Meet the Creative Minds Behind Bar Raval’s Epic Design Work

It’s no longer “safe” for your restaurant to just sling great food or your bar to serve up decent cocktails. With plenty of competition, concepts must differentiate themselves and the guest experience in other ways. Ambiance is a huge factor, and ultimately determines how a space makes guests feel, which directly impacts how long they’ll stay and whether they’ll return. Ambiance can be communicated through a lot of different elements, a major one being design. And no place strikes this as evidently as Toronto’s Bar Raval, which was designed by Partisans Projects, a Toronto-based architecture and design studio co-founded by Alex Josephson.

The Partisans team “primarily makes the improbable possible,” says Josephson. “We believe in the political power of architecture.” (One of the projects Partisans has received much acclaim for, and what ultimately drew the Bar Raval team to select Partisans, is the Grotto Sauna, which you can view here.)

The partnership between Partisans and Bar Raval began serendipitously. While on a business trip in New York, Grant van Gameren, the owner and chef at Bar Raval, mentioned in passing at a meeting that he was going to open a new restaurant. All he knew at the time was that he wanted to do something in wood that was very experimental Art Nouveau. Another attendee at the meeting, a Toronto local, suggested he look into Partisans.

The Creative Process

The Partisans team’s process is varied. “It’s not just in the studio; it’s sketching in a restaurant, it’s modeling by hand with materials, it’s then going to the computer,” Josephson says. “I would say, to see really great products of architecture, you have to be like a butterfly, and you have to be working in many mediums, and you have to be able to jump back and forth so that they actually inform each other.” Rather than just providing a drawing with a certain type of pencil, he believes in the power of variating elements to produce a richer vision: adding pieces of carved foam, using computer tools, and also incorporating hand sketching.

The Muscle of the Design

Josephson likens the woodwork design at Bar Raval to a 3D tattoo, where “the textures of the wood are relationship to muscle.” “Grant and his partners [Michael Webster and Robin Goodfellow] are sort of these buff, self-educated, tattooed guys. And we were given this space in a beautiful heritage building.”

Bar Raval is a Spanish-inspired bar, so the Bar Raval team wanted the venue’s layout to be an open space where customers who didn’t know each other before could mingle, and where everything felt organic. Josephson says Grant charged the Partisans team with the challenge to essentially reinvent a new approach to carving wood and to reinterpret the Art Nouveau style. “The best clients give you enough freedom, but they really know what they want,” says Josephson.

After dozens of wood tests, Grant finally decided on mahogany, one of the richest woods in the world. “The day we chose mahogany was the day that everything changed,” says Goodfellow. “…people come in here and they stroke the walls. We wouldn’t have had that same result with stained plywood. We’re going top-of-the-line for everything — we’re doing totally organic glass rail for your feet, laser-cut drip trays… everything has to be the best to match how amazing that mahogany was gonna look.”

One lesson Josephson learned from the sauna project was that you don’t want to make things perfectly smooth. “Things that look born are very difficult to make. Human beings and our technology, as much as you want them to look perfect, when you ask something to do that, it’s a big, big challenge,” he says. “So we said, ‘Oh, we’ll just put a texture on it,’ which would be a kind of muscular texture.”

Taking this route of adding texture ended up costing Partisans 1,400 hours of programming and scripting the software, and building the files to actually create those textures. To give you an idea of the complexities of this project, the company behind the machine equipment normally used for big architectural projects had to rewrite their software to be able to deal with the level of this particular project. “But the commitment to inventing the process, to get what we all wanted, was key.”

Josephson predicts the future of restaurants to be more of a cross between restaurant and real estate ownership. “And that combination of being invested in the place and not just the product changes the game.”