Gran designs: the London pub chain spearheading the 'granny chic' trend
You might never have heard of Antic but, chances are, if you live in London, you have drunk in an Antic pub. The chain has 45 venues in the capital – the latest of which, John the Unicorn, opened on Peckham’s Rye Lane in late February. Rye Lane isn’t necessarily somewhere you’d expect premium craft ales with a snack of “beef dripping focaccia with yeasted butter”, but John the Unicorn is carving out a niche among the grocers, phone shops and beauty salons of the famous southeast London high street. Its existence here is a marker of just how ubiquitous the Antic brand has become.
It’s a particularly scruffy marker, however. With its big blue lettering and cracked tiles the outside looks like a fish and chip shop that hasn’t been touched since the 1970s. Inside, the decor is similarly threadbare. It could be described it as “granny chic”. “All the pieces of furniture that we use, people relate to them,” says Dunia Goymer, Antic’s head of design, who is showing me around. “Because they’ll say: ‘Oh my goodness, my grandmother had that in her house.’”
The more you look, the more you recognise all kinds of objects familiar from somewhere else, such as a row of scuffed-up science lab tables crying out to have “I woz ere” etched into them with a compass point. The wooden chairs are the sturdy, unfussy kind you’d sit on in church, while the back room is a firmament of hanging lights covered in glass lampshades. It’s a hotch-potch, but it is oddly homely.
That’s the Antic effect. The company thrives through its unashamed appeal to customers of the 30s, professional, bearded sort, and locates its offerings in the up-and-coming areas where they can afford to buy a home. Sussing out which areas these are – or often will be – is the job of Antic’s founder, Anthony Thomas. He worked in property before opening the East Dulwich Tavern in 1999, followed by 44 more sites across London. A dozen more are in the pipeline, including pubs in Lewisham, Sutton and Newham.
You might think: 'Is that horrible or is it lovely? I’m not sure…'
The formula for success sounds simple: find a building with character, strip it back to its bones, fill it with chintzy clutter and watch the hipsters roll in. But it takes an eye to piece together a coherent aesthetic from second-hand items. It’s also vital that every pub feels different – independent, even – so that you can sip pale ale under photographs of Winston Churchill in the Effra Social in Brixton, or admire the bunting in Hackney’s Clapton Hart, and not realise that the delightfully twee establishment you’re patronising is owned by an aggressively expanding business.
A velvet sofa studded with velvet buttons against a brick wall
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‘Find a building with character, strip it back to its bones, fill it with chintzy clutter and watch the hipsters roll in’: the retro velvet seating at John the Unicorn. Photograph: Tiffany Mumford
Much of Goymer’s hard work goes into finding the knick-knacks. Where does she get all the stuff from? “I’m always on eBay,” she says. “We trawl markets and second-hand shops… skips sometimes. Rather than end up in landfill these objects adorn our pubs.”
In John the Unicorn there are fragments of geodes stitched to the fringes of curtains, a squadron of vintage toy planes and a borderline-creepy collection of resin moulds for making children’s shoes. Goymer says her job is “about taking risks.” “You might think: ’Is that horrible or is that lovely? I’m not sure.’”
The risks don’t always pay off. In 2014, Antic opened a pub in a former job centre in Deptford – and named it Job Centre. Local people who had campaigned to keep the original job centre open were angry. Managing director Max Alderman argues the backlash against gentrification is hypocritical: “It’s only from people who were at the vanguard of gentrification in the first place,” he says. “Fundamentally what we try to deliver is a good local pub at the end of your street.”
It can also rescue a few beautiful old boozers: Antic’s interest in the Elephant and Castle pub in SE1, for example, has saved it from being turned into an estate agents. It’s a concrete monster – a great big carpark of a pub. “Yes, it’s carpark chic,” says Goymer. “Maybe that’s where I should be going with it.”