Creating the wow factor with pub design

By Ed Bedington

- Last updated on GMT

House Party's basement room. (inset, Sally Anne McCoy)
House Party's basement room. (inset, Sally Anne McCoy)

Related tags Design Pub & bar Instagram Stormzy

Design is key when it comes to pubs and bars, and with the ever-more competitive leisure market, it’s never been more crucial to create a space that appeals to the punters.

“When you see the outside of a pub, you don't want to be disappointed when you walk in,” says Sally Anne McCoy. “With a pub, you need to feel like you're at home. And I think that's where a lot of pubs go a bit wrong because they make it too modern and a bit cold. You want to feel like you're at home. A pub needs to cuddle you doesn’t it?”

And McCoy should know when it comes to design. For the past two decades or more she’s been creating cutting edge looks for some of the UK’s leading clubs, celebrity houses and pubs across the UK.

Her most recent creation is rapidly becoming one of London’s hottest spots, House Party in Soho, and not just because it’s co-owned by award winning grime artist Stormzy.

Taking her cues from the 1990s and Home Alone, McCoy has created a one-off space which does exactly what the name says, offers customers the authentic experience of a house party!

The bar, from one of London’s leading hospitality company’s, The Cream Group, is like stepping back into a 1990s home, across several floors. Featuring a tree house, teenage bedrooms, basement hang out and the obligatory kitchen (with a light fitting you can swing off) the bar is quickly becoming a popular haunt.

“We decided to go for the 90s because I love Home Alone,” McCoy says. “So many people identify with the 90s and it hasn't been nodded to quite yet. Do you know what I mean? Like, like the 60s and the 70s and the 80s have? I think the 90s are the next nostalgic spot.” 

She says House Party gives an interactive and fun feel to the bar experience. “I love unexpected stuff. You know, I love to just tuck something. I love just sticking a funny quote in somewhere. Like tell a bit of humour in it. I like people to be involved in the interior not just sit in it.”

Happy accident

McCoy fell into design at the age of 21, after initially trying and failing to work for an agency, she branched out on her own after a chance encounter with Keith Flint from the Prodigy.

“Keith happened to just stroll into the company I was working for, I didn’t know who he was, he was quite scruffy but charming, confident and he sat down and I said, ‘can I help you?’

“It turns out, he wanted some help in his house and I worked for Keith, for years after that, after I'd left the company. And then I worked for Liam from the Prodigy as well, and that opened up so many things for me.”

She fell into hospitality in a similar fashion, when, having set up her own business, Edwards McCoy, a club owner asked for help, and she found herself falling in love with designing clubs, bars and restaurants.

And she thinks design is key in the current market for operators looking to take on the competition: “Design has to be functional. And you're wasting your money if you do design and it's not noticeable. That said it doesn't need to be in your face, I think Soho house are incredible. They've created a feeling, when you walk into a space it's how it makes you feel. 

“I did a restaurant a couple of years ago and it had a lovely walkway and when you walk down it, you felt like you should be dressed up.”

Grey and generic

Can you over-design though? Not with a club, and not with pub budgets either, she laughs. “I would never over-design a pub, it’s got to be comfortable and it would be vain to over-design it.”

But you’ve also got to consider longevity as well: “You've got to spend your money well. I feel if you're going to design a pub and spend the money on it, you've got to make it last. So you've got to really think it out. 

“Painting everything grey and making everything so generic that you kind of think, well, what pub was this that I sat in? And I think that’s the mistake so many Pub companies make.”

Staying up to date with trends is hard, and it’s something pubs should defer to a designer on: “If you’re a good designer you know what’s coming. I know that if I choose something fashionable in my head now, it’s ten years ahead of what most people see.”

She points to a shift in metal trends, from chrome to brass - “I was putting brass in pubs five to eight years ago, and now it’s fashionable, and that gives them longevity, because it will be current for a long time.

“So it's about being ahead of the game. Because I'm looking at what's in design, in your top top places. I look at interior design magazines. I look at all the new places that are opening up that have got so much money to spend. I'm there so, by the time everyone catches up, I can help them to have that longevity.”

