Elena Bowes

New York-London design & culture writer of a certain vintage looking for meaning and wholeness in life

Because Nothing Ever Annoyed You: How Perfection Happens

November 18th, 2018
Annabel's London

Mark Birley’s timing was always impeccable. After a decade or so of post-war gloom, in 1963 London was ready to party, and the party was at 44 Berkeley Street. At Annabel’s everyone from the Queen to Diana Ross, hip hairdressers to the Beatles (when they wore a tie) walked down the striped staircase into that romantic, sexy, storied basement. Annabel’s was London’s answer to Studio 54, only more elegant and louche.
My partner in crime Anne Hardy and I both have fond memories of Annabel’s –  a country house that acted like a nightclub, Mabel in the ladies knew your name, the cosy red Buddha room, the teeny dance floor playing “Tie a Yellow Ribbon’, the flowing champagne and dark chocolate ice cream. It was a time and a place for anyone who set foot there.
Actress Goldie Hawn said she never wanted to leave.
Neither did Anne nor I.
On Tuesday – the wooden dance floor, a men’s urinal, a table for eight including the silver toast racks,
the infamous Buddha sculpture, and much more from what was the best night club in the world – will go under the hammer at Christie’s London, with estimated sales prices from £50 to £120,000.
 I spoke to designer Nina Campbell who was not only an Annabel’s devotee, but helped decorate the illustrious club with its talented owner, the late Mark Birley.
Here’s our conversation. Warning:- this blog is longer than usual because Nina’s stories are too good to cut.
What do you think about the Annabel’s sale?

Nina: I think it’s closure. I do think it’s quite strange to see the carpet and the urinals for sale. But it’s going, apparently, to charity, which is good.

Who is going to buy those urinals?

Nina: God knows… I remember when I had just been taken on by Mark to do the club…. I was about 19. I had never been to a urinal. I mean, why would you? And I was also trying desperately to sound intelligent. So we go into the men’s room which is beautiful because there’s this wonderful onyx on the wall and there’s a ticker tape in the corner with all the Reuters news coming in. And then there’s this wall of white porcelain urinals.

I really do find them quite unattractive… Everyone’s there. Mark’s there. The picture hanger’s there because we were thinking of hanging up pictures. I was struggling, thinking what could I add to this?  I see that there’s no loo paper holder. And I say, “Oh, you don’t have a loo paper holder here.” … I had no idea that men just peed and shook themselves dry. And of course, the whole place collapsed in hysteria. I had clearly made the most unbelievably stupid remark.  I’m quite amused that the urinal is being sold. I think if I had a huge house I might just buy one for memory’s sake.

How did you meet Mark?

Nina: I was 19… My brother gave a dinner and Mark was there. Annabel’s was just newly opened, and I was lucky enough to go pretty much every night. I remember saying to Mark, ‘You know, there are those terrible vitrines either side of the bar. It’s really tacky selling jewelry in the bar. Does anybody ever buy them?’

And he said, in that rather languid way he had, “Well, if you think you’re so clever, do them up yourself.” Two days later I went by the office with a little plan I had (for the vitrines) – some Chinese red silk and some imari china, a little braid going around in blue and red and they remained like that, I think, until the end of time.

And where did you find the marvelous Buddha in the Buddha room?

Nina: Mark went out to lunch and came back from Barling on South Audley with that Buddha. He never went very far. He could possibly get to Sotheby’s. Then he bought Mark’s Club and then Harry’s Bar. He’d go the Fine Art Society and buy the most wonderful paintings. He just bought unbelievably well.

Mark never really believed in owning anything further than he could walk. He’d have lunch in one place, dinner in another. He was always there, and that’s why they were so perfect.

He always had a tiny little pad next to his place in silver, made by Hermés with a silver pencil, and that’s where he sat, quite quietly,  just writing something (down) he didn’t like. That’s why his clubs were always so impeccable. There was nothing that got on your nerves in any of his clubs. Nothing irritated you. Nothing was ever annoying.

How did you come up with that rich red lacquer color in the Buddha room that somewhat defines the décor of Annabel’s?

Nina: In the Buddha is this red tinge and I’ve always loved that color. I thought that red lacquer would make a marvelous background color for all those paintings. We painted the room layer upon layer of wonderful lacquer done by this specialist painter called James Smart. And I loved the way lacquer would reflect.

Did you two ever go on shopping trips together?

Nina: We used to go do the trade shows in Paris, we went to Venice and bought glass on Murano island… I was intending to go to Nason Moretti (with Mark). They make exquisite glass. Given that I knew Mark quite well, and we were staying at the Danielle and we’d just had lunch at Harry’s Bar, I thought that it wouldn’t be unusual to get a boat, like getting a taxi, to go straight to Nason Moretti, which would mean that we’d arrive at Nason Moretti and that would be that.

