Cafe, Clapham Common. © David Secombe 1998.
The years after WW2 heralded a new spirit of optimism and national confidence in Britain. Consumer culture became king and as a symbol of this progress and prosperity a new Contemporary style dominated architecture and design through the 50s and into the 60s. This was a fresh style moving on from the minimalist rigours of the Modernist movement. It represented a new vibrancy with materials like Formica, leatherette chrome and plastic coming to the fore. The ‘streamlining’ cult was especially evident in kitchen interiors and the functional spaces of cafes.
The positivity of an age created new tastes and trends, with the cafe’s Italian styling a ubiquitous cheery symbol of national regeneration and outward lookingness. But today you have to look harder than ever to find decent, intact cafes with classic Formica tables, lino floors, proper seats and small cabinets of biscuits and crusty rolls. Cafe family owners are nearing retirement age and the children don’t want to take over the business. Also many leases are coming to an end for the central London cafes and the resale value of cafe buildings in the property boom is too vast to ignore. Too many have been replaced and refitted with ghastly plastic moulded interiors devoid of atmosphere.
The cafe on Windmill Drive, on the southern side of Clapham Common, was a nice example of the sort of cheerful yet lightly-modernist eaterie so fondly described by Classic Cafes: such establishments are a throwback to a simpler time and are now as rare and threatened as the Edwardian dining rooms the cafes often replaced. This particular cafe attracted a splendid diversity of characters and had its own particular eco-system, by virtue of its location in the middle of the Common. I find myself using the past tense when describing it, as it is many years since I last visited – and a year is a long time in London. The gentleman in the photo above, who posed so gracefully for my camera, had been a Sunday morning regular for many years – but I don’t know whether I’d find him or the Formica in situ today, and I don’t want to go there to find out. I fear to return for what I might find.