Things are looking up in the dark satanic maze that is Old Street Tube station in London. A sleek new cafe has just muscled in between While U Wait key cutters, a travel agent and the cheery white-tiled 'caff ' with its queue of regulars jingling the change in their pockets. Nincomsoup's white-on-black logo cubes above the long glazed frontage look as smart as a page from a book on type faces. The new cafe, specializing in high-quality soup, rolled up its shutters to the public after the May bank holiday and the commuters started to troop in as though they had been taking breakfast there for a lifetime.
What does it take to make a member of the public look around and say 'Wow!' or raise an eyebrow or two, or even grin? If they were impressed or surprised they did not show it. Nincompoops the lot of them.
But perhaps it was still too early in the morning, especially after the long weekend.
Nincomsoup, the brainchild of brothers Ben and Tom Page-Phillips, has been designed by Arthur Collin Architect (also responsible for 67 Seattle Coffee Co. outlets in the 1990s), with graphics and brand identity by Andy Goodman at NB: Studio.
The challenge the clients and designers faced was to take a concrete bunker in one of the most tortuous Underground interchanges in London and make it into a place that was pleasant to be in and where it was fun to eat and meet. At the same time, there was a requirement to launch a new cafe brand in this unpromising setting.
The site was formerly covered with hamburger-brown tiles under a suspended ceiling. As the tiles were chipped away and the ceiling dismantled, an impressive underlying concrete structure was revealed, with chunky aggregate texturing on the structural columns lining the facade. The walls of this concrete shell were covered in a brushed-on wash of sand and cement, providing a simple and economic backdrop to the more colourful cafe fixtures and fittings.
No attempt was made to create an attention-grabbing explosion of light, by installing a battery of artificial lighting equipment and applying reflective finishes on every available surface - the knee-jerk response of most designers faced with an underground site. At Nincomsoup the approach was much more subtle.
The first impression as you peel off from the flow of bodies emerging from the ticket hall (turn left as you leave) is one of space.
Project architect Duncan Michel describes it as 'cathedral like'; and there is certainly grandeur: a large area of open floor (coloured concrete) where the queues at the counter can form without jostling, and overhead the unexpectedly tall ceiling that you will not find in the neighbouring outlets. Large sign boards advertising food and drinks are suspended above the terrazzo serving counter, claiming attention like arrivals and departures boards at a railway station, but closer in appearance to directional signs in a major exhibition hall: it's this constant emphasis on size that is so unexpected in this subterranean location.
The staff, in lead-grey and black outfits, wearing little chef 's caps, are lined up in front of shoulder-high partitions that conceal the kitchen activity from the customers.
Take your gourmet soup and sit by the front bar counter - rubber topped in a range of vegetable colours, green, yellow, red - staring out at the waves of commuters as they emerge spasmodically from the Northern Line. Alternatively, you can retreat to a row of tables in front of a very long Gothic pew, discovered in some second-hand emporium. The pew is intended to add a touch of Victoriana, but it seems wonderfully at odds with the faux flock wallpaper on the section ofwall behind which instantly brings traditional curry houses to mind.
If you were looking for the key decorative theme at Nincomsoup, among the eccentric mix of styles and references, it would be the strong colour palette which the architect has cleverly incorporated into the lighting by painting the flex conduits to the pendant lamps (fitted with standard bayonet bulbs) to match the colours of the rubber table and bar tops. The theme continues in the WCs where each cubicle is painted a different colour. By using British standard colours the architect has achieved true matching shades across a variety of materials.
The kitchen has the capacity to stock additional satellite cafes. If the Page-Phillips brothers decide to expand and set up other outlets, Londoners beyond the Old Street area should look out for that logo cube, the vegetable soup colours - and, of course, the name.