But Mark chose that moment to call me Spenderella, and he said ‘That’s so extravagant. We can go on the public boat to Murano island. Everybody goes on those boats.”

And I said, ”Yes, they go to those terrible factories with the hideous multi-colored chandeliers.” We got on the public boat and we get to the hideous place with the multi-colored chandeliers.

I look up and I see the fire escape, you know that little green man, so we go out that door and we’re in Murano and we somehow, by miracle, find the proper factory that we were looking for. By the time we arrive there, instead of looking elegant, we look completely crumpled and disgusting. It was unbelievably hot as well.

By a miracle, nice Mr. Nason Moretti greets us, gives us cold water and believes that we can pay the bill. Because we honestly didn’t look like we’d be able to pay for the glasses.

Did you buy lots?

Nina: We bought lots, all those clear glasses with the blue line were started there. And they were impeccable glasses. Where Mark was so clever is you see, they weren’t a tumbler and they weren’t a wine glass so they were the most perfect cocktail glass. You could put anything in them. Anything you chose to have in this glass just looked delicious.

All these journeys were incredibly funny. Just the two of us. We went to Limoges to buy the china which involved going to Paris and getting the train to Limoges.

Getting on this train with a first-class ticket and being told that we haven’t quite paid enough for dinner. We had to take a supplement. And every dish we ordered, being terribly French, they say ‘Ahhh, ca c’est un supplement.”

We arrive in Limoges which is like arriving in Stoke-on-Trent at about 10 o’clock at night with a one-legged porter with our bags asking us if our holidays were over. I mean, the thought that we might have gone there for a holiday is so ludicrous.

Then we go to the hotel. We went to the Sofitel, which wasn’t really Mark’s normal hotel. And the woman behind the counter pretended that she didn’t know who we were and pretended that she couldn’t find our name.  Nothing under Annabel’s, nothing under Birley. Eventually, infuriated I said, ‘Well, do you have any rooms?’ And she said, ‘Mais oui.’ So French, the place was completely empty. There were 400 bedrooms. She was determined to make us suffer.

Did you go on any other buying trips abroad with Mark?

Nina: We went to Switzerland once to buy something from a factory. And we managed to go on a public holiday when everything was closed. That was another triumph.

We went to stay in this divine hotel and that’s where we found the sugar lumps. It’s extraordinary to think now – la Perruche – they are rough and brown and they come in a big blue box. We thought they looked so much chicer than ordinary Tate & Lyle sugar lumps. We bought all these boxes of sugar and brought them back to England. They didn’t have them in England. That was the level of detail that he went to.

We went to Fouquet in Paris and bought those Russian Sweets.  They were tiny boiled sweets that exploded in your mouth and those chocolate coffee beans.

If you could buy anything in the auction, what would it be?

Nina: There’s a little watercolour which I would love to buy for myself. It’s a picture by John Ward. It’s called ‘Annabel’s Study’ and it shows the bar and the wallpaper that I had made especially for Annabel’s, Berkeley Street by Colefax and Fowler.

What do you think Mark would say now about the sale?

Nina: I think he’d be quite pragmatic and think, “Well, if it’s gone, let it go.” Because, you know, it’s never going to be the same so why not sell it all? At least (the sale proceeds) are going to charity which is good. Off it goes to a new life.

I think everybody who loved Annabel’s is going to be greatly relieved that this place is over. When anything like that shuts, it’s like a whole part of your life ends.

Last Thursday Christie’s and Lombard Odier hosted a goodbye party at the old Annabel’s. I asked Nina what she thought of the dinner:

Nina: Actually, it was rather divine. It was full of quite a lot of old faces, Annabel faces which was a relief. And it was lovely just sitting in the Buddha room and having a drink under the gaze of the Buddha and knowing that it was all going to a new home.

How many of you were there?

Well, the dining room was full. It was a seated dinner. I was very lucky. I sat next to David Snowden, David Linley. I can’t keep calling him Snowden. Jolly nice. We chatted about old times. It was full of old Annabel’s people, not much of the new.  It was lovely to have last night because it was as near to the old days as possible.

The only trick they missed is that they should have had the bitter chocolate ice cream.  That’s the one thing I would have done differently.

Christie’s Chairman of the European Advisory Board Pedro Girao said he was very sad.

But the world moves on. We can’t be nostalgic.

But sometimes nostalgia is for sale. If you remember dancing the night away at this legendary spot, you can take it with you. I know I could use a dance floor.

November, 2018