Nigel Coates18 August 2009 by Jamie Mitchell
An architect, designer and Royal College of Art professor, Nigel Coates does buildings, restaurants, furniture but not, he’ll say thankfully, offices
‘I’ve proved myself’, says Nigel Coates, architect, designer and professor of architecture at the Royal College of Art, as he looks out across Hyde Park from his office at the RCA. ‘I’ve shown that I don’t have to design office blocks any more’. Coates smiles serenely – and well he might: there is, one gathers, nothing run-of-the-mill about this designer’s life.
He’s a little nonchalant as he describes how he effortlessly fell into his latest commission, to design the interior of the Middle and Over Wallop restaurant (#1), which reopened in May at the Glyndebourne opera house in East Sussex: ‘I was at a friend’s castle in Italy and I got talking to Prue Leith [the chef runs three restaurants at Glyndebourne] and, you know, one thing led to another.’
But Coates is anything but nonchalant when it comes to discussing his work: he rolls out the plans of the restaurant and he is immediately absorbed. ‘It was just a big hall with a flat ceiling and no architecture,’ hemuses. ‘It was just a sort of post-war shed.’
Instead of acting as interior designer in the usual sense, Coates says he did ‘a sort of art-direction job on it’, using furniture pieces from his own collections. ‘They were anxious to do something that would really raise the bar,’ he says. ‘They’d already commissioned a simple expansion of the restaurant [done by Brighton-based architect Miller Bourne] and they thought some Nigel Coates/RCA pepper and salt would be just the thing – but they didn’t know quite what they wanted.’
The new space is theatrical, though ‘not in the West End sense’, says Coates. A canopy of the designer’s exquisite Swarovski crystal Cloudeliers – chandeliers made of cut crystals – unifies the space, which seats 300. This is one of the great advantages of being Nigel Coates, designer and architect: You want some chairs? Here’s some I designed earlier, from my Scubist range for Fratelli Boffi.
There’s a Parisian feel to the Middle and Over Wallop. A new mezzanine level creates what Coates describes as a ‘flowing interior – because there were two levels and no one wanted to sit upstairs’. Banquette seating, upholstered in red, grey and green, gives each zone its own feel.
There were two trees in the restaurant, growing through the ceiling. ‘One of them was dead’, he says, ’and we had to take them out to re organise the space. But what was interesting was that people used to phone up and ask for a table next to a tree, so we took this idea and made fake trees, columns that connect as service stations, which we decided to make from tables, stacked on top of each other. So they’re slightly surreal, slightly weird.’
Coates raided the props department of the opera house, adding a cutout clock from David Hockney’s set for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress here, a mural from La Traviata there. Was there anything he couldn’t get away with? ‘We put in a big Madonna but that was whipped away’.
Since first attracting the attention of the architecture world in 1984 with the publication of NATO (Narrative Architecture Today) magazine – ‘a manifesto for a socio-culturally engaged and popular, narrative-driven architecture’ – Coates has become a truly international practioner.
In the Eighties, he was drawn to the creative freedom of Japan, where he designed a string of bars, restaurants and clubs. The Wall (#2), completed in 1990, epitomises his versatile approach to design. It’s like a piece of ancient Rome among the bright lights and ultra-modern buildings of Tokyo but looks surprisingly natural. ‘As a narrative, as a supposition, it appeared as if there was no architect’, he says, ‘but of course there was.’
Coates has always known when to ‘play the hand of the architect’ and when to back off. He is as comfortable with this kind of unobtrusive architecture as he is with what he terms his ‘showy-offy pieces’, like the Millennium Dome’s Body Zone (#3), which he calls, ‘the ultimate exercise in building a large organic structure’.
Coates made his name as an architect but these days he is perhaps more renowned for his furniture collections for the likes of Varaschin, Frag, Fratelli Boffi and HitchMylius.
Despite having been New Labour’s architect of choice in the in the late 1990s, Coates is skeptical about the politicians’ good intentions for the creative industries: ‘Politicians have no idea about design. It was courageous of New Labour to broaden the perspective but they didn’t necessarily follow through.’
So what’s next for Coates? A bit of everything seems to be the answer. He shows me a model for turning Battersea power station into a multi faith park, part of the Design Museum’s current Super Contemporary exhibition, which runs until October.
It’s strictly conceptual but, for Coates, designer, academic, and architect, experimentation is just as important as the real thing. And what about straight-forward architecture? That serene smile is back: ‘Only when it’s something special.’