Bar Design: The Return of the Horseshoe

Horseshoe shaped bar at The Grey
Image: Parts and Labor Design

Bar design trends change from year to year. How a bar is designed and built is often an afterthought, with little attention paid to the details needed to create efficient service and an attractive space.

However, there are still some people who make bar design their focal point. Andrew Cohen and Jeremy Levitt, co-founders of New York City-based Parts and Labor Design, think there’s a return of horseshoe-shaped bars, the mid-century style designed to provide a greater sense of community among customers.

 

Horseshoe bars were once extremely popular. Then trends changed and long, straight bars became the standard. What is it about horseshoe-shaped bars that has you excited?

Andrew Cohen & Jeremy Levitt: We love the communal aspect of a horseshoe-shaped bar. The two corners allow for more guests to casually turn to one another and strike up a conversation, and the shape also allows for guests to talk to those sitting across from them. A horseshoe bar also commands a greater presence in a space, serving as a strong focal point and offering dynamism unique to other straight bars.

 

What are some of the other important aspects of bar design that you see lacking in most contemporary bars?

Many bars we see today lack an attention to detail that is crucial in this type of space. We spend a great deal of time ensuring that the layout and proportions of the bar are perfect. We also custom design most of the furniture and light fixtures in our bars and restaurants to ensure that all pieces fit together aesthetically and speak to the overall feel of the space.

 

Complete redesigns are disruptive and expensive. Are there tweaks that any bar owner can employ in terms of design that will easily refresh the look of their space?

One of our go-to tweaks to refresh a bar is purchasing new furniture. New or even re-upholstered bar stools will provide a noticeable difference to the space. Refinishing the bar itself is also a straightforward way to upgrade the look of the place, as is rethinking the rear of the bar. Adding shelving for bottles, plants, or other knick-knacks will provide patrons with some new eye candy.

 

Draft systems for beer, wine and cocktails are becoming more important in bars today. Are there better ways to incorporate those essentials?

These essential elements often take up a great deal of space and, when placed at the bar, interrupt the clean lines of a bar’s surface. Not to mention [they] obstruct one’s eyeline to the bartender. We prefer to incorporate these systems into the back of the bar, which allows for a streamlined look to the customer-facing bar while keeping them close at hand.

 

What are the other major trends you see emerging in bar design?

Interestingly enough, we’re in the midst of a sort of revival of old-world bar design. Though there’s a time and place for the super sleek, minimalist bar, we’re finding more and more customers and owners alike are gravitating toward bars designed with classic elements: wood surfacing, low lighting, and comfortable seating, not to mention excellent drinks. In our work, we like to take the best of these elements and elevate them using high-quality materials for custom-made furniture, incorporating intricately designed light fixtures and functional yet beautiful surfacing. At The Grey, for example, we were careful to design a bar that reflected the roots of the space – a 1930s bus depot – while also giving it a distinctly contemporary feel.

 
Horseshoe shaped bar inside The Grey bar and restaurant
Horseshoe shaped bar inside The Grey bar and restaurant in Savannah, GA; Image: Parts and Labor Design

Bar design has often been the last element owners consider, even though they are always a profit center. How do you get owners to realize how important efficient and attractive bars are?

We’re seeing more and more restaurant owners put an emphasis on good bar design, and the bar has become an increasingly prominent feature in many restaurants we design. For example, at [a restaurant in New Jersey], the bar area is the first space you walk into when entering the restaurant. We love the bar area because of its materiality presence in the space. Our design features an eye-catching, intricate and illuminated bottle display, which draws guests to the bar and gets them excited. We also wanted to create a space that provided just as great of an experience as being seated in the main dining room.

 

What's the most challenging aspect of what you do today?

The most challenging aspect of all of the projects we work on is to create an impactful and memorable experience for the guest. Our goal is always to establish as many moments for the guest as possible, from their first step into the bar or restaurant to when they settle into their seat to when they finish their food or drink. We put as much thought into every piece in the space as if we were designing our own personal homes, with the idea that this will translate to the guests that they are in a welcoming and comfortable atmosphere.