Monday March 4, 2013
A touch of perfection from Chris Lewis
Story and photos by GRACE CHEN
A fine dining restaurant gets the classy design treatment it deserves from a perfectionist.
THERE are many things about Chris Lewis that makes an interesting story.
In addition to being an ardent cook of heritage English cuisine (think Spotted Dick and Toad in the Hole), the 42-year-old was also former junior captain of the Zambian National Swimming team. He has lived in Japan, is a passionate ecologist, and an active supporter of African schooling programmes.
Then there is his tenure as designer with Harrods in London from 1998 to 2011; the iconic British store was formerly owned by Egyptian tycoon Mohamed Abdel Moneim Al-Fayed who very nearly became father in-law to the late Princess Diana, mother of the future king of Britain. “Al Fayed was a great person to work with. He gave the green light to all my concepts for the Harrods outlets, granting me full autonomy for the designs. He is a very warm person and treated all his staff like family,” reveals Lewis at a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur.
But Lewis, who has since founded his own Singapore-based design studio, Carbon and Grain, is not about to engage in celebrity gossip. For now, he is still fussing over Svago, his current showpiece and the latest refined dining outlet to open in Suria KLCC.
Svago offers Italian-inspired continental cuisine amidst an elegant European ambiance while its sister outlet downstairs, Limoncello – also designed by Lewis – offers a more casual atmosphere.
Lewis’ current fixation is the two flights of steps leading up to Svago. Constructed of local nyatoh wood, he is now beginning to doubt if that is the right material for a pathway that will cater to daily traffic of 500 diners. It has been penned in his “Urgent Things to Rectify” list before wear and tear sets in. A proposal to have the steps and landing coated in polyurethane and sanded down with glass paper to protect the surface has been forwarded to the owners. At interview time, a contractor was patiently waiting for Lewis to give the nod for the job.
As he has with every inch of the place, Lewis has put much thought into Svago’s entrance. Because it is located on an upper floor, it has to pique curiosity and draw people to explore its labyrinths. To produce the desired pull, he installed spyhole frames beneath the steps, concealing low-heat emission T5 lights to give it that spaceship entrance effect. Looking at it kind of reminds me of a scene from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
When I wonder about replacing blown bulbs, Lewis assures that the bulbs won’t need to be changed for the next four years provided there are no sudden power surges. Even then, it’s an easy switch, as the spyhole frames open outwards. Practical and pretty.
Giving an insight into what clever design is about, Lewis also draws our attention to the beige wallpaper with burgundy motifs on the main wall that holds the restaurant’s signage. For staircase walls, the norm is to avoid light colours because of staining tendencies. Lewis’ solution was to fly in a wallpaper variety printed on linen fabric from London that is completely wipeable.
Irene Lim, the restaurant’s co-owner, says frankly that Lewis’ taste is “expensive” – but she trusts him completely, she adds. Interestingly, when the owners engaged Lewis, the first item in the discussion was about concept, not budget.
“I didn’t say, ‘Lewis, here’s RM2mil. Now work within the budget’. If I did, he’d have to crack his head and that would have affected the whole outlook. When we landed this spot, we knew KLCC wanted something extraordinary and to achieve that, we had to give Lewis free rein,” says Lim.
Though Lewis doesn’t share how much he spent, he reckons he has not “built a castle for kings and queens”. Instead, the first thing he looked at was the menu when the assignment landed on his desk.
“I saw a restaurant that had the courage to leave the cooking styles of their meats and seafood to the customer. This meant they had great confidence in their chef (Andrea Buson) and ingredients. I wanted all that to be translated in the design,” Lewis explains.
Based on this, he decided to give the interiors a tasteful Art Deco-style European look with a clever play of materials – such as the use of bevel-edged glass bricks that give the walls a reflective sheen.
“You cannot imagine the amount of breakages we had to contend with,” says Lewis who had them painstakingly hand-cut and individually glued over the painted surface to resemble the style of brickwork reminiscent of European buildings.
Another distinctly Art Deco reference is the bronze ceiling over the bar area, all six panels of it.
“They are not entirely made of bronze – the cost would have been astounding if they were! They are actually stainless steel, heat-treated with bronze, a technology brought in from South Korea. If you look closely, you’d see the swirly brush strokes, creating the dull reflection for that raw look,” says the designer.
For Lewis, it seems like it’s the details that count. Like the wall panels in the dining area which underwent three stages of treatment to achieve that well-aged look, and the play of glass between the walls and ceilings that creates shafts of illumination in dancing candlelight. He has even constructed faux pillars in the dining area to anchor the furniture.
“The space of one pillar would easily accommodate another two tables. But that would mean sacrificing diners’ privacy. You’d have no sections, and everything would look ‘floaty’ and disorganised,” he explains.
But ask the designer if he is happy with his work and he replies with a hesitant “No”.
His bone of contention is in the bar where the chevron-patterned marble tables are. He points out near invisible chips, attributing them to the quality of marble hardness. You’d need a magnifying glass to suss them out under the dim lights but Lewis reveals he’s had them remade three times. He is kicking himself for taking marble for granted, not foreseeing the varying hardness from the different continents. He reckons if he had, he would never have gone ahead with the inlay work for the chevron designs.
And he remains less than ecstatic with the wood trim for his marble tables: because the wood is untreated, stains (only visible to his discerning eye for now) show up, he says, though he has moved on from this.
But Lim has no complaints. She is still basking in the excitement of having secured a spot in Suria KLCC. It had always been her dream to serenade her diners with the tune of the colourful dancing fountain in KLCC Park – and you can get a full view of it from the bar.
As for her designer’s obsession with perfection? She’s content to let Lewis work that out himself.