Exquisite contemporary design in a former central London office block – it may sound unlikely, but it’s what affluent urban hotel guests have come to expect. The latest such offering – Philippe Starck’s St Martins Lane, which opened last month – is a perfect example of a “boutique” hotel in the heart of a metropolis.
London has been relatively slow to catch on to the boutique phenomenon, taking its lead from New York with The Hempel, the Metropolitan Hotel and One Aldwych. These pioneers were followed by My Hotel in Bloomsbury and now St Martins Lane, and there are plenty more on the way. Around the corner is the Great Eastern Hotel, designed by Conran & Partners, (formerly CD Partnership) and a string of further Ian Schrager- Starck ventures, starting with the Sanderson hotel in Berners Street next spring.
But are these sites really ground-breaking, or just variations on a theme? Herbert Ypma, author of Hip Hotels, believes London can take more “designed” hotels, and that operators and designers could be more adventurous. “People want something different. I think London can take almost anything in terms of extreme direction. If you decide to do something different, then don’t hold back design-wise.”
If London’s latest offerings seem to Ypma to hold back, it is perhaps because they aim to perform the tricky task of combining contemporary or even unique interiors with some level of comfort. A spokeswoman for My Hotel describes its philosophy: “To combine good design, friendly service and a relaxed experience for the guestÃ¤ It has a personality which is derived from comfort, modernity and materials.”
My Hotel’s interiors and graphics were designed by Conran & Partners. C&P senior designer Suzy McGrath says the graphics, predominately in orange and blues, are intended to be “friendly and approachable rather than austere and grand. We were keen not to over-brand things,” she adds. This approach was also taken with the accessories, such as chopstick packaging for the restaurant, My Chi.
Michael Nash Associates designed the identity and graphics for St Martins Lane. The consultancy has combined an execution that is so minimal it’s barely there, with a nicely-judged sense of humour. This light relief was necessary as a counterbalance to the strongly designed nature of Starck’s rooms. “The [interiors] elements are so designed that anything graphic we designed started a fight,” says Anthony Michael, partner at Michael Nash. The graphic elements, such as stationery, are mostly white and daringly simple. However, the Do Not Disturb sign made out of a daisy chain and the safe mat with a picture of the crown jewels on it add – at Schrager’s request – splashes of humour. “Ian wanted something which put personality in the room,” Michael explains.
As a St Martins Lane spokesman puts it: “This smart and sophisticated clientele cherish wit and irony, and define true luxury not so much in terms of material possessions and tangible things, but in terms of access to new experiences, of making a connection with something special, of being in the knowÃ¤ of being there.”
One other hotel group, which is just as successful as other boutique operators, has its feet firmly in the comfort camp. Despite its more traditional interiors, clientele at the Covent Garden Hotel is also drawn from the entertainment and music industries. “A lot of our success has been because we have created a comfortable space without being twee,” says Craig Markham. He is marketing director at Firmdale Hotels Group, owner of both Covent Garden and Charlotte Street, which opens next year in an old dental equipment building. Markham has little time for design for design’s sake: “Design hotels become a pastiche of each other,” he says.
That is not to say that the Firmdale hotels are not clearly branded. Alan Fletcher created Covent Garden’s logo, featuring a man reclining on a sofa; while the Charlotte Street marque, by Ally, is based on a four-poster bed.
These strong brands always have the potential to be extended. Firmdale has plans to launch a separately branded home range, packaged by Ally, that will be sold in retail outlets at the group’s five London hotels. There is even a possibility of selling the range in conventional department stores.