The pleasures of visiting a cocktail bar extend well beyond the libations. It’s just as much about the company, the atmosphere, all the accouterments. At home, a thoughtfully designed bar can create a similar feeling and serve as a special place for after-work drinks and celebrations with family and friends.
“A home bar is just really festive, collective and inviting,” said Andrew Suvalsky, an interior designer based in New York. “When you set up a bar, it shows that you care about entertaining and helping people have an experience.”
And because a home bar is often tucked away in an inconspicuous spot, it offers a chance to take design risks, said Leslie Martin, a founder of M & M Interior Design, a firm with studios in Chicago and San Diego: “It’s sort of a powder-room situation, where you have this opportunity to make it a bit of a jewel box. They’re often behind closed doors, so you might as well go big.”
Ms. Martin and other interior designers shared advice on how to create an impressive home bar.
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Find the Right Space
A built-in home bar doesn’t need to be huge. Sure, if you have a basement, you might be able to build one that resembles a full-size English pub. But smaller is often better. Tucking a statement-making bar into an unused niche or closet, or adding it to a small hallway or kitchen pantry, can deliver compelling results.
In one Manhattan apartment, Mr. Suvalsky added the functions of a bar into a pair of nooks in the living room that he lined in brass and marble. M & M once found space for a bar in a short hallway between a dining room and powder room.
The New York-based architecture and interior design firm Studio DB frequently goes even smaller. In an apartment on Park Avenue, the designers built a bar into a closet so small and shallow that others might have simply drywalled over the space. “We were able to find this little nook in the living room that was an unexpected space, on the backside of a linen closet,” said Britt Zunino, a partner at Studio DB.
In the absence of an extra closet, a cabinet—or two—can work well. When designing a sunroom in Bronxville, NY, the New York-based interior design firm Carrier and Company added bar functions, including a sink, faucet and refrigerator drawers, to a pair of custom-made free-standing cabinets that resemble antiques.
“They just look like pretty painted cabinets,” said Jesse Carrier, a partner at the firm, but they can be opened up to support poolside parties.
Make a Statement
A home bar is an ideal place to use bold paint colors, wallpaper and materials you may be nervous about using elsewhere. When designing a bar in a Brooklyn townhouse, Carrier and Company coated cabinets in vibrant blue lacquer and covered the ceiling in a dazzling gold-and-white marbleized wallpaper from Calico.
“We really went for broke,” Mr. Carrier said. “It was intended to be very opulent, bright and cheerful.”
M & M installed eggplant-hued cabinets in a bar lined with tortoiseshell-patterned wallpaper; in another home bar, the firm used aqua-green cabinets under a ceiling covered with striped wallpaper. In both cases, “we just wanted the bar to be this ‘wow’ moment,” Ms. Martin said.
Another way to include a decorative flourish is to install an eye-catching backsplash, said Joe Lucas, the founder of Lucas Studio, an interior design firm in Los Angeles. For a home bar in Agoura Hills, Calif., Mr. Lucas installed terra-cotta tile from Waterworks adorned with graphic hand-painted stripes and triangles.
“It draws people in,” Mr. Lucas said. With so many wallcovering and decorative tile products available, he added, “the world is your oyster.”
Embrace Some Sparkle
Add shiny, reflective surfaces for a touch of glamor that can stand up to wear and tear. Mr. Carrier likes backsplashes made from antiqued mirror, and he sometimes adds glass shelves.
“There’s a practical element to it, because they’re water- and alcohol-resistant, and easy to clean,” he said. “But it also adds a little sparkle. Antiqued mirror is really pretty for an evening cocktail hour, especially if you light a candle.”
Many designers like glossy lacquered cabinets and high-gloss wall paint for similar reasons: Not only do they add shininess and reflectivity, but they’re easy to wipe down when they get splattered by an errant lime squeeze.
Plan for Display
Cocktail glasses, champagne flutes, ice buckets, bottles and bar implements are often things of beauty. To show them off, include open shelves, upper cabinets with glass or metal-mesh fronts, and handsome trays that can hold the various items on the counter.
“Amassing a lot of different glass and putting it in an open-front cabinet, or a glass cabinet, almost always looks really special,” Mr. Suvalsky said, regardless of whether the pieces are fine crystal or budget glassware.
A shelf or tray can hold a selection of attractive bottles, Ms. Lucas said, while run-of-the-mill bottles can be hidden in a cabinet with a solid door. “So many of the booze bottles are beautiful now, with all the mezcals, tequilas and gins,” he said. “It’s really nice to have those out.”
Vintage ice buckets, cocktail shakers, tongs, coasters and other utensils can double as decorative accessories when they’re not in use, I’ve pointed out. And framed art, hanging in the space or just sitting on the counter, helps round out a collected look.
dim the lights
There’s a good reason that most cocktail bars keep the lights low: It creates a soothing atmosphere that makes people and objects look their best.
Instead of flooding the bar with ceiling lights, consider using decorative pendants and sconces, or upper cabinets or shelves with built-in accent lighting. Ms. Martin likes to use wall-mounted picture lights that illuminate artwork and provide an ambient glow.
“It’s all about mood lighting,” she said. “With a bar, you don’t want to flip on some garish light that will destroy the moment.”
If your space doesn’t have electrical boxes in the right place for hard-wired fixtures, a plug-in sconce or table lamp can work just as well.
LED bulbs should offer a warm-white color temperature of about 2,700 Kelvin rather than daylight-mimicking 5,000 Kelvin, and it’s preferable to have your fixtures on dimmers, so you can adjust the light throughout the day.
Consider Plumbing and Appliances
A home bar doesn’t have to be equipped with a faucet and sink or have appliances like a wine cooler and ice maker. But depending on your habits and budget, they can add to the experience.
“It’s really nice to have a little bar sink, if you can squeeze it in,” Ms. Zunino said. “We tend to look for a little decorative sink,” she said, with a hammered nickel or copper finish, rather than one made of stainless steel, as your bar sink doesn’t need to withstand the daily abuse suffered by a kitchen sink. “It’s a bit more unusual.”
Any appliances should be tailored to your drinking habits, Mr. Lucas said. If you’re a wine collector, a wine cooler is a nice touch, but if you’re more interested in chilling beer, soda and mixers, a regular under-counter fridge or refrigerator drawer might be a better choice.
But Mr. Lucas didn’t hesitate to recommend adding an ice maker, which he considers one of the most important home-bar luxuries. “Some clients are like, ‘No, we don’t need it,’” he said. “But I can promise you that you will never regret having one.”
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