Designing Bars Forward

designing bars

Way back in the ‘70s, at the dawning of the bar scene, single women were showing up in celebration of their independence. Harvey Wallbangers, Grasshoppers, Mudslides and wine spritzers were the drinks of choice. Overstuffed furniture, faux Tiffany lamps, brass railings and lots of hanging plants provided the backdrop, while skylights and domed glass ceilings delivered sunlight for happy plants and happy people. The “fern-bar” was recognized as the design that launched a thousand T.G.I. Friday’s. This design style fit those happier days when life in general was more light-hearted. Ecology was at the birth of a movement that would blossom in the decades that followed and have an important impact on design in relationship to sustainability and authenticity. Concepts such as re-purposed, recycled, re-used and refurbished would influence interiors and exteriors of homes, offices and on-premise environments.

Then along came the 21st century. Technology catapulted our world into another stratosphere and accelerated some of the trends from the earlier decades in notable ways. The cocktail culture reached front and center after taking a back seat to yesterday’s wine and beer-centric nation pushing boundaries into today, where cocktails look like nothing before. Foams and ice spheres, herbs, bacon and produce as ingredients, barrel-aging and infusions, all this and more being used to craft cocktails. At the execution end of mixology, equipment and bar tool design is now both leading and following this cocktail movement. Complementing and accommodating creativity and technology along with the cultural shifts in attitude and behavior, so too bar design is evolving.

One of the more interesting cultural accelerations that is perhaps most affecting bar design today has been the shift to “place matters.” “Where do you live” replaced “what do you do” as the most asked question among young adults. Rather than moving up and out, 20- and 30-somethings want to put down roots, connect to family and embrace local culture. The revival of downtowns as centers for creativity, housing and commerce, along with the collapse of cultural majorities, led to the rebirth of cities as desirable places to live. These urban international melting pots have spawned great multi-cultural places to hang out.

Informality, another cultural identity marker of the 2000s, ushered in billionaires who wore jeans to work and CEOs who preferred to be called by their first name. Casualization is impacting on-premise to the degree that makes even fine dining operators re-think their decors. Smart phone cameras equal ubiquitous selfies and critics on a whim. What I am eating, what I am drinking, where I am hanging out, what I think about any of it, is posted all over social media sites.


Counterpoint to this obsession with self-importance (we are all celebutantes) is, thankfully, a growing sense of social responsibility, sustainability, farm-to-table cuisine and demand for the locally distilled and brewed beverage. These cultural changes have made a significant difference in the variety of choices we now have when choosing where to drink and dine. This rapidly forward-moving techie world where society has never been this culturally, religiously or politically diverse, is having a definite effect on the interior and exterior spaces where people live, work and play. Staying relevant and appealing to the senses and sensibilities of this time require an important harmony of purpose and design in furnishings, lighting, layout and atmosphere.

Tobin Ellis, principal at BarMagic of Las Vegas and a maverick in his own right, talks about keeping bar design focused forward and the subculture of the bar design world that is driving unprecedented innovation, staying a step ahead of the mainstream. A 2013 Consumer Reports article about on-premise establishments ranked aesthetics as the number one reason a person chooses a specific restaurant or bar. Ambiance matters and authenticity matters. Ellis, who has been designing, building and opening bars around the world for 17 years, talks about the most in-demand design happening “inside out,” with operationally-minded people who have no formal design background getting involved, because they cannot find places that sensibly blend design and function. He refers to these innovators as “tastemakers.” They are entrepreneurs at all positions in hospitality, such as bartenders, consultants (myself included), managers and small, independent operators, who want to work in an environment that works. These tastemakers are also looking for a place where they want to hang out. All of these manager/owner/operators are working bartenders, which explains their knack for designing bars that put function on equal footing with form. Ellis has built his company and global reputation on this same approach, where the end user is involved in the design phase.

Ellis mentioned that some of the design styles people are buzzing about right now are vintage revisited from the ‘20s and ‘30s, reclaimed eclectic shabby chic, refined rustic and modern industrial aka industrial chic (raw natural finishes of concrete, metal, wood and glass from deconstructed buildings). Because they appeal to the culture of comfort, informality and connection to familial roots and local uniqueness, these are casual spaces where nothing is pretentious. Localized “thrifting and picking” is fun and it is also gratifying to find decor items and finishing materials that can be re-purposed. Local and authentic elements in design, says Cat Stramer, managing director of SlateBlue Design, are incorporated into every project. One of Cat’s recent projects, Simpli Bar & Bites caters to local commuters. Functioning as a coffee shop by day and a bar by night in a tiny space took intelligent planning. Adding an outdoor patio provided a breath of fresh air to urbanites who desire an escape into nature to be warmed by the sun or mesmerized by the moon and stars.

slate blue bar design

Jennifer Reynolds, principal, Ideation Design Group, conducts in-depth site visits for local market inspiration before drawing a bar design plan for a remodel or entirely new project. Recycled, reused, reclaimed, refurbished, re-purposed materials such as old barn planks or discarded windows and doors are good resources for Cat, who is passionate about the sustainability of spaces and places.  She believes that it is our social responsibility to recycle and it also helps to keep costs down. Ellis speaks about bar design all over North America and talks about sustainability in design demonstrating social conscience as well as preservation of history. In his words, refurbishing materials gives them a second life. “Beware,” says Ellis, “of the regulations, however, and make sure those old pieces have been adapted to today’s standards, such as being fire retardant.”

