Blacksheep recently completed 'Thali,' an unconventional restaurant in Oxford with an Indian soul. Thali started life as a food truck at the Glastonbury Festival in 1999 and has evolved into a series of six Indian restaurants in the UK, celebrating Indian food and culture rooted in a festival atmosphere.
Blacksheep were taken on to devise a new narrative for the Thali restaurant brand and the new restaurant in Oxford is the first manifestation of Thali's new direction. The studio's design injects real Indian soul into the restaurant space, reflecting the true values and character of life in India.
At the start of this project, Blacksheep went on an intensive and immersive research trip to Delhi to delve into the heart of true Indian culture and rediscover the authentic Indian spirit. The team's experiences in India provided true inspiration for all aspects of the design and branding work delivered.
Materiality in Thali centers on the building up of three key layers. Each layer offers something personal to the space whilst being sympathetic to the existing structure, and rooting each Thali café in each new location. When combined, creates a whole and tells a new story. Exposed brick work and raw materials found on the existing site provide the elemental layer, reflecting India's natural architecture vernacular. The second layer makes use of color through handmade temporary applications reflecting the Indian pride in resourcefulness and personal identity. The third layer is comprised of lo-fi materiality used to add familiarity, playfulness and humor which are central elements to the experience at Thali.
A large poster-lined exposed brick wall provides an evolving backdrop to the restaurant. Each time the menu changes, a new layer of posters is applied with the old ones left underneath. The wall becomes an ever-changing collage or a fanzine building up a new patina over time and reflecting the character and humility of life on the streets of India.
The main cultural themes discovered in India were the strength of community and the act of people coming together to share collective experiences. 'Thali' refers to a style of eating in India - a selection of dishes is served on one large plate offering six key flavours: sweet, salt, bitter, sour, astringent and spicy. The Thali restaurant design concept takes this traditional method and sentiment and translates it beyond food and into a collective experience.
Thali is unconventional, makeshift and unexpected, reflecting the behaviours and spirit of India; the land, the people and the cuisine. These three pillars have informed all elements of the design of Thali, Oxford.
To convey an authentic sense of day-to-day life and the chaotic energy of constant 'coming and going' in India, Blacksheep have emphasised the kinetic energy in Thali by incorporating visual processes that bring the spirit of India to life into the spatial design of the restaurant.
At the heart of Thali Oxford, guests are met with an exposed open kitchen that seeks to awaken the senses and give a glimpse of the character, attitude and everyday charm of India. The open kitchen also reflects the honest and transparent making processes observed in Delhi and animates these values not only through the interior of the restaurant, but through a visible line of sight from the street on the outside. The space has been designed as open plan without a traditional waiter station to blur the lines between front- and back-of-house and maintain energy and a feeling of constant circulation.
To enable a sense of sharing and community, the design of Thali is intentionally informal, pared back and relaxed. There is a central communal table in the middle of the restaurant where people can congregate in large groups, share food and experience everyday Indian culture. Overarching the central table sits a bespoke light which anchors the space whilst also being multi-functional and doubling up as the table legs for the central table.
The traditional daily ritual of cleansing and washing is an important and symbolic part of everyday life in India. From spiritual rituals to washing hands before eating, the symbol of water is omnipotent. Blacksheep has incorporated this behavior at Thali Oxford through the design of a statement pale pink Jesmonite multifunctional water station and communal handwashing basin. Becoming a central feature in the restaurant and a reminder of the symbolism of water and the ritual of washing in Indian life.
The interior design seeks to reflect the resourceful nature and spirit of India that the Blacksheep team encountered in Delhi. Every aspect of the interiors is influenced by 'Jugaad' - the Hindu word meaning innovative fix. This philosophy of improvisation, of making the most of what is available and doing more with less has guided the design team throughout the process to deliver simple, flexible and innovative design solutions.
Many of the furniture pieces and fixtures have been custom-designed by Blacksheep and made locally for Thali. These designs are not just to be aesthetically pleasing within the space but also to serve a functional purpose. The stainless steel bar has been designed to give the appearance of a temporary pop-up roadside dharbar bar. The back bar area is filled with colorful bric-a-brac including vinyl records, books, glass and metallic vessels and objects found in India.
The tabletops are made from reclaimed materials and have been repurposed for the Thali aspace. The banquette seating throughout is woven from upcycled Indian textiles inspired by rattan daybeds observed during the Delhi research trip. The screen providing a window into the kitchen is a laser-cut mesh grill inspired by train station sliding screens in Delhi. The central light, table and booth seating are all bespoke.
The inspiration for the color palette of Thali originates from the dust, haze and aged quality observed in the streets of Delhi, which Blacksheep found translated perfectly from the street markets to the traditional spice labels. The color scheme for Thali Oxford features a combination of the spice packaging colors and is also heavily influenced by the sun-bleached shades of found throughout vibrant Delhi.
The visual language of India has inspired the branding and identity devised for Thali, leading Blacksheep to adopt the maximalist approach observed throughout Delhi whereby he who shouts loudest has the most chance of being heard, whether via the medium of a fanzine, a blowhorn truck or cornershop signage. The team handcrafted a bold and dynamic visual identity for the restaurant featuring tight kerning, stacked typography, all upper-case lettering, super condensed and extra bold typefaces. Different variations of the wordmark are featured on the restaurant signage, on the menus and across the brand's suite of marketing material.
Photography: Mark Benham