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The changing face of pubs

By Emily Hawkins

- Last updated on GMT

Changes: Interior design of pubs has been important since Victorian times
Changes: Interior design of pubs has been important since Victorian times

Related tags Design History of wine

When it comes to interior design, trends have come and gone in the 225 years since The Morning Advertiser first hit the streets. Some, however, have stood the test of time and are testament to the pub’s continued role in society.

Pubs are the backdrop for both mundane and momentous memories, and their aesthetics play a huge part in how a customer feels about their local. It was not the quality of drink that caught the imagination of George Orwell when he wrote about his ideal tavern in his 1946 treatise, The Moon Under Water​, but the atmosphere.

Undoubtedly, the interior design of a pub has a key role in shaping that atmosphere – whether it has slick, modern edges or comforting domestic features – and that has been in an almost constant state of flux as trends have waxed and waned.

Savvy Victorian entrepreneurs, for example, recruited up-and-coming architectural talents such as Finch Hill and WM Brutton to “build temples of drink”, writes Victorian historian Byron Nelson.

Hill “offered a zestfully ecclesiastical style, while Brutton’s style was theatrical and cheerfully monarchical”. Respectively, the pair were responsible for notable establishments such as the Fitzroy Tavern in Fitzrovia and the Museum Tavern in Bloomsbury, as well as several others that have since been and gone.

The “comfortable ugliness of the 19th century”, seen in pubs replenished with  ornamental mirrors, cast iron, garish taxidermy, and ceiling stained yellow from tobacco smokers, was the style Orwell admired.

Victorian pubs like The Fitzroy Tavern are still beloved (image: Dave Bleasdale, Flickr)
Victorian pubs like The Fitzroy Tavern are still beloved (image: Dave Bleasdale, Flickr)

The Carlisle Experiment

Historian Girouard celebrates a “mixture of cheerfulness and craziness” present in interiors from this era and highlights that Victorian pubs displayed bespoke crafted fixtures such as gas lamps, carved mirrors and elegant beer taps. Concerns that the productivity of Britain’s munitions workers would be affected by over-consumption of alcohol led to the ‘Carlisle Experiment’ during the First World War, in which the government of the day nationalised pubs.

The result of this was the evolution of Redfern’s ‘New Model Inn’, 15 of which were built in the wider Carlisle district,​ and which greatly influenced the design of pubs throughout the country. The Carlisle scheme continued until its abolition by Act of Parliament in the 1970s. Pubs adopted elements inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, a reaction to extravagant Victorian gin palaces, and a design which championed simplicity and folk designs.

Women welcomed

Weary from the tolls wartime Britain had subjected them to, many establishments emerged into peacetime and adapted themselves for a new clientele, with a desire to appeal to women for the first time. While women would go to pubs in prior centuries, on the whole, women from middle-class backgrounds tended to only visit inns or hotels with private snugs or lounges in a backroom, explains professor of history at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, Jennifer Regan-Lefebvre.

“There was a kind of association with women in pubs being prostitutes, and most pubs were working-class male spaces,” she says. Change on this front had started in the late 19th century but the inter-war period was a catalyst, with mass pub improvement schemes seeing big brewers invest huge amounts into making sites appear more friendly towards women. “It had to be a space for women, where they would  want to sit and chat with their friends,” Prof Regan-Lefebvre explains.

“So they might have carpeting, whereas in the 19th century, some pubs just had sawdust on the floor. Having a nicer kind of lounge area that was supposed to be quiet and also offering more drinks that women might like, so notably wine.” Women had more purchasing power, the vote, and there were more young women in work who wanted to come to the pub to congregate. It was their space too – though some pubs had ‘men only’ bars or separate ‘ladies’ rooms’ until the 1970s.

Centurion pub in Bath is themed around Roman history (image: Historic England)
Centurion pub in Bath is themed around Roman history (image: Historic England)

Peacetime boom

After the Second World War, new housing estates and cities recovering from wartime bombing experienced a golden age of new pubs being built. Pubs became fully accepted as social amenities and new sites sprang up around the country, especially after building restrictions were lifted in 1954. “It’s impossible to generalise about pub interiors over a period of 40 years,” explains Emily Cole, senior investigator at public body Historic England. 

“But, on the whole, pubs of this time tended to have two separate bars – a public bar and saloon bar/lounge – with a central service area having counters to each bar.”

“They were mostly two-storey buildings, with accommodation for the pub’s landlord/manager provided on the first floor,” she says.

Never Turn Back in Caister-on-Sea, Norfolk (image: Historic England)
Never Turn Back in Caister-on-Sea, Norfolk (image: Historic England)

Inspired by themes

Pubs in this period adopted decorative themes, often inspired by the name of the pub or a tale from local myths. Some of these were relatively modest, explains Cole, such as themed curtain fabric, carpet pattern and decoration to counter fronts. However, others were dramatic – including interiors fitted out to resemble ships, structures or even streets, or inspired by countries or geographical areas, like the South Pacific. 

One example is the Never Turn Back pub in Caister-on-Sea, which is named and designed in memory of the victims of a lifeboat disaster which struck the Norfolk community in 1901. It opened in 1957 and is designed in a nautical way, with a tower reminiscent of a ship’s wheelhouse and a lookout tower.