Designing on-premise environments is in a “cool phase of unprecedented functional but beautiful design” says Ellis. Design is a big deal because it tells the story of your unique place. He spoke about an elevated showcase bartender bar set behind the main bar that his company designed for a client in the shape of a semicircle, placing all of the attention on the bartender as he builds his drinks for the other bartenders on busy nights. This reminded me of the chefs’ tables and open kitchens where the chef is entertainment. Bar-chef bar! Cool.

Un-sexy (everyone wants to be a designer) but all-important considerations that both professional and maverick designers must take into account when planning the next great bar are lighting, layout and workspace. Lighting is crucial says Reynolds, stating, “You can’t light air; you light surfaces. Lighting is theatre.” She goes on to say, “One of the best design elements behind the bar is the bottles themselves, but if the lighting is wrong, as in backlit, it just doesn’t work.” Lighting sets a mood yet it also needs to be functional behind the bar for the bartender. Color, which for branded bars is an attribute, can be artfully handled through lighting. One of the projects I managed made excellent use of lighting as a primary decor element and brand marker. If you find yourself traveling through JFK Terminal 3, check out The Sapphire Lounge. Notice how subtle lighting of glass and Lucite surfaces is used to impart the trademark blue jewel tones of the iconic brand’s bottle. SlateBlue Design has worked extensively with hospitality brands and Cat spoke about the importance of infusing each brand’s unique attributes such as logo, colors and trademarks into every aspect of the decor and collateral merchandising materials. “The back bar is a great opportunity for brand focus,” said Cat. “Branding opportunities can also be found at the entrance, hostess station, menus, and glassware. Don’t forget to infuse brand personality when selecting furniture, lighting fixtures, flooring and wall treatments.”

Regarding layout, Reynolds suggests if your long bar is against the wall, use mirrors above the back bar and try to add a pop-out bar top section. Gentle curving of a long bar works well too. Placing the bar in the most visible area of the space is important. It should be seen from the entrance. She prefers circular and u-shaped bars to facilitate easier social interactions. Cat says people want to hang out where “everyone knows their name” and a poor layout can hinder socializing, which is high on the list of reasons we all go to a bar.

When designing the layout, Reynolds considers where the electrical outlets will be placed and for what equipment. Most importantly, she thinks about the number of steps a bartender must take to make and serve the guests. Ellis is manic about bartenders being able to have all of their tools and products close. He calls it the “two-step rule.” The impact wasted movement has on revenue would shock most operators. If your bartenders have to move more than two steps to make or even get a third of the product mix, tens of thousands and potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars are being poured down the drain. During our interview, Ellis coined a new phrase, “belly principle.” He described the scenario as the clock starts ticking (for the bartender) as soon as a person bellies up to the bar. People expect to be served the moment their belly touches the bar. If the bartender has to travel the length of the long, circular or other shaped bar to gather all the ingredients and tools before making a cocktail, then he is already behind in serving that guest. Now imagine two and three deep at the bar. Designing smarter bar stations and overall equipment schematics will greatly reduce bartenders’ wasted movement and will elevate the guest experience.

bar design

This brings us to the bartender workspace. A pet peeve for each of the designers I spoke with, myself included, is as Reynolds describes it, “all about sightlines.” Your guests don’t want to see a wet dirty floor, less than perfectly clean ice bins, or the all-too-often messy prep areas. Back bars full of glassware, tip jars, bar towels, purses and the myriad of items we see from our stool are void of clean lines and detract from the colorful bottles and overall aesthetics. How about the dishwasher that pumps out steam, which melts your make-up if you are sitting on the wrong barstool? Bar tops should not have to be used for prepping nor back bars filled with stuff for lack of proper storage.

Breakthrough technology and creativity pushing cocktail boundaries today are influencing bar design. What would have been inconceivable in decades past is bringing the “wow” factor to consumers with creative cocktails that have unique tastes and textures. This has created different thinking about the bartender’s domain, according to Ellis. Bar equipment that meets the needs of the time is in its infancy. “What we have is antiquated and does not work behind the bar today,” he says. The current mainstream beverage dispensing equipment is not designed for the massive shift in our industry that is focused on the craft cocktail movement. Ellis is a nonconformist pushing hard and fast for NSF approvals on designs for bar equipment that speak to the trends and needs of today’s hospitality industry.

tobin ellis       “Every bartender wants a bar station designed like a cockpit with everything they need within arm’s reach, or maybe one to two steps,” says Ellis, himself a five-time national mixology champion and former bartender for 24 years. They want refrigerated drawers for their mise en place, freezer drawers for their ice programs, and ergonomically designed ice bins and drain boards that put them closer to the guest. Ellis is currently working with a major equipment manufacturer on a new line of custom stainless equipment designed by a bartender, for bartenders. “We’re just starting to look at the prototypes, and they are pretty exciting. We have tried to address most of the things on bartenders’ wish lists.” In the meantime, Ellis works with clients designing custom equipment and also re-purposing existing equipment to meet the demands of today’s hospitality industry. “Everybody knows you don’t buy a pizza oven to run a steakhouse and yet that’s exactly what most operators do when it comes to bar design – they just buy the same old generic equipment that cannot possibly produce the volume and quality of product their beverage program is geared towards.” These operators, from major hotels and resorts to independent operators, call on Ellis’s expertise to help redesign their bars to find that balance between profitability and aesthetics. “You absolutely can build gorgeous bars that have highly efficient workstations; you just need someone who knows how do to it.” His company, BarMagic of Las Vegas, has been “doing it” for the last 17 years and has racked up a slew of awards in the process.

Note to yourself: Next time I build or refurbish my bar I will make sure to consider function and design from the customer’s perspective and the bartender’s point-of-view, and I will leave the details to a professional.

Contact Christine Soviero Heller at: (christineheller.321@gmail.com).