The first question they ask is, ‘Where will I cut my lemon?’” says Tim Gosling, a London‑based bespoke furniture-maker. Over the past few years, he has been startled by the number of requests he has received for home bars (from about £17,000). “Until six years ago, I had never designed one. Now I get asked to make one every four months.” In Spain, he is making a bar inspired by vintage Savoy cocktail shakers; he has just completed another, in black lacquer, in Geneva; one he did for a house in the south of France resembles a diving board; and he is in the process of designing one for the billiard room of a stately home near Rugby.
But where do you start in such a venture? You begin, Gosling suggests, with theatre. People today commission a home bar not as a piece of static furniture, a place to hide the crème de menthe, but as a prop in the active business of mixing a cocktail. “People are using them,” he says, “as a way to express themselves.”
Gosling ascribes the craze partly to the allure of the 1920s and 1930s. “Our current age of luxury looks back to those decades and the glamour of the cocktail era.” Indeed, Gosling cites the 1930s-inspired Ralph Lauren Duke Bar in rosewood and stainless steel, which appeared in its 2005 collection, as a key stimulus, prompting clients to demand similar pieces for their own homes. But he acknowledges that the vogue for cocktails has generated its own style and momentum, with designers of the calibre of Marc Newson and Ron Arad producing cocktail shakers for Alessi (£110). Far more than an exercise in nostalgia, mixing drinks at home has become a contemporary performance art. Where once a dusty bottle of claret from the cellar, carefully decanted, was the acme of hospitality, now guests are treated to an elaborate ritual involving rare liqueurs, new bitters, boutique-brand spirits and specially formed ice.
Andres Basile Leon, the head bartender at Absolut, who has watched the cocktail scene grow steadily in London over the past 13 years, and witnessed the more recent global explosion over the past five, says: “I am very intrigued by the growth of home bars. People want to show that they are in the know about this new phenomenon. And presentation is very important.” Among the world’s leading mixologists and bartenders, there is intense competition not just to invent the most delicious cocktails, but also to pull off the delicate feat of creating them on the spot, in the eye of the public. “Theatricality and storytelling are vital,” says Leon.
Indeed, Absolut Vodka’s own philanthropic subsidiary, Absolut Art Bureau, has capitalised on this growing excitement about the bartender’s trade by creating its own pop-up bars in collaboration with leading artists and commissioned as part of the Bureau’s wider patronage of international arts events. In June 2012, the inaugural year of the programme, the first sleek Absolut bar installation was created at the Documenta art fair in Kassel, Germany, by artists Mario Garcia Torres and Ryan Gander, and in December, at Art Basel Miami Beach, the Cuban conceptual art collective Los Carpinteros came up with a delightful cocoon, a cross between a bar, a library, a panopticon and a Cuban musical instrument, the güiro, after which it was named. It is this buzz about the artful activity of mixing cocktails, Leon suggests, that is inspiring today’s home bartenders and that is reflected in the bars they are commissioning.
For designer Bunny Turner, of London-based interior design company Turner Pocock (bars from £7,000), this is very much a male interest. “The only times we have been asked to create a complete bar, it has been by a male customer. They want the works – seating area, shelves, stools, the lot.” For one client, the company converted an entire 1,000sq ft basement into a bar and cinema, divided by a bookcase on wheels. Increasingly, however, other clients are requesting elaborate drinks cabinets. “This reflects the home-centric nature of life today – clients want to show off their homes rather than go out,” Turner suggests. At the same time, they want the level of comfort you would find in a hotel.
For Rupert Bevan, a London-based interior and furniture designer, it was, in fact, a commission to create a collection of cocktail cabinets for Soho House Miami that first alerted him to this current craze. “The client wanted all the bedrooms to have these luxurious drinks cabinets with antique mirror glass, quite unlike the usual, horrid hotel-room bars,” Bevan explains. That was three years ago and since then he has had many requests (cabinets from about £10,000). “The inside is almost more important than the outside – with its functionality and glamour,” he says. “It doesn’t have to look traditional. Clients want a bit of bling – the wow factor.”
Bevan has designed one cabinet that looks like a Louis Vuitton trunk, and another that resembles a 19th-century wardrobe, dressed in green leather – until you open it, that is, and discover its black metallic-lacquer interior with all the fittings. “People often ask me to turn a bar into a piece of furniture, so we are designing lots of drinks cabinets loosely based on the popular 1920s concept.” So frequent are the requests that he has even bought the domain name www.thecocktailcabinet.com.
The designer Francis Sultana, meanwhile, has just introduced a drinks cabinet to his second collection in response to demand. The Diliana drinks cabinet (£31,000) comes in wood, nickel-plated bronze and rock crystal. The outside, with its wavy blue lines, is inspired by Andy Warhol’s camouflage paintings, whereas inside the panels are mirrored and illuminated. It can be custom made in different colours and materials and all you need to do is plug it in. “It is like opening a jewellery box,” says Sultana, adding that it was really in the 1940s and 1950s that the idea of the home bar became universally popular. He is delighted by the current revival of interest, although he confesses: “I still like the old-fashioned way of a tray.”
David Linley, however, has been making drinks cabinets for a while, including the Tectonic Bar (price on request) and, seven years ago, the Tini Time (price on request), a monolithic but luxuriously finished drinks cabinet named after the martini. Made from American walnut and Santos rosewood, it has a secret button to open the doors and reveal everything needed to create the ultimate cocktail. The interior of the cabinet, lined in sycamore, is illuminated and features bronze-tinted glass. Another secret button discloses a hidden vintage cocktail shaker, while other compartments are designed to store a mirrored tray and cocktail fruits. It would delight James Bond. Since then, according to spokesperson Annie Gregory: “People have been coming to us for bespoke versions.” The company makes up to 10 a year and for this year’s Masterpiece fair in June it is creating a major new piece, a one-off bar, partly in recognition of the escalating interest.
Gwen Carlton, co-founder and CEO of Bespoke Global, which works primarily online to match clients with leading designers, confirms that the enthusiasm extends beyond the UK. “The international interest in cocktail culture and the increased trend towards entertaining at home has seen a demand in enquiries not just for standard ‘bars’, but for more personalised pieces.” Carlton cites, for instance, the Japanese love of “uniquely shaped paper-thin glassware”, which can require special storage.
The Bespoke Global website offers the marvellous inventions of Michael Coffey, a leading exponent of American studio furniture whose 1994 Whale of a Bar ($250,000) – a great swirl of carved wood – consists of a Corian-topped cabinet containing a refrigerator and sink, drawers and compartments, and a serving bar extending into the room. The interior houses lit compartments and sliding trays for bottles, glasses and wine. Concealed skirt lights under the bar give the illusion that the piece is floating, while interior fans help dispel heat. Two other bars from Bespoke Global’s range include the purple Zelouf+Bell Cocktail Cabinet (about $32,000), which nods to art deco, using mother-of-pearl, maple, ebony and tempered glass to luxurious effect. Meanwhile, Antoine Schapira’s fantastical rosewood Sideboard Bar ($40,000) incorporates a leather-lined, black carousel for glasses and bottles.
Once you enter the world of fantasy, there is no stopping. Bars and drinks cabinets seem to bring out the surrealist in many designers. Just take a look, for instance, at Restoration Hardware’s latest offering, available from April. The magnificent, poetic German Light Bulb Voltage Tester Bar ($1,995) is part of a new line of products called Objects of Curiosity. It was created by Mark Sage and Rudi Nijssen, antiques collectors and illusionists, who salvaged a vintage 1920s German light‑bulb-testing machine to create this arresting bar. Where, indeed, you might ask, shall I cut my lemon?