The Ossington, a trendy bar for Toronto hipsters and artists, is named after the English Viscount Ossington, a 19th-century speaker of the British House of Commons. Viscount Ossington had a reputation as an adventurer, having grown up at a time when people still hunted with French bayonets and the killing of large animals was considered a gentlemanly sport. It was an aesthetic the owners of the Ossington wanted to emulate, which explains, on the north wall, the head of a zebra, its long neck taut and muscular, and the stuffed rooster resting on a wooden shelf above the bar. The display animals are changed periodically; at one point a three-foot alligator hung from the ceiling.
Decorating a bar to resemble a 19th-century men’s hunting room might seem anachronistic, tasteless even, yet it is the de rigueur of cool, according to Robert Lanham, author of the Hipster Handbook. For a cosmopolitan, young clientele, the trophies poke fun at displays of machismo and Hemingway-like megalomania, says Kevin Berger, features editor at Salon magazine. While the real thing is “garish,” the ironic tribute is humorous, he says. But satire isn’t the only reason for the popularity of the dead animals, Lanham says. These bars are frequented by a crowd accustomed to being criticized by conservative commentators as rich pretty boys who are out of touch with the working-class hunting heartland. Co-opting these trophy animals is a way of “out-blue-collaring” their critics, he says.
Taxidermy fits in with the other macho, rugged trappings of the great outdoors that are currently in vogue—lumberjack shirts, Cormac McCarthy novels, shaggy beards and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Pabst, the brew that truckers first made popular, has now become the ale of choice for the hip twentysomething crowd, says Nicolas Robinson, a co-owner of Montreal’s Bar Korova, a college hangout decorated with “rustic animal trophies” like stuffed deer and caribou. Bar Korova is known for its wide selection of bourbon and 1980s video game tabletops, evidence that the bar and its clientele are all part of the ironic, postmodern, mash-up style.
Taxidermy chic is also a feature of Bily Kun, a Montreal restaurant adorned with the heads of ostriches, which look down on people as they dine. At Pullman, a nearby wine bar, a pair of deer legs and hooves project from a lamp sculpture, made by designer Bruno Braën, who also decorated the Bily Kun. The Seattle pub Smith has dead pheasants, elk and quail. The aesthetic there feels like “a hunting lodge for rich weirdos,” according to the local press (who were quoting the cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show).
In New York, the trend is common enough that one resident, Sam Choritz, joked that “the quality of drinks served is directly proportional to the number of moose heads above the bar.” The best-known example is probably the restaurant Freemans, where jars of dried insects are displayed besides the bottles of booze, and the decor includes a pair of dead pheasants, several other species of birds, a ram’s head and a toothy black boar. Another Manhattan bar, Please Don’t Tell, displays a black bear’s head, stuffed cobra, otter and owl, among other creatures. Most are perched menacingly above the tables. They are arranged so they look like they “are about to bite people,” says Christine Sismondo, author of Mondo Cocktail: A Shaken and Stirred History.
Perhaps the most extreme example of the trend is designer Alexander McQueen’s flotilla of dead creatures at this year’s Paris Fashion Week. The collection of stuffed animals included a tiger, an elephant, a zebra, several birds and a polar bear lined up along the catwalk. It looked like a “taxidermist’s theme park,” according to the fashion publication Women’s Wear Daily. In the program notes, McQueen said he wanted the show to raise awareness of the damage man has inflicted on the planet. Several commentators, including one from Women’s Wear Daily, said the controversial stunt was the highlight of the week.
Taxidermy pays homage to a period we think of as both dangerous and cool, says Sismondo. In a culture dominated by virtual experiences (the Internet, video games, television, etc.), it represents a more physical, rugged existence, Lanham says. In urban bars and on fashion catwalks, it is a symbol of nature and authenticity, a nostalgic reminder of a way of life we have lost.