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Martin Brudnizki on the escapist pleasures of Bacchanalia

Swedish super-designer Martin Brudnizki talks to Effect Magazine about his latest creation, London restaurant Bacchanalia.

“Experiential luxury isn’t as important as people thought it might become in the post-pandemic world,” says Martin Brudnizki, the designer and architect known for his spell-binding hospitality interiors including Soho House, the Royal Academy of Arts, and the legendary London members’ club, Annabel’s. Instead, Brudnizki thinks there’s a “greater desire for complete escapism.” 

Cue Bacchanalia, a Greco-Roman restaurant that opened at Mayfair’s landmark One Mount Street location earlier this month, the latest immersive feat of Martin Brudnizki Design Studio (MBDS). Created for restauranteur Richard Caring (whose other restaurants include J.Sheeky, Balthazar, Le Caprice and The Ivy Collection), Bacchanalia has again raised the bar of visual storytelling in hospitality.

Murals by Gary Myatt at Bacchanalia in London with interior design by Martin Brudnizki - Effect Magazine
Murals by Gary Myatt depict a classical bacchanalian scene in a homage to Thomas Couture’s ‘Romans in their Decadence’ – but with phones and laptops (Photo: Johnny Stephens)

A menu by renowned chef Anthinagoras Kostakos is served among a bacchanal of 79 2,000-year-old statues and five Damien Hirst-designed classical sculptures. The theatre of the soaring figures tumbling forth from a romantic mezzanine is set against the backdrop of hand-painted murals by British trompe l’oeil artist, Gary Myatt. On entering, one feels privy to an otherworldly scene of ancient mystery, where unicorns, exquisite winged figures and billowing drapery descend from peach-coloured skies upon the mortal realm.

“Bacchanalia is all about having fun and indulging,” says Brudnizki. “As soon as you enter the restaurant floor, you know you’re going to have a great time. It is exciting and transportive.” The main restaurant – and its name – are inspired by the indulgent Roman gatherings known as Bacchanalia, which in turn were grounded in the secretive and erotic rituals of the Greek cult of Dionysus, the god of ecstasy, wine and fertility.

The Roman historian Livy’s descriptions of sexual subversion, ecstatic religious rites and murder amidst the haze of Dionysian frenzy lent us the term ‘bacchanal’ to describe compositions worthy of the name. Rubens depicted Bacchus in an unmistakably Bacchic scene in his 1615 oil on canvas panel, Bacchanalia, and the French painter Michel-Ange Houasse gave colour and form to revellers gathered around a bust of the Roman god of wine in 1719. In the 19th century, Makovsky and Corinth followed suit with Spring Bacchanalia and Bacchanalia respectively.

Bacchanalia is all about having fun and indulging. As soon as you enter the restaurant floor, you know you’re going to have a great time. It is exciting and transportive.

Martin Brudnizki

The paintings are unfailingly chaotic, compelling and rich with expression, colour and physicality. For many artists, particularly Renaissance painters, the subject proved an opportunity to paint compromised nudes with the blessing of classical historians and academics interested in the subject.

In the ladies’ restrooms, the story of the Garden of Hesperides is told across over 400,000 tiles (Photo: Johnny Stephens)

Brudnizki’s Bacchanalia is a contemporary contribution to this long tradition of the depiction of such raucous gatherings. “We worked very closely with Mr Caring to bring his theatrical vision of Bacchanalia to life,” says Brudnizki, “and one of the main objectives was to create an immersive experience that was unlike anything else in London – a place that goes beyond the traditional sense of a restaurant and takes you back to the ancient Bacchanalian feasts and festivals.”

Brudnizki tells us he has a keen interest in the classics and reads widely, brushing up on his knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome when MBDS was instructed on Mr Caring’s latest restaurant concept. “I really enjoyed learning about the myths and legends,” he says, “and while a lot of the stories are quite dark, there is an enduring sense of romanticism about them. I like that we have been so involved in bringing to life a restaurant that transports you to another time. As soon as you cross the threshold, you feel as if you are walking amongst those legends, gods and goddesses.”

The bar at Bacchanalia interior designed by Martin Brudnizki in Effect Magazine
The bar at Bacchanalia, with its glowing, back-lit slab of onyx, is an ode to King Midas of Greek mythology and features statues over 2,000 years old (Photo: Johnny Stephens)

Many visual elements of Bacchanalia are inspired by these ancient narratives, from the ladies’ restrooms – where the story of the Garden of Hesperides is told across over 400,000 tiles to conjure the greenery of the golden apple orchard – to the high-gloss black toilets in the men’s restrooms, inspired by Hades’ underworld. For Brudnizki, this sense of narrative needed to be “distinct,” paying homage to the importance of storytelling in the ancient world. “Working with Mr Caring, we realised his vision with impactful design details,” he explains. “We introduced Portland Stone walls with a mosaic floor inspired by Roman medallions in the main restaurant area. This is layered with rich tones of burgundy that nod literally to the god of wine himself.”

The classical allusions don’t stop there. The bar, which is a glowing, back-lit slab of onyx, is an ode to King Midas of Greek mythology, upon which Bacchus is said to have bestowed the power to turn everything he touched into gold (and it’s worth noting that over 300 books of 24-carat gold leaf paint were used throughout the dining spaces). 

The Midas touch certainly seems to have found its way to Brudnizki and his team as they launch this latest flight of escapism to an anticipatory audience of diners. Those who first encountered the concept of bacchanalia in Donna Tart’s The Secret History might remember how the charismatic group of university students use Dionysian rites to “escape the cognitive mode of experience, to transcend the accident of one’s moment of being, to lose one’s self utterly.” It’s the perfect mission statement for Bacchanalia, and Brudnizki has delivered it in abundance.

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