Riccioli, celebrated for his muscular, boldly prosaic Italian seafood, loves how the space works with his menu. “It’s a great mix, because my food is quite stripped down,” he says. “And the room gives it a balance.” The detail is ravishing, from the oyster bar to the wall lights based on oars – a near subliminal nod to rivers and oceans. It’s a big-budget Busby Berkeley musical of a dining experience, with subtlety restricted to the kitchen.

Massimo, London

“If something is difficult, expensive or heavy, it’s usually very good,” says LA-based restaurateur Mr Chow, and that’s a truism for eating out. It’s difficult to get a reservation at Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley, it’s certainly expensive, and before you get into the inner-sanctum of its dining room, you pass through a door with theatrical heft that keeps the inside invisible from the hotel bar outside. It makes you feel as if you’ve passed into Narnia, albeit a dimly lit one designed by the aforementioned Mr Collins. It’s grand, intimate, and terribly grown-up, yet playful at the same time – just like its chef patron’s revelatory cooking, which remains among the most masterful in Europe. “I like warmth and darkness,” says Wareing, “So David created an interior to feel like being inside a bottle of Bordeaux.” This is where Chris Bailey, creative director of Burberry, dines with his partner after his show, rather than celebrating in the throng of London Fashion Week. It’s a destination dining room but also a casual canteen for the stratospherically successful.

Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley, London

If Wareing’s dining room is a bottle of Bordeaux, then Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester is a flute of Champagne. From the silver in the colour palette and the effervescent circular gaps in surfaces – as if caused by bubbles – the room is cool and sharp. It’s thawed a little since its opening, but when it launched it was almost conceptually glacial – waiters wore eyeliner and seemed to glide around the hushed space, arranging forks face down.

ADAD – as Alain calls it – is one of numerous Ducasse restaurants designed by Paris-based designers Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku. For the 540 seater, 43rd floor miX in Las Vegas, the couple produced something suitably super-flashy, but were also inspired by the organic nature of a place that, as Jouin says, “inhabits the space between desert and sky”. At Ducasse’s Plaza Athénée restaurant in Paris – totally refurbished last year – the starting point was the idea of freezing time while acknowledging the OTT palace status of the hotel. It’s a grander room than at the Dorchester, but with similar touches of futurism. If pushing the door into Marcus Wareing’s restaurant at The Berkeley lets you in on a plush, dark and textural secret, then making your way through the larger door at the Plaza Athénée is like a trip through the looking glass. Painstakingly hand-embroidered panels surround the space which is dominated by an immense “exploded” crystal chandelier, hundreds of its tears suspended by invisible means around the main structure, as if in mid-blast. When Ducasse decided he want to “simplify” the menu with a relatively reductionist approach to ingredients, he wanted the room to change with it. The table setting is at first stark, and then slowly builds up and up, until it’s time for the tea trolley to come around, with potted plants from which your leaf of choice is cut. “We wanted magic to happen,” says Manku. “We suspended time with the exploded chandelier, so you wonder how long you’ve been within the space… it could be one or four hours.”

Manku and Jouin serve as choreographers as much as decorators. “You can sculpt emotions,” says Manku. “You can have a vast space and make it seem intimate.” Their latest project is the interior of Sur Mesure at the new Mandarin Oriental in Paris, now HQ for chef Thierry Marx. Marx does sublime things in terms of taste while deconstructing and arranging ingredients into visually dazzling concepts, adorned with edible flowers and bold brush strokes of colour. Sur Mesure is spacey, in a 2001 way. It’s dressed entirely in white cotton fabric, with abrupt folds and eruptions in strategic points. “You enter through a curved passageway, which slows you down and makes you unsure about what’s around the corner,” says Manku. “We wanted to create something celestial, not above or below the earth; avant-garde – to reflect the food – but comfortable. Conversation has to be possible. Too often restaurants are hyper-focused on the cuisine, so if you laugh too loudly or drop a fork, it makes you tense. We wanted to create the Parisian palace hotel dining room of the 21st century. Remember, when Versailles was created, the Hall of Mirrors was radical and audacious.”

Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athénée, Paris

A visit to the Lecture Room & Library at Sketch, London’s most ambitious art/theatre hybrid warren of bars and restaurants for over a decade, is an operatic and multi-layered experience. The maitre d’ leads you up the now iconic faux molten-chocolate staircase in her fetish-high heels, past staff in retro black and white French maid’s uniforms, into a room that blends a lavish MGM Hollywood sunrise setscape with contrasting Moorish aspects. Then Pierre Gagneau’s exquisite tasting menu starts rolling out: warm stone bass carpaccio; veal and morels with pear and gorgonzola sorbet; five lavish desserts all at once… The most fabulous thing about Sketch – food aside – is the undercurrent of the sci-fi sinister, or even macabre, along with the glamour and haute cuisine. There’s a Peter Greenaway, or perhaps Matthew Barney, element to all the costume drama, and an ethereal tone too – two huge portraits of a boy and a girl hang at either end of the room, painted white on white, appearing blank at first, and then slowly appearing as the aperture of your eyes adjust.

The Lecture Room and Library at Sketch, London

At the other end of the style spectrum, there’s a very self-conscious kind of modernist movement in certain kinds of dining, championed by the likes of Fergus Henderson and typified by his first St John restaurant. A stark, whitewashed ex-smokehouse with connotations of unprepossessing artisans and the Bauhaus, St John fits neatly with the cult of Labour & Wait styling and Gil Sans typography, while Viajante, another east London fashion and art crowd destination, follows the same food-first philosophy but takes a more rarefied approach. Like Henderson, chef Nuno Mendes has attracted a slavish following, but his food is more alchemical, throwing together offbeat combinations (mackerel and cherry granita served in a cloud of dry ice) and emphasising curious textures (“skin”, generally, is a fixation) for often amazing results. Viajante is 21st century modernist and fabulously Bethnal Green: Mendes himself has arms tattooed with mysterious dots and lines “to represent all the lives I’ve lived while travelling”, while his staff wear black denim and present a wine list glued roughly into a copy of Stuart Pigott’s Planet Wine. The kitchen at Viajante is fully exposed and the focal point of the room. “We don’t like to show people a menu,” says Mendes. “We like to take them on a journey. And the building we’re in, the old town hall, is luxurious in itself, so I created a room that’s minimal. In terms of the way the food looks, I start with the product, the dish evolves and then we find the perfect layout. We use simple plates, so it’s like a blank canvas, and I like to work with negative space, and texture.”

The final, and perhaps most important detail of any restaurant is the corps of diners that actually keep a restaurant ticking over. They can make for quiet background ambience or show stopping entertainment. At Daniel Boulud’s three Michelin-starred Manhattan restaurant, Daniel, the room is posh beyond posh and arranged like a sunken theatre in the round, with tables for two on a balcony encircling the outside. From here, many guests enjoyed the sight, one evening, some years ago, of a man and woman dining in the middle of the room, getting steadily drunker, until mid-meal when the latter dropped facedown into her fish course. The man carried on eating as if nothing had happened. Sometimes, the most memorable kind of dinner-theatre has nothing to do with design, service, ceramics or background music because ultimately, dining out is all about people watching.