Enzo Apicella

This restaurant designer (and cartoonist) is praised as being responsible for changing the face of Italian eateries in the UK, replacing the raf¬fia-covered Chianti bottle and plastic-grapevine decor with tiled floors, bespoke lighting and abstract art. He talks to Jamie Mitchell

As career descriptions go, restaurant designer and satirical cartoonist must be one most unusual – but then there’s no one quite like Enzo Apicella. Turning 90 this year, the Italian-born designer of some 150 restaurants, including 70¬branches of Pizza Express, has arguably done as much to change the face of restaurant design in the UK as Terence Conran. In his long career he’s also been a set designer, magazine editor and illustrator. Not bad for somebody with no formal training in any of these disciplines.

Along with his contemporaries, including sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, photographer David Bailey, and Conran, Apicella is credited with opening up a joy-starved, post-war Britain to the pleasure of Italian restaurants. He was also a key figure in the mod movement of the Fifties and Sixties, bringing his own brand of Italian sophistication to the dour streets of London.

His work for restaurants rejected the kitsch country-style interiors that had characterized Italian eateries, replacing it with clean lines, tiled floors and white walls upon which he would often place a single piece of abstract art. The restaurant critic Fay Maschler credited him with being ‘the rst to throw out the raffia-clad Chianti bottles and plastic grapes hanging on fabric vines from London trattorie’. With no architectural training he would often sketch his designs on tablecloths or napkins or on the back of a cigarette packet.

In his parallel career as a cartoonist he has contributed to The Observer, The Guardian, Punch and Private Eye among many other publications and he still produces a topical cartoon every day, which he draws by hand after watching the evening news and then emails to over 500 friends and associates.

The source of his creativity is, he says, a mystery. ‘It comes from nowhere. I’ve never been to the proper schools, never been to a school of journalism, design, or art,’ he says. The best he can come up with is that, as a child, his father’s infectious love of literature – red his young imagination. Indeed, there’s a sense that his life, during which he rode on a wave of joie de vivre from Italy into the heart of London’s swinging Sixties, would make an intriguing novel.

Apicella studied languages at the Instituto Orientale in his home city of Naples in the late Forties and, later, while serving in the Italian Air Force, he began contributing articles to magazines including Le Vie dell’Aria and Ali di Guerra. After studying lm in Rome in 1947, he freelanced as a designer, illustrator and writer and co-founded Melodramma, an opera magazine, in Venice in 1953. When this folded the following year, he came to England to visit some friends and ended up staying.

One day he saw poster ads for Schweppes Tonic Water on the Underground. ‘I was impressed by the excellent style of the campaign and decided that it was a company that would appreciate my own approach to the subject,’ he says. ‘I prepared four rough sketches for their acceptance; they bought all four.’ This was in 1956, and when I meet Apicella for lunch at the Chelsea Arts Club in London last month I suggest that times may have changed; that it’s hard to imagine it happening today. ‘Well, that’s true,’ he laughs, ‘though it was pretty unusual even then!’ Before hitting his stride as a restaurant designer and cartoonist, he’d also worked as a set designer for ABC TV – an experience he says was invaluable in teaching him how to light a space.

His first restaurant project was the iconic La Terrazza in London’s Soho. Apicella was a regular customer, a big fan of the food but a vociferous critic of the decor. ‘The food was very good,’ he remembers, ‘but it had an awful interior.’ After hearing him criticise it one too many times La Terrazza’s owners, Franco Lagattolla and Mario Cassandro, allowed him to go to work on the downstairs dining room. Apicella took up the carpets and replaced them with green, glazed ceramic floor tiles from Naples. Rough brickwork and plaster walls were painted white, and instead of the usual light fittings on the walls he positioned circular tube downlights over the centre of each table, giving each party of diners its own light source.

These lights, which he discovered by chance, became an Apicella trademark and one of his greatest contributions to restaurant design. ‘One day I was walking around Piccadilly and I found a magazine shop that had a beautiful light I had never seen before,’ he remembers. ‘They called it a “window display light”, and at the time it was used only in shops. I thought, why not have them in the restaurants? I was the first one to have this kind of lighting in the restaurant over the table, and it was an incredible success.’

The project at La Terrazza wasn’t an immediate hit, at least with regular customers, but the aesthetes among the restaurant’s clientele were impressed. Novelist Len Deighton, a friend of Apicella’s, immortalised it in his novel The Ipcress File: ‘In London with a beautiful girl,’ Deighton wrote in 1961, ‘you must show her to Mario at La Terrazza.’

Apicella’s work had also caught the attention of Peter Boizot, who was looking to open a traditional pizzeria in London. Apicella says he persuaded him to open something less traditionally Italian, with a more modern interior. Pizza Express was born. He used crisp white tablecloths – something you wouldn’t have found in a Neapolitan pizzeria. The floor was tiled, this time in white, and abstract art, including pieces by Peter Blake, adorned the white walls. Ever the cartoonist, Apicella also designed the restaurant’s logo.

It was a huge success, and 56 years later he is still working with the chain, most recently on a mural for a branch in Chiswick. But there were many other influential restaurants along the way. Does he still recognise his influence in the way restaurants are designed? ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘People have copied my work extensively – the ceramic floors, while walls, abstract art. I believe that even today, you can’t go to an Italian restaurant in London without seeing my mark.’

He approaches each project in a similar way: he visits the neighbourhood, eats in the nearby restaurants, thinks about what is popular in the area and what it lacks. He believes that much of the design work should take place on location rather than in a studio, and that the designer should have a feel for the space. At the moment he’s designing a branch of the restaurant chain Croma inside the Odeon cinema in Tunbridge Wells. His design involves projecting classic silent films such as the Keystone Cops on to the walls as decoration. His freehand sketches for it are full of colour, surprisingly similar to his cartoons. They are also hugely evocative, giving a real sense of what it would be like in the space.

These days there’s a Pizza Express or something like it on almost every UK high street, but it may never have been thus without Enzo Apicella. ‘There aren’t many people who are personally responsible for such a radical alteration in cultural habits,’ says Steven Thomas, the designer of the iconic London store Biba and a long-time friend of Apicella. ‘Today, going for a pizza is an everyday activity, but in post-war London it was manna from an exotic, passionate and unimagined heaven. Enzo was not only responsible for introducing me, and thousands like me, to Italian restaurant design, but also to Italian cuisine, food culture and temperament. He changed the nation’s dining habits for ever.’

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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