Such themed pubs were among a number to receive listed status from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport in the period 2015 to 2018. “This reflected the increasing need of brewery companies to compete with other leisure outlets (like bars and clubs), and to create a memorable, distinctive venue,” explains Cole.

Escaping from life's hurly-burly

What about pubs of today? It is not uncommon to see sums upwards of £1m being banded about when it comes to pubcos refurbishing sites. But what do the punters of 2019 want to see in their local?

“Today, more than ever before, a pub needs to stand apart from the competition by offering its customers a unique experience,” a spokesperson for the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) says.

“Architecture, layout, furnishings and décor should all be designed to reflect the tastes and aspirations of their customers to encourage more visitors through the door.

“As CAMRA’s Pub Design Awards have always preached, pub architecture and design is one key element that can make or break a pub, particularly in today’s harsh and competitive economic climate.”

The organisation has been issuing awards for design since 1983, when the Bricklayers Arms scooped the first recognition for best refurbishment.

“The sheer diversity of submissions we receive for this award and their evident commercial success shows just how vibrant a pub can be – and what an agent of regeneration it can provide – if treated with respect and sensitivity for both building and clientele,” CAMRA adds.

Emma Simmonds from Focus Design, which creates interiors for pubs across the country, says there has actually been a shift towards “the more traditional pub atmosphere” in recent years.

“A few years ago people wanted their pubs to feel like a restaurant but now we are seeing pubs being stripped back to their original panelling, fireplaces being opened back up and a warm, cosy interior being favoured by customers and licensees alike,” she says.

“I think this ‘escapist’ atmosphere was born from a social media backlash, an antithesis to the light bright walls and ‘Instagrammable’ table tops we have been seeing for the past few years,” she adds.

Pixabay drink black white

But social media has had its impact on how pubs are designed. A thoughtful publican understands that a pub with ‘Instagrammable’ features is a free publicity maker. 

Quirks – like a portrait of a local character or a theme – can cement a pub’s identity within the landscape of an area. They are both a conversation starter at the bar and something punters will tell their friends about when they leave. JD Wetherspoons’ carpets became the unlikely subject of an internet cult following a couple of years ago, with various social media accounts set up with the goal of ascertaining whether there were any repeated patterns across the country. 

But some things won’t change, according to Simon Mcilwraith, the lead interior designer at Newcastle-based Collective Design. “What we always find with the traditional pub is that it is a British institution and will be a very popular concept from the British public’s point of view,” he says.

The fondness for ‘traditional’ interiors reflects consumers’ drink trends, designer Mcilwraith believes.

The Red Lion at Godalming (image: Focus Design)
The Red Lion at Godalming (image: Focus Design)

“We design traditional pubs and they are as popular now as ever. I think that has a lot to do with what is popular in the industry at the moment, such as your real ale and your gins that have been around since the Victorian period.

“You have the look and the product working hand in hand with one another, trying to achieve something that has always been quite popular with the British public,” he says. Character and quirk, however, are still beloved ingredients within a design that works, says Johnny Warland, who operates Liquid History, a historic pub tour in London. Old wood interiors, mosaic floors or reliefs, and stained glass are features from bygone eras that punters from across the globe still adore about the British pub, Warland maintains.

Rarely found, a feature that participants on Liquid History tours love, is panelled class divides and snob screens. “Most are stripped out for circulation, but they add huge (and impractical) character to a pub offering a level of cosiness and intimacy often now lost,” Warland explains.

Another divided pub feature of times gone by is the sprinkling of sawdust on the floor. Concerns about fire hazards and hygiene saw this die out, but no doubt there are still a few themed pubs exhibiting such an element for eager tourists wanting to experience a flavour of Britain from another era.

The shape of pubs to come

The White Bear pub exemplifying the desire for cosy, 'traditional' pub interiors (image: Focus Design)
The White Bear pub exemplifying the desire for cosy, 'traditional' pub interiors (image: Focus Design)

So, what will be the next big thing in pub design? Recently, pubs have gained social media traction for quirky features or aesthetically pleasing designs in their toilets. One example is the Bell Inn at Ticehurst, East Sussex, which re-purposed brass musical instruments into urinals. Focus Design’s Emma Simmonds predicts pub toilet design will become increasingly significant as will sheltered areas in gardens for all-year-round use. 

“Materials like velvet will be joined by their more humble equivalents such as corduroy,” Simmonds says. With pubs trying to target the selfie generation of younger punters, lighting – in addition to well-placed mirrors – is also key.

“It may not be as ‘in your face’ as something like furniture, but a considered lighting scheme can also have a huge impact on the space,” says Simmonds. Neon lighting saw a resurgence a few years back, particularly with written slogans in bar-style venues, while dimmable lamps will continue to have a strong role in creating the atmosphere of cosy taverns.

In addition to new ideas and formulations, incorporating historic features into pub designs is a method that will not go anywhere.

“We often lean on artwork to tell the history of the pub when in fact the heritage is often ingrained in the framework of the building,” explains Simmonds. “We’ve ended up pulling back carpets to reveal original herringbone timber and sandblasting beams to strip back years of paintwork to reveal the site’s history.

“The long-standing nature of pubs means there is usually a wealth of historic features to be utilised in the
redesign of a pub.”

Something that will always have a ‘wow factor’ is original features, while designers and operators are currently inclined to place compact-style armchairs centre stage in order to draw in customers.

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