Masters of grande luxe

For Europe’s grandest hotels, it’s not enough to be great – they need to be the best. Caroline Roux talks to three visionary French designers charged with the task of taking them to the top.

October 03 2009
Caroline Roux

There’s nothing quite like walking into the warm embrace of one of the world’s grand hotels. From the coral-coloured foyer (complete with signature amber scent) of the Plaza-Athénée in Paris to the inlaid marble star that greets you at the St Regis in New York, the real world retreats as the door revolves. Here, it’s not about gimmicks but grace – the beauty of hand-woven bespoke carpets, the glitter of fine antiques, the freshest flowers, the miraculous way your luggage finds your room and everyone instantly knows your name. It may come at a price, but it’s salve for the soul.

However, even at this level of grand luxury, competition is fierce, and the palaces of the hotel world seem to be in a constant state of reinvention. It takes an eye-watering budget to create these extravagant internal landscapes (inside what are frequently old and unwieldy shells), and all the skills of the masters of the design universe. At the top of their game, and renowned for their distinctive styles, are three internationally lauded Frenchmen: Philippe Starck, who has been reinventing hotel interiors ever since Ian Schrager asked him to refit The Royalton in New York in 1988 and is currently at work on the Royal Monceau in Paris; Jacques Garcia, who came to fame after creating the stygian de luxe style of the Hôtel Costes, also in Paris, in 1996 and who has just finished remaking the legendary Mamounia in Marrakech, concealing its Alhambra-style interior behind a modernist façade; and Pierre-Yves Rochon, doyen of Four Seasons Hotels, and the man responsible for that group’s splendid Palazzo della Gherardesca in Florence and the brand-new Peninsula in Shanghai (due to open on October 18).

The most eagerly awaited hotel reinvention, however, is in London, where Rochon has also been busy at The Savoy, and some time in early 2010 visitors will once again experience the thrill of arriving beneath the polished silver pediment of its art deco porte cochère. “I was so proud to be chosen for The Savoy. I am French. Imagine!” says the designer when I meet him in his tucked-away top-floor studio in Paris, with views over the Rond Point des Champs-Elysées. “The hotel was so tired. After so many little renovations you destroy the spirit. And the bathrooms – terrible!” (The Savoy has form with its bad bathrooms: there were only 67 when it opened in 1889 with 200 bedrooms and more had subsequently to be inserted into what had been balconies.)

Arguably London’s most fabled hotel, The Savoy closed its doors on December 15 2007; its contents were sold at Bonhams; and Rochon, armed with £100m and a whole lot of history (Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde and Bob Dylan are among the many who have stayed here), set to work. “You have a very classic British flavour at The Savoy and the art deco influence, so I’ve married the two.” And what is British style? “It’s the architecture and the colour of the fabrics. In the UK, you have flower prints and more green and yellow, more colour than in France.”

Though The Savoy is managed by Fairmont Hotels, its owner is the Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who also happens to own the George V in Paris and, until March this year, had a 50 per cent stake in Geneva’s elegant Hôtel des Bergues, both of which have Rochon interiors and are operated by Four Seasons. Rochon was asked to renovate the George V 13 years ago, and it reopened in 1999 with all the old opulence but not all the artefacts accumulated since its opening in 1928. “It had gradually changed, for better or worse depending on the taste of the wife of the general manager,” laughs Rochon. “We kept some nice pieces, but not too much. I remember I was sad because on the TV they said that we’d destroyed the George V and we’d sold everything. No! We sold the bad things. We kept 80 nice chests; all the tapestry.”

In Florence, Rochon was dealing with not just existing objects but a 17th-century palace as heavily listed as it is frescoed. “That’s why it took seven years,” he sighs. “The owner said, we don’t want a French designer, or a London designer, we want someone who thinks in the spirit of Florence.” So Rochon and his wife moved into the empty palazzo in a freezing week in February, “and I set up table and designed the concept, with no heating! It was like a dream. A very cold dream.” As frescoes were revealed, he asked the painters to take the palette for each room from each one. The fabrics, carpets and trimmings were made, all in Italy, in the same colours.

It’s this attention to detail that defines the very top hotels, right down to the clear plastic pack in the bedroom containing every possible adaptor. At the George V, the hotel’s on-site florist Jeff Leatham uses 9,000 blooms a week in his architectural displays, though in a recent bid to be a little more sustainable he’s trying to reduce the numbers by having plants in the lobby.

The Savoy’s flower budget has yet to be settled on, but new additions will include the Beaufort Bar, built on the hotel’s original cabaret stage, with black and burnished gold décor; a teashop; glass-walled fitness gallery with pool, gym and spa; and rooftop swimming pool. Gordon Ramsay will run the famous Savoy Grill, and at the time of writing it is hoped that Salim Khoury – for years the American Bar’s main man and friend to regulars – will return in an ambassadorial role. A new suite that runs the length of the Thames side will offer river views as painted by Whistler and Monet, both of whom used to stay here, from each of its eight rooms.

“The hotel’s DNA is remarkable,” says The Savoy’s general manager, Kiaran MacDonald. “It’s so theatrical, the location is perfect: 17 theatres within walking distance and all the cultural activity just over the river. But it’s the personality of the service that will count in the end.”

That and the clientele. The American Bar had become a triumph of myth over reality by the time the hotel closed in 2007, with the average age of regular patrons topping 60, so the management’s first job on reopening will be to attract an altogether more spritely crowd.

For certain types of clientele, the right design can work miracles. Take Le Meurice in Paris, which stands on the Rue de Rivoli opposite the Louvre, a once-enchanted place dating back to 1835 that had faded from fashion. Last year it revealed a total ground-floor refit by Starck, and now media types and fashionistas can’t stay away. The last time I was there, my departure was delayed by the arrival of Beyoncé (so many paparazzi I couldn’t get out the door).

