Rustic Sophistication

Good design has never been more important. Susan Young takes a look at what’s happening in Scotland and … in Amsterdam.

Everyone is interested in design these days – you only have to turn on the TV to see how many design programmes there are. I’m just waiting for a Pub Inspector to pop up, which gives design advice… after all we’ve had the Hotel Inspector, Country House Rescue, Restoration Nightmare, Grand Designs and so on. Consumers are certainly paying attention to design more so now than ever. The good news is the licensed trade in Scotland is paying attention to design and can hold its head up with the very best bars, restaurants and hotels in the world. Openings in the last 12 months including Si! in Irvine, The Tullie Inn in Balloch, Angels Share in Edinburgh, Swing in Glasgow, The Cairn in Auchterarder, The Waterside in West Kilbride and countless others, have been big investments, and the design credentials of all are impeccable. All of these bar and pubs would not be out of place in any capital city anywhere in the world. And they are just the tip of the iceberg… you’ve also got great bars and hotels such as Tigerlily, Scotts in Largs, Le Monde, Orocco Pier, The Crabshakk, Turnberry Hotel, I could go on, but you get the picture.

But it’s not just the bigger operators that are spending on their outlets, licensees across the country are looking at clever design ideas to make the most of their space and make businesses more efficient at the same time. And brewer, Tennent Caledonian, has been right behind them. Kenny Barclay, Trade Investment Manager, explains, “We have been supporting licensees who want to carry out minor refurbishments as well as, of course, supporting bigger initiatives too. We don’t need a glossy business plan, but we do need to know what the refurbishment is likely to add to the business with a financial model to support that, and of course we are always keen to offer advice. We are happy to support customers who want to improve their businesses, after all that makes good business sense.”

Laura Hunt, owner of The Brown Bull in Lochwinnoch, is one licensee who benefitted from support from Tennent’s to help her refurbish. She was the front of house manager of the pub for many years prior to it going into administration in 2010 and backing from Tennent’s enabled her to purchase the pub and plan for its successful future. She says, “I approached Tennent’s to see if they could help and it was clear that they were going to offer us the best support, favourable loan terms and the best prices. After a long process we cleared the deal in June and began refurbishing the pub, extending the beer garden, building the quality of our food offer and staffing, and giving the Brown Bull a strong place at the heart of our community. Things have been steadily rising since then and I have real confidence in our future.” Tennent Caledonian are not the only brewer offering advice. On a visit to Amsterdam recently with Heineken we visited Heineken Horeca City – which is a very large showroom for Heineken customers (in fact around 6500 people visit it annually). It houses a variety of different bar concepts with turnover increasing adjustments which Heineken use to give their customers ideas. There was a traditional bar, a style bar, a sports club bar, a nightclub and a bar which was food led, it was fascinating tour, mainly because of the clever design ideas and the technology.

In the style bar there was an small computer on the wall. It looked a bit like an alarm system – you key in a pre-determined number which corresponds to a cocktail recipe and the drink automatically poured – using premium brands, which were visible on the back-bar. It was a great bit of kit. I’ve not seen anything so sophisticated here. Check it out on

There was also a table, in the food-focussed bar, which was the perfect height for dining, but could be moved upwards and used as a posing table at night for vertical drinking – which increases the volume of drink sold according to research. There are quite a few bars here that would benefit from this idea. It was the ease that it was put up – the girl pulled it up on her own in a matter of seconds.

But Heineken has not stopped there, as it has invited designers from  around the world to collaborate on building the ultimate concept lounge bar. This innovative project gives designers from around the world (and there’s time to put something forward – the closing date is 31st May – apply online an opportunity to come up with an all-round lounge bar experience. The collaboration will result in a pop up space that will be showcased at Fuori Salone 2014, and in other cities of the world later next year. Mark van Iterson, Global Head of Design at Heineken said, “Clubs and bars are our design playground and where Heineken is most at home. In a similar way that the automotive industry creates concept cars to showcase future possibilities, we at Heineken want to explore experimental and pioneering ideas for nightlife.” He adds, “We have a thirst for collaboration, so we wanted to widen this year’s project to the broadest possible audience by asking people all over the world to share their insights. We want the lounge bar we present in Milan in 2014 to provoke discussion and challenge current thinking around nightlife.”

The visit to Horeca really opened my eyes to some of the technology that is available, although perhaps in Scotland we have not cottoned on to some of it, but certainly interior designers are keeping an eye on developments around the world. Gerry Thompson of Thr3 Design explains, “We take inspiration from continental magazines, the internet, we go and look at places far and wide and we try and incorporate what we see, into what we do. We also talk to each other and share ideas. Every project is different and requires a different approach. But perhaps on the technology side bars here are not as far ahead as some of their European counterparts. But certainly some licensees are seeing new technology and do want to incorporate it into their bars.” Two who have done exactly that are Malcolm Gray and John Eastwood who own the Earl of Marchmont in Edinburgh. They recently installed a new Infranomic heating system disguised as wall mirrors instead of a traditional heating system. Art work instead of mirrors was also an option, the end result would have looked different, but would have delivered the same effect. Says Manager David Anderson, “An electrician friend of the owners recommended the system, and they decided to go for it. It has been brilliant. Everyone who comes in comments on it, and people have come from Aberdeen to look at it. Not only does it look good, instead of unsightly radiators or fan heaters, we’ve got a set of smart mirrors, but it is so efficient. So much so, that sometimes it gets a bit warm. Our energy costs have been halved. It is amazing.”

