The New Xanadu
In London did Mourad Mazouz a stately pleasure dome decree—Noé Duchaufour-Lawrance and Gabhan O'Keeffe executed the vision
Susan Welsh -- Interior Design, 2/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
For nearly a century, this 1779 town house by James Wyatt enjoyed an eminently respectable existence as the London headquarters of the Royal Institute of British Architects. By 1999, when restaurateur Mourad Mazouz and DJ Claude Challe, then business partners, visited the neoclassical building, it was vacant and falling into disrepair. Hardly the epitome of white-hot hipness, but Challe immediately saw the potential of the 13,000-square-foot space. "I said, 'Are you crazy? It's huge,'" recalls Mazouz. "He said, 'Don't be French. Be American. You need to see life big.'"
At his other London restaurant—the more intimate, Moroccan-themed Momo—Mazouz had tackled the design himself, but for something on this scale, he realized, he needed help. That assistance ultimately came in the form of 25-year-old Noé Duchaufour-Lawrance, who now has a Paris design firm called Néonata. "Noé and I clicked immediately," says Mazouz, who enlisted the neophyte to handle most of the job. For the upstairs haute-cuisine restaurant, the Lecture Room, Mazouz hired architect Gabhan O'Keeffe.
Together, Mazouz, Duchaufour-Lawrance, and O'Keeffe navigated the treacherous shoals of British planning restrictions. "Commercial bureaucrats have different minds," says O'Keeffe, who made his name designing residences but had never undertaken a commercial project. "Ultimately, the goal is the same. You just have to kick harder." It took over two years to turn the Grade II–listed building into an elaborate temple to food, drink, and attitude. Located between Mayfair and Regent Street, the establishment now comprises two restaurants, one of which is also an art gallery, plus two bars, and a patisserie.
The renovation cost of $16 million is an ironically large figure for a project that seems to revel in rough edges and loose ends. But Mazouz sees the venture as malleable, a work to remain in progress. Thus the name, Sketch.
Duchaufour-Lawrance preserved some of the strongest neoclassical features: domed skylights, vaulted ceilings with elaborate plasterwork, and mosaic floors and murals. These, he says, were incorporated into a "second skin" that allows visitors to travel in both space and time. The journey begins in the Parlour, a ground-floor patisserie. Few architectural changes were made here. Meanwhile, Jurgen Bey of Droog Design upholstered Louis XVI–style chairs in kitschy textured velvet and encased crystal chandeliers in clear plastic cylinders. "You could bring your grandmother here," says Duchaufour-Lawrance.
Distinctly less grandmotherly, the stark foyer features more Bey furniture, a kinetic sculpture by Vincent Leroy, and an LED sculpture by Chris Levine. From here, stairs lead down to the Gallery restaurant, bookended by two bars. In the West Bar, vintage Eero Saarinen Tulip chairs sport cushions in black fabrics of varying textures, and tables can be raised for lunch or lowered at cocktail hour. The East Bar is a showpiece. Duchaufour-Lawrance calls it the Egg Bar, after its ovoid plaster enclosure.
Embracing the egg, a double staircase curves upward. Blue on one side, pink on the other, tiny recessed lights are the only clue that toilets are above. These unisex facilities are actually individual enclosures of opalescent fiberglass, like Portosans from a sci-fi movie set.
The vast white Gallery operates as a video-art gallery during the day. At night, custom leatherette-covered banquettes are rearranged, and chairs and tables appear. Voilà—you have a restaurant. In either mode, Duchaufour-Lawrance points out, the space invites participation. It takes effort to appreciate the art, the electronic music, and the eccentric menu of small dishes, overseen by Michelin-starred chef Pierre Gagnaire. "We don't just feed people. They have to think," says Duchaufour-Lawrance.
O'Keeffe's second-floor Lecture Room could be in a different universe. Says George Warrington, O'Keeffe's partner and the firm's design director, "It was actually like doing a large drawing room and dining room in a private house." (O'Keeffe counts Sao Schlumberger and Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis among his clientele.) Lecture Room customers are coddled in his plushest style. Velvet covers the comfortable armchairs, and the carpet features an abstract sunburst in plum, burgundy, butterscotch, and salmon pink. Ornate art nouveau–esque candelabras adorn the tables where Gagnaire's more elaborate efforts are served—critics have praised the food but deplored the prices: Entrées cost between $65 and $120.
In the adjacent Library, the walls are paneled in padded ivory-colored leather studded with small convex mirrors, and curtains made of colorful crystal beads shade the windows. The Smoking Room's walls are covered in saffron velvet stamped with gold and silver motifs. Some have compared the effect to Jean-Michel Frank and Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann, but it surely owes something to Cecil B. DeMille. "Though the space may look very grand, it's actually quite flexible," says Warrington. "You can turn it into a ballroom in a few hours." In other words, the Lecture Room and Library may inhabit the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum from the rest of Sketch, but they're equally hard to pin down.
The East Bar, one of two bars at London restaurant Sketch, was designed by Noé Duchaufour-Lawrance. Inside the plaster shell, inflatable plastic stools and banquettes provide seating.
Drenched in resin that resembles melted chocolate, the main stair hints at the decadent delights found above, in the haute-cuisine Lecture Room.
The Gallery in restaurant mode. By day, the space is cleared of tables and Louis XVI–style chairs to become a video-art gallery.
The West Bar, with vintage Eero Saarinen chairs from the collection of restaurateur Mourad Mazouz.
Duchaufour-Lawrance incorporated the Georgian building's original skylight into the futuristic design of the East Bar's rest room, a mezzanine inhabited by individual fiberglass enclosures.
Gabhan O'Keeffe designed the Library, which can be used as a private dining room. Padded leather panels cover the walls.
The domed 19th-century ceiling of the Lecture Room.
Like the Library, the Lecture Room is furnished with custom armchairs covered in chenille.
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