Wednesday, 20 October 2021

A touch of grey

On our recent day out in Stockport, someone commented that they weren’t too enamoured of the recent grey makeover applied to the Swan With Two Necks, and I couldn’t disagree. To my eye it looked much better in the previous more clearly defined black and white.

Something similar has happened to the Armoury which we visited later on in the day, where two shades of cream have been replaced by two shades of grey.

And these aren’t just two isolated examples – up and down the country, the past few years have seen an ever-growing number of pubs cast off their old guise to adopt a new grey uniform. It’s a very definite trend. Boak and Bailey wrote about Why are all the pubs going grey? earlier this year. As they say:

Our assumption is that this is about trying to attract a newer, more aspirational crowd – or, at least, not to put them off. This preference for would-be classy neutralness mirrors recent trends in home décor sometimes referred to disparagingly as ‘the grey plague’.
But if this is the case why has it been applied to the unapologetically downmarket Jolly Crofter just a couple of hundred yards away from the Armoury, where nobody of a vaguely aspirational bent would ever cross the threshold?

I would be genuinely interested to hear someone explain the thinking behind this, because to my mind deliberately painting pubs in a cold, drab shade only serves to make them less appealing. A few years ago, there was a fashion to remove whitewash and return pubs to their natural brickwork, which can be seen, for example, at the Old Blue Bell in Preston. But if pubs are to be plastered, then surely they are much more welcoming if it is done in white or cream, or in the pinks and pale blues that are often seen in the West Country and East Anglia.

There are numerous fads that seem to spread across pubs over the years where it is hard to understand the rationale. Examples include posing tables, scatter cushions, getting rid of beermats, dispensing with zeros in menu prices, and replacing carpet with bare wood flooring. A while back, although it seems to have passed now, there was a vogue for installing shelves of dusty old books that nobody would ever read. And nobody can ever satisfactorily explain why. People can sometimes come up with post-facto rationalisations, such as claiming that doing away with beermats makes tables easier to clean, but that isn’t the real reason.

As pubs are owned by a whole host of businesses of varying sizes, these trends cannot be blamed on a single controlling mind, and instead seem to spread organically in the same way that fashions in clothing do. We now look back aghast that people ever wore such things as platform soles. But are there certain influencers of taste in the pub world from which the wider population refreshing the decor of their pubs take their cue?

Of course, it’s only a coat of paint on the exterior, and it can easily be removed in the next refurbishment. On its own, it makes no difference to the customer inside the pub. But this trend has extended to interiors too, and in fact predated its application to external walls. To my mind at least, if a pub is decorated and furnished in cold pastels rather than warm browns, creams and reds it does detract from the experience. But it seems that the current fashion is for pubs to be edgy rather than cosy.


  1. I think you're only noticing it because the head designer at Robbies has suddenly become a convert - it's no coincidence that the first two you cite are both Robbies.

    But it goes back much further than that - my addled brain wants to say that 10-15 years ago, a grey exterior was already an established (if not universal) "code" in central London for maybe not quite a true gastropub, but at the very least an aspirational drinking with decent food pub, that middle-class out-of-towners and tourists could feel safe in. It makes sense in an area with a lot of passing trade to have some kind of signal like that to pull in the passing trade.

    I have a memory of one near the Albert Hall at that time, and one near Waterloo, maybe in The Cut. Unfortunately it's at the limits of Google Streetview history, but if you started with known grey pubs in London, you could at least get some idea when they went grey.

    In some ways it's a surprise it's taken so long to trickle out to the provinces, but it was part of a wider movement, eg this post on the "Farrow and Ball-ification" implied by English Heritage's ideas back in 2009 :

  2. The young theme designers wanted to take the public houses back to their original colour schemes.
    Unfortunately they, the designers were too young to realise that the old monochrome photographs did not really show the true colours.

  3. It's primer and they are going to put the top colour on shortly!

    But seriously a lot of the colour in life is disappearing. Many people wear grey or similar dull colours, and most cars are now either black, white or grey. Spitting Image's John Major would blend in nicely.

    Robinsons pubs had style back in the 70s and 80s as I remember, and further back into the 60s and 50s judging by items for sale on ebay. Their pub signs, building lettering, bottle labels, beer mats, ashtrays etc were all of a piece; good design and good quality. Somebody at Robbies had good taste in those days. I think they should bring back these old designs, "retro" is popular after all.

  4. Aye, it's a trend and an insidous one. I opened a new pub and decided on grey. Why? my business partner suggested it and I rationalised it on the basis that we were on a main road and dirt from pollution wouldn't show up as much. It's not classy or cool anymore though, so hopefully the trend is done. What next?

  5. For some reason grey seems to be the trendy colour at the moment. I'm told this extends to interior decorating as well with sales of grey paints going through the roof compared to previous years. There are it seems far more than 50 shades.

  6. The are people that run pub companies that know pubs. Tim Martin for instance. He's ran a pub and drinks in his own pubs and talks to his own punters and staff. Then there are corporate accountants that have risen to CEO of a company that happens to manage a pub estate. Then there are nice well educated people that have inherited great grandads brewery and pub estate but have never and would never drink in any of them nor understand those that do.

    The Tim Martins of this world go with the hunch of what they feel will work or listen to those on the front line that work for them. They are quick to try or drop an idea. The other kind hire consultants and follow trends and read reports telling them what pub customers want. Then they refurb the estate as per the design consultant that has told then 70% of the desired demographic like it.

  7. Been trying to remember when some of the pubs round here (the south-east) adopted the trend - probably around 2013/14 or so. May be a bit earlier.

    Two of those were refurbs due to kitchen fires. One was a change in licensee who eventually slapped a bit of paint on the outside. One was similar, but the refurb did not go with that colour scheme at all, but did adopt roughly the same design language.

    There was another, that was part of a budding chain, I think that chain had three pubs at the time, and now has about eight or nine. There are other chains in the area, following the same strategy, of about the same size (by premises count) now.

    By fluke, there was a little spate of articles by various people (the Scotts Sumner and Alexander in particular) about fashions in architecture, and Brutalism, fairly recently.

    As to why it's happening;

    With any luck, that should be a selection of external doors from Wickes. What you should be able to pick out are styles that would reflect wealth or prestige, status from various eras (say the 1920s or earlier), and wouldn't look out of place in Chelsea or Knightsbridge.

    And there's a style there that to me, screams "corporate meeting room - book with reception". Which are Serious places. What the colour schemes are doing, is reflecting the Serious places of corporate wealth and status, by mimicking the steel and glass that gets used on those buildings.

    These are Serious pubs where you drink Serious beer and eat Serious food while drinking Serious wine.

    Once the trend starts, everyone jumps on the wagon.

    Mind you, that Jolly Crofter looks like it's auditioning for the role of HMP Slade.

    1. Some of the customers of the Jolly Crofter would probably not feel out of place in HMP Slade.


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