Bars & Leisure Focus: Q&A with Holly Hallam from DesignLSM

Holly Hallam, managing director at DesignLSM, believes that a multitude of factors are helping to reshape bar and restaurant design into even more of an ‘experience’ business

Words by Toby Maxwell

EXPERIENCE COUNTS — If there has been one constant theme dominating the bar and leisure sector over the past couple of years, it has been ‘uncertainty’. Steering through the storm that was the pandemic took the steadiest of hands, while today’s choppy waters show no sign of abating in the face of inflation, staff shortages and the cost-of-living crisis.

However, the innovative do not see problems, only challenges, and so, as well as speaking to some of the designers who are very much operating in the sector, we survey a few examples of projects that have leapt significant hurdles to come up with bold solutions for increasingly radical clients.

From user-friendly tech-based ordering systems to evolving establish brands, and from a balanced blend of old and new, to a project that demanded the very highest-level sustainability credentials to match Royal Garden surroundings, there is no room for the mediocre in a super-competitive sector that has always demanded maximum value for every pound of investment.

Holly Hallam
Holly Hallam

Please tell us a little about the DesignLSM story, its involvement in bar and restaurant design, as well as your own background and path to a career in the sector?

DesignLSM is a multi-disciplined creative agency specialising in strategy, branding, interior design and architecture for a diverse portfolio of world-class brands within the hospitality industry. Established in 1988, the studio has a great wealth of experience, both operationally and strategically, with a strong UK and international presence, expanding to Europe, Central Asia, South East Asia and North America – launching our first satellite office in Dubai following a growing demand of our services in the Middle East.

About two years ago, I took over from the previous managing director and am now the proud co-owner of DesignLSM. I have a background in fi lm, commerce and marketing, typically focusing on understanding how to build emotional connections with the end-user, be that someone watching a fi lm, buying a product or eating in a restaurant. When I started working at DesignLSM, I introduced a strategic service offering to our agency. We look at a clients’ strategic and commercial objectives, their brand, DNA, tone of voice, values, and what guest experiences they’re trying to create, making recommendations to become more operationally and commercially successful as well as curating immersive environments. We then use that insight within the interior design to strengthen the guest experience, making the design more holistic, authentic and engaging.

Part of DesignLSM’s approach to dealing with increasing costs is to research materials like brass, which has seen an expontential rise recently.
Part of DesignLSM’s approach to dealing with increasing costs is to research materials like brass, which has seen an expontential rise recently.

How has the nature and scope of projects in the F&B sector evolved post-pandemic?

Post-pandemic, clients’ expectations were still to create a restaurant that felt spacious and reassuringly welcoming. Spatial distancing – in regards to spacing in-between covers – continues to be favoured by restaurants now, creating an additional level of comfort and security for guests. Staffing levels and attracting the appropriately skilled talent is also still an issue within the industry, which is both a combination of Brexit and the pandemic.

This all means that we really need to work on the initial space planning stages, looking at cover count, guest experience and operational flows and efficiencies, studying how the space can be as effective as possible, even when staffing ratios may be temporarily reduced.

However, the biggest issue right now in the industry is the dramatic increase in cost of goods and materials due to a rise in manufacturing prices caused by a combination of factors as: post-pandemic; Brexit; the war in Ukraine; and the global energy crisis. We are seeing huge inflation in the cost of materials over the last few months which is obviously causing pressure on project budgets.

As a result, we are responding by interrogating the design a lot harder, understanding which materials – such as brass for example – have had an exponential rise and looking at where we use these key materials, ensuring that design return on every pound. It has also meant that we are collaborating and communicating at a much earlier stage with co-consultants such as contractors. As prices continue to fluctuate on an almost daily basis, we are looking at cost-effective ways of constructing a space, be that bar counters or beautiful bespoke joinery pieces.

This has allowed the firm to keep costs down while still producing stylish and attractive designs as seen in The Alchemist’s booths and group dining tables
This has allowed the firm to keep costs down while still producing stylish and attractive designs as seen in The Alchemist’s booths and group dining tables

How have consumer habits changed? How do these new behaviours impact on the design process for bar and restaurant projects?

I think people during the pandemic and post-pandemic have realised how much hospitality spaces mean to them, and they’re not just functional spaces you go and eat and drink in. They have realised they are more social spaces that are part of their tribe, social scene or community; whether that’s picking up a coffee at their local coffee shop and chatting to the owner, or meeting friends at their favourite restaurant for dinner. In terms of perception of the hospitality industry, that’s been a real positive.

People have become more engaged and are way more involved in the hospitality spaces that are important to them. They are now taking an interest in how a space curates their evening, how it sets a tone and frames their experience. This is an important part of our design process, truly understanding the emotional and physical connection and impact of our design environments on the guest. The ‘experiential’ is a key part of our design process.

What design direction do you see for bars and restaurants in the near future? What will be the likely priorities for designers and architects to address?

Some trends continuing from a design perspective are wellness – both in mental and physical terms. It’s making sure we look at a space, not just from a physical perspective, but also from an accessibility and looking at it from a mental point of view, considering the space planning, the tactility of the materials we choose, the colour and light balance and how these all curate and inform the emotional space.

With the rising cost of materials, it is also about being smarter with the design, making it work hard to prove return on the escalating client budgets. That responsibility has to be considered and shared right at the start of a project from an architectural, design and construction point of view to ensure efficiency and maximum design impact.

Please share with us a recent project that has presented a particularly interesting or unusual design challenge?

The Alchemist in Manchester’s Spinningfields has been a great design challenge. It’s the original Alchemist that has been there for well over a decade, and lots of people love it. The brand itself has a very strong design DNA, so taking on that project redesigning and refurbishing the space, was a challenge. We had to be respectful of the heritage but bring it forward into a new era.

We came up with an idea and a story on how we could evolve the design narrative and worked closely with their brand and marketing team to ensure it sat seamlessly with their overall brand evolution, translating the vision into a physical space. From a design perspective, it was about how can we translate that into a physical space. It was a privilege to collaborate with the client’s team and for them to trust us to evolve this dynamic brand.

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