Counter Culture

  • A bar by Marc Thee (left) is, the Florida designer says, “a destination point.” Photograph by Kim Sargent
  • A Jeffry Weisman–designed bar hides behind sliding doors. Alfred Karram II designed this bar to look like a jewel rising from the Floor. Photograph by Mathew Millman
  • Photograph by Joseph Lapeyra
<< Back to Robb Report, October 2004
  • Brooke Lange

A stylishly designed and appointed home bar is an island unto itself, a comfortable yet luxurious corner of the house that does more than separate you from the madding crowd. It is a place, replete with mood lighting, custom woodwork, delicate crystal, and rich tapestries and velvets, where you unwind and share your scotch collection, where you dreamabout being stranded for hours—even when the only sustenance is spirits and ice.
As people rediscover the elegance of entertaining at home, they are re-creating in their houses private renditions of favorite watering holes—the Hudson Hotel’s Library bar in Manhattan, for instance, or Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle. “Isn’t it more lovely to [meet] in someone’s home rather than in a bar?” asks Glenn Gissler, a Manhattan interior designer. “There’s something wonderful about a space that has an enduring quality and is built upon rich materials.”

Gissler, who avoids all things trendy in home bar design, paired antiquity with functionality in a Riverside Drive Art Deco apartment by installing a circa-1930 French rosewood bar accented with brushed nickel hardware and glass-fronted doors. A framed mirror extending nearly one foot beyond the bar’s edges reflects the adjacent dining room. “It’s almost Viennese in look, but it’s very gracious,” Gissler says of the piece. An elegant silver-and-brass table lamp illuminates the bar’s intricate wood grain. “You’re typically mixing drinks during a more mellow time of day, so you don’t need a lot of razzmatazz in terms of lighting,” he explains.
Designed as backdrop for conversation, the custom-made bar is often a conversation piece in itself, a design statement about the house and its inhabitants. “Bars should have intimacy to them,” says Marc Thee of Marc-Michaels Interior Design in Winter Park, Fla. “They should feel very welcoming and be proportionate to the adjoining space, but people also look at them as architecture.”

Thee, who prefers the classic, handsome look of Ritz-Carlton hotel bars, begins with a foundation of specialty woods, upholstered walls, and rich leather seating. “The bar isn’t supposed to scream anything except ‘Come gather. Let’s relax,’ ” Thee says. “It’s a definite place where the entertainment begins and ends. It’s a destination point.”

In his own house, Thee incorporated a handsome pub-style bar into what he calls a multifunctional “club room” that includes a gaming area, a media room, and an office. Now what was once a seldom-visited formal living room has become the most popular space in the house. “The bar is the beginning, middle, and end of that room,” Thee says of his club room. “It’s where everyone gathers.”

The bar designed by John Robert Wiltgen for a 50th-floor Chicago condominium not only expands the living room’s functionality, but also serves as a focal point for the neoclassical-style space. “The bar had to be gorgeous to be worthy of being in the living room,” Wiltgen says of the high-gloss, lacquer-finish cabinetry whose carved-glass door insets reflect the geometric pattern of the living room rug. The richly textured back side of each glass panel is lined with silver leaf to create a touch of drama. The bar’s five-fold pocket doors close to conceal the wet bar area, lending an element of surprise to the room. “When the doors are closed, the piece could be anything,” Wiltgen says. “There should always be things in the home that intrigue—something that allures you and makes you want to see the rest of the house.”

Jeffry Weisman, of Fisher Weisman Design and Decoration in San Francisco, believes beautiful bar design does not have to be limited by a shortage of space. As an example, he cites the Bay Area apartment that he designed around the owner’s extensive art collection. “After the project was finished, the husband said the one thing he was unhappy about was that he didn’t push for a bar,” Weisman says. Finding 7 feet of unused wall space in the main hallway, Weisman concealed the simple, black granite-topped cabinetry behind two sliding doors that are fronted with original art created by his business partner, Andrew Fisher. When closed, the doors meet seamlessly, as if they were a single canvas. “It’s a beautiful bar that’s completely convenient and concealed,” says Weisman. “It doesn’t detract from the owners’ art collection in the least.”

Moored outside a 50-by-50-foot great room, the contemporary bar designed by South Florida architect Alfred Karram II whets—and sates—an appetite for visual curiosity. “The main force of this space,” says Karram, “was to make this look like a jewel coming out of the stone floor.” Rising from the cream granite flooring is a trapezoid-shaped, heavily veined bank of Middle Eastern dark-green onyx. The bar dramatically juts out from the wall like a yacht in motion. Floating glass shelves and polished chrome hardware add a subtle sheen to the space.

While architect Alison Spear of Miami cites Manhattan’s handsome St. Regis bar as her personal favorite, she prefers a home bar with a hip, cutting-edge appearance. Her material of the moment is glimmering mirror. “It looks so pretty with lighting and glassware,” Spear says. For a Miami client who entertains frequently, she topped the bar’s countertop and walls wit h mirrors. A custom-designed upholstered Lucite bench invites guests to mingle as martinis are being shaken, while a vintage lamp and retro art glass pieces add a touch of whimsy to the space.

“Socializing is a part of our daily life, and the comfort of that experience is determined by the design of the bar,” Thee says. “It’s exactly the same motif you look for in the ambience of a restaurant: comfy, warm, and memorable.”

Alfred Karram II, 561.394.9900
Alison Spear Architect, 305.438.1200
Dale Carol Anderson Ltd., 773.348.5200
Fisher Weisman Design and Decoration, 415.255.2254
Glenn Gissler Design, 212.228.9880
John Robert Wiltgen Design, 312.744.1151
Marc-Michaels Interior Design, 407.629.2124


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