For fans of modern American show biz, the phrase “Rat Pack” signifies only one thing: the gaggle of Hollywood actors – including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., among others – who starred together in the 1960 hit movie Ocean’s Eleven and several subsequent films.
The Rat Pack aesthetic of the early 1960s was masculine and two-fisted, but chic. It encouraged a popular idea of modern masculinity as something back-to-basics but savvy, less “sensitive” than forthrightly bold. It implied not just a combat-ready version of male identity, but also a worldview (complete with home furnishings and couture) that would shortly be challenged by feminism and other forms of gender politics.
Perhaps inevitably, given our own era’s penchant for recycling the artistic and personal sensibilities of yesteryear, the time has come for a revival of what architect Steven Fong calls “Rat Pack modernism.” Or so Mr. Fong argues in the intriguing interior design scheme he has created for the new boutique-style Beverley Hotel, which will officially open later this month on Toronto’s Queen Street West.
Here, in the ground-floor bar and restaurant and in other public areas, subtlety and such much-prized contemporary virtues as ecological conscientiousness have been given a back seat, and broad-shouldered frankness rules.
Instead of framing the street side part of the bar with a soft “green” wall or a retiring, blank background suitable for displaying artworks, for example, Mr. Fong has dropped into the space a hard, rough expanse of concrete studded with large rocks and whitewashed. Dark steel sheets line other surfaces of this front room, and the table tops have been fashioned from salvaged warehouse planking and metal tubing – all harking to materials and stylistic moves reminiscent of the Rat Pack’s version of being modern and male.
The architect’s referencing of mid-century (which also saw the climax of American modernism’s mainstreaming and popularization) continues in the main portion of the bar. There, the metal seating has been inspired by the modern French architect and designer Jean Prouvé, a promoter of a marriage between art and engineering whose lean, no-nonsense chairs were all about industrial output and mass production.
Mr. Fong’s most expansive gesture in the direction of the 1960s, however, is his panelling of the bar and restaurant with dark, rich walnut, and his crafting of the restaurant tables from the same wood. No material speaks more eloquently about the world of Playboy, the cool, streamlined bachelor pad, or the long, low-slung decor favoured by the sophisticated rake who was to fall so precipitously from grace in the later 1960s and beyond.
I don’t mean to suggest that Mr. Fong’s “Rat Pack modernism,” as expressed in the Beverley, is studiously theoretical, or sexist, or in any sense overbearing. His design for the hotel does not shout about itself, and it’s not a slavish recreation of a period manner.
Rather, it gently (and with a dash of humour) recalls a passage of North American creative history during which influential artists and artisans and intellectuals, for better or worse, became bewitched by speed, glamour, the mass media and the impulses of mass culture. It was a time, Mr. Fong believes, when culture was “eclectic, ad hoc, casual,” and committed to a “message that was egalitarian.” In addition to the Rat Pack, Andy Warhol comes to mind.
Nowadays, Mr. Fong thinks, the elite consumers of high-end architecture and design are far too “fascinated by sleek images,” “seamless elegance,” buildings that are “slick, totalizing, finished.” They share an “old, heroic vision of the creation of culture.” They are currently the leading patrons of the “official city,” which is the metropolis of neat, rational, dignified structures, and of marquee projects by the likes of Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind. (His examples.)
He likes much better the “unofficial city” populated by the young and culturally hip people who hang out in the eateries of Ossington Avenue and Queen West, and who constitute the target clientele of the Beverley Hotel. Indeed, his liking for such folk has translated into commissions from the “unofficial city’s” entrepreneurs, for whom he has designed a number of bars and restaurants.
In my opinion, but not in Mr. Fong’s, quite a lot can be said for the architecture and interior workups of the “official city.” I admire the stringent modernism of the Bauhaus, for instance, and many of the objects and buildings that have come out of it throughout the 20th century, and down to the present day.
It’s a kind of modernism that is basically at odds with the Rat Pack variety, of course. But just because I appreciate the former doesn’t mean I’m blind to the attractions of the latter. In his Beverley Hotel project, Steven Fong has generated a credible, interesting sampler of an interior style meant to appeal to people much cooler than I am – and I hope it’s a raving success.