The process of getting commissioned, designing and procuring an exclusive West End venue is something of a challenge, typically with tight deadlines, high aspirations and limited budgets. Nightclubs have short lifespans (three to six years between refurbishments) due to wear and tear and changing fashions. As highly serviced spaces, they are energy intensive and not particularly kind to the environment; this, together with expectations of quality and exotic finishes, makes them decadent both in function and make-up.
In 1998 my wife and I established Satmoko Ball, a London-based practice specialising in the design of licensed premises. In our experience, obtaining statutory consents for nightclub alterations is far from straightforward and involves licensing legislation, local authority guidance, dealing with landlords and heavy involvement with the fire services and environmental health officer - on top of building regulations and CDM.
Much work must be undertaken before tender; seating layouts, for example, may be fixed at licensing hearings (Stage D) by the fire offi cer.
This article focuses on two projects completed this year for the same client: Boujis in South Kensington and Volstead in central London. Both cater for the wealthier clubber, with an emphasis on the quality of experience in respect of service, food and drink, music and, not least, surroundings. Staff contact with customers has implications on the design as both clubs mostly have table service.
THRESHOLDS Nightclubs tend to occupy marginal spaces such as basements, which usually presents challenges of access, means of escape and servicing.
Like a night at the opera, the transition from street to performance is key to the way we articulate spatial sequences.
In both examples, elements of the reception area are replicated in the main spaces to provide continuity of experience - the street offers a glimpse of what lies beyond and, once inside, traces of the outside world are visible.
The street frontage in daylight is reduced to dark surfaces and a discreet name: the shop front of Boujis has opaque glass and a simple signboard; Volstead has a door and canopy. This presents an enigmatic front and conceals the stock deliveries, which are usually piled up behind.
At night the experience is very different: the pavement becomes ordered with the ubiquitous red rope, dividing guests from the rest. The spectacle of the queue, the flash of paparazzi and the glimpses of intoxicated celebrity is the club's chief contribution to the public realm.
The entrance lobby to Boujis is lined with panels of varying reflectivity - ranging from aluminium-trimmed mirrors and black siliconebacked glass to gloss- and satin-sprayed MDF - which are fixed to battens to regularise the existing walls and conceal services. Building facades are implied by the slipped grid of the panels, suggestive of the city slipping into the lobby, wrapping the staircase and, finally, framing the DJ.
As a counterpoint, fleshy leather-clad MDF panels unfold from the DJ booth up the stair wall and ceiling, and return down behind the reception desk.
Volstead's basement reception is separated from the street by a staircase that has an asymmetric treatment to the walls. Sensuous fabric (installed by Suzanne Nodes) runs down the left-hand side, enfolding the reception area; on the right, contemporary black damask wallpaper from Timorous Beasties extends into the basement bar above the dado. Below, gloss-painted MDF panelling, designed with a formal play of vertical panels and cut-outs, provides a fixing plate for the chrome wall-mounted lights. Pattern has also been applied to the flooring, supplied by Ege.
CONCEPT There is a fundamental tension between the desire to create a new kind of environment - the expression of the myriad forces that brought it into being - and the client's branding exercise, which predetermines the space's appearance as replicating an experience from elsewhere. At our designs for Chinawhite and Umbaba, the Asian and African thematics border on Disney, and, like Disney, they actually conceal a complex and finely tuned commercial apparatus, which may account for the phenomenal success of Chinawhite.
At Volstead, the clients were less prescriptive but keen to communicate a 1920s theme.
We wanted to minimise the kitsch that may have resulted, so we reworked aspects of iconic early-20th-century design using new production techniques and materials - an interesting process. Weaving together the redescribed elements perhaps elevates it from simple pastiche - it is, despite its origins, a lot of fun.
At Boujis there was limited scope to develop the spaces to the basement as the club's infrastructure (seating layout, services, bar, etc. ) was already established. We approached the brief of transforming the club without spending much money in two simple ways: changing the furniture and implementing a new lighting strategy.
Banquettes were replaced by Comack in deep red leather with vertical stitching to provide visual rhythm; laser-cut folded-steel tables were selected from Contraforma and were lit from within by colour-change LEDS from Traxxon.
LIGHTING For Boujis we developed the idea of using programmable colour-changing walls for which we designed a number of patterns derived from underground associations: water, crystals, star constellations, abstract forests and antonymical associations of the infinite. We graphically recomposed photographs we had taken into vector drawings using CAD software. The Window Film Company then programmed their machinery to cut the patterns from coloured film (the star pattern had to be modified for the machine's capabilities so that the smallest cut-out was no less than around 4mm across).
We tested various colours and weights of film in the office with a simple mock-up using LEDs and a Perspex sheet.
