Words by Jane Crittenden
Brighton-based design consultancy Platform fitted out the city’s first all-male grooming salon, creating an enticing, cutting-edge environment that avoids associations of powder pink and pampering, finds Jane Crittenden.
The clue is in the name. It speaks directly to the consumer with the exact masculine overtones needed to convey the image that the company sells, with the premises reinforcing this identity. Spruce, the first men only salon in Brighton, is the venture of ex-session stylist Johan van der Merwe. Elegantly dressed in understated black, he is as well-groomed and relaxed as the clients who walk out of his salon. His enthusiasm for his new business is infectious. But what exactly is a men’s grooming salon? “It is somewhere between a barber’s shop and a hairdressing salon but at the same time selling products and treatments, like facials and massages – all for men,” he explains.
For Johan, the move into the industry was a natural step in his career after specialising in male grooming while working with models on men’s magazines like GQ and Maxim. Bored of the scene, he decided to find premises near his home in Brighton, and hit on Kemp Town.
Kemp Town is a vibrant suburb east of the centre crammed with an eclectic collection of curious shops, foodie delights and independent boutiques. It could be described as the “pink pound” end of town but Johan is clear that Spruce is not just for the gay man, but simply for any man of any age keen to look after themselves.
The premises are tucked away on a street between a circus retailer and soap shop. It is not a particularly impressive road but like many areas of regeneration there is an edge to the street that attracts a certain type of retailer. It is a spot for those willing to gamble and hover the fine line between seedy and cool in the hope that it will become trendy and a prime retail space before long. The rawness of the building was what attracted Johan initially, which he describes as being “very masculine”. Exposed brick, timber floors and the industrial concrete ceilings were all features that he wanted to exploit but he wasn’t sure how to move the project forward.
By chance, Johan came across locally-based design consultancy Platform, who are experienced in hair salon and beauty spa projects in the USA. Spruce was a tiny project by comparison, at a mere 33sq m, but it was this small scale and Johan’s ideas that particularly piqued Platform’s interest.
Since male grooming is a fledgling industry, Johan was acutely aware that men might feel uncomfortable about making an appointment or dropping by, particularly if the place looked too cool, too trendy and intimidating. His vision was to somehow hang onto that contemporary feel but balance it with an atmosphere that was warm, welcoming and non-exclusive. His aim was to encourage men to pop in on a regular basis, have a chat and a drink, which was why the bar became a central theme. “If we had people sitting on sofas by the window waiting for their appointment then the interaction wouldn’t be right,” he says. “Sitting at the bar means people can talk over a coffee or a glass of wine so that it becomes a space that makes you curious enough to want to come in and hang out.”
The staff, of course, strongly contribute to the welcoming, friendly atmosphere of Spruce. Johan (rather apologetically) says he only wanted male employees and looked for a mix of personalities as well as diversity of experience so that the salon would appeal to as broad a male audience as possible. “I had to search long and hard to find a male beauty therapist, but it was important as male grooming is still such a new thing and guys can be a bit apprehensive about it. At least if they are surrounded by us – and we’ve tried all the treatments – it is much easier for them to talk about what they want and for us to share our knowledge.”
Beyond creating this community atmosphere, Johan says he gave little direction to Platform other than describing the functional aspects of the business, so there would be areas for haircutting, washing and treatments. Max Eaglen, one of Platform’s directors, explains that designing a masculine space was key to Johan’s vision. “Research for previous salon projects showed us there was this trend for gilded mirrors and French antique-style furniture. We wanted to stay away from that because we didn’t want to make the customer feel uncomfortable. The new metrosexual doesn’t want a feminine environment so the space needed to look classic and tough,” he says.
Platform got to the nub of the brand identity very quickly, which was soon conceptualised into a logo for supporting material and then developed into the salon design. Eaglen says the usual approach would be to consider the customer journey through the store, but with limited space the impact of the interiors had to be swift and exact. The colourways are black with a lime accent for the Spruce identity. Black seems a surprising and rather risky choice for a small space, but Platform was so confident that it decided it would be the only colour it would present to Johan.“The interior designer came up with similar colours to the graphic designer so it seemed meant to be,” explains Eaglen. “We presented black, a bit of chrome, some mirror and this one vibrant stripe of acid green and I don’t think there was one person in the office who thought it was wrong.”
Fortunately, the team had read Johan well – so much so that he rang up afterwards to say he had been “blown away” by the design. “I love black,” he says laughing, gesturing at the way he is dressed head-to-toe in the colour. “I think it is very sexy and I love the tangy green, it really is genius.”
Although black is the leading colour on the floor and cabinets, it doesn’t dominate or enclose the space because the finish is glossy and reflective. Brick and concrete are still exposed for the raw, industrial feel and the single piece of intervention comes in the form of a mirror. This runs around the perimeter of the room where it performs an obvious practical function, but also catches reflections and light to open up the space – more so outside the treatment room, where its strategic position means you can observe the whole shop from the doorway. The back wall is also part mirrored, but framed with a smokey hue above and below the cutting mirror to soften the black and push the room out to give the illusion of space. Acid lime jumps off the shelves and from inside the drawers, sharpening the black and giving the space a vibrant and uplifting edge.
The acid tone is a derivation of the more limey yellow of the cutting chairs, which Johan chose before briefing Platform, although at the time he had only seen them in black. The line up of the chairs is an eye-catching feature that clearly grabs the attention of passers-by who have already started to drift in to find out more. The angular shape works in synergy with the square edges of the shelving and mirrors, yet subtle curves stop the furniture from appearing too hard and seemingly uncomfortable.
A touch of black runs through into the treatment room at the back of the shop in the form of shelving. But otherwise this space is much calmer, straddling the realms of relaxation and masculinity with light chocolate-brown suede walls, low lighting and an exposed concrete ceiling. The kitchen tucks neatly under the staircase, while Johan’s tiny bar has been cleverly incorporated into the reception workstation. Two stools pull up to the counter where Johan plays barman, hair stylist, treatment adviser or confidante – depending on the customer’s mood.
“A guy wandered by the other day and came in, had a chat and a drink and said he really liked Spruce compared to the salon down the road where he said it is really rushed. That is why Spruce is different. We want to be a relaxed place, personal and part of the community, where guys come regularly rather than for a treat once in a while.”