Architects and designers SHH have revamped Café Liberty, the 60-cover, second floor restaurant at London's iconic Liberty department store on Regent Street, which was originally constructed in 1924 using the timbers of two ships (HMS Impregnable and HMS Hindustan).
The fast-turnaround, tight-budget project was commissioned by the leisure creative team at Compass Group UK & Ireland, the catering company now operating the restaurant, and has radically changed the look and feel of the space, re-integrating it into the style and spirit of the original Arts & Crafts building - one of London's finest and most distinctive retail environments - thanks to a number of choice vintage and contemporary interventions.
Major new features include reclaimed 1920s doors (sourced from Retrouvius); a 1920s Arts & Crafts washstand, reading desk and mahogany cabinet to serve as greeter and waiter stations; eye-catching hand-blocked wallpaper (by Martha Armitage); a series of beautiful reclaimed glass lights and three neon flying ducks (bespoke-designed by SHH's lead designer on the project, Helen Hughes) at the entrance of the café, to attract attention and give the room a contemporary tweak.
‘Our overall approach', commented Helen Hughes, ‘was to make the interior look properly integrated with the building; make the restaurant function better, with more appropriate seating and lighting, and introduce striking new elements, that were either era-appropriate, highly contemporary or else which evoke the craft and maker spirit of the Arts & Crafts movement, such as the hand-printed wallpaper.'
The brief for the rectangular, 125 sq m space was generated in partnership between SHH, Liberty and Compass Leisure and began with practical issues. Existing seating, for example, had been arranged around 6-seater tables, which were often not fully used, leading to lost covers when customers were waiting for tables. The new marble-topped tables are now 4-seater tables with one group table for up to ten people, which is proving an instant hit. Seating was replaced with the Conran A16 chair, styled on the classic Bent Wood chair, which again gives a sense of warmth, history and permanence - as well as being particularly comfortable and easy to sit on.
The overly-blonde flooring in the space was stained to dark wood to be more in keeping with the store's original dark timbers, whilst a wall of beautifully-framed lead-lined windows was uncovered and restored. The servery area frontage was re-clad to match the new flooring.
Lighting was a major element of the new scheme. The existing system, which featured fittings swinging from the ceiling track, looked cluttered in a low-ceilinged space and also released no ambient light onto the walls or ceilings. This was replaced with discreet, directional spotlights along both long elevations of the room to highlight certain areas and take the eye away from the ceiling, whilst six beautiful and vintage bell-glass lights (surplus to requirements elsewhere in the building) now form a central feature, hanging just above the tables down the central spine of the space.
The reclaimed 1920s doors now screen openings into the store's back offices and also partially-obscure the kitchen (although clear glass still allows glimpses of movement to be seen). ‘These really were a lucky find', added Helen Hughes, ‘as their slightly battered and beaten look is perfect for the building and it's hard to believe they haven't always been in place'. The gentlemen's suit fabric that lines the back office entry doors in a pleated and gathered curtain, referencing Liberty's fashion offer, was also sourced at Retrouvius. The Arts & Crafts washstand and 1920s mahogany cabinet are used as waiter stations, whilst the 1920s reading desk is used as the host / greeter station at the entrance to the restaurant.
The main decoration took the form of new paintwork for panels and columns, in a strong and contemporary mid-dark grey, with the two long walls papered in two different intricate grey and white motif designs (one of leaves and butterflies and one of a fantasy garden) by wallpaper designer Martha Armitage (sourced from Sigmar). The final fun element is the shocking pink neon sculpture of flying ducks at the entrance to the space, designed by Helen Hughes and manufactured by Neon Creations.
‘It's always good to have an unexpected element', Helen Hughes commented. ‘This ensures the space is not seen as ‘twee' and is definitely in the risk-taking spirit of Liberty's and its endlessly pioneering commitment to style.'