Boutique appeal

Trendy independent hotels teach lessons in style and substance to brand-name chains
August 11, 2010

Trendsetting hotel design is more than theater; it is a sales and marketing tool. One look at hotels as varied as the Empire Palace Hotel in Rome, the Hudson in New York City and the Hotel Meurice in Paris shows why. By combining various styles and periods, their building teams have created one-of-a-kind looks that invite guests to experience and explore. No two spaces are exactly the same; guests can return again and again and still discover something new — which is exactly the point.

As more sophisticated and high-end travelers demand authentic and unique entertainment and lodging experiences, design expectations are being challenged and redefined. These three hotels embody some of the best work.

One of the strongest design trends focuses on mixing and matching styles. To achieve the residential look that makes hotels look — and feel — inviting to modern, upscale travelers, hotel lobbies and interiors look as if they were collected over a lifetime — even if they were selected from a manufacturer's catalog.

Roman holiday

A creative hotel owner and the Roman architect Superarchitettura created a marketable distinction between Rome's 115-room Empire Palace Hotel, which opened in September 1999, and its Baroque-inspired competitive set.

"To get the attention of our target market of uspcale corporate and leisure travelers, we knew the design would have to be personal and very distinctive," says Luciano Bucchi, general manager of the hotel. "We wanted a style that was refined rather than sumptuous."

The reconstruction project pairs sleek, contemporary furnishings and finishes with an 1870s neo-Gothic palace featuring Venetian gold-leafing and oriental accents. The project was further complicated by the facility's expansions over the years into adjacent spaces converted from shops, warehouses and stables. Yet, the eclectic design and unique conditions are unified by warm, rich colors and unexpected finishes.

Arresting artwork and singular accents also help to bridge the shifting styles of the interrelated public spaces. The hotel's lounge, for example, features 1930s chairs of African wengé wood and soft Moroccan leather that complement light maple paneling, high-backed Philippe Starck sofas and polychromatic, inlaid marble in the lobby. Ceiling treatments intensify and blend the diverse design experiences: A deep blue night sky is painted in the vault over the reception desk, and floral ornamentation gilds the vaults in the hotel's restaurant with appliqués of blown glass.

This exotic ambience continues in the building's 110 guest rooms and five suites, though necessarily on a different scale. The Persian yellow of the public areas becomes the dominant guest room shade, accented by cherry furniture and punctuated by rich blue and purple carpeting. Gold-streaked marble on the walls echoes the gold-flecked walls and columns of the lobby and the gold leafing that frames some of the archways in the public space.

"We wanted a subtle feeling of luxury, understated in general, but with original elements with sufficient character to make the hotel memorable," says architect Raniero Botti of Superarchitettura, who designed the project with partner Gianfranco Mangiarotti.

Luxury on a budget

In contrast to the $200 average daily room rate at the Empire Palace Hotel, one can find a similar high concept and high design at New York City's Hudson for as little as $95 a night. The 1,000-room development by the well-known building team of owner Ian Schrager Hotels and designer Philippe Starck is a large-scale version of their daring, one-of-a-kind hotels.

From the minute guests step onto the glass-enclosed escalator and travel along a vivid shaft of chartreuse light, they enter an experience from another planet. Everything seems possible, from illuminated floors and paneled guest rooms to the Louis XV furniture and antique billiard tables. Unlike the previous boutique-sized collaborations between Schrager and Starck, however, the Hudson demonstrates that witty, cutting-edge design can work on a grand scale.

The infrastructural and budgetary constraints of transforming this 500,000-sq.-ft., 1928 women's residence into a hip hotel — at a cost of $50 million for acquisition and $75 million for development — were no stumbling blocks for the team's creativity. Cavernous public spaces became a private, playful park. The template hotel restaurant is replaced by a cafeteria-cum-Ivy League dining hall. Rather than apologizing for the small guest rooms, Starck takes inspiration from ship cabins — borrowing wood paneling and classic aluminum chairs still used on Navy ships — and adds unique touches, such as bedside lamps with faces painted onto the shades.

