April 1, 2009
An Invitation to Gather
In reinventing two faded inns outside of London, Ilse Crawford
honors the age-old desire for comfort and companionship.
“What is an inn?” Ilse Crawford and her London-based team at Studioilse began with that question when Dhillon Hotels commissioned them to turn two coaching inns outside of the city—the Crown, in Amersham, and the Olde Bell, in Hurley—from what the designer describes as “miserable, dead” places into warm and welcoming modern establishments. Originating as a spot for weary travelers to park their horses, eat, and sleep on their slow journeys (Amersham used to be exactly a day’s ride from London), coaching inns fizzled during the 20th century, increasingly becoming quick-stop pubs rather than comfortable stations for respite. But though their principal role may have been eclipsed by the car, Studioilse concluded that there was plenty of latent demand for places that offer unhurried afternoons. “There are obvious, fundamental values, basic human emotions that don’t change,” Crawford says.
Embracing humanity might seem like an obvious and fundamental criterion for design. But set against the recent backdrop of the industry’s fin-de-siècle heyday—when messy things like feelings took a backseat to the jokey, slick dictates of style—Crawford’s desire to create a space where, quite simply, “people get together” represents something significant about the moment in which we now find ourselves, when we crave authenticity above extravagance. This isn’t to say that the two inns are in any way basic, or even replicas of what they had once been. Rather, Crawford reveals an ingrained DNA—physically, in the vernacular detailing, and conceptually, in the understanding of the inn as a place that engendered activities “from theater to cards to wenches.” Elements such as the rough wood planks of the Crown’s dining-room floor and the waxed-cotton waiters’ uniforms at the Olde Bell complement the stripped-down, nostalgic menus of brown Bettys, pork pies, and ploughmans’ lunches.
Crawford’s vision may have necessitated the rustic fare, but executing it was up to the chef, Rosie Sykes. “The food is pretty hearty,” Sykes says. “It’s not tiles and towers on a plate with lots of garnishes.” A few guests need some convincing in order to get enthusiastic about a meal of bread and local cheese. Sykes tempts them by leaving a bowl of this season’s blood oranges at the reception desk or creating an arrangement of spring greens in the dining room, connecting the simple elegance of the surroundings with the simple beauty of the food. “Once you get people to try it, they’re converted,” she says.
The particular satisfaction that comes from an impeccably simple meal is crucial to the emotional effect of the inns. “I want people to feel very comfortable, like they belong,” Crawford explains. In a world where we trick ourselves into feeling constantly connected through Facebook and our BlackBerries, a place where nothing but hanging out matters is a welcome shift. Crawford isn’t alone in this approach, of course. For the past few years, a change has been trickling through hospitality design, and restaurants are now more likely to be illuminated by basic votives than glittering Boontje chandeliers, their menus emphasizing the farm each ingredient came from as much as how a dish is prepared (in some cases, even more so). But Crawford’s pared-down, unmitigatingly honest approach is a perfect example of what can happen when someone actually pays attention to how we relax—and how we want to.
Both the Crown and the Olde Bell, which launched last October and June, respectively, are circumspect enough to avoid the trap of Disneyfication, and Crawford isn’t working under any delusion that this is all exactly as it would have been if only history had been different. “We wanted it to be this ongoing story,” she says of the Crown, where the back dining room is lit by an Established & Sons lamp, its trapezoid shape a slimmer and more contemporary iteration of the blackened fireplace vent that pops from the wall. Guests at the Olde Bell eat beneath an antler chandelier (itself a wink at the taxidermy craze) in a room furnished with birch Windsors produced ten miles away in the world’s former chair-making capital, High Wycombe. Banquettes are detailed with geometric-print Welsh blankets that vary from booth to booth, keeping the space busy enough to feel alive. Still, certain literal historical touches remain: ceramic pie birds—a centuries-old baking aid—line the freshly tiled kitchen walls, while sheepskin throws make those local chairs much more inviting.
All of the inns’ appointments are profoundly tactile. The worn floors beg to be scuffed, the chairs to be sunk into, the handmade pewter plates to be clattered together. It’s an aesthetic that might, without what Crawford calls “continuity, content, and roots,” seem a bit pat or cute. But an appreciation for the gritty, intimate nature of life comes through in every element, from the chalkboard-scrawled menu offering “a plate of cake & biscuits” to the outdoor sign proudly announcing the Olde Bell’s 1135 A.D. construction date. “It’s very hands-on, very human, very normal,” Crawford says. “It’s a place for life in all its forms.”