Kevin Carmody and Andy Groarke are now Wallpaper* Handmade veterans. For the debut edition of the show, back in 2010, the London-based architects created a conceptual pavilion inspired by the staggering amount of stitchwork that goes into a single Brioni suit. A few years later, they created a contemporary take on the bistro chair with furniture maker Joe Pipal, drawing on their extensive restaurant design experience (the chair has since gone into production and become a fixture in spaces from Fernandez & Wells’ new Soho café to a Maggie’s Centre in Liverpool).

This year, we called on the pair once again, asking them to create a bar that could offer its own kind of spiritual uplift. For the project, we also partnered with Stolichnaya’s Elit vodka, a spirit built on a unique mix of science and craft. Starting as Russian grain, it is distilled three times before being mixed with artesian well water in Riga, filtered through quartz sand and freeze-filtered at -18°C, in a process unique to Elit.

Named after a series of works by El Lissitzky (and an acronym for the Russian phrase ‘project for the affirmation of the new’), the ‘Proun’ bar is a fitting tribute to the artist. As a structure, it appears both monumental and minimal. ‘Our starting point for the project was to make a building in miniature,’ says Groarke. ‘The image of this clustered form could be very loosely interpreted as the abstract compositions of Lissitzky’s constructivism.’

Designed to be approached from all sides, the fully functional bar is also a modular design, which allows it to be easily disassembled and reinstalled in different venues: after Milan, Elit took it to Bilbao for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants ceremony, and it is due to appear in London later this year.

Sketches of the ‘Proun’ bar by Carmody Groarke and Elit
Sketches of the ‘Proun’ bar, which was inspired by the work of the Russian suprematist artist El Lissitzky. Photography: Gabby Laurent

A cluster of tall, tightly stacked ingots of mill-finished aluminium, the bar was produced in the same Tuscan workshop as the Brioni pavilion for Handmade in 2010. The aluminium was left with a raw factory finish, says Carmody, which gave a luminous quality to its surfaces. Black marble was added to the bar top to create a contrast between the stark modernity of the totems and the warmer, more classic stone.

‘Carmody Groarke’s aesthetics – sleek, precise, geometric – is something I would call “sophisticated simplicity”,’ says Vadim Grigoryan, Elit’s creative director, who worked closely with the architects on the development of the project. ‘Like all great architects, they are deep thinkers. We talked about all the socioeconomic and anthropological context of their practice – this intellectual approach is very appealing in our often superficial age.’

As well as designing buildings, the architects have produced temporary exhibitions (most recently, the Barbican’s Bauhaus show), interiors, including a new members’ room for London’s V&A, and temporary projects, such as Carsten Höller’s Double Club. It’s that background in striking architecture and creating dynamic social spaces that made them an obvious choice to rethink the crowded bar. ‘We imagine the design as a standalone object that makes sense in its own formal and material terms,’ says Groarke. ‘But we also must imagine the bar in use, as the focal point of a social experience.’

The experimental and sculptural nature of the bar created a focal point at our Handmade exhibition in Milan, offering a radical change to the typical bar dynamics: ‘Guests become active players or performers, on a par with bartenders, and the bartending art becomes transparent,’ says Grigoryan, who concludes: ‘I would call it “the bar as such”, an inquiry into the nature of a spirits bar for the 21st century.’ §

As originally featured in the August 2018 issue of Wallpaper* (W*233)