It could well become a success story, a place that to date has been missing in Frankfurt: from April 2009 Nykke&Kokki together with Stylepark will be presenting a gastronomic concept on the city's Römerberg, the likes of which have never been seen before: In the café at Schirn Kunsthalle, that in future will go by the name of "Table", changing installations by international designers will be combined with superb cuisine. Kicking off will be the Israeli designer Nitzan Cohen, whose design also determines the basic spatial plans. We spoke to him about the challenge involved in giving a permanent place a temporary character, and why you always drink wine if you see wine.
Nitzan, the project certainly sounds ambitious: A designer designing a café, restaurant and bar in an art museum, which in turn has a very special architectural history, all in Frankfurt, a city whose restaurant and club scene has something very chic about it. How did you get the assignment and how did you approach the project?
Nitzan Cohen: To begin with there two crucial points for us, one to do with content and the other, if anything, physical: The first was getting to know the city of Frankfurt independently of Schirn Kunsthalle, in order to understand the urban context the café and restaurant are going to be part of. The second was the room itself, its architectural features and how they are to be defined in the future. This raised fundamental questions: What is a museum café anyway? Which spatial typology does it follow? Are there any successful examples? You almost always have to answer that with a ‘no', not because the cafés are done badly, but because they are mostly in very big rooms, which quickly seem uncomfortable. If you think about what it is that makes our favorite cafés precisely that, it is calm and intimacy. But how can you achieve that in a large, public space?
On top of that we took a look at various gastronomic hot spots in the city to get an idea of how places of this nature in Frankfurt feel, what the interiors look like, what the atmosphere is like. We tackled both aspects with visual research and looked for corresponding images in order to get a feel for the project.
What ideas did you have at the start of the conceptual phase?
Cohen: We asked ourselves what the nicest café is that we know. What is the icon of this specific spatial typology? For us it was without doubt an old Italian bar in Milan. It was our guiding light. A lot of work is done in marble there - the industrial version is Terrazzo. So in the middle of "Table" there is going to be a striking Terrazzo bar. The design plays with classic elements with a modern interpretation. The whole concept is a blend of contemporary design and classic, though we have the translated the latter into the present day.
...so it's a place that lives off the tension between classic elements and those of the current era?
Cohen: Indeed, we deliberately make use of classic elements but rephrase them and translate them into today's design vocabulary, because at the end of the day it is meant to be a room that we can relate to today. But it was just as important for us for it to function tomorrow as well. If you look at the history of architecture it was always the materials that were pivotal in spaces of this nature, the precise coordination between color, texture, and feel. In the concept for the Schirn the materials primarily used are brass, glass, wood and Terrazzo. We definitely didn't want any colors that had been applied, cladding, or facades - it is the material itself that is intended to make an impression.
Schirn Kunsthalle is no straightforward building. Like many other relicts of Post-modernism its architecture is also the topic of heated debate at the moment. How did you deal with the architectural circumstances?
Cohen: The Schirn is an extremely special building and it certainly presented a challenge. Today we wouldn't design buildings like this any more, but the architecture nonetheless has its charms as well, and any number of positive qualities you can work with. The question was how to take them up and reference them, how to integrate something new in what already existed.
To begin with it was important to understand what the original room looked like. The Schirn Kunsthalle and the café were opened in 1986. The Café was redesigned for the first time in 1993, and in the following years renovated on several occasions. The wooden panels in the entrance, for example, were not envisaged in the original design and were only added in 1993. They clad the two upper storeys, which were once open. This explains the large glass front in the entrance: previously you could look right through.
As such we stripped layer after layer, like archaeologists, until we got down the original state and were able to get an idea of what the café once looked like. It goes without saying that we did come up against architectural difficulties. But that's the way it is. We didn't want to struggle with the room, rather our approach was to work with it, to include calm and logic.
What role did the proximity to art play in the concept?
Cohen: It was clear from the outset that we had no intention of competing with the art. The one is art, the other design. But there was meant to be tension. The standard at Schirn Kunsthalle is extremely high, and we had to try and achieve the same standard for the design, in order to be able to survive next to the art.
At the moment the question of the relationship between art and design is a major topic. Here the two meet. Is your project a statement on the matter?
Cohen: We had no intention of explicitly getting involved in the discussion or make any comment on it, but quite simply allow a venue for design to emerge alongside the art. Design is often wild, extreme, free, but that doesn't make it art. I don't see that much overlap.
The venue offered certain prerequisites as far as your concept was concerned. Where did you see your particular assignment?
