Year of the Dragon
If you've been to London in the past 12 months, you know that the Christian Liaigre–designed Hakkasan still rules the restaurant scene
Ian Phillips -- Interior Design, 7/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Chinese restaurants in England used to mean Formica tables, red paper lanterns, and sweet-and-sour pork. That, however, was before Hakkasan came along. Designed by Christian Liaigre, the superchic London eatery opened in 2001 and immediately put style back into Sino dining. Hakkasan remains uneclipsed by more recent London restaurant arrivals—and success has been such that Liaigre is busily working on two additional Asian-themed projects for owner Alan Yau.
Hakkasan is hardly Yau's first gastronomic triumph. Born in Hong Kong and educated in the U.K., he's the man behind the hugely popular Wagamama chain, whose ramen noodles, low prices, and bench seating created something of a food phenomenon in the British capital. The first Wagamama, which opened in 1992, was conceived by John Pawson. The second was the work of David Chipperfield. Interiors, it seems, are an abiding passion for Yau. "If I were to live my life over again," he asserts, "I'd prefer to be a designer."
For Hakkasan, he chose a rather obscure location, a Soho alleyway that's not only extremely hard to find but also slightly insalubrious. (A few years back, junkies were shooting up there.) The restaurant itself is situated in the basement of a brick-fronted former car park. Yet, for Liaigre, the spot had a certain charm: "It's right out of a detective novel. A door opens at the end of a dark passage, and you discover a world of luxury behind."
Yau's brief to the Parisian designer was to "bring back the dragon." And Liaigre did. Modifying dragon images from Qing dynasty documents, he reworked the motifs to fit into a circle and had them embroidered on taupe leather covering the banquettes. Chinese references of all kinds abound. The main entrance, with its lotus flower motifs, pays homage to the doors of temples. The handrail of the stairs leading down to the restaurant incorporates Chinese characters. The reception area is meant to recall the dressing room of an emperor, with a desk that brings to mind a Mandarin traveling chest and three huge wood cabinets for checking patrons' coats. In the lounge area, the marble-topped tables were inspired by "dream stones." Traditional in Chinese houses, these decorative panels are made of semiprecious stones chosen for veins that look like landscapes.
At the same time, Liaigre was keen to avoid Chinese-restaurant clichés. No red walls, for starters. Taking a lead from photos of blue-tinted, misty mountain landscapes, he inserted blue glass into stainless-steel frames to create vibrant backlit panels. He also enclosed the central dining area in a "cage" made of sculpted wooden screens, most bought from antiques dealers in Beijing. Seen through the screens, other diners become mere silhouettes, creating a mysterious aura.
The impressive 54-foot-long bar is backed by an expanse of sawed slate that Liaigre refers to as the "Great Wall of China." He originally planned to cover it with a hanging garden of moss, lichens, and orchids. "It would have been wonderfully poetic," he says. (The London health authorities unfortunately thought otherwise.) Instead, he worked with Arnold Chan of Isometrix to create a special lighting effect on the stone. "He asked Arnold, 'Can you make it move for me?'" remembers Yau. Pendant fixtures above the bar were fabricated in the South of France.
Liaigre seems particularly happy to have surmounted his biggest challenge: encouraging people to go down to a basement in the first place. To this end, he made sure the entry would be dramatic. The stairwell's walls are faced in slate. Portuguese stone—the same that Liaigre used for the Mercer Kitchen in New York—appears on the floor. The idea, he says, is to "give the impression of descending to a decadent brothel in Shanghai." There are even inset red lights to help guests on their way.