Meating of Minds

Behind the design of Hoxton's favourite dirty burger restaurant Meat Mission

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The grease stains on my interview notes are a reminder of my meeting with Nick Stringer and Matt Smith, directors of interior architecture practice Shed.

Our lunchtime rendezvous at MEATMission, the latest in a group of ‘dirty food’ restaurants designed by Shed that has swiftly become a queue-out-the-door trendy London phenomenon, offers the opportunity to sample the establishment’s burgers (best described a la Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction as ‘tasty’) and discuss a portfolio of work that encompasses hyper-luxury shopping destinations in Dubai and retail environments for global telecoms brands as well as burger joints in Hoxton.

MEATMission itself occupies what was once a Christian Mission house and Shed decided to run with the idea of sin and redemption. The interior is part chapel, part dungeon with profane ersatz stained glass and Vic-Goth ironwork around the bar. The food is pure indulgence and the ordering of Diet Cokes with tray loads of cheeseburgers, fries and ‘monkey fingers’ (a house speciality that I can definitely recommend) seems a futile gesture, like a visit to the Confessional after a night out with Keith Richards.

Mission is the third Shed design for Yianni Papoutsis, the MEAT impresario, joining MEATLiquor in Marylebone and MEATMarket in Covent Garden that together represent Shed’s first significant involvement in restaurant design. “Projects like this are actually quite a departure for us,” says Nick Stringer. “But we deliberately wanted a project in the food and beverage sector. The MEAT projects were a happy coincidence in terms of timing.”

The MEAT story began with MEATWagon, a roving van that dispensed Papoutsis’ meaty street food to the denizens of South East London. The brand expanded into restaurants: the promise of a deliciously naughty burger drew the punters; Shed’s interior concepts developed the eateries’ identity and secured an enviable coolness. Blood red, jet black and seedy neon are common to the MEAT palette across its premises, yet Shed were keen to emphasize the individuality of each restaurant.

Dialogue with the form or former use of the building is a motif. Inside MEATLiquor (previously an Italian restaurant) murals inspired by tattoo art and graffiti interact with arches and a Rococo-esque dome to parody Renaissance frescoes – “Leonardo da Vinci on acid” as Matt Smith puts it. MEATMarket meanwhile runs with a brash aesthetic hovering between Smithfield and an NYC diner.

“They definitively do not want to become a chain,” says Matt Smith. “So from first concepts we felt half of our designs would give some common detail but the other half would be borne out of the location. There was certainly an alignment of stars with MEAT; a lot of things are going right – their food is spot-on as is their attitude as a brand.”

The MEAT projects are quite distinct from the luxury retail sector in which Shed made its name. “Whenever we think we’re getting pigeon-holed in a particular sector we try to break out of it. That’s what has taken us into exhibition, food and beverage, and smaller hospital offers,” comments Matt. “Retail designers should be able to design any environment really.”

Stringer and Smith, friends since their university days, set up Shed in 2000. After a quiet couple of years the company won the pitch to design the worldwide retail offer for Vertu, the high-end mobile phone brand. Shed oversaw the expansion of the Vertu estate from three stores to over a hundred in locations across the globe; after this breakthrough, more work in the luxury retail sector followed.

However, as Shed grew as a business the team remained keen to tackle new challenges and bring their expertise to different sectors. This desire brought Shed into the restaurant world and the MEAT projects in particular. “It felt a good fit because when we got involved MEAT was a business in its infancy and we’ve helped to steer them and build them over the last three years,” comments Stringer.

Retail accounts for approximately half of Shed’s work with the other 50 per cent taken up by projects in the exhibition, workspace, and food and beverage sectors. Regardless of sector, the company thinks of itself as a design consultancy specializing in interior architecture – a definition that has its roots in the founders’ design education.

Both Smith and Stringer, in the 1990s, were students on Nottingham Trent’s interior architecture course, a programme that was amongst the first in the UK to offer a hybrid degree incorporating aspects of both architecture and interior design, an approach that, in the words of Nick Stringer, “bridged the gap between cushion covers and the rigour of a traditional architecture course”.

This commitment to both creativity and rigour has stood the business in good stead and Shed now enjoys a global profile in the discipline of interior architecture. A recent major project saw Shed, which now comprises around 20 staff in the UK, design ‘The Level Shoe District’, a 96 sqft retail space in The Dubai Mall. The District houses 40 designer boutiques including the likes of Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton within a curated space of four multi-brand pavilions. The scale of the project demanded it to be approached not only as a retail environment, but also as a destination and visitor attraction in its own right.

 “This was a new shopping experience. One of the attractions as a project was that it was defining a new retail sector,” Nick explains. “This was a different scale completely and needed to operate as a place for brands to exist and for the shopper to spend a huge amount of time.”

“Typically ambition and vision are at the heart of the businesses that we deal with,” says Matt Smith. “We’ve done £25,000 build projects and £15 million single build projects; as long as the client has ambition the fit tends to work.”

Asked if there is a recognisable Shed style, Matt Smith admits that it’s a question he gets asked often but that the short answer is no. “However, is there a Shed way of thinking about something? Yes,” he continues. “In every job that we’ve done over the last 12 years there’s an idea at the heart of it that is more than style. I think that comes out of our experience at Nottingham where we were taught that whenever you even put a line on a piece of paper, there’s got to be a reason for it.”

Translating this rigour into the design process is a fundamental aspect of the Shed approach to interior architecture. “Design is getting more and more measured in terms its success,” says Nick. “It is important for and more interesting for us to offer more rigour in influencing a business in a positive way through design. We won’t be deemed a success offering aesthetics alone as that can be very subjective. We won’t just come in and paint a wall grey. We don’t really care what colour the wall is most of the time; we’re more interested in making businesses better through design.”

“Vertu [the luxury mobile phone brand] is a good example,” he continues. “When we embarked on the design we set out to achieve a certain experience based on captivating the customer; we achieved this in the way we controlled the movement of customer through the story – very analytic. The bigger the company the more analytic the process gets. As a result it can be a bit more fun designing something like the MEAT restaurants than for a big company with 1,000 marketing directors.”

Shed recently completed retail environments for smartphone manufacturer HTC. The goal was to tell the story behind HTC’s products. “The design was led by the product and how best to show it,” explains Nick. Shed designed a number of bespoke products, including lighting, shop fittings, and point-of-sale materials to support its concept. Nick continues: “There was definitely a product design element here; we are effectively using other products in effect to help sell the branded product. The interior architecture is the skin that’s holding all of this together.”

An element of product design was also involved in Shed’s work with tailoring house Spencer Hart. Inspired by mid-century Palm Springs style, Shed designed a perforated concrete block wall to anchor the interior design. In an example of brand following interior architecture, Spencer Hart adopted Shed’s block motif as an integral part of a new menswear range.

“We designed something specifically for Spencer Hart that went on to be the cornerstone of the brand,” says Nick. “Often brand agencies will lead development but we have had some experiences, as in this example, where the design of the interior environment has been strong enough to guide brand direction.”

Nick and Matt remain very much hands-on with Shed’s various projects and, typically, at least one of the directors will be involved directly in each individual job. If they like to get their hands dirty figuratively, by the end of our meal at MEATMission we quite literally need to wipe the burger sauce from our fingers. One thing you can say for certain about the restaurant is that low-calorie eating is not at the top of its agenda.

As I rise from our table light-headed and heavy-stomached from a surfeit of burger, I think it is only fitting that, perhaps as means of atonement, one of Shed’s next projects will be a chain of gyms; the company is working on brand concept and interior architecture for Holyfield Gyms as the former heavyweight boxer’s brand prepares to roll out across India.