We then selected a deep blue/ purple colour for the film which provided the best compromise of opacity with light diffusion, completely changing from a vibrant blue to a deep brown depending on the light emission.
For the actual lights, we used X-Chips from Lighting Effects Distribution. These are tiny DMX-controlled LEDs offering a long life, multiple colour and intensity options with minimal power usage. The lights were wired into MDF and toughened-glass light boxes which were prefabricated off site (the whole contract was undertaken either side of Christmas and the club was shut for only 14 days).
The boxes were site assembled; glass was ordered to suit and then sent to the Window Film Company for the attachment of coloured fi lm, behind which a layer of etched film was used to conceal wiring and fittings. Glass, rather than acrylic, was used to get the required fire rating for licensed premises. The bar was formed from sheets of 11mm toughened glass with flush allen bolt fixings through a conical plastic washer and an aluminium spacer sleeve fixed back to the timber-stud framing. Opaque black film was chosen, as a different effect was desired.
Clubs are hostile to finishes; alcohol and stiletto heels make short work of most fl ooring.
Daily cleaning usually involves an army of cleaners, aggressive detergents and lots of water.
This can get under floors and into joinery and cause longterm problems if all surfaces and edges are not adequately sealed. The clients favour timber flooring to all their licensed premises as it feels warmer than stone or tiling, wears in a more appealing way and is easier to maintain.
At Volstead we selected Escuro Ipe, a Brazilian walnut from Victorian Woodworks, for its durability, beautiful flaming, rich colour and grain variation.
The flooring and joinery package was installed unfinished and the site was cleared for 72 hours after sealing to enable the finish to cure properly. All internal corners were then sealed with a clear silicone bead. All joinery detailing was bespoke and kept robust and simple, comprising sapele-veneered MDF panels with solid hardwood lippings with a 20mm radius on softwood framing. The radius profile was chosen to evoke Art-Deco streamlining and also to cope better with knocks from stock movement and trading.
The joinery package included the banquette installation (carried out by upholsterer David Lawrence in a buttonback Chesterfield style), concealed lighting, till points and the bass speakers for the sound system installation (by CP Sound). All cabling had to be fixed and coordinated, as did sizes of speakers, tills and the banquettes' squab detailing.
The banquettes were dryassembled on site, then taken to David Lawrence's workshop where he took templates, before returning the carcasses to site to be installed.
This was the first project where we procured complex CNC-machined fretwork for the decorative mural and speaker grilles.
We used Vectorworks to produce drawings based on abstracted vintage radios, cityscapes and Arts and Crafts patterns; these were emailed to CNC Routing, where they were tweaked into the preferred format prior to cutting the boards. The boards were then sprayed off site with a highgloss finish by Paintworks.
We worked closely with steel fabricator McFarlane Telfer for the design of the palm light. Initial ideas of cutting the support armatures from solid stainless steel were rejected due to cost and weight, as was welding a profiled box section and grinding and polishing to achieve a mirror finish. Instead, we found that the most straightforward way was to laser-cut the profile from a 3mm stainless-steel sheet and laminate the sections together, forming a hollow core. The laminates were bonded and bolted together, providing high strength. The four armatures were bolted to ground via a welded box section, and a 600mm square plate resin was anchored into the basement slab.
Bespoke luminaires, fabricated by Surrey Welding, were formed from two halves of spun aluminium, screwed to a bespoke bracket fixed to the armature. Each luminaire has two tungsten bulbs fixed to the bracket. The bottom is closed off with a circular, toughened, etched-glass diffuser, siliconebonded to the aluminium, which was spun to form a lip at the base.
BAR AREA Volstead's stainless-steel and back bars were designed along with the client's operations team, the steel fabricator, and bar equipment supplier Maidaid. Appliances, fridges, ice dumps, basins, storage and bottle display were integrated into the drawings at an early stage to ensure functionality and pin down costs. Other key considerations were drainage runs and prefabricated installation components. The steel bar was designed initially in two pieces in order to get down the stairs. The contractor then discovered that it would just fit in one piece, which did actually happen. The bar top has a countersunk matt well that drains to one of the undercounter sinks. There is no beer on tap: drinks are cocktails, shots and mixers. The back bar display has a drinks pyramid, illuminated drinks shelf and a dimmable fluorescent tube which is concealed in a void in the wall.
The mechanical installation replaced the existing obsolete system's ductwork, air-handling units and air-conditioning. The speed of the procurement (a two-stage tender process and JCT IFC contract with contractor's design supplement) meant the integration of the mechanical installation was not as comprehensive as we would have liked. The result is reasonably conventional, with painted-out grilles and duct runs concealed behind the suspended-MDF ceiling.
Had we had more time, we would have specified a more integrated system with less visible grilles and access panels.