With a shared instinct for beautiful materials and artful restraint, Japanese and Nordic design have something of a natural affinity. And it’s this confluence that was the catalyst for Pantechnicon, a new retail and dining hub set over five floors in London’s Belgravia.
‘I spent nine weeks in Japan and I didn’t scratch the surface,’ says co-founder and lead designer Barry Hirst, whose Open House Projects is the design arm of the hospitality business he set up with Stefan Turnbull.
Further travels to Denmark and Finland sowed the seed for Pantechnicon’s two retail floors, The Edit and The Studio, which must house some of London’s coolest curations: think cult Swedish perfumes, Japanese eyewear, Danish sneakers and Finnish design objets. Many are exclusive to the UK, or on their only bricks-and-mortar outing.
Dining offers dual headline acts: Eldr, where Finnish head chef Joni Ketonen is on pickling and foraging duties, and Little Sachi, a 30-seat Japanese pop-up that previews the Sachi restaurant and cocktail lounge arriving next spring. Amateur mixologists can browse spirits and barware in boutique Japanese bottle shop Sakaya, or peruse a seasonal cocktail menu curated by bartenders-in-residence from Iceland and the Faroe Islands.
Pantechnicon also boasts the UK’s first permanent outlet of Parisian haunt Café Kitsuné, with an in-house Japanese Ikebana florist and workshops and pop-ups soon to follow. Hirst and Turnbull are no strangers to big projects with big expectations – the pair also established capacious King’s Cross gastropub The Lighterman – but ambitions here are sky-high: they’re even in cahoots with the Japanese and Nordic embassies.
It’s an appropriate fate for a building that started life as an arts and crafts bazaar – the word Pantechnicon is derived from ‘all’ (pan) and ‘art’ (techne) – before reinventing itself as a fireproof storage warehouse for London’s high society. But fire cares not for marketing claims, and it went up in flames anyway in 1874, taking its illustrious cache of paintings and pianos with it. Thankfully, its stately row of Doric columns survived, and has been part of the fabric of this corner of the capital ever since.
‘There was almost an expectation to produce this grand London interior to reflect the façade,’ says Hirst, recalling early stages of the eventual five-year project, which started with a sensitive restoration by prestigious London architects Farrells. Instead, with in-house designer Darryl Claxton in tow, he let the design principles of Japan and the Nordics shape the space: ‘unnecessary adornment’ was out, and a concrete and timber backdrop inspired by Japanese architects Kengo Kuma and Tadao Ando devised.
Hints of its former life – a historic rear staircase; brick arches now framing a cocktail lounge; a strip of restored plasterwork with gilded script in the main lobby – honour its storied heritage.
While furnishings are dominated by Danish makers, this is no Nordic-by-numbers – there’s a hand-glazed custom bar by Made a Mano, lighting by Menuspace and furniture from Mater and Carl Hansen & Søn. ‘All of the brands were chosen for their richness of colour, their strength of design and their timelessness,’ says Hirst.
His favourite space is not the hothouse-style roof terrace or the garden designed by Finnish horticulturalist Taina Suonio, but the bathrooms on the lower floor, which house ‘very zen’ compact cubicles within polished plaster arches. ‘The Japanese are the best at creating highly functional small spaces, so this is our little homage!’
It’s this sense of thoughtful reverence that proves to be Pantechnicon’s master stroke. Though its appeal is obvious – go for a drink in Oslo, eat dinner in Tokyo and shop in Copenhagen – there’s a careful precision to the offering. ‘Retail has become chaotic,’ says Hirst. ‘Our aim is to make the experience joyful once again.’ pantechnicon.com
This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration December 2020
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