Le Fou, John Whelan’s Soul

Le Fou, John Whelan’s Soul

John Whelan is an iconic figure of the Parisian nights. He just opened the bar Le Fou, but he’s anything but a beginner. After Le Pompon, Le Carmen and Le Faust, this versatile creative director offers us a new world which pays tribute to the American bar tradition, with the frivolity of the Golden Twenties, and which gives us the feeling we enter a place laden with history. He’s a passionate and fascinating men and has a very personal eye on contemporary culture. Besides the aesthetics he thought in all its details, Le Fou is also and above all a party and meeting place. There is a Zimmermann piano in the centre of the room: the tone has been set. Everything is done to mix the dance of some of us and the music of others in a gleeful chaos. And if you’re feeling tired, you can still go sip a cocktail and watch the classic waiters coming from the last century. Now it’s time to go to the basement. There is no DJ there, but rock and punk bands which take us to crazy and unfinishable parties. Le Fou, or how to live the Golden Twenties according to John Whelan.

Le Fou, 37 bis, rue du Sentier – 75002 Paris.

Luminaire Suspension Bar Le Fou Paris Sentier
Bar Le Fou Comptoir Déco Années folle Paris Sentier

John, can you tell us about you?

John

I came to live in Paris ten years ago, with the aim of living an adventure. I must have been attracted to these Parisian girls who smoke, and say “yes” when they mean “no” and “no” when they mean “yes”. And I stayed here. My first job was at Publicis, as part of the creative team. But I was 25 and already getting bored. I was wondering what more I could do, more than advertisements, which don’t last and which people forget immediately. I think I was starting to have more responsible ideas and that I didn’t fit anymore in this world. I wondered what my talents were. I loved music, design, style, people, and I thought hospitality was able to gather all of this. So I succeeded in convincing Omar, from Chez Omar, to start a new project: Le Pompon. It was the turning point. I’ve now created five places in Paris and they really look like each other. There is a common hand and an evolution in each of these projects.

What’s Le Fou?

John

It’s an American bar dedicated to jazz concerts. The acoustics and places have been thought like in the time when musicians used to play among people. I had waited for the planets to align for this project. It’s a little like ground 0. The project I’m the proudest of. It’s really important to achieve a goal both in design and socialite events. Designing a place with aesthetics which comply with international standards requires patience and commitment. The other places I had designed, such as Le Pompon, Le Faust and Le Carmen, I had designed them thanks to 3D image, in order to guide the architects. But it was not clear, since 3D is more a mood. Here, every element, the ceiling lights, the furniture, the bar, are made to measure. I have ordered the paintings to a friend, the painter De Rrusie. This project has enabled me to achieve the transition from the art director to the designer. I had trouble accepting the word “designer”. I think it’s a bit posh. I’ve always rather liked creative director.

Portrait John Whelan Bar Le Fou Sentier Paris
Luminaire Déco Bar Le Fou Paris Sentier

What were your inspirations for this project?

John

Vienna, at the end of the XIXth, beginning of the XXth century. And especially the Wierner Werkstätte, a group of architects who were quite avant-gardist, who appeared with the Vienna Secession. We could call them proto-modernists. They were already starting to simplify forms, but still with the fine quality of the materials they used to choose and the ornamentation. I was also influenced by Adolph Loos, who created the first American bar, whose form then became an institution in the world of cocktail bars with waiters wearing white jackets. The timeless and classical design of the bar still exists today. For instance,  copied it a little. It’s a very manly world, with warm colours, and which reminds a lot of the men’s salons of the XIXth century. My other reference was Art Deco. I didn’t want to pastiche an Austrian project, I also wanted the Parisian legacy and culture to spread through the place. So there are a lot of references to all of this, such as Maurice Dufrène.

Why did you choose this name, Le Fou?

John

Maybe because people often call me this way. The fact I’m British and red-haired challenges a bit Parisian people. I designed this project after having spent a year near Tours, in the centre of France, and this year was a bit crazy. This name was quite autobiographical, I wanted to satirise the fact people say I’m crazy.

What did you choose for the bar?

John

For cocktails, we believe in the originals and offer quite classic drinks. It’s true that I’m a bit sceptical regarding innovation. If you want to say something is better, it needs to really be better. The waiters’ outfits remind us of the outfits they used to wear in XIXth cocktail bars: white jacket, suit and burgundy knitted tie, all of this associated to an original look. Some of them have tattoos and piercings. They are both very classy and punk.

How would you describe your style?

John

Timeless and punk. Doing something timeless is the hardest part. It requires a reflection and hard work from the designer. I hope this place won’t be outdated in 10 years. When you work only with fine materials, such African mahogany, Italian leather and Brazilian granite, time is an ally which enables the evolution of space. The paint has been made by decorative painters, so the sheen has richer tones and colours than a simple paint. There is a certain soul, as if the wall had been tainted by the smoke of cigarettes for 100 years. I think we succeeded in understanding the past time here.

Banquettes Bar Le Fou Paris Sentier
Peintures Mur Déco Bar Le fou Marais Paris

Would you want to start designing objects?

John

Yes, and I think I’ll do 2 things to achieve this in 2017. I’m dividing my company into two parts, with a part dedicated to design creation and the other one to branding, graphic design and advertising. Meanwhile, I also work on the creation of a semi-annual magazine, which will be the embodiment of particular aesthetics and where we could talk about a world view, politics, art and painting. Actually everything I’m interested in! I’ve always wanted to run such a project but I hadn’t found the perfect team to do it. Now I have it, and we’re going to be able to make this magazine a place where to argue, discuss and finally have a platform where we could meet inspiring people. For example, I think about , with whom I worked. They have a very different view, far from current trends, and pure and ultramodern worlds. They are first philosophers and then designers. I love the way they think about design. But I’m not a futurist either, I don’t want to live in a cold white and black world, with screens moving: I’m fed up with all of this! The only thing I don’t like about me is my iPhone, and I think a lot of people would say the same. According to me, hotel trade is one of the most noble and civilised things human beings succeeded in creating, since it mixes welcome, glamour and socialite moments. We should really wonder if all these innovations that appeared thanks to new technologies are really innovating or if they are a progress trap. This magazine will enable us to express and comment these topics. I think these places, and everything I do in general, are simply an extension of something much more serious, like a materialisation of my beliefs.

What’s next?

John

Another design project, but I can’t talk about it now.

Peintures Mur Bar Le fou Marais Paris
Salon Piano Déco Années Folles Bar Le fou Marais Paris

Credits : Eve Campestrini @thesocialitefamily

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