But what is bad design? “I don’t associate with it…” she laughs. “Bad design is things that are not memorable, there’s no love in it. I’ve seen people design pubs recently, and I’ve just thought, you’ve just rolled that out and you didn’t love it. You didn’t love it.

“I was like, did you honestly put that on a board and pitch that to a pub owner and they went ‘Yeah, okay’. Because I look at it and it makes me sad. It makes me think I was in a Travelodge 10 years ago and you're putting that in a pub and wasting their money because it's a waste.”

Modern and minimalist is over

She says the modernist style for minimalism is now gone, and detail is key for her at the moment - “Detail is expensive, but you can create it if you’re clever. If you go to Annabelle’s, for example, that is detail on steroids. It’s the highest amount of detail you can do, but it’s the most expensive thing you can possibly do. The sofa’s got trimming, it’s got piping, it’s got two different types of fabric, you know, so each chair is £1,500.

“But if you can create that in a pub, without overdoing it, just detail, things that are thought about, you’re creating something to look at that’s more beautiful. No one wants to sit on a just a flat chair with a flat grey thing, it doesn't cuddle you! I’m really funny about that.”

And adding detail doesn’t have to be expensive, she says. A lot of things can be sourced on ebay. “And it’s sustainable because you’re reusing stuff,” she adds. “And it’s better, because it feels more like home and it’s more fashionable - we can’t just keep producing stuff. It’s generic and it’s boring and no-one wants generic and boring. It costs less money as well, and they look better!”

And it comes back to giving customers reasons to come out: “We need to say, look, I've created this for you to be in and I've created it with love and I've thought about it, not just,, that's a pint and there's a grey chair to sit on because like, who wants that? Who's got the money to spare for that? They might as well stay at home because it's comfier!”

Another area often neglected are acoustics: “There's a local pub to me, who didn't use a designer, and they've got composite worktops, like your kitchen worktops, on the tables. So your knives and forks and plates all clunk around on them. It's got a composite bar top, and they've got white walls. And it's a beautiful pub that serves beautiful food, but I can't bear it. The noise and the feeling like you're in a canteen, which is cold and it's sad because they spent a lot of money on it and their food is brilliant.

“When I’m designing I might not ever mention the acoustics, but I think well, you need that much fabric there and you'll need that much there to balance that bit out. I just do it in my head without even knowing because acoustics are so important.

“If you walk into a pub and it's too noisy and you can't hear yourself, you're not going to go back in there again, and it doesn't matter whether it's comfy, you know.” 

Along with the acoustics, operators need to think about lighting: “It can sometimes be too cold. I keep saying it, but you want to be cuddled and the light has to be low and gentle.”

Common mistakes

She says these are the most common mistakes people make if they do it themselves. they're easy mistakes to make if they're not considering all those things.

Ultimately, great design doesn’t have to cost millions: “That's what's clever about good design is that you don't, you don't, you don't need to spend fortunes to make it look fancy.”

She highlights her proudest moment was when she made Vogue’s Top 10 Most Instagrammable Toilets! “It was a restaurant I designed, and we’d run out of money, and I remember vividly going, look, I’ll put it on my credit card and we’ll just do this.”

She said they sourced sinks from eBay, with garden taps and used House of Hackney wallpaper and some tiles she got “off some walls and floors and were £20 a metre and now £200 because they got popular”.

“We just created these toilets and they just went crazy. I took a picture with Paris Hilton because she was at the opening and it got to the point where Vogue did their most instagrammable toilets, and I was next to Sketch. They’d spent a million and I put this on my credit card for two grand!”

But her main advice to anyone looking to open a site, or go through a refurbishment is hire a professional designer! “Independents often think it’s going to be cheaper to do it themselves, which I think is such a mistake, because I can’t run a pub, you know! I think they should understand that you hire a professional person for a reason. 

“Ultimately, you’re not saving money by not spending money on someone like me. It’s money well spent and you’ll get a return on it, not end up with white composite worktops and walls!”

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