13 Apr 2010

Appetite for Design

Steve Labouchardiere, co-founder of of leisure interior design, graphic design and architectural specialists, designLSM on shopping mall banality, the importance of good lighting, and placing podiums in gentlemen’s clubs...
I MET my business partner, Simon McCarthy whilst designing international shopping malls. Occasionally our tedium would be relieved by a restaurant project. Not only were these faster to turn around, but much more theatrical and fun to do.
Having got a taste for it, we founded designLSM in 1988, which unfortunately coincided with the end of the boom. From our premises in Seven Dials, Covent Garden, which were just big enough for three drawing boards, we weathered a tough three years. Our first major contract was ‘Sticky Fingers’, Kensington, the restaurant of Rolling Stones bass guitarist, Bill Wyman. Trying to reach beyond the clichés of ‘Planet Hollywood’, we visited his pile in Suffolk. Amongst a lifetime’s music memorabilia were photos he'd taken of artist Marc Chagall. They’d been neighbours in Saint-Paul, Southern France for 12 years.
Birmingham’s ‘California Pizza Factory’ was another early claim to fame, where we installed one of the UK’s first wood fired pizza ovens.
Pressured by property prices, we swapped London for The Lanes in Brighton. We were fortunate, securing a four-floor site at a fixed £7k per year for five years. ‘Gay Pride’ occupies it now. Just around the corner was a restaurant called ‘Moshi Moshi’ (beside Dermot O Leary’s ‘Fishy, Fishy’) which was beautifully designed in a lightweight Japanese style.
Property prices increased as Brighton became fashionable, so we were forced to move again, although only to Hove, where we remain, behind the domestic frontage of a terraced villa. In 22 years, we’ve grown from from two people to 22 and rising.
Anyone who tells you times aren’t tough must be misleading themselves. It’s a stark contrast, comparing our best ever year of ‘07-08 to ‘08-‘09. Fortunately, we have loyal Clients who tend to stick with us. Creating additional services such as brand design and architecture have also underpinned what we do.

Concept to Completion
We’ve certainly had our fair share of difficult briefs, overcoming what seems like impossible deadlines and budgets. I think it’s rare that a design makes it all the way from ‘drawing board’ to site, getting tripped up along the way by local authority planners, building control, environmental health or the landlord.
From the initial design concept to the day of opening, a restaurant typically takes six months, although the jewel in our crown took five times that. Set in a former East London girls’ school, ‘Galvin La Chapelle’ and ‘Café du Vin are upmarket French eateries. Not many projects like this come in a career. Although only 100 years-old, the building looks closer to 300 - as if dropped from Florence. We loved its fading decadence, although to prevent plaster from dropping 70ft, the whole skin had to come off and be replaced with a traditional limed plaster. I hope we’ve done it proud.
We’re very flattered that it’s been shortlisted for Best Independent Restaurant in the 2010 Restaurant and Bar Design Awards, judged by leading design, restaurant and lifestyle press. Unfortunately, we’re up against Sir Terence Conran’s ‘Boundary’, which happens to be one of my favourite restaurants in London. We’re also fortunate to be nominated for Best Hotel Restaurant for our work at the runnymede-on-thames hotel.
Restaurants form a large proportion of our work, although we’re seeing an increase in hotel projects, from overall planning right through to the coasters on the bar. February 2008 saw the opening of the ‘Hard Day’s Night’ hotel which coincided with Liverpool’s tenure as Capital of Culture. We took a subtle approach to the design. Beatles references are weaved throughout - a chandelier in reception is made of Beatles’ song-sheets, and ‘Blakes’ restaurant features images inspired by the Sergeant Pepper album cover designed by Sir Peter Blake. What we definitely did not want to do was create an out-and-out ‘themed’ hotel like Disneyland!

Working Lifestyle
As you might expect, Simon and I probably eat out more than we should! But even more than the food, we can’t help picking up on a restaurant’s atmosphere, of which design is an essential part. Eating out often, we can clearly sense what works and what doesn’t. Regardless of spend, brutal lighting can kill a space. And believe it or not, overall, I don’t like design to overtake or intrude.
I’ve seen many restaurants which look like the designer’s gone headfirst into the look without giving due consideration as to what makes it function at its best. Rather than seeking to be cutting edge, I’d prefer to say that our designs are fit for purpose. We can help a business make money, but we can’t turn around a bad one. We’re not veiled in the red cloak of Superman!
Times have undoubtedly changed. I studied interior design at Manchester polytechnic (now Manchester University). My course has since been rebranded as ‘interior architecture’, which is a real bugbear. Although there’s an interchange with architecture, it feels like an apologetic term.
We’ve worked on some odd projects over the years, including a gentlemen’s club where the client requested numerous little stages; I never saw the final result!
We’ve just completed ‘Wallace and Co’ for BBC Masterchef presenter, Greg Wallace and his team, and have six Carluccio’s on the go as well as several front of house projects for Hilton. There’s also the UK sequel for Russian operators, ‘Goodman’. Enhancing the grandeur of a former banking hall, our design for the up-market steakhouse represents an evolution rather than a revolution...
The Restaurant and Bar Design Awards take place 22nd June
Galvin la Chapelle on Urbanspoon