In each issue we identify a key aesthetic trend evident in our archive of recent projects and challenge semiotics agency Axis Mundi to unpack its design codes. In our July/August 2020 issue Frame 135, we look at how dark hospitality spaces are starting to reference the enigmatic atmosphere of clandestine environments.

In the era of social media spectacle, interiors have become theatres for publicity, implicitly optimized for content capture and screen-based appraisal. However, accelerated by newly established lockdown etiquette, Instagram-friendly design appears to be entering its denouement. Nascent signals of the experience economy-driven switch to ‘privacy mode’ can be read in dark hospitality spaces, where daylight exposure is replaced by the mystery of nocturnal shadow, and deep intimacy is offered as respite from shallow conspicuity.

A veil of secrecy enshrouds hospitality enclaves, shielding the activity within. As a means of hiding in plain sight, building façades adopt subtle strategies of deflection, distortion and disguise. The dull glow of waxed concrete and bronze exteriors, tinted mirror windows and stained timber cladding evoke the elemental stillness of nature amid the chaos of the city. Surface homogeneity is broken only by modest entrances, whose concealed doorways adorned with humble noren curtains seduce visitors with the promise of forbidden pleasures.

Top: Nôl by Case-Real in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Daisuke Shima | Middle: Voisin Organique by Various Associates in Shenzhen, China. Photo: Shao Feng | Bottom: Bardem by Fyra in Helsinki, Finland. Photo: Riikka Kantinkoski

Beyond the threshold, narrow passageways illuminated by lantern-like spherical lights and brass wall sconces are reminiscent of underground mining tunnels, dedicated to ferrying visitors towards the brutalist density and cavernous proportions of covert dining and dwelling areas. Within, charcoal slate, mossy-green marble and pitted plaster deepen the evocation of a darkly sublime landscape, swathed in mystery.

Reflecting an inward world, subterranean environments encourage retreat from the regular rhythm of daily life. Displacing the need for explicit forms of wayfinding, majestic metal trusses, linen screens and boxy mesh columns layer sightlines and divide expansive cavities into understated antechambers. Demarcated with low-set velvet banquettes and high-sided concrete pews, these discretional zones are tacitly intended for clandestine meetings or quiet personal repose.

Top: Chuan’s Kitchen II by Infinity Mind in Guangzhou, China. Photo: Haochang Cao | Bottom: Merkato by Francesc Rifé Studio in Valencia, Spain. Photo: David Zarzoso

Like a Faraday cage, dark hospitality bunkers isolate guests from signals of outside experience, suspending their consciousness of time and climate. Steel lamellas, clerestory windows and glazed skylights punctuate walls and ceilings with diffuse illumination, dulling interior contours and effecting an illusion of figures wandering through mist. The ambient hubbub of activity and conversation present in public spaces is absorbed by muted matte, near-black hues and woven earthenware feature walls. Austerity of light and sound experienced in the monastic silence of these shadowed cloisters induces heightened sensations of spiritual serenity, offering patrons the refreshed dignity of a life liberated from scrutiny and spectacle.

Away from the perpetual stimulation of ‘always on’ social media, guests can direct their attention towards slower, more assiduous expressions of visual culture. Decorative details, from ethereal embroidered screens to ornamental grasses and dried botanicals, echo the veneration of nature and creative sincerity associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. Reference to early experimentations with photography are also present. Convex lenses act as peepholes, offering passers-by a sneak peek inside and illuminating a repast as though it were a still life. Elsewhere, pinholes afford occupiers the experience of being inside a camera obscura through the projection of outside scenes onto an opposite wall.

Dark hospitality addresses latent anxiety about the ephemerality and staged superficiality of contemporary restaurant and bar design. Primordial motifs signal rejection of technology in favour of regression into the warm embrace of our archetypal dwelling place, the womb. Visitors emerge reborn, nourished by the opportunity for private retreat and reflection.

Top: I-WAY SQY by Cyrille Druart in Saint-Quentin en Yvelines, France. Photo: Cyrille Druart | Middle: Irumando Coffee by Senbunnoichi in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Miho Urushido | Bottom: Tori Tori Santa Fe by Esrawe Studio in Mexico City, Mexico. Photo: César Béjar


The combination of mossy greens and muted matte, near-black hues evokes a darkly sublime landscape, swathed in mystery. Charcoal and anthracite tones reference firing processes, while sand shades amplify serene atmospheres and walls painted in gradations of grey create an illusion of depth. The monochromatic palette is broken up by the occasional accent inspired by the colours of the Forbidden City: red, blue, black, yellow and gold.


Daylight exposure is replaced by the mystery of nocturnal shadow. Diffuse illumination radiated through glazed skylights blur interior contours while lantern-like spherical lamps and wall sconces guide visitors through seemingly misty passageways. Rays seep from under furniture and separation walls to zero in on surfaces, while occasional bright beacons highlight exit routes.


Waxed concrete surfaces, tinted mirror windows and stained timber cladding adorn the façades. Inside, dark-toned slate, marble, terracotta and metals meet dyed woods – from holm oak to solid pine. Small components made of brass, or finished with gold and bronze foils, add a majestic touch, while low-set velvet banquettes enhance the feeling of intimacy. Black earthenware and mined soil materials, in turn, add a natural note.


In- and exteriors adopt subtle strategies of deflection, distortion and disguise. Brutalist density and cavernous proportions define covert dining and dwelling areas, while lamellas, columns, screens and trusses divide expansive cavities into understated antechambers. Walls are swathed in low-reliefs and tile latticework.

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