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January 11, 2011

Spirit of The Savoy

Few hotels can claim a history as rich and varied as that of London's The Savoy. Back after a massive restoration programme, Rod James talks to interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon and general manager Kiaran Macdonald about the inspiration behind the new design and how it fits into a transformed luxury market.

By cms admin

In 1898, Woolf Joel, a South African staying at The Savoy gave a dinner party that, due to a last-minute cancellation, was attended by 13 guests. Despite repeated warnings, he laughed off the superstition that tragedy would befall the first diner to rise from such a meal. Just weeks later, Joel was found shot dead in his office.

To prevent such misfortune from ever happening again, architect Basil Ionides was commissioned by The Savoy to design a 3ft-high black wooden cat, which, should the need arise, could act as the 14th guest. To this day, Kasper the cat is served like any other guest, with a napkin around his neck and an apparent penchant for lobster.

Countless traditions and mythologies such as this have made The Savoy not just a hotel but a grand, luxurious and highly eccentric world of its own. Built in 1889, the brainchild of Gilbert and Sullivan impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, The Savoy’s innovations, such as the introduction of air conditioning and the creation of the Peach Melba, along with its reputation for extravagance, set an early benchmark for the luxury hotel sector.

Guided by the firm hand of general manager Cesar Ritz and the world’s first celebrity chef Auguste Escoffier, the hotel has entertained an exhaustive roll call of the great and good.

“The Savoy’s innovations set an early benchmark for luxury hotels.”

Consequently, when in December 2007 the hotel closed its doors for an all-encompassing £220m restoration programme, its legion of fans was left to wait to see if, when the doors reopened, the magic and sense of history remained. The wait came to an end in October 2010 when, after a series of setbacks, The Savoy made its return. According to Kiaran MacDonald, the hotel’s general manager, early feedback has been extremely positive.

The Savoy: quintessential Britishness

The first incarnation of The Savoy was dominated by two main design aesthetics: Edwardian and Art Deco. Pierre-Yves Rochon, the designer charged with overseeing the restoration programme, has long taken inspiration from the mis-en-scene and cinema of the 1930s, making his vision particularly suited to a hotel that combines the classic style of that era with a quintessential Britishness. He believes that maintaining the ideal and spirit of the original building should be integral to any restoration process.

“At the beginning of each project, I immerse myself in researching the history and experiencing the spirit of the hotel,” Rochon says. “Its location is part of those explorations. Is it urban or suburban? And what is the history of the area around the hotel? Then I can start to work on the design, responding to the influences and ideas generated from these initial visits.”

This approach has resulted in a hotel that maintains the degree of familiarity that so many have come to love, but infuses it with a contemporary freshness. The Thames Foyer has an impressive new glass roof, which fills the building with natural light, and has at its centre a giant iron gazebo wrought with decorative columns and intricate arched filigree panels. The famous River Restaurant and American Bar retain their charm and function, having been faithfully reworked in art deco style and new addition.

Modern necessities

The guestrooms can be split into two schemes, with those in the Art Deco style facing the Strand and those of Edwardian hue overlooking the Thames. Far from extravagant, they are subtly coloured with pastel yellows and greens, the marble bathrooms fitted with huge trademark Savoy showerheads.

“The hotel maintains a degree of familiarity, but infuses it with contemporary freshness.”

Modern necessities such as an iPod docking station are complemented by bespoke touches, such as headed notepaper with the guest’s name and duration of stay printed at the top, remaining true to the sense of personalised luxury that one expects.

“A number of the rooms and suites had interior architecture that could not be changed, so the furniture, fixtures and equipment elements became the main focus,” Rochon says. “Given the hotel’s iconic status, we wanted to enhance the spaces that they remembered, not taking away but adding to their memories with new spaces and a rediscovered vitality.”

These new spaces include the addition of 38 new river suites and guestrooms as well as nine Personality Suites, which pay tribute to some of the Savoy’s most high-profile former guests. The Marlene Dietrich Suite, for example, comes with 12 pink roses, which the actress would always request on her arrival.

Structural surprises at The Savoy

In 2007, The Savoy was beginning to show its age and the huge amount spent on restoring the hotel to its former glory was largely necessitated by the building’s fundamental structural shortcomings. More than 1,000 workers took nearly three years to gut the hotel, ripping out aging plumbing, electrical wiring and air conditioning systems. According to Kiaran MacDonald, however, these obstacles were not allowed to derail the design team’s overall vision.

“With old buildings, when you actually start cutting through the walls, the integrity of the building often isn’t what you anticipated it being,” he says. “It was a bitter pill to swallow, but each issue was addressed without deviation from the original plan. It was a once-in-a-lifetime restoration opportunity and credit goes to our owners for not allowing value engineering to compromise the finished product.”

“The Savoy has reduced its reliance on the National Grid by 50%.”

Although fidelity of design was undoubtedly important, the need to modernise was just as strong. The Savoy has, since its inception, been a technological pioneer in its field, becoming the first hotel to benefit from electricity and the first to use elevators, or ‘ascending rooms’ as they were known. Its installation of en-suite bathrooms, which was unheard of in the late 19th century, caused one builder to wryly enquire: “Do you expect your guests to be amphibians?”

“The classical features should be drawn out and celebrated,” Rochon says. “However, at the same time, this is the modern world and guests of luxury hotels expect modern features and conveniences. Modern technology is a critical addition to the hotel, but not a completely visible one.”

Environmental management system

The contemporary manifestation of those early innovations is in The Savoy’s state-of-the-art environmental management system, a necessity in a place of such energy-intensive opulence.

The hotel is powered by a combined heat and power plant, reducing its reliance on the National Grid by 50%, and thermostats in all guestrooms and suites are designed to regulate the whole environment, using natural ventilation to control the temperature and keeping electricity wastage through lighting to a minimum.

With payback on these measures set to come in around four years, it is clear that cost savings were the chief driver. However, MacDonald believes that such innovations do have a part to play from the guest’s perspective, providing peace of mind at a time when the concept of sustainability colours contemporary attitudes towards luxury.

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