A Feast For The Eyes
Patrick Jouin gives the Auberge de I'Ill, Alsace, a redesign worthy of the restaurant's three Michelin stars
Ian Phillips -- Interior Design, 7/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
Too many cooks spoil the broth. In the case of the Auberge de l'Ill, they didn't do wonders for the decor either. "The restaurant is run by our whole family. There's my father, my mother, my uncle, my sister, my wife, me," head chef Marc Haeberlin says. "In the past, architects made an attempt to please everyone." The result? An interior with little stylistic unity. So, to mark the establishment's 40th year as a Michelin three-star, Haeberlin decided that a change was in order. To carry out the makeover, he explains, he called on Patrick Jouin, the designer of Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée in Paris: "He managed to freshen up the restaurant of a luxury hotel—without losing any of its soul."
The Auberge de l'Ill has plenty of soul of its own. Haeberlin's family has operated a restaurant on this site in Alsace, France, for 150 years, and he belongs to the fourth generation of chefs. His father, Paul, now in his mid-80s, is still often seen at work in the kitchen; a number of the employees have been there for 30 years. "It is," Jouin says, "the family business par excellence." Surrounding the restaurant, the village of Illhaeusern's half-timbered houses, lazy river, and weeping willows look like something out of a picture book.
Rather less than picture-perfect, however, was the restaurant's decor. The overall look was staid and uninspiring, with 18th-century pine paneling and cane-backed Louis XV–style chairs, lots of portraits and landscapes in oils and watercolors, and a fountain made of granite and tin. "It lacked poetry," Jouin recalls. "It was nowhere near as refined as the cuisine." Furthermore, the enfilade of dining rooms was more like a corridor.
Jouin introduced his solutions gradually. "The family agreed things had to change," he recounts. "Each time, though, we stirred up memories." Haeberlin's uncle, Jean-Pierre, especially, had trouble accepting the disappearance of antique furniture he'd collected for decades. Eventually, Haeberlin just told Jouin "not to listen too much to anyone."
Structurally, Jouin changed very little. He simply extended the glassed-in veranda, which overlooks the River Ill, by 3 ½ feet. He did, however, radically modify the perception of the interior by installing a C-shape screen that embraces the tables in the main dining room, the middle of the three—thereby countering the corridor effect. "You can no longer look straight through from one end to another," he explains. The screen is made from hundreds of handblown Murano glass tubes, strung together with steel cables and illuminated with a combination of warm and cold sources. Halogen spotlights shine onto the tubes at ceiling level, while LEDs are recessed in the plate of mirrored stainless steel at the base of the screen.
The plate's slightly amorphous shape is one of several river references. "The Ill often bursts its banks, and the plate is like puddles left on the floor," Jouin says, then goes on to call the screen's vertical tubes "luminous reeds." In the vestibule, a 19th-century steel fish, previously displayed horizontally, is now hung by its mouth in a niche. Another geographic allusion is so abstract that it will probably escape the attention of most diners: The carpet pattern is a magnified satellite image of Alsace with dotted orange lines weaving their way across it to indicate contours in the land.
Out front, the 1950 facade—which replaced the original, destroyed during the Second World War—is now partially hidden behind a one-story shed extension constructed of heat-treated ash planks; Jouin drew his inspiration from the drying sheds once used by local tobacco farmers. The rambling building's rearmost structure, housing the third dining room and a lounge, is known as the pigeonnier, and it does indeed resemble a dovecote, with walls clad in pine planks and sliding screens made of stacked hazel and chestnut branches.
For lighting, Jouin relied mainly on standing lamps—much easier to move. "At each setting, the configuration of the tables changes, so you need something flexible," he explains. The exception is a glowing oval ceiling cove above one of the tables in the veranda. "It's potentially the worst table in the whole place, because it's right next to the entry," Jouin says. "Lighting it in a very specific way gives it more cachet."
Prestige virtually oozes from the front lounge's collection of framed photographs, some of the Haeberlins from different eras and others of celebrities who have enjoyed the family's hospitality over the years: the queen of England, former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, and chef Paul Bocuse. "We may have altered things," Jouin says, "but we kept the spirit." Completely unaltered, the room's ceramic stove dates from the early 1700's. This ornate artifact, embedded in the building's concrete foundation, was absolutely impossible to move.
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