High style has a practical payoff. "We're always willing to reinvent the wheel because strong design stands the test of time," says Ian Schrager, CEO, crediting his president of design, Anda Andrei, for the work. "It also means the décor doesn't have to be replaced every five years, so we have higher margins."

Trend-setting palace

While a palace hotel with history and an imposing character seems unlikely to match such trend-setting productions, it recently happened in Paris. A two-year renovation of the 160-room Meurice, owned by The Dorchester Group of London, mixes history and hipness with public-area designs by Jean-Loup Roubert and guest rooms by Nicolas Papamiltiades.

"The main risk in renovating a hotel such as the Meurice is taking away the magic," says Roubert, a respected historical architect. "The lifting of the wrinkles must not wipe out the personality. There are too many renovated hotels for which people regret the refurbishment."

The design team carefully weighed each design decision against maintaining the spirit of what makes the Hotel Meurice special. In the public areas, there is the relaxing retreat of a glass-domed winter garden and a Versailles-inspired dining area. Yet, there is also the Zen-like restraint of a new spa addition.

Another priority was to create a variety of décors for guests to experience. The 30 different guest-room design schemes are determined by the spaces' configuration and location. While a room with less natural light surrounds the guest with light, powerful colors, others flooded with sunlight may be done in soft colors. The use of antique furnishings and original art ensures each room its own character.

"It is definitely a benefit for the client to be able to choose from different decors and room configurations within a single hotel," says Dominique Borri, general director of the facility. "This is an ideal situation for the operator because there will always be a room the client will appreciate." By reducing the number of rooms, Borri argues, Dorchester Group also boosted the hotel's appeal to high-end international travelers seeking larger suites.

  • Marble flooring was supplied by a company that has been in business for 150 years, and supplied the marble for the St. Peter's Basilica. The mosaic design is based on a painting by Veronese.

At the Hotel Meurice in Paris:

  • Craftsmen from 150 different companies representing 42 different guilds were employed during the course of the project. The construction team renovated, among other things, a 100-year-old Art Nouveau glass roof, 41,000 gold leaves, 36,000 feet of cornices, 68 miles of wooden moldings and 700 square meters of stucco to match the original work.

Last, at New York's Hudson:

  • The lobby bar and restaurant take inspiration from turn-of-the-century New England preparatory schools, with wood paneling, bookshelves and fireplaces.

Empire Palace Hotel

Rome

Building team

Architect/interior architect: Superarchitettura

General information

Number of rooms: 110 rooms, 5 suites

Construction completed: June 2000

Construction cost: $8 million

Hotel Meurice

Paris

Building team

Owner: The Dorchester Group

Architect/interior architect: Nicolas Papamiltiades and Jean Loup Roubert

Decorative paintings: Antoine Fontaine

General information

Number of floors: 6

Number of rooms: 130 rooms and 36 suites

Construction time: July 1998 to July 2000

  1. Don't think design; think lifestyle. At Ian Schrager Hotels' Hudson in New York City, "lifestyle" means elements that grab guests' attention: white furniture in the guest rooms, hand-painted bedside lamps, and stainless steel accents.

  2. If it doesn't work for the guest, it doesn't work "The most prestigious decor is meaningless if the guest has to spend 10 minutes finding the remote control or if the drawers do not work," says Nicolas Papamiltiades, designer of the guest rooms for Paris' Hotel Meurice.

  3. Let the spaces dictate the design "A window with a certain light, a detail rediscovered —these things make a difference in design," adds Papamiltiades. "Emphasizing details allowed us to revive the character of the Meurice —even in spaces where nothing original remained."

  4. Use the entire canvas Ceilings and floors are hot design elements: They not only tie together diverse design elements, they provide a large-scale backdrop for big statements —from the marble mosaics that adorn lobby floors at the Empire Palace in Rome to the ceiling mural at the Hudson.

  5. Don't forget the art program "Off-the-shelf" prints have no place in hotels striving for identity, says Luciano Bucchi, the Empire Palace's general manager. Real artwork by contemporary artists enhances appeal and authenticity.