Cohen: There were three main issues for us, two of which I have already mentioned: first familiarizing ourselves with the city, second with the space, and third with the layout. What was basically going to be happening here, in particular the idea with the changing aspects came from Stylepark. For me that meant creating an infrastructure, a functioning space, that adopted all the gastronomic elements, but in which every six to eight months a new architect or designer can get involved and give it a new look. All these considerations were in turn related to the venue's history. What we did was deliver the conceptual work for this system, to a certain extent identify a logic and develop a rooming which everything that was yet to come could still develop.
This involves another difficulty: let's suppose we did a particularly fine piece of work, create the perfect space, as it were; the next person to come along would be faced with the question: What do you actually want from me? Why should I change anything? It's perfect!
...so it had to be space that can be changed and is temporary in character?
Cohen: Precisely, that was the key word in our concept: "temporary". Ultimately the room has to be project-like in character. By way of example, let's take the Terrazzo bar again: The material is very high quality, durable and heavy. We deliberately reversed this impression: The bar appears to have been pieced together from various elements. It is divided, on the one hand because of the production possibilities, but also to underscore the temporary character. That is particularly striking with such a solid, expressive material as Terrazzo, which suddenly gives the impression of being temporary. At the end of the day we wanted to keep the freedom to be able to change something.
So the room was not meant to have a finished feel to it, so to speak?
Cohen: Exactly. It was not meant to look perfect and final. For this reason we included several variable elements in it. For example the Classicon "Selene" suspended luminaires, clear glass spheres that are height-adjustable and as such can be removed from guests' field of vision.
Does the same apply to the striking curtain in the café area?
Cohen: The height of the curtain can also be adjusted. If it is lowered completely it creates a small, self-contained room with a large table that can seat 14 - a room in a room, as it were.
There are other considerations behind the curtain, however, and it performs other duties. It is important for partitioning the room, as in the front section we have an 11-meter high ceiling so playing with this considerable height was an obvious thing to do. However it is not the same throughout, in the middle the ceiling is only 3.5-meters high, so there is a huge discrepancy. The upper storeys were originally open, now they are closed, which means the room has taken on these extreme proportions. On the one hand the curtain emphasizes the tremendous height in the front section of the room and on the other it serves as a transitional element to he room's lower section.
Furthermore the curtain is a wonderfully theatrical element; after all it's six meters high. And it's visible from outside. It could actually become a symbol for the room.
As opposed to the old Schirn café the new "Table" concept features various areas. What are these and how did you divide up the zones?
Cohen: Yes, quite correct, there are various gastronomic areas, which in terms of design as well we have visibly divided off from one another. In future it will be primarily the front section, in other words the café, which is used by day. It was important for us to keep this division recognizable, so that a café atmosphere emerges. In the evening the entire room, including the restaurant at the rear will be used. The restaurant itself is also divided up, into a classic restaurant and a sort of brasserie and wine bar. We gave these different areas various table and chair configurations.
....you mean the furnishings were chosen to suit the gastronomic area in question?
Cohen: Exactly, the chairs were to suit the function and the intended atmosphere of the relevant area. For the café we chose the epitome of the coffee house chair, Thonet's "209" from the year 1900. The chair has a huge aura about it and is quite simply beautiful. For the large table in the middle of the café we selected Konstantin Grcic's chair "Venus", a very contemporary chair. It is different not only in terms of scale, its aura is totally different from that of the Thonet chair and it is precisely these differences that evokes a charming, interesting tension in the room. For the brasserie area we decided on a very recent design by Stefan Diez for e15, which was just presented at the Milan furniture fair. In terms of typology and its overall appearance it fits perfectly in the bistro area. We are very pleased that we had this option. The restaurant boasts the wooden chair "She said", I designed for Mattiazzi. It was exhibited for the first time in February at the Stockholm Furniture Fair.
A striking feature of the design is a large wine rack opposite the bar, which would appear to be a partitioning element and furniture at one and the same time?
Cohen: Indeed, it's a 15-meter long and 3.5-meter high wine rack made of glass cabinets. It almost looks like a façade and serves as a decorative partitioning element in the room. And there's more: The wine is stored in it, but it is also exhibited, like a collection. You can walk past the glass front and take a good look at everything. The rack also houses the cooling units. It's great, just sitting there staring at the giant wine rack, you immediately feel like tasting some!
So for Frankfurt, "Table" could be a charming place in which people like to meet and linger. It might well even turn out to be someone's favorite café...
Cohen: ...we hope our plan works and all the parts gel as we wish!