Tony Hornecker and his charmingly surreal Pale Blue Door restaurant have been popping up in the most unlikely of places
“If you follow your nose and open your ears and let the breeze carry the waft of cigarette smoke and the whiff of moonshine, the promise of love will drive you on and with furtive looks you knock three times, a heavily lacquered hand reaches out …” – The Pale Blue Door, November 2011
If the subjects of Paris Is Burning and the cast of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth met and decided to open a restaurant it would surely be Tony Hornecker’s installation/restaurant/cabaret hybrid The Pale Blue Door. The poetic introduction to his project above succinctly summarises the experience about to happen to those lucky or quick enough to have snared themselves a table at his ethereal eaterie which appears and vanishes Brigadoon-like with little warning and even less booking hierarchy. A forerunner of the “pop-up” movement long since adopted by the masses, The Pale Blue Door has become a thing of recurring urban legend and its creator refuses to bow to commercial enticement or the luxury of stability in favour of an organic approach to where or how it will next appear.
“I don’t think anything I’ve done has really been considered – it just kind of happens,” says Hornecker, an impossible to dislike character who you feel, unlike a lot of his contemporaries, had truly not planned out his path with a contrived, climbing precision. Born in Texas, Hornecker first came to London at 17 as the result of a father in the military who moved regularly with his troops. Following the well-trodden route of waiting in West End restaurants, he gradually moved on to events where he began his first foray into set build and dressing.
Blending his personal and professional life, Hornecker’s Dalston home (which remains the venue for the Pale Blue Door now) became his canvas and a chance visitation by photographer Benjamin Huseby-Alexander who was suitably impressed by naïve, slightly surreal décor put him on the path to a full-time career as a set designer. The burgeoning creative contingent in east London meant that Hornecker’s immediate client list included designers such as Richard Nicoll and Louise Gray who were soon followed by international brands such as Puma and singer Kylie Minogue among others.
The Pale Blue Door first reared its head as a result of the recession. “I’d taken on a full-time assistant who updated my portfolio and then there was nothing to do, so I thought, I’ll open a restaurant in my house for four days,” says Hornecker, “Everything was done on no budget. The tablecloths were made from old shirts, the ashtrays were from old cups, my Mum had some plates. We went to some charity shops … the whole thing was borne out of desperation really”. Having a tendency to blow out lesser talents and fan the flames of exceptional ideas, the recession created a blaze in the form of the Pale Blue Door.
On its opening night, leading fashion figures including Fashion East director Lulu Kennedy, designer Richard Nicoll and hatter Nasir Mazhar were part of the guest list which would have had any PR or events organiser tweeting with elation. As news spread, although it was initially frequented by a colourful fusion of fashion industry opinion formers and east London insiders, so did the diversity of the Pale Blue Door’s clients but not without its cost. “I’ve only ever had one thing stolen by some silly girl. It was actually one of my favourite things which was how I noticed it had gone. It was a cloud-shaped sign which said ‘I’m a cloud – do not fall through me’.”
Hornecker recalls poignantly. Thankfully for him the repercussions of transforming his personal space into a public one were not permanent and ultimately proved to be therapeutic. “The process of allowing people here was quite a long-winded one. For a long time I didn’t like people being in the house – it was my sanctuary and this was my little secretive, creative space that I was quite private about. But that’s all changed now,” he says, laughing, recalling a story about an unsuspecting straight male guest and his in-house performance artiste A Man to Pet.
The continuing diversity of diners traipsing through Hornecker’s home echoes the cultural boundaries crossed by the concept of the Pale Blue Door itself. A request to relocate temporarily to the Bermondsey-based Architecture Foundation by curator Elias Redstone prompted a year long tenure for Hornecker at the Royal Opera House production site and community opera as their artist in residence. The experience brought his charming “found material/object” aesthetic to the amateur theatrical community in the unlikely setting of Purfleet in Essex. “The area’s amazing. It’s a really dramatic landscape …massive ships come in to the docks … there’s an oil refinery … the Dartford Bridge,”
Tony describes, “They build all the sets there for Covent Garden and they wanted me to make the whole site like a massive installation”. After completing his residency, Hornecker decided the Pale Blue Door should broaden its horizons on a tour of appearances in locations varying from the festival in Glastonbury, Berlin and on to the somewhat more exotic climes of Chile and Buenos Aires. An interesting and varied excursion for the restaurant but how did it go from Dalston to South America?
“I’ve always been fascinated by South America and I’ve been there countless times so to work there is like a ridiculous dream,” Hornecker says. “I just emailed a few people, got some contacts, asked them to email their contacts and it went from there”. Press attention caused an instant sell-out and consequent bemusement through the upper echelons of South American society. “We set up in this crumbling mansion which was owned by a rich finance company that regularly supported artists and art projects. On the first night, all these wealthy, posh people started arriving and had to walk past this old tramp who was living there and didn’t know what was going on, but then they turned the corner and they were in this magical, beautiful courtyard we’d created.”
Having packed up and returned to his native Dalston, Hornecker is set to throw open the petticoat and streamer strewn-doors of the Pale Blue Door’s birthplace once again this month. But does he ever get bored of setting up again at home? “I like to think of it as a rich painting – it’s like layers on layers on layers of sets. And everything about my work is about ‘build and destroy’ so as I love travelling and combining work and travel I can take the Pale Blue Door just about anywhere.” And are there no plans to set up permanently or stay in one country? “It would be foolish of me to shut doors – I never shut doors. I just try and keep all the plates spinning. Who knows what’s going to happen?”
by Alyn Horton
The Pale Blue Door will be open for business on a selection of dates between November 3 – 13.