Anyone would assume that hotels such as Philippe Starck’s New York Royalton, Jean Nouvel’s Le Saint James, or Aldo Rossi’s Il Palazzo Fukuoka, all of which have been splashed across the design press, would be a designer’s idea of heaven when it came to putting up for the night at home or abroad – well, not at home because we simply don’t have those sort of hotels here. Contrary to expectations, however, a brief survey seems, with one exception, to indicate the opposite.
Perhaps the last thing a designer wants when pitching for a job or preparing to give a lecture in an unfamiliar place is to be surrounded by someone else’s chef-d’oeuvre; and if on holiday, in search of peace and quiet and a break from the pressures of work, a designer-hotel of that sort is probably the least relaxing place to stay. But could there also be also a touch of professional jealousy involved?
The secret to a successful hotel isn’t necessarily its design, as Clare Melhuish discovered from six designers who name their favourites
For Tony Jones, Rector of the Royal College of Art, design itself takes a back seat. His favourite hotel is the Portmeirion, in the fake Italian hill town on the Welsh coast designed and built by Clough Williams-Ellis from the Twenties onwards, and described by Charles Jencks as a “sophisticated version of Disneyland”. Here you can stay either in the main hotel building itself, or in one of the many cottages which are rented out as suites. Jones prefers to stay in one of the cottages, but it is the whole ensemble of buildings in their external context which makes this hotel wonderful for him. “It’s quite mad… surreal,” he says. There are “spectacular views”, both from the rooms and of the village as you approach, lovely woodland and coastal walks, even a dog cemetery. One day Jones opened the door of his cottage and an albino peacock walked in. The hotel itself, rebuilt in the late Seventies, is “very sumptuous”, but that’s not the real reason to go there. The only weak point is the vast numbers of tourists who come to see the village during the day – but even they leave at 6pm.
Excess of a different sort is the key to the special appeal of Blake’s hotel in South Kensington, London, for architect Lorenzo Apicella. Designed by Anouska Hempel, it is “indulgent and luxurious… excessively layered”, but executed “with such conviction and attention to detail… a labour of love”. Because it’s “not at all what I’d do. It feels like a real retreat, a complete remove from London… it’s very, very comfortable and indulgent for people who stay there”. At the same time, however, it is the indulgence and excess of the details and finishes which are its weak points. They are overdone for the size and volume of its spaces, which, by contrast, are not luxurious: “One would want bigger public spaces,” Apicella concludes. But then the magic appeal of the opium den would be lost.
For designer Ben Kelly, British hotels have a lot to offer. It is precisely the fact that the weak spots are “too many to mention” that make the Britannia Hotel, Manchester, so wonderful. “Sometimes you’re put in rooms with no windows… and sometimes the breakfasts are disgusting,” he says, but he’s been amazed by the behaviour you can get away with. Apart from that, there’s “the most incredible staircase and chandelier feature I’ve ever seen – it’s massive, gigantic, gross… and wonderful”. The stair is metal but you wouldn’t know; covered in velvet and twiddly bits it’s “masquerading as something else. It’s all very rock ‘n’ roll.” And that applies to the clients too. Above all, it’s the memories that make it for Kelly. “It’s one of those places,” he says. “There must be one in every city.”
John Sorrell, chairman of the Design Council and co-chairman in the design consultancy Newell and Sorrell, homed straight in on the Royalton in New York’s Manhattan, and, erroneously as it turned out, assumed that everyone else would say the same thing. The secret of its appeal to Sorrell lies in the “spectacular, long, sweeping reception room” which is “huge and wonderful… and full of surprises”. It took him two days to discover the secret champagne bar. But then the loos are great too, with a special infra-red device in the men’s which has to be seen, gender no object; and the bathrooms are a joy, made of good materials, with huge, comfortable showers. On the negative front, Sorrell felt that its understated presence on the street, making it difficult to find, might be thought a weakness by some, but personally he thinks it is an advantage. “There are no weak points,” he concluded, “I like variety and trying things out, but if I was going tomorrow, I’d stay there”.
Dick Powell of Seymour Powell argues that the features which make a hotel stand out are nothing to do with design, but with the people. When you’re working, “you never get a chance to enjoy a hotel”, he says, so “it’s the things you don’t notice which make it good”. For unbeatable service, hotels in Japan and the Far East are the best; if obliged to single one out, Powell would go for the Royal Hotel in Osaka, “one of the best, well-positioned, quite traditional”. But despite having enjoyed the wonderful experience of sleeping in a traditional Japanese room with a futon and tatami mats, it’s the presence of practical features such as a socket for your computer in your room, combined with great service, and the fact that people smile, that make the Royal Hotel special for Powell. And it’s the absence of those things, and hotel staff who expect to be tipped for providing a service, that are the great weak points of a poor hotel – particularly hotels in the UK. The Royal Hotel can’t be faulted, but British hotels are “truly awful in their conception – you don’t want teabags and stuff in your room”.
Architect David Chipperfield’s view is the antithesis to Sorrell’s, which is not altogether surprising in view of the minimal nature of his approach to design. The Hotel des Bains in Venice Lido is his favourite hotel. Why? Because there aren’t any special design qualities or features; it’s “a grand hotel generally left alone”. Big bathrooms, big towels and wide corridors are sufficient for it to secure a place in Chipperfield’s heart. But this could be jeopardised by any foolhardy attempt to introduce “design” into the equation, and hence some suspicious bits of new decoration in the dining room are noted as weak points.