A design upstart and his bright new world of dining

Interview: PAUL FLYNN
Photography: JONAS UNGER

Paul Flynn: Your practice is called the Guild of Saint Luke. Why a guild?

John Whelan: We’re like a modern-day design studio but our style is much more suited to the word guild. We’re extremely influenced by premodern architecture.

PF: How did it begin?

JW: I actually started in advertising as a creative director. Telecommunications, cars. I got to the point where I’d had a quarter-life crisis at 25 and I just didn’t want to do it anymore.

PF: Why not?

JW: Because it was just commercial, and I found a lot of the conversations I was having quite manipulative. I’ve always been interested in tradition and places with soul, where you can detect the passage of time. I was going to this restaurant a lot, Chez Omar, which is a very famous restaurant in the Marais, in Paris. I’d befriended the owner, a 70-year-old Algerian fellow, and one night I said, “Look, with your money and my ideas we could do something.” He said yes and we found this old synagogue. It was in a knackered state but had this amazing Star of David mosaic, wood panelling, mouldings upstairs. It went off like crazy. We had Kanye West’s Louis Vuitton parties there – I loved it. That led to commissions for brasseries, which we’ve been doing mainly in Paris, although our first London restaurant project is opening later this year.

PF: What’s the aesthetic?

JW: We all felt that postmodernism was eating itself. It was supposed to re-engage a classical vocabulary but all it did was work with it in a caricatural sense. We all felt that perhaps the new punk was tradition. So, the things that we were looking at tended to be from the 18th and 19th centuries. That’s how we banded together.

PF: What is the importance of lighting in your restaurant projects?

JW: I think it’s everything, in terms of interiors. If we have anything to add to this debate, it’s that we don’t manipulate light. We allow the natural light to take precedence. If you look at contemporary hospitality design in London or New York, it’s very impressive but it’s usually overproduced. There are too many layers. I walk in and I cringe when I see all these lights licking up the walls and underlighting on bars. It’s very much a contemporary invention.

[De Rrusie, the artistic director of the Guild of Saint Luke, joins the conversation] DR: It makes more sense for us to work with natural matter. The light has to be the same. It’s like pop music: the more artificial it is, the less it works.

John is joined by De Rrusie, the artistic director of the Guild of Saint Luke, at their most recent Parisian endeavor: Bouillon Julien. John is wearing COS while De Rrusie is in a suit of his own design.

PF: Lighting design has become an art form in itself.

JW: It has.

PF: One that, I take it, you find slightly vulgar?

JW: Let’s not tiptoe around the snobby words. We do find it vulgar. And if there’s any one thing that Paris has given us, it’s the ability to understand when you’re over-egging the pudding. Parisians don’t overdo their style.

PF: How do you square the idea of premodernist taste with the lighting in a project?

JW: We don’t, for example, work with a lighting designer. Because we know that what they’re going to come with is a scheme of all of the stuff we’ve just shot down.

PF: Wow, how to damn an entire industry!

JW: Exactly! If you hire a lighting designer, they will obviously have their arguments. They’re trying to sell you stuff. They will say the food needs to be spotlit so that you can really see what’s on the plate but actually, we feel that’s counterintuitive. Pretty much all modern restaurants have it, so when you move your hand across the table, there’s a shadow and a harsh light that makes your hand look white. These are, in our opinion, unwanted contemporary impositions.

PF: Is lighting essentially about heightening the attractiveness of a space and the people filling it?

[Leonora Chance, studio manager of the Guild of Saint Luke, joins the conversation] LC: Yes, that’s so important. It makes people more seductive. Glamour is all about creating that seductive mood, really good bars and nightclubs are able to do that. When you walk in you might meet someone and you feel amazing about yourself. You want to flirt. It encourages all sorts of behaviour.

JW: Absolutely. André Balazs’ Chiltern Firehouse in London is a masterclass in lighting.

LC: That’s an example of a very sexy place.

JW: The mood lighting has got this ’70s fuzz to it. They’ve nailed that. But then there are loads of places that don’t get it right and you see this lighting design that is counterproductive. We look at a building and we feel that there is a story inherent to it. We work out what the building was in order to work out where we’re going to take it. It’s not some kind of Philippe Starck or Pierre Cardin signature which we put everywhere.

PF: That Philippe Starck design was the first time I really noticed lighting, at the Paramount Hotel in New York in the early ’90s. I loved it, I bought the dream. It felt like a nightclub.

JW: You’re absolutely right. But nightclubs were cool back then. People didn’t have smartphones, people actually had fun. But very quickly it became bastardised and homogenised and now we find it in every W hotel in every city in every country. Then, all of a sudden, all of those lighting tricks look completely played out. People think, “Christ, I don’t want that again.” It’s the changing of the guard.

PF: Is the pop-psychological explanation for what you do that the only interesting thing left is anti-digital? That the only interesting people are the ones not on social media? Is digital saturation now upon us?

LC: It’s an interesting thesis. There’s a very good book on it: The Revenge of Analog. The gist of that book is that analogue will never go away; it just gets repurposed.

JW: For the last brasserie we did, we juxtaposed two colours: sea green and prune, a colour scheme that would’ve been big in the art nouveau days but isn’t seen a lot now. All of a sudden, it’s fresh. There’s nothing innovative about that; it’s just an aesthetic combination. That interests us.

LC: People feel it’s somehow familiar. They might’ve seen it somewhere but they don’t know where or why. It touches somewhere inside you: nostalgia, memory.

PF: Talk to me about practicalities. Do people actually look better when they’re dimly lit?

LC: It depends where the light is coming from. You don’t want it coming from above. You don’t want to see eye bags. You don’t want direct shine.

JW: There’s nothing wrong with candles.

DR: Spreading the light in different ways is better for your brain.

PF: What’s specific to lighting food that you do right?

JW: We don’t do the wrong things.

LC: We don’t make such a fuss out of it.

JW: In the restaurants we do, we encourage candles on all of the tables in the evening. It gives a slightly Rembrandt look to everybody’s faces: a bit of chiaroscuro. That’s a nice thing. I’ve never experienced anyone saying, “Can you take away this candle please? It’s making my boyfriend look too good.” Whereas we have heard people say, before our intervention, “Can you turn this light off?”

PF: How important is a colour palette to lighting?

LC: There are certain colours that we would never use.

JW: Lime green.

LC: Anything too bright. Anything that’s too plastic.

JW: We’re of the opinion that beauty needs to be a little bit sad. The romantic idea of beauty is ruin. There is a quote by the art critic John Ruskin on our website: “Whenever the beautiful loses its melancholy, it degenerates into prettiness.”

PF: Nice.

JW: Isn’t that fantastic?

LC: That’s the answer.