Photos of Bar Luce present a fanciful vision of 1950’s and 1960’s Milan. Pristine plastic chairs gleam and swank film-themed pinball machines beckon. This is the Italian bar filtered through director Wes Anderson’s meticulously fantastical lens. But the reality appears less pristine.
Bar Luce, which opened earlier this year along Milan’s industrial Largo Isarco, is a fully functional café that Anderson designed in collaboration with Fondazione Prada, the contemporary design museum founded by fashion-authority Miuccia Prada. Every detail in the bar evokes a chic Milanese hangout from the boom economico. Maybe Prada imagined it not only an antidote to the rote bars that dot Milan’s vie and viali, but also a watering hole for the Milan’s contemporary cognoscenti that signals a return to the city’s primacy in the realms of style and culture. Or maybe not.
The diner at Bar Luce never forgets they are in a re-imagined museum cafeteria. Rather than gaze onto the street, a wall of windows runs down the left side of the café, opening onto the museum’s courtyard. Yet the windows also frame the café, positioning Bar Luce as an art installation with which individuals may interact. Visitors enter the café from the courtyard as if approaching another exhibition hall. From the street, only a thin neon sign advertises the bar, dissuading those unaware of Bar Luce’s from entering. Through controlling the entrances, Fondazione Prada ensures Bar Luce’s community of diners experiences the space as another exhibition room.
Yet the visitors must interact with this exhibition, making it seem like a performance piece in constant development. They must choose whether to sit or stand at the bar; whether to eat or drink. There’s generic menu with offerings identical to those found at every bar in Italy: sandwiches with prosciutto and mozzarella, aperitivi, coffee. These bland options suggest that the food isn’t Bar Luce’s focus. The focus is fantasy. Customers indulge in it through entering the menu, absorbing the faux-typewriter font and chatting with waiters dressed to appear in Anderson’s next film. While the preparation and consumption of food and drink give Bar Luce its social function, locating the bar in a museum restricts its purpose to cultural consumption. Whether they choose to play pinball, eat breakfast at the bar, or chat with friends over a sandwich, community members interact with Anderson’s vision of prosperous Milan, reinforcing Bar Luce’s status as art piece rather than restaurant.
Although Fondazione Prada presents Bar Luce as an exhibition, Anderson describes another side to the cafe, “I think it would be an even better place to write a movie … I tried to make it a bar I would want to spend my own non-fictional afternoons in.” While it may seem that Anderson’s ideal writer-creator customer opposes Fondazione Prada’s preferred culture-savvy clientele, words such as ‘would’ and ‘want’ suggest that Anderson realizes his projected diner differs from the actual patrons. The people who frequent Bar Luce would like to write movies on the formica tables. They would want to pass afternoons playing pinball. But they are visiting Fondazione Prada so instead they refuel with a coffee and a sandwich before consuming more art.
Bar Luce can’t escape its function as a museum cafeteria and as an installation art piece. The design may highlight Anderson’s famously quirky sensibility, but Fondazione Prada directs the space’s use. Entering, ordering, and consuming builds an experience that allows visitors to momentarily live as a glamorous Milanese from a Wes Anderson film. Within Bar Luce a hybrid past-future fantasy comes alive where Milan retains a perfectly orchestrated glamour lost in the chaos of Italy’s current contemporary woes. Unfortunately, the characters are visitors who will soon leave both the bar and Italy, taking home only their experience of art.