March 1, 2007
The irreverent London architecture firm creates a cloyingly stylized tearoom.
Enter Meals, the first-floor restaurant within Heal’s department store in central London, and you’ll find a tearoom that looks like it has been worked over with a hacksaw before being sugarcoated pink and white. Think Swiss chalet meets Goldilocks. “The description we enjoy is that it’s like a slightly perverse enchanted forest,” says Charles Holland, a partner at FAT, the firm commissioned by London restaurateur Oliver Peyton to revamp the old space, which according to Holland had “the ambience of an airport lounge with its brown-leather banquettes and mirrors.”
Meals was inspired by rich turn-of-the-twentieth-century interiors with stylized organic motifs like those of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Willow Tea Rooms, but FAT wanted everything in the space to be flattened with cutout details for a more contemporary feel. For example, the oak-veneered decorative screens that define the main eating areas were made using water jets to score precise tree and foliage outlines in the manner of a cartoon. “It’s as if a teenage Rennie Mackintosh went around this wooden room with a pen knife scratching love hearts in oak panels,” Holland says.
The wide-planked oak floorboards and handcrafted furniture may be rooted in the English vernacular, but other features are harder to place. Surfaced in white laminate, curvy-edged tabletops recall a child’s dinette but also look like melting icing. Even the classic bentwood café chairs have frosted paint and pink cushions reminiscent of cupcakes. “It’s on the edge of revolting,” Holland laughs.
While all of this is good fun, the designers have a serious interest in decoration and pattern—but don’t characterize them as dogmatic historicists. “Our interest in historical styles has to do with communicating information that buildings carry, which we use deliberately, liberally, and incorrectly,” says Holland, who enjoys the fact that you can’t quite pin down many of the room’s elements. “There’s an object in there that starts off as a counter but ends up as a tree—moving from a functional object to a decorative one.”
Holland is upbeat about the mixed response to the restaurant. “It has drawn a lot of people who would not have gone in there normally,” he says, adding that like all of their other work, “it’s equal parts loved and loathed.” The firm—now working on several housing projects and shops in the United Kingdom, and an office and restaurant in the Netherlands—has as of yet no commissions Stateside. But it is gaining a certain presence, first as part of the Gritty Brits exhibition on new London architecture, currently at the Heinz Architectural Center at the Carnegie Museum of Art, in Pittsburgh. Holland is also looking forward to teaching a semester at Yale this autumn: “Dean Stern hired us with the view to annoy everybody.”