Royal audience

An old dame takes a great leap forward, through a bold and blue design, to capture a new crowd.

An old dame takes a great leap forward, through a bold and blue design, to capture a new crowd.

Historic settings can be a source of elegance, drama and gravity in a design, but they don't always lend themselves to a modern remake.

So how do you fit something contemporary into a space like Singapore's Raffles Hotel, where the weight of history and people's expectations will be a heavy burden?

In the case of the Royal China, a Chinese restaurant with an established reputation and a well-known look located inside Raffles, redefinition was going to need bold decisions.

The restaurant had to shed its traditional guise of black walls and red carpets. Guests also needed to be able to make an entrance without suffering culture shock as they moved from white colonnades to restaurant dining room.

Led by design director Colin Seah, Royal China's new look was created by Ministry of Design and included a comfortable shift between spaces.

"I designed a transition that deliberately left the hotel environment behind, immersing you in a brand new environment of the restaurant," said Seah.

"The guest is made to weave through a distinct ante space, turning 90 degrees thrice around a wave-like wall, finally emerging into the restaurant. The existing space with all its historical trappings was not a constraint; in fact, it was a point of inspiration."

Seah's response to the restaurant was a complete overhaul, from the spatial design to new signage, menus, collateral, and even collaboration with fashion designer Nic Wong on the uniforms.

The resulting interior is Seah's attempt to step away from the usual design of a Chinese restaurant, to create something still distinctly Chinese in character, but also modern and 'relevant' for a younger generation of diners.

"Royal China is totally Chinese, no mistaking that, but it is also modern and uplifting," said Seah. "It is all about subtly transforming things that are familiar. That is Royal China's design in a nutshell."

"From the moment you enter and turn the corner round the towering fabric wall, you're in this strange environment, that's completely new but at the same time, completely familiar."

No aspect of the restaurant was left un-designed, whether it is the entirety of the blue, white and gold dining space, the modern all-white menus with blue brocade touches, or the pewter silk dresses worn by the staff.

Seah describes the experience as 'holistic', though wishes he'd had a chance to select all the crockery too.

"A meal at a restaurant or a stay at a hotel is not merely about the space, it's also about the soft touches and the human elements one engages with," said Seah.

"We used that as a starting point for our menu and collateral design, as well as in our guidelines for the fashion designer. The uniforms have to exemplify the balance between modernity and tradition that we were striving for spatially."

A critical aspect of the design was appealing to a younger set, without driving away the restaurant's stalwarts - whether they are the family or business lunch clientele. A modernized logo is one step to achieving this.

Naturally it appears on the menus, but also on the brocade entrance wall. It's updated colours sit well with the gold and powder blue of the dining room.

Tables are ceremoniously set along the strong visual axis created by the six metre high vaulted ceiling.

Drawing inspiration from Chinese brocade, dining nooks and private dining rooms feature quilted artwork, curtains and wood panelling inspired by the richness of its embroidery.

Seating styles changed too. The traditional-style round table, with room for up to a dozen people, still makes an appearance.

But the dining room is dominated by a long canteen-style row of tables running down the middle of the restaurant.

It is an idea familiar to anyone who has visited an Asian noodle bar, but in the Royal China setting it takes on a more luxurious feel, while maintaining the clear connection with contemporary Asian dining.

"We also designed the bespoke 'double happiness' chair," said Seah. "It's very tongue-in-cheek, for couples only!"

Striking shades of blue, gold and white surround diners. High-gloss finishes and textured fabrics are a source of constant contrast.

The combination is unusually bold and a significant departure from usually more conservative restaurant interiors.

"The colour is a huge attraction and talking point, its simply never been done before," said Seah.

"We were inspired by a brilliant blue cheongsam [close fitting dress] brocade I came across in Beijing. To translate it into the perfect blue hue for our space, we had to experiment with countless shades. It was quite impossible to get it right because cloth, like the brocade, can be very much more textured and nuanced than paint, so it was a challenge to capture the same richness."

Gold chain curtains provide a porous screen and an accent to the spatial colours. They represent yet another layer of richness in the design.

Seah believes it all achieves a balance between tradition and modernity; the success of his plan can be measured by the success of the restaurant.

"Let's just say that if you want to dine at Royal China, reservations are now a necessity," he said.

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