Every Poster Tells a Story

April 11, 2021

Most of us would agree that a big part of the dining experience is inextricably woven with ambiance. There’s a reason no one wants to sit too near the kitchen (if it’s not an open kitchen concept), lights too bright or too dim can be irritating, and there’s a fine line between boisterous and rackety.

Then there’s the look of the physical space itself. Tastes vary, but most diners agree on one thing: theres’s an intuitive response to a well designed restaurant or bar. We may not be able to articulate it, but we certainly know it when we see — or rather, feel it. 

As is the case with residences, decor and design choices say a great deal about the space, and in relation to food and beverage (F&B) outlets, those choices go a long way to defining the personality of the outlet. And when it comes to the art that accents an F&B space, the choices are endless. 

Classic or vintage movie posters are among the most versatile options for F&B outlets, though they’re not as widely used as one might imagine. Very often, the perception is that an item like a vintage poster would only be accepted in the so-called appropriate place. The most obvious examples that spring to mind are chain restaurants like the Hard Rock Café, Hello Kitty cafés and, perhaps most obviously, Planet Hollywood. Each of those brands has a recognisable name and identity, and so going into a HRC and finding a Fender Stratocaster on the wall is expected, as is a lot of pink at a HKC, and wall-sized The Terminator posters at PH. Other spots a movie poster might work are locations such as the spy themed SafeHouse in Chicago (though that tends to the realistic side of spying), and the Museum HR Giger Bar in Gruyères, Switzerland, dedicated the artist best know for his creature design work on the groundbreaking 1979 film Alien, and where prints of that film’s poster would slot in seamlessly.

However, “It does’t need to be a themed restaurant, but it does need to be ‘themed’,” begins Chilean-born Hernán Zanghellini, founder and director at Hong Kong-based Zanghellini & Holt Associates, which specialises in hospitality interiors. “If I’m doing an Indochine-styled restaurant, then I can have things in the bar specific to that time. If it’s a whisky bar based on the Roaring ’20s, go ahead and decorate the bar with items specific to the time. A gin bar? Put in a James Bond poster. There are hundreds of opportunities, but it is limited to theme.

 

While it’s not necessary to limit movie posters exclusively to cinema-related spaces (like studio canteens and offices), J. Lee Rofkind, regional leader of hospitality in multinational architecture and design firm HOK’s Hong Kong office agrees that theme is critical. “I once used blown-up Hawaiian Beach Party posters for a club at a resort in Hainan. I’ve also seen vintage posters in use in Suzie Wong-type restaurants and American diners,” she notes, referring to Al’s Diner in lan Kwai Fong. “The posters enhance a theme, so they’re not for every restaurant or bar, but sometimes the bold graphics of a poster can work very well in a contemporary space.

Vintage movie posters and art in F&B is rare in Hong Kong, but not completely absent. Aside from Al’s, the casual Café Cassette in the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong and the Michelin-starred BO Innovation have incorporated poster art in their interiors. 

Design studio AB Concept (abconcept.net) co-founder and principal Ed Ng agrees that posters aren’t the purview of themed restaurants, but emphasises they need to be carefully considered in F&B spaces. “This kind of [decor accessory] is good as long as it becomes a part of the storytelling and the narrative content that complements the holistic concept and setting of the venue,” he explains. BO Innovation, which AB Concept designed interiors for, was a collaboration with chef Alvin Leung, who is renowned for the unconventionality of his menus, and vintage movie posters played a part in the final concept.


[Leung’s] cuisine is called ‘X-treme Chinese’, particularly in Hong Kong, and his culinary work is greatly inspired by his childhood memories of Hong Kong — like old menus, Bruce Lee or tourism posters and childhood games,” Ng describes. “They all became a part of his inspiration and narrative in his culinary magic. So it’s very natural for him to use these posters in order for him to narrate the story of his restaurant. The use of these vintage prints and posters cannot be contrived; it has to be genuine to the storytelling, especially if it’s in an F&B context. It has to match the culinary concept, otherwise it will be a very shallow, sheer narrative.


Storytelling, in a way, is a key component of dining. We dine in specific restaurants and relax in particular bars because they take us to a time, place or mood away from the present; it’s not always about the food. Like music and films, food instantly conjures memories and associations we generally like to repeat. To ensure creating a distinct atmosphere, Zanghellini recommends beginning before anyone steps inside the space, because after all, an F&B outlet is a business. 


What’s the target market? Do you want to bring people to a mood or a period? Or is it going to be functional,” he asks. “Some owners want [the restaurant] to reflect them, some simply want to respond to the market. Restaurants have different masters, from trophies to business to labours of love. But posters can go in either or all of them. It’s all about the right place and the right time.


Using vintage movie posters addresses the age-old tension between form and function, and impacts how any vintage movie posters might be used and displayed — and they should indeed be displayed. The art in any F&B space ultimately says a great deal about the owner, the food and drinks, and how both hope to make guests feel. Movie posters are fun and gregarious, they can be a more cost effective alternative to more traditional art, and they can enrich and enhance a space or concept. They’re also flexible. “Five years from now, in a post-covid world, the gloom may give way to more colour and fun,” theorises Zanghellini. With a restaurant renovation, classic posters can easily be swapped out to keep in line with fresh interiors.


A movie poster could certainly lighten the mood. But it’s crucial the theme always hangs together as a unified whole. A Jazz Age German movie poster for Anna May Wong’s Flame of Love would be out of place in a modern gin bar entry — or it could be a smart period contrast. Whatever the case, it shouldn’t be alone.

I would try to stick to all 1960s Chinese movies, or all Hawaiian movies. Colours and patterns have to be thought through, too” stresses Rofkind. “Depending on the design of the space, there is nothing wrong with a whole wall of movie posters, in fact only one poster would seem lonely and not get the message across.

In the same way posters can be doubled, tripled or quadrupled up to create mini-galleries in the home, there’s no set limit on the number of individual pieces that can be used in an F&B space. The trick to a cohesive message is in how they’re applied in the space.

This is an issue of the vocabulary; it has to work within the entire context — the lighting, proportions, scale, colour palate, texture,” cautions Ng. “Everything has to come together in a holistic approach. Vintage posters is just one of the elements.” In other words, the gin bar with Flame of Love at the entrance needs the right illumination, and ideally it will tell visitors what’s in store. 

Ultimately, classic film posters in a hospitality context will be considered either kitschy, cool, elegant  or perhaps misplaced depending on taste, but there’s little argument they can add a singular personalty or vibe to an F&B space. “At the end of the day beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” finishes Zanghellini. “Honestly, there’s no logic to this. [ZHA] does a wide range of styles, and so when clients come to me and say, ‘I love your style’ I have no idea what they mean. You have to ask what mood is trying to be created. What do people, diners, want in that restaurant? With posters, there are just so many ways to implement that.