Antiques went out of fashion and their prices bombed when Tony Blair swept to power. In their place came the cool and the modern. Now that the Tories are back in, people are daring to be traditional in all sorts of ways, and an aesthetic that’s been limited to the pages of Homes & Gardens is once again creeping into the design mainstream.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the design of luxury hotels, which are continuing to spring up at a rate that implies the super-rich are completely immune to the world’s economic problems.
Once the excitement was all about new projects, the so-called ’designer hotel’, with interiors that conspicuously showcased the work of hyped designers and architects. Silken’s Hotel Puerta América in Madrid (2005) was perhaps the apogee, with an all-star design cast that included Marc Newson, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel and John Pawson. But now the talk is all about heritage, restoration and the comforts of tradition. Take the award-winning Lime Wood Hotel that opened last year in the New Forest, with interiors by David Collins Studio and architectural extensions by Charles Morris and Ben Pentreath, who are favoured by Prince Charles, or the very sumptuous and safely historicist refit of the Savoy (by Pierre-Yves Rochon and architect Reardon Smith).
It’s a trend reinforced by two major hotels about to throw open their doors in London – the St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel, which has its grand opening on 5 May, and the Corinthia Hotel London, which opens its doors on 16 April. The projects have a great deal in common. Both restore spaces that ceased to be hotels in the 1930s. The hotel adjoining St Pancras station is Sir George Gilbert Scott’s Victorian masterpiece, but it was abandoned to semi-dereliction, while the Hôtel Métropole on Whitehall Place was home to Mantovani and his orchestra until it was taken over by the Ministry of Defence.
Interestingly, both projects share the same interior design pairing of GA Design International for the main hotel interiors and the now semi-obligatory David Collins Studio on a showcase restaurant. At St Pancras, David Collins is designing the Gilbert Scott Restaurant, run by celebrity chef Marcus Wareing, and for the Corinthia, he is creating Massimo’s Restaurant & Oyster Bar, run by Massimo Riccioli.
Much like archeologists, we must first ’find’ the past in order to preserve it
Inge Moore, Hirsch Bedner Associates
David Collins Studio can take considerable credit for the rehabilitation of old-school interior design and for making it seem glamorous rather than frumpy. On a visit to Massimo’s at the Corinthia, David Collins is seen fussing over some final details and is not terribly keen to talk about the extent to which his design was influenced by historical precedent. ’Oh, I’d just been to Venice and these are some things I’d remembered,’ he said vaguely, before dashing off with his glass of champagne.
GA Design International was yet more elusive. Despite designing the Corinthia’s interiors, the group wasn’t involved in the commissioning of the hotel’s centrepiece – an enormous chandelier, more than 4m wide and featuring more than 1000 crystal baubles made by Baccarat. It was designed by French Algerian designer Chafik Gasmi at the behest of the Corinthia’s Maltese owner. It gives the impression of having always been there, and provides an effective focal point for the vast building (which has nearly 300 rooms and suites). Very recently, chandeliers and pattern were a knowing, ironic statement – now they are once again for real.
GA is applying gilt to the ceiling of the St Pancras hotel’s delayed restaurant, but it seems slightly out of step with the sombre, quirky magnificence of the rest of the hotel’s interiors. So strong is the hotel’s design character that GA’s interventions have worked best when done with quirkiness and a light touch, as in the booking hall bar. Unlike the Corinthia, which attempts to forge a contemporary traditional style, the St Pancras hotel allows its history to speak.
It’s a mistake to think this recourse to the past is merely a British affair. The Royal Monceau Raffles hotel, which opened at the end of last year in Paris, heavily references the 1940s and 1950s, despite being designed by one-time enfant terrible Philippe Starck. Likewise, the Mondrian Soho in New York, designed by Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz, has classicising touches.
Perhaps the most notable example is the extraordinary Saraya Gallery, part of the Cairo Marriott, a luxury hotel in Egypt built around a former royal residence. Designed by New York consultancy Hirsch Bedner Associates, it’s a mix of restoration and recreation, as principal designer Inge Moore explains. She says, ’Much like archeologists, we must first “find” the past in order to preserve it. While we use history as our foundation and guide, a renovation is more like historical fiction than a history textbook. We take the basic facts and embellish a story that is more real than the past itself. Properly done, it’s a living, breathing, dynamic story that people today can project themselves into naturally.’
Imagine for a moment the complexities that will greet the poor archaeologists of the future excavating our own times.