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Hong Kong interior design

A touch of Glam on Shanghai’s famous Bund

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 February, 2016, 5:35pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 February, 2016, 7:17pm

In an industry infamous for its here-today-and-gone-tomorrow vagaries, Australia-born restaurateur Michelle Garnaut has built a small but influential portfolio of restaurants and bars in Hong Kong and China while ignoring style advice from well-meaning friends and industry ‘experts’.

As she surveys her newest incarnation, Glam, a 240 square metre bar-and-dining lounge that opened recently on Shanghai’s famed Bund, she admits her reluctance to follow trends has not changed since her first foray into the business with M on the Fringe in 1989.

The first “helpful hints” she dismissed then related to what people thought was a remote and challenging location: the compact atelier-like space was tucked away in an old dairy depot on Hong Kong’s Ice House Street, a world away from Central’s main shopping route or hotels. Inside, Garnaut created a flamboyant pink-hued boudoir-like haven complete with quirky three-legged chairs and an eclectic menu serving unpretentious modern Australian fare with a creative twist. The desserts were legendary.

“I must have been a nightmare because I had no idea about a construction programme but I knew I didn’t want it to look like any other place,” she laughs. “I really don’t get why people want to copy other places. Everything in those days was either very formal, expensive restaurants in hotels or the other end of the spectrum.”

Then, in 1998, in perhaps her greatest display of real estate foresight, Garnaut ventured onto Shanghai’s Bund.

“Back then everyone said that a restaurant had to be within five minutes of the Ritz Carlton, Portman and Hilton hotel ‘triangle’ and that no one would care what it looked like as long as it was cheap,” Garnaut recalls. “The Bund was very shabby and so was our building but somehow that contrast made it quite interesting. For me, a restaurant is an experience.”

Capital M overlooking Beijing’s Tiananmen Square followed in 2009. Back in Shanghai, Garnaut had also added The Glamour Bar in 2006, which closed in 2014 when the rent doubled.

Over the years Garnaut has accumulated a cornucopia of art, furniture and lighting.

“So many designers say it’s a great idea when I tell them that I want to avoid waste and then go in and ignore it, creating new pieces instead of reusing what we have. It is so wasteful,” she says. “It drives me crazy.”

Glam’s lead designer, Duncan Miller Ullmann interior design director Stephanie Clift, however, embraced the idea. The first step was to deconstruct The Glamour Bar’s original 13-metre long bar to fit the new smaller space.

“We reduced it to 6.3 metres and lowered it to enable people to dine more comfortably while seated at the bar.”

Garnaut’s collection of chairs – reworked by Shanghai-based Stellar Works – supplied almost 70 per cent of Glam’s seating requirements.

Other items given a new life included chess-piece-shaped coffee tables that were transformed with a coat of lacquer, a collection of unusual ceiling lights, and several retro zinc tables.

“I love old things. I am a vintage girl and even as a teenager I used to go to auctions but I didn’t want to recreate a 1930s Shanghai dining room at Glam,” says Garnaut.

Achieving the right blend of contemporary and vintage influences may have been a challenge but Clift says there was immediate agreement on the sensual peacock hued palette.

“It had to be about Michelle’s whimsical personality as all her spaces reflect her and that is what people want. I had noticed her wearing aqua blues and olive greens with a punch of gold or chartreuse so it was the perfect palette.”

Clift also sourced most of the art from Garnaut’s homes in Shanghai and Hong Kong while artist and cinematographer Christopher Doyle was commissioned to create a series of contemporary collage artworks. The elegant discs are decorated with a collage of old and new magazine advertisements and are showcased across Glam’s entrance walls and ceiling.

Authenticity is one of the most important qualities often ignored in restaurants, Garnaut says. “I remember there was an Italian place in Wan Chai and nobody in the place was Italian and even the spaghetti tasted like noodles. The Chinese restaurant staff would sing ‘O Sole Mio’. What’s that all about?”

The restaurateur says she has simply always asked herself what she would want from a restaurant.

“I want something comfortable but not like I am sitting in my living room. I also don’t want super super-formal or fawning service. To me it is about finding your own personality.”

Above all, it is essential to avoid focusing on one element like the decor, she cautions.

“You can’t single out any one thing as all-important in a restaurant because it is about creating an experience. All of the aspects like the interiors, service and food must work so you can’t just care about the current trend. Besides, I’d rather set fashions than follow them.”