Where There's Smoke *
There's sure to be a heated debate on lighting design
Fred A. Bernstein -- Interior Design, 4/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
When Ali Tayar was designing the back room at Pop Burger in New York's meatpacking district, he came up with an intriguing lighting idea: Spotlights would emanate from random points in the ceiling to form a line of circles across the oak-plank bar. This would create the desired effect, however, only if the beams of light could be seen converging on the bar at different angles.
That required smoke.
"In a smoke-free environment, you see the source of the light and the end point, but you can't connect the two," says Tayar, whose Parallel Design worked with lighting consultant Attila Uysal on the project.
With smoking banned in cities on both coasts and an increasing number in between, designers of bars and restaurants have had to adapt to the loss of a design element. "Smoke reinforces intimacy," says John Powell, principal of Light Time in Space. A smoke-filled room, he adds, never feels empty.
Powell himself quit smoking 20 years ago, but he continued designing lighting for restaurants when smoking was still permitted. "You put point spots up at the ceiling to illuminate the smoke that gathered there," he says. "And down-lights powerful enough to cut through the smoke to illuminate the tables."
Tihany Design's Adam Tihany, who grew up in Israel, admits to feeling "nostalgia for the days when smoke-filled was a positive description of a room." In the cafés of his youth, he says, "The atmosphere was tangible." Now, when people see smoke in a restaurant, they're alarmed.
Not all has been lost, though. Strategically arranged, Powell says, fixtures can create a cloud effect: "When there isn't a cloud of smoke, a cloud of light will do the trick."
Fixtures can also be lower, subtler. At Evoo, a restaurant in Somerville, Massachusetts, he shrouded sconces in spirals of stainless-steel mesh and placed them at a height of 81/2 feet. "You can decrease the intensity of the bulbs and bring them closer to people," he explains.
In the old days, he points out, you couldn't use mesh, because it became clogged with residue from smoking. Today, he chooses materials for overhead fixtures without worrying that they'll get dirty in short order. "No smoke, less dust, more edge," he says.
The namesake principal of Robert D. Henry Architects was a student in Paris in the 1970's, when smoke in bars was so thick, he recalls, "You could scrape a layer off the walls." But the memory is a fond one. "Those were the days," he says, "and smoke was part of them."
For the Potion Lounge on New York's Upper West Side, Henry designed thin glass partitions filled with water. "The movement, the bubbles, creates the same ethereal quality as smoke," he says, adding that there's a reason that theatrical designers work with smoke machines.
Tihany considered using a FogScreen for an as-yet-unnamed restaurant at the MGM Grand hotel in Las Vegas. A Finnish product that he was studying, it would have allowed him to create a wall of mist on which light is projected—a clean, confined analogue to a smoke-filled room.
A cigar smoker, Tihany doesn't miss smoking in restaurants. For one thing, he says, back when there were smoking and no-smoking sections, he had to keep them separate with partitions. Now, rooms can be more open.
In addition, smoking requires massive air-handling equipment. "Sure, smoke adds atmosphere, but who wants to come home smelling like an ashtray?" asks Michael Poris. (His firm, McIntosh Poris Associates, designed the Panacea nightclub in Detroit, where smoking is allowed.)
Spice Market, the Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant that Jacques Garcia just completed in New York's meatpacking district, feels like a casbah. It's atmospheric—but of course not at all smoky. Michael Chambers, the project architect, says he doesn't mind the clear air. "It wasn't smoke that added the atmosphere," he opines of restaurants past, "but the sight of an attractive woman smoking."
Tayar, a nonsmoker, continues to express regrets about the ban on smoking. Hired to design a Manhattan restaurant before the prohibition went into effect, he spent three months creating special cast-aluminum ashtrays, reminiscent of machine parts from the industrial age. By the time the place was finished, though, there was no longer a need for the ashtrays. Tayar couldn't even give them away as gifts, he laments: "People would look at one and cough, cough, cough as if to say, 'Are you trying to kill me?' I started calling it a paperweight."
The way we lived then, Europe in the 1950's.
The cast-aluminum ashtrays he designed for a nearby restaurant.
At the Potion Lounge in New York, architect Robert D. Henry compensated for the lack of smoke's ethereality by installing compact fluorescents at the ceiling.
John Powell designed sconces of stainless-steel mesh for Evoo, a restaurant in Somerville, Massachusetts. "If smoking were still legal," he says, "they would be filthy in minutes."
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