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Vermilion & Cinnabar

May / June 2008


Vermilion and Cinnabar is the boldest project to hit the late night landscape in Manchester for a long time, if not, ever.

Vermilion and Cinnabar is the boldest project to hit the late night landscape in Manchester for a long time, if not, ever. The huge three-storey restaurant and bar stands majestically on what is otherwise a fairly derelict industrial estate on the outskirts of Manchester, a stone’s throw from the Manchester City football ground.

On approach to the venue, you would be forgiven for wondering if you were in the right place; concrete expanses stretch between landmarks such as Sport City, the Manchester City Stadium and concert venue, as well as Thomas Heatherwick’s iconic sculpture ‘B of the Bang’.

But the venue’s bleak surroundings serve to heighten the striking impression that its interior has on the senses. And, says Manzur Ahmed, son of owner Iqbal Ahmed, this was part of the plan. “We wanted people to come in and not know where they were,” he said.

The concrete gloom contrasts starkly with the cultural kaleidoscope and colour inside the venue. One is immediately submerged into an East Asian dream complete with Asian antiques and opulent architecture.

“Miguel knew exactly what he wanted,” Manzur says of internationally famed designer Miguel Cancio Martins. “He wanted people to not know where they were or what time of day it was when they walk in. It’s always sunset inside the building because we have huge red windows so you don’t know what’s going on.”

Vermilion and Cinnabar is a true destination venue and one that is certainly worth the few extra minutes in a taxi. The £4.5 million project includes a 200 capacity Thai restaurant, a bar with a capacity of 300, two large private dining rooms and a car park for 300 cars. The venue combines modern architectural features with Asian antiquities and is as colourful a blend as its name suggests. Vermilion is a red colour and an import from Thailand; Cinnabar is an orange colour that makes Vermilion.

“We didn’t want the name to be completely Thai, we wanted it to be English. But we also wanted some of the design to be a bit European, a bit different,” explains Manzur, a 25-year-old Business Management graduate from Keele University. “We thought about the name together with branding companies. We had lots of silly names; before it was suppose to be called The Opium Den, imagine that!”

The name, like all aspects of this project, was considered thoroughly. Following an epic three-year design process, the venue, which draws upon expertise from all corners of the globe, opened at the end of November last year.

It is the culmination of Iqbal Ahmed OBE, Chairman of Seamark Plc and recipient of the Queen’s Award for Export, and his son Manzur’s ambition to break into the hospitality sector. With his hold on 60% of the prawn export business in the UK, Iqbal unsurprisingly has a wealth of overseas contacts in the restaurant business.

“His dream had always been to do a restaurant and I love bars,” says Manzur. “He knew Miguel through other people and he wanted to make a destination venue that people would drive to. We already had in mind we wanted to do a Thai Fusion restaurant, in London it’s ok to do a good Indian restaurant, but I think it’s going to take a while for people up here to be educated about that.”

When the cogs starting turning on this project, the Ahmed’s bought the plot of land in the knowledge that the Manchester casino would be built nearby. Originally the idea was to capitalise on the extra footfall in the area with a commercial project, and later they steered towards a straightforward restaurant.

But when the plans for the casino fell through in 2004, the Ahmeds had to rethink what they would do with the building and turned their sights towards a Thai Fusion restaurant and destination venue.

For the Ahmeds’ first experiment into the leisure retail sector, they have done well to commission those at the top of their game. Designer Miguel of MCM is known worldwide for Buddha Bar and Man Ray in Paris, as well as Opium in London. He drew upon his previous work partner Mark Alford to be Project Manager, who in turn specified established shopfitters PBH as the main contractor.

Head chef Chumpol Jangprai has worked for the renowned Blue Elephant Thai restaurant group and is one of Thailand’s most respected chefs, having cooked for the King and Queen. GM Dominique Gélin has managed destination venues across the globe, including Man Ray in New York, Buddha Bar and the Cristal Restaurant in Marrakesh.

Design features and attention to detail is omnipresent throughout all three levels. Hostesses (most of which are of Thai descent) dressed in neat black uniforms greet guests in the foyer where a dresser of abacuses and Thai gifts adorn the walls.

A lift or stairs lead up to the first floor bar and adjoining restaurant, opening into a zigzag of angular, mirrored, copper tables for bar grazers, which are raised with downlights underneath shining onto the marble floor. Matching shiny blocks are hung low over the tables with downlights.

Floor-to-ceiling bamboo sticks line the wall leading behind the bar, which is also made from reflecting solid copper at a cost of £100 per square metre, says Gavin Webster of PBH Shopfitters.

To the right of the bar lies the restaurant, separated into sections by black grid shaped bars and pierced by shocking red coral-shaped pillars that appear to ‘grow’ into the roof. The copper varnished timber ceiling, Thai artwork, authentic antiques and hand-painted chairs infuse the restaurant with a sense of wealth.

Most of the products and furnishings of Vermilion are bespoke and sourced from different areas of the world. French artists flew over to Manchester to hand paint the 70s-style black chairs with a delicate tree pattern, taking two weeks to ensure each chair had a different design.

One particular table stands out from all the rest; cut off by a black grid partition, the ornate circular table with a rotating middle, handmade in China, is for the most discerning customers and fit for a Thai banquet.

The definitive design feature of Vermilion is the dominating Buddha tower in the middle of the room, reaching the ceiling of the floor above, stretching up past the mezzanine bar level that circles the restaurant below.

