Interior designer Nina Campbell was young and brave when she told Mark Birley exactly what she thought of some of his 'tacky' decor at Annabel's. The result was a collaboration which created one of London's most famous nightspots, as Nina recalls ahead of the club's move to new premises later this year.
My first visit to Annabel’s was for a friend’s coming-out party when I was still in my teens. It was extremely cool and a far cry from what we were used to at Claridge’s. The architect Philip Jebb had conjured the space out of what was formerly the wine cellars and kitchen serving the house above. His stroke of genius was to make features of the vaulted ceilings.
He also covered the supporting pillars in an antiqued brass that articulated the space marvellously and created plenty of semi-private places to sit. You could just about see reflections in the brass, but you weren’t quite sure who was buried in another alcove – it was mysterious and highly atmospheric.
By the time I met the founder Mark Birley at a dinner party in 1965, I was working as an assistant to the decorator John Fowler, who had been responsible for restoring the William Kent-designed interiors of the Clermont Club upstairs.
The wonderful barman, George, lent the club its character. Either side of his bar were two vitrines that displayed items for sale – white, stamped plastic from what I remember. It was just too tacky, so, when I met Mark, emboldened by the bravery of youth, I told him that they were awfully ugly.
He didn’t hesitate before responding: ‘If you think you’re so clever, why don’t you do them yourself?’
I was already planning to set up on my own, so I jumped at the opportunity and went about lining the vitrines in a vibrant Chinese red silk with a blue-and-red fan-edged border. On the shelves, I placed some pieces of Imari porcelain, again in blue and red. He liked them and I got my feet under the table – we went from there.
Not only was Mark voracious in his attention to detail, but he was also extremely artistic and very particular about hanging pictures, some of which he’d inherited from his father [the Society portrait painter Oswald Birley] and the others he’d collected.
I don’t think he understood a day without shopping. On one trip, he came back from a visit to Barling of Mount Street with a Buddha that was the most peaceful creature and which became the centrepiece of the Buddha Room we had painted in a fabulous red lacquer.
The room also became home to some Tchelitchew watercolours Mark had bought at a sale as well as his Ballets Russes paintings (he was fascinated with Russian dancers at the time). I had some Chinese temple stools upholstered in a red fabric as extra seating.
I was also responsible for the wallpaper that covered the long corridor in the club. I came across an original 18th-century document in the back of John Fowler’s cupboard. It was a pretty blue floral print on a dirty-white background that he’d discovered under layers of other wallpapers when he was decorating the Clermont. I felt very strongly that this should be put back and persuaded Mark to re-create it and it later became a Colefax & Fowler design.
The private dining room at Annabel’s was established in 1970 after Mark bought the mews behind the club. The food was impeccable – a complete contrast to other nightclubs at the time.
Mark didn’t like fussy menus and hated what he called ‘cloche lifting’; he much preferred things such as shepherd’s pie, chicken hash or delicious lamb cutlets. Elizabeth David’s cookery was, to him, the acme of English food. The tradition of serving lemons elegantly wrapped in pieces of muslin was another of his innovations that’s become mainstream.
At the time, I was living with a friend who owned two particularly beautiful things: one was a William IV gasolier, which I bought and hung in the dining room, and the other was a pair of narrow, upholstered chairs that we had copied for the restaurant.
On three sides of the dining room were floor-to-ceiling wine racks, which gave a wonderful ambience. The walls were painted red and, on the floor, was a continuation of the carpet in the restaurant – what we called a ‘Turkey carpet’ and something you’d typically find used as a runner on the stairs of country houses. The space, which was perfect for 20, but a crush at 22, was extremely successful.
David Tang, who was very influenced by Mark, said it felt as if you were entering Aladdin’s cave when you came through the door of the club – it was somewhere you never wanted to leave.
The lighting, which some have described as sepulchral, made everyone look good and, of course, a great many marriage proposals were made in Annabel’s – including to me.
Annabel’s was smart, but never stuffy. There has always been the dress code, which, on one occasion, Mark was persuaded to relax. It lasted about three months because he was appalled by how the English dressed when left to their own devices. There’s no doubt that his high standards were central to the magic of the place.
Five more things you should know about Annabel’s
- Annabel’s was opened in the converted basement of the Clermont Club on Berkeley Square in 1963 by Mark Birley and named after his wife, Annabel
- The new premises will occupy an entire building on Berkeley Square nearby and include a cigar salon and terraced garden
- Guests have included Richard Nixon, Aristotle Onassis, Jack Nicholson and Frank Sinatra
- Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Diana Ross, Bryan Ferry and Lady Gaga have all performed at Annabel’s
- Dogs are permitted, but not phones, laptops, cameras, T-shirts or sportswear