The Making Of
The Book Club, by Shai Akram and Andrew Haythornthwaite

PHOTOS BY SYLVAIN DELEU

As if they didn’t have enough to cry about, London’s young bankers lost a favorite watering hole this year — the seminal Shoreditch nightclub Home, whose hipster cachet had long faded since its opening in 1997. When local designers Andrew Haythornthwaite and Shai Akram were invited to help transform the space into The Book Club — where the activities include not just eating, drinking, and dancing but also more cerebral pursuits like poetry, storytelling, and workshops — it was a delicate transition. “We didn’t want it to feel like a brand-new bar,” says Haythornthwaite. “We wanted it to be one of those places that seems like it’s always been there but you just haven’t noticed it.”

The result is a kind of high-design rec room. The pair packed the space with elegant quirks, like a ceiling covered with 23,000 individually suspended lightbulbs. “There are so many amazing places around here,” Akram says of the Shoreditch neighborhood. “You need to have something that will set you apart.” Beyond the bulbs, the pair repeated simple elements throughout the interior. Just inside the entrance, the wall is peppered with houseplants, each mounted in its own terracotta pot. In the game room, a custom Ping-Pong table is accompanied by a wall of paddles, and one end of the reading room is stacked high with secondhand books.

For Haythornthwaite, design runs in the family. His father, an established New Zealand-born industrial designer, worked for Henry Dreyfuss in New York, and all four of his brothers also ended up in the field. Akram, his partner in work and life, traces her creative influence a generation further: Her grandparents moved to the UK from Pakistan in the 1960s, and her grandmother set up a dressmaking shop where Akram can remember pestering her for the chance to dress the window so as to tell a story rather than simply display the merchandise. The pair met at London’s Royal College of Art, where they both studied under Ron Arad, and they’ve worked together on and off ever since. They took us through the process of transforming The Book Club space.

2 Foyer

“We wanted it to feel like you were walking onto someone's porch," says Akram of The Book Club's entrance area, with its potted-plant wall. The graphics on the right map out the space's two floors. “We worked with a sign writer who hand-painted it, so it had the quality of something crafted rather than quickly printed and stuck on the wall. Details like this are intended to last for years, to show the incredible amount of time invested in the project.”

3 Upstairs

The designers’ first decision was to gut the place. “Home's interior was wallpapered, with a lowered ceiling, lots of cladding, and false walls — all of which came out,” says Haythornthwaite. Structural details like the electrical conduit on the ceiling, usually left to the tradesman’s eye, were then meticulously arranged by the designers.

4

They were very hands-on during the build, spending long hours laboring alongside the contractors. “There was about one month of nonstop making on-site,” recalls Akram. The furniture was one of the few elements they outsourced. The final selection included a mixture of secondhand pieces and the pair’s own designs, the latter produced by specialist craftsmen Turners and Moore.

5 Bar 2

In the bar area, the idea was to reduce visual clutter by writing the daily cocktail menu directly onto the white ceramic tiles with dry-erase markers.

1 Mosaic

The mosaic above the bar references the designers’ chief source of inspiration for the space — La Colombe d’Or, a famous hotel and restaurant near Nice, whose clientele included Picasso, Matisse, and others who occasionally paid their bills in art. Akram and Haythornthwaite sought to evoke the vibe of the landmark moreso than its look: “It has a mythology as a place where people came to relax and talk about ideas,” Akram says.

6 Dining Area

Because the three floors above The Book Club are occupied by office space, the designers tried to cater to office workers as well as the public. The dining area upstairs seats 80, and a few long tables give it a communal feel. There’s a sense of utility to many of the objects: “You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to buy a simple spun-metal lampshade,” says Haythornthwaite. After a lengthy search, they used replacement shades for pool tables, sourcing them from a supplier in the Netherlands.

7 Ping Pong

The paddles in the Ping-Pong area aren’t just for show — guests can bring their own and padlock them to hooks, mimicking the practice of keeping one’s own tankard behind the bar. Rough-edged Douglas-fir cladding gives the room warmth, as do the curtains, which are made from various roll ends.

8 Downstairs

The light and airy dining area gives way to what Akram calls “a dark version of Alice in Wonderland” in the club spaces downstairs. Removing a false wall revealed huge ducting that the designers chose to use as a feature by back-lighting it. Elsewhere, film-noir spotlighting, bare brick walls, and the ceiling of bulbs create a sense of walking through a stage set.

9 Lightbulb room

Inspired by a scene from the 2006 Norwegian film The Bothersome Man, the bulb ceiling was the most audacious and time-consuming feature of the project. Haythornthwaite’s solution for suspending 23,000 bulbs over the 500-sq.ft. area? Twist floristry wire around the bayonet of each bulb, then tie the wires to sheets of mesh stretched across wooden frames. Because of the scale of the labor involved, the designers organized a series of "lightbulb parties," plying their friends with wine in exchange for help with the monotonous task.

10 Lightbulbs

The bulbs were sourced in two batches. The first, which came from a nearby recycling facility, were mistakenly ordered by a hardware store with the incorrect filament. The second were an obsolete line from a supermarket chain.

12 downstairs

The vintage furniture — much of it made by classic British brand Ercol — came from Sunbury Antiques Market, held two Tuesdays a month at London's Kempton Park Racecourse.

13 table through wall

The antiques market also provided the wine carafes seen here on a 16-foot-long table that bisects one of The Book Club's downstairs walls. The satisfyingly thick glass vessels originally functioned as dye bottles in a textile mill.

14 books

The client initially proposed incorporating a working library into the venue, but this proved too costly. Rather than shelving up a selection of hand-picked thrift-store books — a popular but hackneyed motif in gastropubs — Akram and Haythornthwaite used books as a purely decorative element, filling an alcove from top to bottom.

Shai and Andrew1

Shai Akram and Andrew Haythornthwaite in their London studio, sitting beneath Akram’s collection of clothespins from around the world.