“We don’t like to make any revolutions at the Meurice, we just wake it up,” says Starck, sitting in his office near Place de la République, his wife, Jasmine, at his side. “The Meurice was like in a fairy tale, a Sleeping Beauty so elegant, so beautiful, with a little dust. We just play the charming prince and we take out the dust, we kiss her, and suddenly by the magic of poetry and surrealism, it comes back to life.”

This, in fact, is fairly literal. The main restaurant has been renamed the Dalí, after the hotel’s most famous resident, and is scattered with the artist’s furniture sketches brought to life, among them the curiously elegant Leda chair, based on Dalí’s original drawing of a three-legged chair whose legs end in fetishistic little shoes. And there is a Muletas lamp on a wooden base with a disconcerting veil for a shade. Starck’s own silver-leafed Winged chair introduces a dash of the Napoleonic, and the exceptional cuisine of Yannick Alléno brings everything up to date.

In the 1980s, Starck revolutionised the hotel world by putting his heart and soul into the first boutique hotels such as the Royalton and Paramount in New York, creating mad playgrounds for 20- and 30-somethings. So what has he planned for the Royal Monceau (due to reopen in May 2010) – a favourite of Madonna’s, near the Arc de Triomphe, whose sumptuous but by then tired Jacques Garcia interiors were trashed at a starry “demolition party” attended by 6,000 people last June? “The public rooms must be the strongest possible,” he says cryptically. “The guest rooms must be the inverse – to give you freedom to think and dream by yourself. What I don’t want is a caricature of luxury. There are a lot of rich people who will hate this place because it’s not gold.”

Starck maintains that he isn’t as interested in design as he is in atmosphere. “People go into a hotel and say, ‘Oh my God, it’s so chic, it’s so trendy.’ People never say that when they walk into my hotels. When we meet people all over the world they say, ‘Oh Mr Starck, thank you. You know I met my fiancé at The Delano,’ or ‘I had such good sex with my wife at The Royalton.’ They never speak about the architecture.” At the SLS in Beverly Hills, also designed by Starck, the emotional embrace includes a carpet inscribed with a poem by Paul Eluard that greets guests as they enter, and an area called The Bazaar boasting bars, shopping and a palm-reader. “LA is dead!” asserts the designer, “but queues to get into The Bazaar go round the block.” There is a bit of ego and a lot of truth in the declaration.

Starck would, perhaps, have liked to get his hands on the Danieli, one of the most celebrated hotels in Venice, which is Starck’s adopted city. But the commission to bring this 15th-century palazzo up to 21st-century standards of comfort went to Jacques Garcia. Instead, Starck is working on the Palazzina Grassi, which will eventually open on the Grand Canal next to the Palazzo Grassi art gallery. “It’s very cute, 16 rooms and six suites. If I did the Danieli, I would try to make the least possible decoration, to express the magic of Venezia, La Serenissima. In a place like the Danieli it is better to clean it to the bone. Don’t be afraid that there’s nothing on the walls.”

It would probably be inappropriate to seek Monsieur Starck’s opinion of Monsieur Garcia’s travail. The latter is the king of complexity, unafraid to layer textiles and fill a space with furniture till every surface is covered. At the Danieli, the bedrooms are dressed in deep red silk with swagged and tasselled curtains, though the bathrooms remain small. The business centre is the only one I know with computers on 17th-century desks sitting on a deep-pink marble floor pitted by time. The Venetian gothic swagger of its lobby is breathtaking, and Garcia has taken it further with green and bronze carpets and rich red seats. And its location is unique: here you are a step away from Piazza San Marco and, from the fourth-floor terrace restaurant, you look directly across the lagoon to Palladio’s magnificent church of San Giorgio Maggiore.

Unlike Messieurs Starck and Rochon, Garcia is a designer who eschews publicity and declined to meet me in person. (He also has no truck with e-mail, doesn’t use a computer and never watches television, though he does speak on the phone.) He is a man of few words, preferring gnomic utterances: “Luxury is knowledge”, for example. His home is a 17th-century château in Normandy but he is widely travelled, favouring India, Syria and Turkey (hence the 226 hand-painted Iznik-style tulips that decorate the walls of the corridors of the Hotel Des Indes in The Hague – another exercise in maximalist hotel design, full of references to Vermeer and the Dutch Golden Age, which he refurbished in 2005). He is also endlessly curious, describing himself as a “chineur”, a fossicker for antiques and objets, and a tireless museum-goer. “In the old days we sent emissaries abroad and they brought back exotic things,” he says. “Today we are both emissaries and explorers – we discover and bring back.”

In many ways, his work speaks for itself. At the Métropole in Monte Carlo, Garcia had to contend instead with a 19th-century façade that had been created in 1990 and its location in the city’s shopping area. His response? To create a triumphal entrance arch and a drive flanked with cypress trees. “You could almost be at Hadrian’s Villa,” he says. Inside he has created what he calls a Mediterranean palace (big buttoned velvet sofas in the bar, silk-lined walls throughout), which is continually animated by the hotel’s artistic and style director Maud Lesur. Earlier this year, the foyer was filled with 200 green and purple resin hares by the German artist Ottmar Hörl. The art direction continued through dining and glassware (yes, purple and green) and there was even a violet and green cocktail. It’s these ever-changing displays that bring in the locals as much as the Joël Robuchon restaurant.

If that sounds like design too far, it shows how hard hotels have to work these days to keep their bookings up. The boys at The Savoy know that, iconic or not, they’re up against intense competition. “In London there are lots of great hotels: The Dorchester, The Lanesborough, Claridge’s…” says Kiaran MacDonald. “So there’s no point in simply being great. We have to be the best.”