Article by Mark Lewis, Invisible Interior Design, Summer 2012
When design a room there is one important element that shouldn’t be overlooked – and you can’t even see it. Designer Mark Lewis discusses why acoustics are as important as the armchairs for a comfortable home.
A number of political dignitaries and financiers sit in the new open plan kitchen, dining area and snug I designed for them, comfortably discussing a proposed new airport for Tanzania. The safety and comfort felt by these people in the area which I discussed in the last edition of Opening Doors is not only because of the nature of the layout and the furniture, but as a consequence of the most crucial element of the interiors I refurbish. Ironically, it is the least conspicuous part of my interior design work. In fact, it is totally invisible. It is the acoustics.
To demonstrate with a common example, picture yourself in a pub, with your family around you, enjoying a delightful Jubilee supper. You notice your mother politely smile and look down at the table in response to some witty banter aimed at the table as a whole. Your natural reaction is to think affectionately of your mother’s growing senility and assume this is was the reason for her lack of hearing. However, take a look around. Notice the stone floors or wood laminate, the striped brick work and possibly even some wooden beams. Here you can clearly see the danger I am talking about, and the more likely explanation for your mother’s lack of hearing becomes evident in the corrupt acoustics of the interior. This lack of absorbent material in the room results in the crashing noise of everything filling the area and reverberating incessantly. This absence of a sensitive application of acoustic engineering messes with our heads and for that matter our very souls. Add to this the cheap, recycled church chair on which you have been sitting, deliberately designed to be uncomfortable in its former life, and you have a completely dissatisfactory Jubilee experience.
Fortunately, I have had the opportunity of designing for restaurants owners who have been very sensitive to the comfort and wellbeing of their customers. Every detail of the dining experience is given equal significance within scheme. During the 80s one such client, the owner of Scots Group plc, engaged me to refurbish Scots of Mount Street, Belgravia, and subsequently other restaurants in the group such as J.Sheeky, Drones, the Mirabelle, Curson Street, and Overton’s in Victoria.
This was the first time Scott’s had been done up after the infamous occasion in was bombed by the IRA in the 70s. It was during this period that the Most Rev and Rt Hon Arch Bishop of Canterbury, Robert Runvie, regularly lunched there. The most memorable issue for me in the refurbishment brief, the issue that was used to embody the principle of the proposed works, was that he and his wife – when she would occasionally join him – whom we would refer to as “the Lindy and the Bishop”, would not notice that their favourite restaurant had been completely gutted and rebuilt.
The works were planned during the preceding year and implemented during the Christmas close down period, with the intended re-opening for the first week of January. The kitchens and the dining areas, oyster bar and private rooms were rebuilt incorporating every modern convenience whilst maintaining its classic ambiance and the display of the largest collection of English primitive paintings in the world. We also added six extra covers within the dining area, integrated with such finesse that the Maitre D’, Louie, had a hard time working out how we did it, even though he a few mornings counting seats. Needles to say, there was not a old church pew in sight. This prestigious restaurant remained sympathetic to the benefits of acoustic engineering and how is can transform a dining experience.
Returning now to where we started, or almost, I want to discuss another spectacular kitchen/dining area I designed and built on the back of a large house in Muswell Hill a few years ago. This turned out to be a travesty. Whilst attending to the fashionable edicts of stone slabs, hardwood floors and huge panels of glass separating the illuminated garden from the monumentally minimal interior, I have included under floor heating, a majestic robotic island extractor, as inset plasma screen, two dishwashers, and an inbuilt American fridge. Within my design, I had also included the crucial acoustic elements that would make the scheme work. Large contemporary paintings, the back of which would be filled with acoustic panels: quilted fabric drops forming vertical concertinas of stiff vibrant coloured fabric to compliment the art works: and a large acoustic boarded panelled bulkhead in the ceiling, stretched over the central counter and incorporating some of the lighting.
Unfortunately, I was not able to persuade my clients to invest in these elements. They were declined, not as a matter of budgetary restrictions, but due to their lack of understanding of the important role they would play in their quality of life. So dreadful were the resulting acoustics of the area that on one occasion, when I was contacting her via the house phone, our entire conversation was drowned out by the loud and shrieking echo of the kitchen. Safe to say, she did not pick up on this.
So, these stories may serve as a reminder to you. A reminder of the merits of a mock fitted Persian carpet on a pub floor; the rather naff printed curtains in the alcove window; the flock wallpaper and velvet banquette seating of a popular curry house. My point is that far too many interiors have sacrificed comfort for the image of the minimal, the modern and the functional, not to mention what is clearly the cheap. You may have been blessed by with an opportunity to dine at the Savoy grill or Petrus or any other classic contemporary restaurant. Each has its trade off in that their choice of finish tends to be either carpet on the floor or the hard walls, or hard stone on the floor and plenty of fabric everywhere. For some, it is simply fabric everywhere. It’s not difficult really but quite extraordinary how many public establishments and now increasingly domestic interiors have abandoned the universally common courtesy of comforting our minds and souls. They sacrifice this for the convenience of wiping a floor clean, washing down a wall, or swiping a squeegee over a glass panel. Never mind only providing hideously uncomfortable seat lest we may want to have a relaxed moment after dinner and enjoy the company around us.
Guy Leonard & Co – Opening Doors magazine