A disused military chapel has been reinvented as one of the hottest restaurants in town, thanks to the skills of Piet Boon and lighting specialist .PSLAB.
Client: Sergio Herman
Interior design and restoration: Piet Boon
Lighting design: .PSLAB
Area: 404 sq m
Opened: Spring 2014
Words by Veronica Simpson
When Michelin-starred chef Sergio Herman decided to shake off the shackles of his very formal fine-dining establishment (the three- Michelin starred Oud Sluis, with waiting lists of a year or more), he couldn't have got much more rock 'n' roll than stripping down an old military chapel, putting the chefs where the priests used to be, placing a glowing neon skull over their workspace and scrawling graphic cartoons over the windows where once there were wilting Madonnas and tortured saints.
Dutch designer Piet Boon first came across the disused military chapel that is now The Jane, and one of Antwerp's hottest dinner spots, six years ago at a pop-up art and food event.
Situated at the heart of what used to be a military hospital complex, and whose surrounding buildings have mostly been transformed for residential use, the chapel was leaky, semi-derelict but still rather magnificent.
So when Boon later heard his friends Herman and co-chef Nick Bril talking about doing something more exciting and irreverent, he suggested the chapel. 'Immediately we knew it was going to be great,' says Boon.
That was three years ago. First they had to secure permission to turn a former place of worship into a buzzing venue with state-of-theart restaurant facilities. And they had to work out how to resolve several major design issues. They knew they wanted an open kitchen at the rear, where the had been altar, but they also knew that to keep it open would mean that all the noise and banter and chaos of a kitchen would be massively amplified by the acoustics of the chapel. Boon's solution: to enclose the spacious kitchen in a well-ventilated metal box - roof and all - sealing the audience-facing side with glazing so that all the drama and theatre of the kitchen could be enjoyed without any noise overload. The many waiters buzzing in and out of the kitchen do so via silently sliding doors.
Then, and just as important, was deciding what to do with the spectacular chapel ceiling. 'The ceiling was in very bad condition,' says Boon. 'The roof was leaking everywhere; we had to repair the whole ceiling. At one point I was lying on the scaffolding (looking up) thinking: "It's so beautiful now it's only repaired, let's keep it like this." That was a bit scary for Sergio, when I said: "We're not going to repaint it. Just put some lacquer on it to protect and preserve it".'
The problem was how to provide enough light while keeping the ceiling clear, and how to prevent all that space overwhelming the diners. So Boon started talking with lighting specialist .PSLAB - a bespoke lighting consultancy that works with some of the biggest names in architecture, designing and manufacturing individual lights as well as whole schemes to order in its Beirut factory. Says Dimitri Saddi,.PSLAB director: 'That space is so beautiful you wouldn't want to cover the ceiling with lights. But the issue was how to create intimacy for the diners in such a huge volume while celebrating that huge ceiling.'
The massive bespoke chandelier not only acts as a focal point but also breaks the huge void above the heads of diners
.PSLAB's solution - and just one part of its lighting scheme for The Jane - was a massive, 850K starburst chandelier measuring 12m x 9m, with more than 150 individual lights. It descends from the ceiling on one long, slender black metal pole, with multiple slimmer stems of varying lengths radiating out from its centre, tipped with glowing bulbs. The bulbs are low intensity and softly coloured to generate a good balance of warmth, ambient light and subtle dazzle. Once the design had been decided, it took two months of prototyping and tweaking for the final product to emerge - with a half section of the prototype tested on the outside.
PSLAB's offices in Beiruit, in order to adjust and refine the mechanism. It had to be easy to ship and install; in the end, it was put together over one weekend before The Jane opened. Says Saddi: 'The chandelier is a fully three-dimensional form so you feel there is this whole movement in space within the arched ceiling.'
Cartoon windows add a strong element of fun and colour. Says Boon: 'In the beginning we were not allowed to change the windows but they were in such bad condition they couldn't really be repaired.' After some conversations with some clearly sympathetic planning officers, Boon was allowed to commission Studio Job - Job Smeets and Nunke Tynagel - to create their own version of modern-day 'stained glass' storytelling.
They designed 500 unique panels, inspired by the chapel's history both old and modern: sunflowers, foam spatulas, devils, skulls, babies, Jesus on the cross, gas masks, birthday cakes, croissants, ice cream cones, beer bottles and penguins all find their way on to them. Softly backlit at night, they glow against the creamy white walls. By day, they are translucent, allowing daylight to flood through.
Original stain-glass windows were in too poor a condition to be repaired and have been replaced by a modern take on them
With such a dramatic centrepiece chandelier and so much life and colour added by the window art - not to forget the 1m wide neon skull commissioned from South African artist Kendell Geers that hangs above the kitchen space- Boon decided to keep colourings elsewhere a subtle minimum, adding texture and interest through materials. The elegant distressed grey of the ceiling expanse is thrown into relief by white walls, banisters and window alcoves, while pale fabric panels line the lower walls to offer a cosier, softer acoustic. Seating includes large, dark leather-upholstered banquettes, strewn with graphic print cushions - inspiring one reviewer to coin the term 'post-ecclesiastical chic' - as well as pale teal velvet chairs. There is a richly veined marble slab counter on the bar in the balcony, with stainless-steel base.
A whole palette of lighting elements, designed by .PSLAB are distributed across the space, including white, architectural cones that descend from the balcony and glow softly golden inside, reflecting warmly in quasi-domestic metal lamps placed between dining tables. More strategic lighting is hidden behind structural pillars. Everything is taken into consideration with a .PSLAB scheme, says Saddi, balancing the colours and intensity of ambient light with feature lights, natural daylight with artificial to create something that celebrates the atmosphere and qualities of the building rather than its fixtures, at all times of day. 'It's about seeing the effect rather than the light,' he says.
The food is a more playful, creative take on Herman's earlier Michelin-starred cuisine. And now The Jane has a three-month waiting list of its own (the main space seats 65 guests, with an upper room bar with its own kitchen that accommodates another 40).
Finally, to the name: why is it called The Jane? Apparently, they were going to call it La Chapelle, but, says Boon: 'Sergio calls it The Jane because, for us, Jane is a woman "that loves to eat, loves to travel, loves design and art. It's our woman".'