“Why Paris? It’s the capital of the world,” says Ori Kafri, proprietor of JK Place Hotels, explaining why he chose the City of Lights as the site of his first property outside of Italy. “It’s the number-one tourist destination, your first stop when you come to Europe. It’s prestigious, chic, elegant, with fashion, art and luxury. It’s sort of everything.” It’s an odd statement coming from the Italo-Israeli native of Florence, whose portfolio – there are JK Places in Florence, Rome and Capri – is so firmly anchored in Italian eccellenza. But after 16 years in business, Kafri, whose approach to growth has historically been cautious, feels ready to play with the big kids. “Virtually every single hotel brand that exists has a place in Paris,” he says. “We wanted to see if we could stand next to them.”
At JK Place Rive Gauche, it turns out they have – without pulling a muscle. JK Place’s template of boutique townhouses done up in jewel-box opulence works well in a city whose palace hotels are mostly massive affairs. JK Place Rive Gauche is a former embassy building on the Rue de Lille in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, a quiet little street and one of the most elegant neighbourhoods in town. Its external footprint is discreet – a simple gate is all you see streetside – but down a small courtyard lined with potted trees lies an oasis. The interior design by Michele Bönan is lush and colourful, eclectic like his hero Jacques Grange, but even more graphic, and with a more intensely saturated palette. Twenty-nine rooms and suites are complemented by generously sized common areas, most with fireplaces; a library-style reception area clad in oak decapé folds into a second sitting room, which folds into a third, which folds into a bar and restaurant. A two-room fitness centre, small Sisley spa and pool lined in grey and white marble occupy the subterranean level.
“We want to make people feel at home,” says Kafri. “But an ideal home.” Kafri and Bönan’s ideal involves a lot of surprise. Rather than build walls to break up a long room into a prestige suite, Bönan commissioned a massive, Italian-futurist-looking bronze box that he placed smack in the middle of the floor. One side opens onto a plum velvet couch, revealing antique Chinese panels and a hidden TV, creating a living-room space. The box also has a door, which conceals a walk-in closet, in the same oak decapé as the lobby. On the other side is the bedroom. Kafri, showing me the room, pulls out a bag of brown and ivory-coloured buttons from the closet, and spreads out the grey cashmere throw on the king-size bed to reveal its checkerboard motif: “The buttons are so you can play checkers while you’re hanging out in your room.”
Each room has its own unique design, though common threads include Bönan’s graphic wool rugs, whose geometric motifs are rendered in pile so deep and firm you can differentiate the colours under your stocking feet. The designer’s spiritual home is Les Puces de Saint-Ouen north of Paris, and his finds – including a midcentury Hermès desk lamp and a smoky mirrored console “in the spirit of David Hicks” – are showcased throughout the rooms. The vast bathrooms feature an oversized chrome shower, mother-of-pearl inlay cabinets and a sitting area with stacks of coffee-table books and artfully rusted, low-slung metal armchairs. Even the restaurant, the third outpost of Casa Tua, the Italian restaurants-cum-supper clubs in Miami and Aspen, is made to look like somebody’s country pile, with knick-knacks and an open kitchen.
When Kafri first pitched the idea of the JK Place in Florence to his father (and underwriter) Jonathan almost two decades ago, he was only 24 and had no experience as a hotelier. Bönan was a key support, and not just as a designer. “Michele gave me a list of hotels I needed to visit,” Kafri recalls. “He said go to Blakes in London to see what Anouska Hempel did. Go to Hôtel Costes in Paris and Seven One Seven in Amsterdam.” Visiting the latter without an appointment, Kafri was struck by how the charm of the guesthouse setting was enhanced by that of his host, the late Henk de Lugt. “He invited me in, gave me tea, showed me the whole hotel, gave me an umbrella for the rain. When I offered to pay him, he wouldn’t hear of it.” When Kafri was ready to start training staff for JK Place Florence, he hired de Lugt as a consultant to help establish the informal warmth and familiarity that have since become JK signatures. It was important to Bönan, who says, “Fifty percent of the pieces of my design puzzle are about service and people. If I don’t know who’s managing a hotel, I can’t design it.”
JK Place never went the traditional marketing route of travel agents and guidebooks. “I wanted to be in Vogue and not in travel magazines,” Kafri says. “Fashion people are jet-setters, and they talk about where to stay.” If designers and editors of the glossies choose JK Place – and they do – then all the more reason to branch out in the world’s fashion capital. Kafri made countless trips during the hotel’s construction phase to test restaurants and develop guest experiences. “It’s true, I don’t come from Paris,” he says, “but I didn’t come from Rome or Capri either. Concierge service is where you can really make a guest happy.” That happens on a personal level or it doesn’t happen at all. “In Florence, I wouldn’t book a guest at La Giostra unless I know our friend, who runs it, will be there. Because that’s who I want looking after them.”
When we met at the hotel, Kafri had just come from a jam-making workshop at La Confiture Parisienne, with an eye to offering classes. And he’s considering tapping a fitness-guru friend to design some walking circuits, “for workouts, but with art. Like, go to the Louvre. It’s 10,000 steps to see Mona Lisa. Do that and then you’re allowed to go have a Nutella crêpe. We can create jogging tours along the Seine, that kind of thing. The thing with hotels is, the room must be clean, the breakfast good, the towels soft, but that’s all just normal. You go above and beyond by connecting a guest to the city. We can’t just stay in a box.” Even one as beautifully glittering as theirs.