South-London based Studio Found has completed its biggest and most ambitious project ever with the design and delivery of a new premium 7,000 square-foot drinking and dining destination, The Libertine, in the heart of the City of London.

The project has seen the historic, Grade-I listed underground vaults of The Royal Exchange transformed over the last three years into a spacious bar and restaurant designed for lively after work drinks, long lunches and celebratory meals.

This exciting new addition to the City’s hospitality scene sees another collaboration between Studio Found and Incipio Group, who own and operate the venue. Previously they worked together on the design and delivery of Percy’s in Kensington.

Studio Found was involved in the project from the very beginning, with Ed Plumb and his team integral to negotiating and managing the complex planning application and consent required to convert this historically significant site into a functional, modern hospitality venue.

Before any development plans were submitted, Studio Found carried out extensive research into the history of the building and its surroundings to shape the design concept and approach.

The Royal Exchange has a long and interesting history as a place of commerce, gathering and revelry right in the heart of the City. It was established by merchant Sir Thomas Gresham and opened by Queen Elizabeth 1st in 1571 who gave it its royal status and licence to serve alcohol - the first venue in Britain to be granted that. It has twice burnt down, first in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and again in 1838, and each time has been rebuilt. The current Royal Exchange was designed by Sir William Tite in the 1840s and opened by Queen Victoria.

The Exchange soon became a bustling place where goods from around the world were bought and sold, and afterwards revelry took place in the vaults below. The stories and characters woven into the fabric of this building over its 451 history gave Studio Found numerous reference points to work with, while the cavernous underground arched vaults provided design challenges and opportunities.

Studio Found also curated and delivered a complete styling concept to enhance and complement this incredible space and all its idiosyncrasies. Evoking a sense of escapism and delight among Libertine’s guests was key to setting this venue apart and doing justice to its intriguing history. Studio Found sourced, designed, commissioned and staged objects, artworks, furniture and lighting to bring moments of surprise around every corner.

As soon as guests walk through the entrance they are transported into another world as they find themselves in an antiques shop full of equine-themed artifacts, which harks back to Queen Elizabeth I’s love of horses. A spiral staircase beckons them to explore further.

Descending into the vaults the full scale and impact of the 7,000 square foot venue is revealed. Here the brick walls and arches of the vaults, which once stored goods such as the spices and silks sold above, provide the structural framework for the Libertine’s various hospitality spaces including a main bar, a stylish restaurant for 90 guests, as well as a relaxed dining area with an open kitchen, a private dining room, and apothecary.

At the entrance to the vaults a bespoke illuminated whiskey display provides an impactful backdrop to the host desk - an antique tobacconist’s counter sourced by Studio Found which brings the past history of the building into a modern context.

The main vault houses a huge 14-metre-long feature bar which creates a focal point for guests. It’s enhanced by an illuminated glazed antique brass framework which spans the vault arches, while four exposed copper 1,000 litre beer tanks add an element of scale and drama. Here materials and textures are given unexpected and unconventional twists, so the venue has a more modern, premium edge. For example, charred timber and fumed oak was selected for the base palette referencing the fact that the two previous iterations of the Exchange had previously burnt down. This palette provided a rich base, and contrasts well with the existing brickwork as well as all the other materials chosen.

Through an archway by the side of the main bar, the restaurant awaits with seating for 90. Here elevated design features and high quality finishes such as specially designed leather banquettes, a four metre custom wine display and bespoke lighting designed by Studio Found add to the feeling of luxury. On closer inspection, guests will find subtle references to the building’s history including specially design handmade grass hopper tiles in reference to Thomas Gresham’s family crest.

To the rear of the main bar, there’s a more informal dining area with loose banquette seating leading to an open kitchen and pass at one end which provides a sense of theatre and a focal point. In this area, the challenge of low-hanging existing services was overcome by creating a charred timber and rattan ceiling feature which obscure these elements while at the same time allowing the building’s form and architecture to be expressed. This was all part of the desire to use the space in an honest and sympathetic way.

Off the main vault there’s also an apothecary - an intimate space that can be sectioned off for private events or opened up depending on needs. As a nod to its past history, this area is dressed and designed with old bottles and other apothecary artifacts set in a bespoke piece of joinery specially commissioned for this space.

Within each of the different areas of the Libertine, every detail of the materials, finishes and fixtures were carefully thought through by Studio Found. Where appropriate, specialist consultants were commissioned to create bespoke pieces to add touches of originality. For example, an art consultant created a series of fun, modern portraits of the characters who might have frequented the Exchange, while an architectural lighting company as well as skilled furniture makers also collaborated in the project.

The functionality, as well as the aesthetic of the design, was really important to Incipio and Studio Found. So from the outset there was a close collaboration between Studio Found and Incipio’s operational team to make sure the spaces would work optimally for both guests and staff and were robust enough to withstand wear and tear. For example, the flexibility of the joinery as individual pieces of furniture means that the spaces can be adapted easily depending on use.

“This has been our biggest and most ambitious project with Studio Found,” said Rory Graham, Head of Creative Design at Incipio. “We are absolutely blown away by how The Libertine has evolved into an incredible hospitality space. Thanks to Studio Found’s creative vision and attention to detail, from planning through to propping, we now have an exciting destination in the heart of the City of London which reflects its past and reimagines its future.”

“This has been one of our most challenging yet rewarding projects. Working with such a committed and engaged team at Incipio, and with some really talented contractors and artisans has made it so worthwhile for everyone involved,” said Ed Plumb, founder and director at Studio Found. “As a boutique design studio, we are very proud of what we have achieved in transforming this prestigious, historical listed space into a multi-functional hospitality venue, the likes not seen before in the City of London. We have enjoyed working on every aspect of the project, from researching its history, handling the complex planning application, to devising and delivering a design concept that paid its respects to the space, while bringing intriguing and interesting details and surprises. We are confident that many people will enjoy drinking and dining at The Libertine and keep coming back.”