London – Despite disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pantechnicon has been gaining momentum among the design savvy London set since it first opened its doors in September 2020. Located in the heart of the Belgravia conservation area of London, the new cultural hub offers guests an opportunity “to go for a drink in Oslo, eat dinner in Tokyo and shop in Copenhagen.” It’s a concept that seems somewhat appropriate for our time, with a growing emphasis on the need to alter our lifestyle and significantly reduce travel in order to play our part in helping the planet.
Pantechnicon, which may very well lay claim to be the home of Nordic and Japanese creativity, also epitomizes the recent rise of “Japandi,” a new buzzword that signifies the synergy between Japanese and Scandinavian design.
Design is at the forefront of both Japanese and Scandinavian culture, as evidenced by internationally recognizable brands such as Muji and Ikea. The concept of design is, however, relatively new for the Japanese. There is no equivalent word in the Japanese language and people generally use a Japanglish word — de-za-i-n — when referring to the concept. The country has looked to the West to learn about high quality goods in the postwar era and the old stereotype of Japan being a copycat nation followed. Today we have come full circle, as designers in the West look to Japan for inspiration.
Housed in a newly refurbished grade II building over six floors, Pantechnicon accommodates not just one but two shops: Edit on the ground floor and Studio on the third floor — the former ideal for a quick visit, the latter perfect for lingering in. In the main foyer, we have the U.K.’s first Cafe Kitsune. From the cafe’s mezzanine-level sitting area, we can look onto the retail space below. The top two floors are occupied by a Nordic bar and restaurant called Eldr (meaning “fire” in old Norse). The restaurant has already garnered a Michelin plate.
The latest addition is an upmarket Japanese sushi restaurant called Sachi (meaning “happiness” in Japanese) in the basement. Sakaya, a microbar and bottle shop selling Japanese whisky and sake, has also opened on the ground floor. To get there, you need to walk across the retail space and the arched walkway created for the public to access the courtyard at the rear of the building. A hole-in-the-wall type food stall, Kiosk, can be found tucked away behind the building, facing the courtyard.
The word Pantechnicon, etched onto the facade of the building, derives from the Greek words “pan” (“all”) and “techne” (“craft and art”). The nearly 200-year-old building was originally an art and crafts center before it was turned into an upmarket warehouse for residents to store finds from their travels around the world. London-based hospitality group Open House, who are behind a successful range of boutique restaurants and pubs in the English capital, caught the attention of landlord Grosvenor Estate and they won the bid to transform the place six years ago.
Barry Hirst, co-founder and creative director of Open House, was keen to create an interior less intimidating than the building itself, whose facade is adorned with 10 tall Doric columns. Once passed the opulence of the past, however, we are greeted with “a level of honesty.” The historic brick walls, brick vaults and brick arches have been revealed, whilst structural elements such as the iron beams and wooden joists are left exposed. This rough-and-ready interior is a great contrast to the pristine exterior.
Hirst traveled in Japan for nine months before he started working on Pantechnicon. He is a big fan of Japanese architects such as Tadao Ando and Kengo Kuma and you can see their influences at Pantechnicon in the use of concrete and wood. Greenery and gentle lighting help to soften the industrial backdrop. Daylight streams in through large windows. As we walk up the stairs, the exposed concrete gives way to tiles and the interior becomes more Finish architect and designer Alvar Aalto than his Japanese counterpart, Ando. The roof garden bar at the top level offers Nordic cocktails and Japanese beer, and guests can enjoy the unusual rooftop view of the conservation area.
The bar is a treasure trove of Japandi designer products. The uneven surface of the travertine base of the table lamp, designed by the Danish designer Alexander Lazic, for example, has more than a hint of wabi sabi. Cross-pollinations are ripe. If you have deep pockets, you can go downstairs in the retail areas and purchase the items you see in all of the bars and restaurants at Pantechnicon, including the furniture and furnishings.
The Japanese restaurant Sachi feels more distinctly Japanese and this is largely down to the input Hirst has had from collaborators such as Deik, a Japanese architectural and design studio based in London. Deik employs many of the traditional Japanese woodwork and craft techniques in its work to create wa — a sense of harmony in Japanese. For Sachi, Deik drew inspiration from traditional townhouses known as machiya that line the older streets of historic towns such as Kyoto or Kanazawa.
One area of the restaurant receives rays of sunshine through glass blocks embedded in the pavement above. It separates the private vaulted booths from the main dining area and Deik envisaged the space as a tsuboniwa (small garden), a key feature of machiya townhouses. The design studio constructed wooden framework using lashings inspired by traditional Japanese knots so that greenery can grow over and around it. It’s a subtle yet effective intervention that brings out a little bit of old Japan.