“Miguel’s famous for the massive Buddha in Buddha bar, but I told him to think about something else,” says Manzur. “We said what about a tower of Buddhas?” The tower is formed by mirrored shelves each adorning several Buddha heads glowing different colours.

Through recommendation the Ahmeds brought Firefly Lighting Design on board to work with Miguel to create a lighting concept for the venue. Firefly’s Peter Veale says: “I spent a day at Miguel’s studio in Paris to talk about his concepts, both lighting and interiors, and how they ‘spoke’ to each other. He’s a very creative designer and we had to think about the technical solutions to many of his ideas.”

The LEDs under the glowing Buddhas come from Hong Kong. “I rather like the way the central Buddhas glow, and the fact that the lighting is all neatly tucked into the shelves and not inside the Buddhas, so if the client ever wants to change them to have another glowing element, none of the lighting needs to be changed,” says Peter.

A spiral staircase, lit by small ST1 and U1/U2 lights from Cube, in front of the huge open kitchens leads up to the mezzanine Cinnabar where a balcony lined with beds of stones overlooks the tower and restaurant.

A linear patterned carpet follows the lines of the panels on the ceiling, which juxtapose with the circular shapes of the 70s-style poof seats, tables, paper globe lights and VIP pod seats. W2 colour-changing LED lamps animate the globe lights that hang low over the upper floor and gradually change colour as the day goes by. “At night the lights change colours so suddenly it will go dark, it’s quite hypnotizing,” says Manzur.

Manchester’s skyline fills the landscape view offered by the red tinted windows, but under a red hue it looks unfamiliar, and more beautiful. Says Firefly’s Peter: “We knew that there was going to be red film on the windows on the second floor bar area, and glass ‘pearls’ acting as a blind on the first floor dining area, so we new that the daylight wasn’t too strong. We intentionally provided as much accent lighting as possible, which would still be visible during a sunny day at lunchtime.”

The six ‘cocoons’ create the most impact in Cinnabar. The semi-private structures are also coloured copper and incorporate a huge seating area much like a bed, with an array of stitched cushions, lit by PJR fluorescents. “I always wanted to have little touches so that when you come again you notice new things, like the fabric on the walls is the same as on the table downstairs,” enthuses Manzur.

The design of Vermilion is still unfinished and two function rooms remain to be completed. “In future we want to get the customers involved in the design through the website. We want people to interact and discuss ideas. Miguel wants to put fire at the top of the water fountains outside and I think we’re going to go for it now!” laughs Manzur.

Around the edges of the venue there are more design details to feast your eyes on. PBH’s Gavin Webster has seen Vermilion come to fruition from its former life as concrete walls and metal floors. After completing the full mechanical and electrical fit out of the venue, including the pod seating, ceiling and staircase, PBH turned to the bars. “The upper floor bar is made from Lumicore, which is clear resin poured over wheat foliage.” The plant appears fossilised inside the solid bar top.

Manzur is not blind to the pressure that the location presents to maintaining trade. In order to secure Vermilion’s popularity as a destination venue the huge space needs to be used to the maximum. “We need to put on events all the time,” says Manzur. “It looks best when it’s busy and we need about 500 people to fill it.”

To this aim the logistics of the venue caters for all types of events and visitors. The upstairs bar is tiered with tables, pods and a VIP section, as well as two private rooms, one seating 24 and the other 16, available to hire for events, conferences or parties. One wall of the larger private room is a huge abacus.

The JBL sound system, designed by CP Sound, ensures the different areas can accommodate a variety of inputs depending on the requirement of the event.

CP Sound installed Cloud Z8 and Z4 zoners and auxiliary panels in a control room to orchestrate the sound in the 12 different areas. By way of an LMI remote input operators can connect a mic or other line input to drive into a particular zone. The DJ music, CD player, DVD or any other source of sound is completely sharable and selective throughout the 12 zones in the venue.

Manzur and Iqbal have thought out the music with the same level of professionalism as the other aspects of Vermilion. Notorious Manchester DJ Jonny Miller organises the music and invites other local DJs like John De Silva to play the “chilled out house music to French influenced nu-disco music” that Manzur specified, which has touches of Electronic French and other European influences.

Following a successful restaurant launch, Manzur reports: “All our feedback is really good; the biggest comments we get now is about the design, people get a shock when they come in. Our branding company Warm Rain decided not to put signage on the outside, lots of people complain, but people who come here don’t come off the street anyway, so we wanted to keep it like that.” Hollyoaks, Shameless and Coronation Street stars, Manni from Primal Scream and football players have already visited the venue, which bodes well considering the venue’s marketing campaign has yet to get underway.

This campaign, he says, will be driven by word of mouth and a personal approach towards businesses. There is a fine balance between making people aware of the venue and keeping its exclusivity, but if this is done well, Vermilion stands to become the place to be.

Vermilion’s position, tucked away in a suburban industrial estate, should ensure longevity for its reputation as a hidden gem within Manchester’s late night scene. Although the casino is no longer going ahead, East Manchester will experience massive regeneration over the next few years. The surroundings juxtapose so overtly with the rich flavour of East Asian opulence and intricate design inside, that the lure is even more overwhelming.

And if a few extra minutes in a taxi means an experience that will transport you to the height of Thai hospitality, then it’s a trip worth taking.  “In five years I will have opened somewhere else,” states Manzur. “I’m still learning, but I love hospitality. In a few months I’ll make this place the place to be!”





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