The Earl of Marchmont was the first bar in the UK to have the Infranomic heaters installed. They work by emitting ‘far infrared’ energy which floods through a room and is absorbed into all materials in the room, including the walls, ceiling and floor. The panels can be designed to look like art work or mirrors – or take the shape of a favourite picture or image.

The mirrors were fitted by energy savings company Direct Savings, and Ged Smith its Managing Director comments, “Infrared does not rely on convection power so it gives a constant warm environment, creating a very efficient heating system. This really is the future of heating. It has to be seen to be believed.”

It’s not just heating that can be hidden in a mirror – Plasma screens can too. I first saw it in the Fort Hotel in Broughty Ferry, after its refurbishment last year. The TV in the refurbished bar was transformed into a feature mirror – when it was off it looked like a mirror, and when it was on it was a TV. It totally fitted in with the stylish décor and didn’t stand out like a sore thumb. These days companies can make just about any frame you want into a TV mirror frame, which also requires special glass. But they are very effective and it’s not massively expensive to do. It means that when the TV is off, the powered screen is not detracting from the look of the bar.

The Fort in Broughty Ferry is a prime example of a licensee that continues to re-invest in his outlet. Owner John Black is now onto the second phase. I’m sure it will be of the same quality as the Fort Bar, which is a mix of traditional materials mixed with a sophisticated edge. He is right on trend.

Gerry Thompson of Thr3 Design, is well placed to comment on trends. His company Thr3 Design have been behind some of the best looking bars in Scotland for a number of years. Projects have included Tony Macaroni’s in West George St, Glasgow, Si! in Irvine, The Waterside and Scotts in Largs. All quite different. He told DRAM, “The trend at the moment is for a rustic feel mixed with an element of glamour. Therefore you will see reclaimed wood finishes and chandeliers. This trend will no doubt run its course and disappear, all trends do, but I think it has some way to go yet.”

Says Gerry, “Working on Si! was terrific because of the scale of the building. It’s not often you get to do two big dining areas in one venue. I love the fact that when you go through the door upstairs and see that giant Italian mural. It gives you a real feel of a grand Italian cafe. The mural, is wallpaper that was specially printed for Si! You can’t buy that on a roll.”

He continues, “The Waterside design was created around its location, right on the water. While Tony Macaroni’s started out as a traditional Italian feel, and we have moved it forward somewhat.”

He concludes, “Certain people in Scotland are investing in design. Some folk think they can do it themselves, and some people pull it off. If you  have an idea bouncing about in your head and you then try and design it, it’s a bit like ‘Ready Steady Cook’. You get a banana and beans and have to try and turn into something… it doesn’t work. If it is right, it is right forever. If it is wrong, it is wrong forever. I think it gives people an advantage when they use a designer in the long term. We give people quality and they appreciate it. Today customers feel more comfortable in a nicely designed environment, and if they comfortable they will stay longer, and frequent it more often.”

Certainly his outlets have all stood the test of time, and the fact that he gets so much repeat business from the likes of Malcolm Simpson, The Blairs and Guiseppe Marini speaks volumes.

Kerr Blyth of KBAD is another well know designer of bars and restaurants. The company was responsible for the likes of Orocco Pier, The Voodoo Lounge, Monteith’s, Ricks and too many more to mention. He told DRAM, “I think interiors are being paired back. But I don’t think there is a single trend – there is such a lot of diversity when it comes to bar design. Even a simple make-over can make a difference, and with the variety of lighting, paint, wallpapers, furniture and carpets on offer, design is more accessible than ever. Technology also makes this possible.”

He continues, “I think there has been a move away from so-called style bars which were perhaps a bit over-designed. There is a lot more honesty when it comes to design now. We can show how the building is constructed. We can leave the walls bare, and have bare light bulbs, we can recycle and re-invent. This is creative process which may be partly cost-driven, but you don’t have to over ladle it these days.

“It does help if the client understands design. It is part of the mix. We like to understand what they are trying to do and what they want to achieve. A great example of this is David Bann’s restaurant on St Mary’s Street in Edinburgh. I am proud that it is still the original design ten years on. It has been less about fashion and more about character and longevity. That’s the nirvana for designers. You don’t really want your design getting ripped out after a few years. A measure of our success is that the businesses we tend to get involved with are still trading. It’s not just about aesthetics but about how the business can develop in the space.”

He concludes, “Fashion wise the fact that speciality beers and wines are now being sold in Scottish pubs infuse the customer with enthusiasm and encourages them to go out and drink. Interesting products in quirky environments seem to be where it is at.”

I asked a couple of Scotland’s key operators to name the best designed bars they had ever seen. Buzzworks Kenny Blair said, “Tigerlily for overall design. But some bars in Miami when it comes to ergonomics for bartenders.” While David Wither of Monpeliers said “Tigerlily (truthfully!)” Colin Beattie has a different take on it, “I like traditional bars. I think there is a place for modernity, but I think true design evolves over time. The place I was most impressed with recently was a tiny hotel in Oban called The Ranald. The designer has squeezed 17 rooms in and the building is the size of a postage stamp. But they are great.” Colin Barr told DRAM (from Cannes), “Bar Luxembourg, it was away ahead of its time. Mash in Manchester took a lot of beating and of course the Republic Bier Halle which opened in 1999, and 14 years later has hardly changed at all, and the bar is just as popular as ever. In fact when it opened it won the highest interior award from Blueprint magazine.”