Sophie and the Surrealists

Sophie Parkin's new private members club is a masterpiece of trompe l'oeil and, if surreal appeals, full of design ideas.
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Welcome to Vout-O-Reenees," says writer Sophie Parkin, waving me into her new private members club "for the surrealistically distinguished". It's a riot of colour and tromp l'oeil paint effects - and a haven of inexpensive decorating tips for every home owner who would like to bring style and creativity to their interior design.

The club is in the crypt of a Pugin church in east London, which has been transformed into a Thirties-style salon. In the main entrance hall-cum-gallery, the walls are painted canary yellow with freehand illustrations of architectural columns and pediments by contemporary designer Tony Common, as a tribute to Thirties French artist and illustrator Christian Bérard.

Bérard was art director on the 1946 Jean Cocteau romantic fantasy film La Belle et la Bête - Beauty and the Beast. "He painted and embroidered these amazing squares on yellow silk for the Givenchy Building in Paris," explains Parkin.

Eerie, hand-shaped light fittings designed and made by ceramicist Oriel Harwood echo the Beast's castle in the film, where the hallway is lit by human hands holding candlesticks. The fake flagstone floor of Vout-O-Reenees is by surrealist painters Keeler and Tornero, who create set designs and murals for comedian Noel Fielding. Look closely and you will find skulls, fish and a Salvador Dali-style lobster.

"Everyone said it's going to be over the top, but actually it's all about balance," says Parkin. "The crypt is a big space with a low ceiling, so we've divided it up into different areas, where you can read, chat, or dance."

Parkin, the daughter of designer and editor Molly Parkin and art dealer Michael Parkin, has been planning her own club for 35 years. At the launch her mother joked that Sophie was running HM Happiness, the boat-shaped bar in their front room, at the age of eight. While still a St Martins art student, she ran The Zanzibar late-night club and later helped manage clubs and bars such as 1987 Hong Kong, The Electricity Showroom and, more recently, pop-up club The Parkin Lot at Soho's Green Carnation.

As head of performance at The Chelsea Arts Club, she programmed everyone from jazz singer Ian Shaw and poet Fran Landesman to the principle dancer from Covent Garden, who she got to perform the Dying Swan there last year.

All that experience has gone into Vout-O-Reenees. The triangular bar was designed by Parkin, with blue walls painted by Common: "It's painted blue because it's like a ship coming in."

There's a curtained-off performing space and red swag-shaped wall lights by Harwood. The green banquette seating recalls The Colony Room Club — Parkin's spiritual home — but the deep red, button-back detailing is her own injection of creativity. "Button-back was very popular in the Thirties because it was about sexual repression and keeping everything reined in, and the birth of psychoanalysis," she says.

Paint effects in this space by Keeler and Tornero include fake floorboards, a giant tiger skin rug, a Hollywood star worthy of Sunset Boulevard, and a circular disco area adorned with insects.

Next door is the garden room, painted as a homage to Monet, by street artist Morganico, aided by Brian Barnes MBE, a Monet expert. There are huge, trippy images of waterlilies, as well as Monet's arched bridge — which Morganico dubs "Giverny gardens à la spray can". "Morganico calls himself an art street terrorist," laughs Parkin. "He goes around making beauty on old people's bins."

You can sit on an 1850s carved wooden garden bench to read the paper, or to admire Morganico's tromp l'oeil goldfish pond on the floor.

The gents' loo has Magritte-style clouds on the ceiling and on the urinal is painted: "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" — the artist's famous statement. A giant pink powder puff and "phallic" black Fifties gloves will adorn the Ladies.

Novelist and artist Parkin wants the space to be a sanctuary for creative people to relax and talk ideas — and occasionally rubbish. No stranger to the spotlight, as a girl she starred in commercials, modelled in Nova magazine and the Sunday Times, and appeared in Andrew Logan's Alternative Miss World in 1979. She started clubbing at 18 when her mother bought her membership of The Colony Room Club, the celebrated Soho watering hole frequented by Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. When it closed in 2008 after 60 years, she published her monograph on the club, The Colony Room Club 1948-2008: A History of Bohemian Soho. She mourned the place, knowing London lacked an affordable drinking haunt for artists. "Young people should be able to go to clubs without feeling they have to take out an overdraft." So she and husband Jan Vink decided to launch a new members club. They found the crypt of the Roman Catholic Church of The English Martyrs, midway between Tower Hill and Aldgate East Tube, in Prescot Street, E1. Derelict, it needed electricity, plumbing and building work. Then Parkin brought in Susan Dalgleish, who works on oligarchs' houses and cruise liners, to advise her on the interior concept. Together they decided on the theme of Thirties surrealism.

The club will open five days a week, and the age bracket of members to date is from 20-85. So far, 85 per cent are visual artists, with many jazz musicians, poets, and film-makers. Vout-O-Reenees' new gallery will exhibit and sell members' work, but is also available for hire for private parties or book launches, and separate space can be closed off. There will be a private screening room and four en suite bedrooms available only for members.

Parkin plans monthly artist debating dinners and performance evenings in the gallery. She wants the club to be formal enough for people to want to dress up for parties and dancing, and informal enough that she knows everybody's name and can call them a cab if they need to go home. Daughter Carson will run the bar, while Jan is the dance instructor. "I'm going to be keeper of the ethos, so the club doesn't become too full of City boys," Parkin jokes. It will be the only club to offer Cuvée Josephine Baker champagne, originally blended in 1936 for the dancer's Paris nightclub.

Vout-O-Renees is named after the singing style of late US jazz star Slim Gaillard, who Parkin met at The Chelsea Arts Club when she was 22 and he was in his mid-seventies. They became firm friends and dance partners. "He was such an unbelievably imposing and merry figure."

As jazz plays on the sound system, you sense Gaillard would appreciate London's eccentric new fun palace — while Parkin's idea of bringing in a muralist could inexpensively transform many a dark domestic basement. "You can make something look a million dollars without a million-dollar budget," she says.


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