Sachi also features a number of furniture items by Japanese lifestyle brand Karimoku Case Study. The selected furniture has been designed by Danish architecture and design studio Norm Architects and manufactured by the Japan’s leading wooden furniture company, Karimoku Inc.
Frederik Werner, designer and partner of Norm Architects, explains the process that goes into making the interior pieces.
“Our furniture pieces are designed to specific briefs, to specific architectural cases,” Werner says. “We don’t follow trends or fashion. Only those that are deemed to have the commercial potential then go into production.”
Hirst says the Pantechnicon team has spent more than a year in talks with designers and makers across Japan to source handcrafted tableware for Sachi. A collaboration between Hashikura Matsukan, a chopstick maker in Fukui, and a Hasami porcelain maker followed. The restaurant staff also wear denim aprons hand-stitched in the birthplace of Japanese denim — Kojima in Okayama — that were commissioned from Cumo, all exclusive to Pantechnicon.
Sakaya, purportedly the smallest bar in London, was also designed in collaboration with Deik. Its intimate setting allows us to feel as if we are back in Tokyo, somewhere in Shinjuku or Shibuya, except that there are no neon lights here. The bar is lit by a gentle light that comes through the floating room above, which is wrapped in shoji-like translucent walls. Serrated Norwegian granite blocks, used on walls, provide an earthy, cave-like quality to the bar’s interior.
Clean lines, simple shapes and an economy of means are all hallmarks of modernism, but architects and designers in Japan and Scandinavian countries have shunned hard-line takes on this movement. If you observe the exposed concrete of Ando’s early works — most notably, his Row House in Sumiyoshi — you will see that the concrete facade has almost a crinkly texture of washi paper with its wobbly and scarred surface.
It’s interesting to note also that Aalto, who has often used bricks both inside and outside of his buildings, elected to use different size bricks as part of his work on the building, adding character by deliberately placing them in slightly off-kilter rows.
Tomoko Azumi of TNA Studio, whose solar lamp Floe is on sale at Pantechnicon, recalls a time when she visited Finland and stayed in the Saynatsalo Town Hall designed by Aalto.
“I was so impressed by its frugality,” Azumi says. “Aalto and his wife often stayed there. In Finland, the design industry has always had a slightly rebellious side. Things were not made to please the high society. Similarly, the design culture in Japan has always been inclusive. Designer goods are meant to improve people’s daily lives.”
Werner of Norm Architect calls it “soft modernism,” arguing that Japandi is more of a mindset.
Werner explains the Danish word “hygge” that has been popularized recently, which essentially means “people coming together to relax and chill, surrounded by nice things.”
“When we design, we think about pleasing all of our five senses,” Werner says. “It is not only about creating things that are visually pleasing. It’s also about how things feel, how they smell. … I think that the Japanese designers are the same.”
London-based artist and jewelry designer Tomoko Hori has lived in Sweden for a period of time with her Swedish husband. She tells me about the importance of “fika” in Sweden.
“Fika seems to be more than just sipping coffee,” Hori says. “It’s about being with people and feeling relaxed and cosy. You could be sitting around a dining table at home or around a camp fire in nature. Once we had to collect my in-law’s ashes from a crematorium in Sweden but we were told to come back later as we were disturbing their fika time.”
What is the equivalent of hygge and fika in Japan? The Japanese tea ceremony seems too formulaic to qualify and, indeed, the concept may be closer to the ritual of bathing in Japan.
Pantechnicon in fact sells an item that perfectly captures the nation’s obsession with baths: a drying block made from a special fossil-based material that doesn’t need washing. The block, designed by the Japanese brand Soil, will naturally absorb the dripping water from your feet as you get out of a bath or shower, and you can walk away feeling perfectly dry.
We all need to have time to slow down and take stock. Some products at Pantechnicon are designed to help you do just that. Other products may push you to think further, about the larger issues we are facing. TNA Studio’s solar lamp, for example, has been designed for us to “enjoy a chilled time with stored sunlight” and “think about the ice caps breaking up into floes.”
The team at Pantechnicon seems to be doing a great job at discovering emerging creative talents from Japan and Scandinavian countries. They plan to host more in-person workshops in the future, such as one they had recently, where guests where guests made shisa guardian lions from terra cotta, and were served awamori cocktails and beni imo chinsuko (purple sweet potato cookies) to celebrate Japan’s regional diversity — in this case, Okinawa’s unique culture.
To paraphrase Hara Kenya, “a designer of designers” as Naomi Pollock calls him in her new book, “Japanese Design since 1945” (published by Thames Hudson), “the future is in experiences.”
Based in London, Yuki Sumner writes about architecture and design.
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