We are entering a bar. What do we expect to see? A bar counter, barstools, a back bar, tables and lighting. There should also be bottles, glasses and shakers. Yet there are other elements that can turn a bar into something special. Clearly, exquisite drinks, creative recipes and great hosts all help define what a good bar is. Yet there is also something else, momentum, through which the room initiates a – possibly subconscious – interaction with a patron. The design can play a major role here when it contributes to providing the patron with a special bar experience.
There are a few things we must never lose sight of: Design is more than chic furniture and furnishings. Nor should design be confused with a themed bar stocked with ‘authentic’ bric-a-brac. Instead, design should be viewed as a subtle interaction between person and place that promotes well-being. And the bartender’s ideal way of working – both ergonomically and aesthetically – must be taken into account.
We spoke with the brains behind the ‘Hidden Fortress’ design studio – Jan Maley, Björn Meier and Ingo ‘Kalle’ Strobel – to find out more about the dialogue between bar and design.
Welcome to the fortress
‘Hidden Fortress’ – that is what these three have called their brand since 2013. They design furniture and lighting elements, rooms and presentation areas. And they create hospitality design concepts. Cinema buffs might remember ‘The Hidden Fortress’, a film directed by Akira Kurusawa in 1958 in which two bedraggled peasants and a general continually find ingenious ways of escaping from hopeless situations.
Some of the best-known and most sought-after bars in Germany today were created by the team at Hidden Fortress.
Credit: Katja Hiendlmayer
That’s why it should be no surprise that the team running the Victoria Bar in Berlin saw no reason to change their establishment's design when they took advantage of the coronavirus ‘break’ to renovate their premises. Instead, they simply refreshed a few of the details. Fine woods combine with colours from light grey to dark anthracite to forge a timeless space that invites a visit which also happens to be a bar and art gallery.
The three-person Hidden Fortress team are quite familiar with the aspects that making working with the bar sector so unique. Jan explains: “Whenever we get a commission from the bar scene, we know it will be necessary to establish a close relationship with the people. Quite often, you find yourself helping someone achieve their life’s dream – this entails an entirely different sense of responsibility. And it puts everything on a more personal level.” After pausing to reflect, he added: “In fact, almost every one of these projects has given rise to a friendship.”
The bar as a table
Credit: Katja Hiendlmayer
Is less really more? The architect Rem Kohlhaas says that it is not: “If less is more, maybe nothing is everything.” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, on the other hand, once said that: “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Kalle remembers back to the time they developed a concept for the Buck & Breck in Berlin: “The whole idea behind creating a small room according to a Japanese concept is quite fascinating. There had never been anything like it in Germany before the Buck & Breck. ‘Reduce to the max.’ Here, a standard rule for bars and pubs has been broken by making a table/counter into a dominant element that fills the room. The guiding principle of the trade – more seats equals more profits – has been discarded in favour of achieving the sought-after design effect. The clarity and minimalism achieved by this move create the ideal stage for the very cocktails being served here.” As the three put it: “We tie the room to the objects. Deconstruction is always a fascinating stylistic device in our work.” A few years after it first opened, the Buck & Breck was expanded to include a second room. They explain: “There was no longer room for a bar, so we made it vertical. It is another type of deconstruction.”
From XXL to XS
Credit: Hidden Fortress
Credit: Lee Edward
These two Hidden Fortress projects could hardly be more different to one another: Tiny Cup in Frankfurt and Kink in Berlin. A tiny bar on the Main River and a gigantic hall in the capital city. They designed a fascinating bar for the Kink that is the focal point of the room. This bar counter shatters barriers, inviting patrons into an elaborate arrangement where, having taken a seat, they suddenly realise that they find themselves not in front of the bar, but rather behind it. This creates a perception of space and interaction that both surprise and fascinate customers. At the Tiny Cup, the challenge lay in creating a room whose appeal transcends the confined spaces. Existing wooden wall decorations had to be incorporated into the scheme. The resulting room is evidence of the power of lines and light. Kalle compares these two bars: “Deconstruction works the same way in both places. It is basically the same approach, but things are broken down into their constituent parts and reassembled differently. Still, it goes without saying that you can take a different approach with a larger space, and the bar counter in the Kink is of central importance: it very clearly defines the room and the premises itself.”
The rooms are different, and the people are different. What is it like working for bars at Hidden Fortress? Jan, Björn and Kalle are in agreement: “The first thing we have to do is get to know and understand our clients. This means learning their narrative, and it means learning the workflows and processes they need for their work. We discuss the client's expectations and the optimal ergonomics for their workplace. It goes without saying that this includes statutory requirements and structural conditions, such as listed building status, cable ducts and escape routes.” Björn adds: “The requirements for a hotel bar, for example, are quite different to those of bars of the conventional sort. Both the process of coming and going and the intermixing of different groups of patrons vary markedly.” Jan explains the next step: “Next, we have to overcome people's reservations and fears regarding aesthetic concepts and speak openly about the design. This can certainly include unusual and unconventional ideas.” Kalle adds: “The opportunity to play with unexpected elements is very much a part of the process.” Björn offers examples: “We are talking about light, materials, ‘eye candy’ and opportunities to radically transform spaces. It is not about achieving a ‘wow’ effect – we want to engender a subconscious feeling of well-being.” Jan is particularly clear about one thing: “Even when it is being seen for the third time, the bar cannot be boring! Due to the impact of digital media, everything is very different today. Some bar owners also want to have something that is suitable for Instagram. One must take care not to continually repeat the same schemes or use the same set pieces.”
To take a specific example: Working with Berlin's Zentral Bar was an inspiring and challenging experience for Hidden Fortress. Upon closer inspection, one is struck by the way in which the bar counter is almost like a table, and the working area and bar counter are at the same height. Björn explains: “We asked ourselves what we could deconstruct to make the room even more interesting.” Yet the requirements were demanding. As they put it: “It is a commuter railway arch, and the railway operator has to examine the masonry every few years. That meant that we had to design a modular system for the bar counter, and particularly the back bar, that could be dismantled and put back together again. We also had to account for essential ducts and pipes, as well as a requirement that the toilet facilities be built practically in the middle of the room.”
They are also proud of these toilet facilities – after all, it's the first toilet that’s ever made the cover page of ‘Interior Design’ magazine. And those who take a closer look at the wet rooms will be rewarded by four details reminiscent of a Ridley Scott film in which it rains incessantly. That is all they will reveal.
Jan sums up Hidden Fortress’ work for bars: “Some things are essential: we have to listen closely to the bar operators. By doing this, we learn how they expect things to work. Projects have to be implemented together, and clients have to take responsibility. We are partners in a dialogue – we discuss requirements, and we question them. We deconstruct. The creative premise must always be: Can it also work differently? Can we make it more interesting? We develop a concept and a systematic process that culminates in a successful result. And we can never lose sight of the fact that the whole must make sense financially.”