December 1, 2008
Despite a nod to 1970s craft, Sam Buxton’s knotted interior for a new London bar echoes his high-tech approach to products.
As a product designer, Sam Buxton has long been fascinated by what he calls “activating surfaces.” The 36-year-old has embedded electroluminescent technology in a tabletop, used chemical etching to create a pop-up business card, and decorated chairs with X-rays and video. At Bordello, the bar he just completed in London’s trendy Soho district, Buxton got the chance to apply that interest to an interior—only this time his vision was more artisanal than industrial. It all began with an unlikely question: What would it mean to knit an entire space from a single fluid filament?
With walls, arches, and furnishings swathed in a red-and-black web, Bordello is a triumph of on-site fabrication and a testament to craftsmanship. No fewer than 15 miles of polypropylene cord have been knotted into a series of sinuous shapes. “I was interested in this cord becoming an intervention in the space,” Buxton says. “As you walk past the textiles, they’re very dense if you’re looking at them from an oblique angle. But if you’re looking at them straight on, you start to see through to the structure beyond. They pull you from one space to the next.”
True to style, Buxton opted for materials from unconventional sources. On a visit to the London Zoo, the light and flexible mesh at the new Gorilla Kingdom caught his eye. He tracked it back to the Swiss manufacturer Jakob and had it handmade in Asia; it’s now draped over Bordello’s white Formica-and-rubber entryway. Finding the signature red-and-black cable for the main room was even more complex. After testing products of many weights and thicknesses (he dismissed a flame-retardant one used in drag racers’ suits for being “too fluffy”), Buxton ultimately chose a durable raw cord from a boat maker and fireproofed it to meet interior safety codes.
In order to realize the biomorphic shapes he had in mind—some look like giant limbs—Buxton sought out Emily Hiller, a textile designer who works with everything from wire to ribbon and has a passion for macramé. Renderings were dismissed in favor of on-site patterning, a more hands-on process that suited Hiller. “You find some of the best designs by accident,” she says. With the help of eight textile-design students from Loughborough University, she set up shop beneath Wardour Street in the midst of the bar’s construction, painstakingly tying knots for up to 12 hours a day over six months—a drawn-out process due partly to the raw, dusty space and partly to Hiller’s perfectionism. “Knotting is a skill you build up over the years—you can’t develop it quickly,” she says, adding, “I’m a bit of a control freak. If they didn’t knot perfectly, I untied it and redid it myself. Luckily, I find it extremely therapeutic and go into autopilot when knotting.”
One of the most novel products of Buxton and Hiller’s collaboration is the storage system behind the bar: each backlit bottle of liquor is cradled by a springy, handmade pouch of stainless-steel wire. “I wanted to create a totally unique method of housing the bottles, something as far from ‘bottles on an illuminated shelf’ as possible,” he explains. They devised pouches that are cleverly organlike, opening and closing the way a mouth would.
The broad scope of the project appealed to Hiller. “I loved working in the interior space,” Hiller says. “I loved the longevity and the size of that canvas.” For his part, Buxton doesn’t necessarily regard his experiment with interiors as permanent. “I see Bordello as the start of an ongoing exploration,” he says. “But it can’t encompass all of my ideas and thoughts. I feel the same about pretty much everything I make, really. You need to move on. It will take you somewhere else.”