Arts & Giving | Diary of a Somebody

Stephen Bayley

The design guru gleans the sordid secrets of Virgin’s Pendolino trains

Stephen Bayley

Image: Brijesh Patel

May 11 2011
Stephen Bayley

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Last night, the Condé Nast Traveller Awards at the St Pancras Hotel. Not anticipating, nor, indeed, deserving, a prize, I was late. The restored Midland Grand, the Victorian imperium’s very grandest grand hotel, is deliciously wonderful, but there were mutterings about the operator, Marriott, and its Marcus Wareing restaurant. This is named after the architect, Gilbert Scott, who designed so many buildings, he sometimes forgot what he’d done and sometimes fell into parodic self-plagiarism. Wareing may be getting near that same predicament with restaurants.

It was fun watching Tracey Emin canoodle with Yves Behar, Swiss-Californian designer du jour, but I was more interested in Paul Priestman. He has got himself a nice corner in the design of aircraft and train interiors. Priestman is currently working on a new Hong Kong-Shanghai express and a possible refurbishment of the Pendolino when Virgin’s contract expires. I asked him why the Virgin Pendolino always smells so disgustingly of drains. There’s a simple reason: a hot exhaust for the air-con runs by the soil tanks, heating them to malodorous fury.

And why are the interiors so claustrophobic? Because the tilting mechanism takes up so much space, mechanical and electrical services normally below floor level encroach on the cabin. Furthermore, a vast area is absorbed by lavatories generously configured for wheelchair access required by the Disability Discrimination Act, compromising the designer’s options for the seating arrangements. I think I can also smell unintended consequences.

My daughter has just called in. Not for quality time with a parent, but to sit on the roof in the sunshine for half an hour with Jacobson’s Finkler. If Gove or Willets wants evidence of qualification-inflation and the parlous state of the youth employment market, may I present Coco Bayley? She has a degree from Oxford, a diploma from the Sorbonne, a post-graduate degree from University College London and is… a waitress. Disingenuously, she is learning the trade before deciding on a career in the food business or committing to medical anthropology. In any case, I always lectured her on that sound principle from The Unwritten Laws of Engineering: it’s better to do a modest thing well than an ambitious thing badly. So the other day she spilled tahini and winter greens into someone’s Prada bag. I am glad to say that her boss, Yotam Ottolenghi, was indulgent. He clearly values charm and style above soulless slickness. This is one of The Unwritten Laws of Restaurants. I think I will write them and pass them on to Marcus Wareing.

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