Sex and the Savoy *
Barbara Barry brings New World buzz to a sedate London hotel
Susan Welsh -- Interior Design, 4/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
When Barbara Barry arrives at the Savoy one cold, damp February morning, it's as though spring has suddenly come. She charges around the London hotel, talking to a waiter at Banquette—the casual upstairs restaurant she's just completed—about small changes that would make his life easier, thanking the lady in the gift shop for the loan of some coasters, rearranging chairs in the lobby. "Every time I come in, the furniture is in a different place," she says brightly. "I have an organizing thing: There should be white flowers there. These ashtrays are ugly. Can't we have some books? Can't we have some things that make it alive?" '
Barry's already ordered white lilies, but she confides that management won't let her leave a stack of art deco books on a console for fear "they'll get pinched." All in all, though, this 115-year-old landmark seems more vibrant than it has in years. Thanks to Barry's work—at Banquette, in the lobby, and at the august Savoy Grill—what had begun to look a bit like a graveyard where old Tory bankers go to die has been reborn without losing any of its special character.
The hotel's jazz-age heyday lives on at Banquette. Because it overlooks the building's facade, with its horizontal bands of black and white marble, Barry adopted a linear motif for the long, narrow 860-square-foot restaurant. The slats of wooden blinds mask the arched frames of full-height windows, and inset brown vinyl pinstripes form a box pattern on the ivory vinyl floor. On shelves surrounding the kitchen entrance, rows of cups, glasses, and bottles exude an air, Barry says, of a "deco café from the '30's."
Horizontality carries through to the Savoy Grill, a British institution that hadn't been refurbished in 30 years. For this pièce de résistance—probably the highest-profile room that Barry has ever designed—she again took her cue from the hotel's facade, echoed to greatest effect in the black-and-caramel stripes of the cotton upholstering the semicircular booths.
To make the 2,400-square-foot room more harmonious and more intimate, she coffered the ceiling, then addressed the original yew wall panels. Most of them she took down, stripped, and sealed for a matte finish that reveals the wood's natural color—evocative of Scotch whisky and Cuban cigars. She also removed the paneling from several columns and mirrored them.
The mirrors, she points out, not only catch light in a sun-starved city but also answer the polished steel facade of the Savoy Theatre, opposite, and balance what she calls a "rather masculine" look with a more feminine element. Other glamorous touches include the subtle checkerboard pattern of silver tea paper on the ceiling and pendant fixtures with large black tub shades, installed in lieu of the "really awful chandeliers" she says she found there.
Watching people arrive at the Grill, Barry says she noticed a bottleneck in the entry hall. "I thought, You know what? We need a place for them to be received. So we came up with the idea of serving drinks in the lobby." Thus a characterless no-man's-land became the elegant Laurent-Perrier Champagne Bar.
A graying plaster frieze received a fresh coat of paint, with classical 'figures picked out in white against a cocoa background. The resulting Wedgwood effect highlights the frieze's curves—a complement to those of Barry's bar stools, chairs, and carpet and a counterpoint to the checkerboard of the black-and-white marble floor. She also painted the tired Victorian gilded ceiling and column capitals in a softening combination of terra-cotta and white. Blue mirror, which appears on tabletops and a folding screen, spikes the concoction with a dash of deco excitement.
Barry might not have dared to be quite so adventurous had she initially been more aware of the Grill's iconic status. An innocent abroad, she was quietly working on a Gordon Ramsay café at the Berkeley hotel, also part of the Savoy Group, when management announced that she would be revamping the Grill dining room, and young chef Marcus Wareing would be taking over the kitchen. The London press was deluged with letters from outraged regulars.
As it happened, the old guard's fears were allayed. Barry tells a story about meeting a particularly grumpy gentleman on the way into the Grill one day: Though he told her in no uncertain terms that he was "preparing not to like" her work, he came over after lunch to kiss her hand and declare, "Job well done!" Younger, less business-oriented customers have embraced the new Grill, too.
The secret of such broad appeal is undoubtedly connected to Barry's command of form, color, and composition, but what she describes as her "intuitive" approach must play a significant part. "It's coming in and feeling a space and trying to sense what's lacking," she says. "Like how you know when a person needs a hug." If Barry has given the Savoy the architectural equivalent of a hug, she's clearly cheered the place up immensely.
Choosing a similar color for wall paint and existing furniture's new cotton upholstery unified the ground-floor reading reoom. THe silk-shaded sconce and silver-leafed table, both Barbara Barry's designs, lend an updated deco feel to the space.
Barry stands in front of the 1889 hotel's marble facade.
Barry's menu for the casual restaurant Banquette picks up on the stripes of the hotel facade.
At Banquette, the vinyl floor's inset vinyl pinstripes accentuate the horizontality of the 50-foot-long space. Barry designed the seating, all covered in faux leather.
At the Savoy Grill, Barry's bold gestures include the booths' striped cotton upholstery and the pendant fixtures' custom tub shades. She also took down most of the original yew paneling, stripped it, and sealed it for a matte finish. Paneling on several columns was removed and replaced by mirror.
With an ensemble of custom furnishings—seating in leather and wool-silk, mirror-topped tables, a wool carpet—Barry transformed part of the Savoy's lobby into the Laurent-Perrier Champagne Bar. Bottom: Her Oval X-Back chairs furnish the front hall.