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January 10, 2012

London calling

If there’s one constant theme running through Thierry W Despont’s impressive hospitality portfolio, it’s that each hotel is different. Elly Earls catches up with the architect and designer to discuss the inspiration behind 45 Park Lane’s luxurious interiors, and how he achieves the balance between innovation and lasting appeal.

By Julian Turner

As the latest addition to the iconic Dorchester Collection, 45 Park Lane couldn’t be anywhere but London. Not only do the spectacular views of Hyde Park afforded by the intimate hotel’s Mayfair address give it away; the quintessentially English feel of the luxurious yet contemporary club-themed lobby and the exclusively British art collection displayed throughout the property leave guests in little doubt as to exactly where they are.

For world-renowned French architect and designer Thierry W Despont, the man behind the design of the Dorchester Collection’s ninth hotel, fostering this unmistakeable sense of place was absolutely paramount. "If you’re in London, you want to know you’re in London, and not in New York or Paris," he remarks. "I wanted 45 Park Lane to feel like it was both in London and of London."

Despont, whose stellar hospitality résumé ranges from Claridge’s in London to Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, the Carlyle in New York to Milan’s Principe di Savoia, drew inspiration from the original Dorchester building’s art deco DNA, as well as the oh-so-English feel of the country’s most exclusive members’ clubs.

"I’ve always been fascinated by English private clubs," he says. "You sit in a beautiful lounge by a fireplace reading the newspaper and you have a stylish waiter bringing you exotic drinks; that welcoming, elegant atmosphere was very important to me."

An artist as well as an architect and interior designer, Despont, a graduate of the École Nationale Superiéure des Beaux Arts in Paris, spent a great deal of time selecting just the right pieces of artwork to set off the British theme running throughout the contemporary Mayfair project; from Damien Hurst on the ground floor to Sir Peter Blake in the penthouse, each and every piece is either by a British artist or of a British subject. "It’s all part of saying to the guest ‘You are in London, you are in England’," he emphasises.

A beautiful friendship

The Dorchester Collection, a hotel group that prides itself on operating some of the world’s great individual hotels that embody the culture of the city in which they are located, follows Despont’s design philosophy almost to the letter. "What’s wonderful is that they have unique places in London, Paris, Milan and so on, and each has a different personality depending on the place," he confirms.

Over the years, the French-born architect and designer, and the Dorchester Collection have formed an enviable working relationship. "First, it’s a personal relationship," Despont notes. "I have a great friendship and working relationship with [Dorchester Collection CEO] Chris Cowdray; for me, the key to the relationship between an owner and a designer is to push each other. He pushes me with his brief and I push him in return to not only achieve a state-of-the-art hotel facility, but also a design piece that stands the test of time."

It’s very much a collaborative process, according to Despont. "We work so well together because there really is a very good relationship between the Dorchester hotel team and a whole team of different craftsmen," he says. "We’re offered lots of freedom and unfailing support."

Indeed, when the Dorchester Collection acquired the site, its first question to the New York-based designer was: ‘What do you think we could do here?’ This is where Despont’s architectural credentials came into play. The architect-cum-designer-cum-artist suggested transforming the building’s exterior with horizontal metal fins and a vertical wall sculpture, with the aim of giving a sense of dynamism to the structure as well as emphasising its curve. "That was the initial concept we proposed and they enthusiastically responded to that, so we took it from there," Despont recalls.

"Some hotels have tried too hard to emulate the latest design trend, and very soon afterwards, they look passé. When you design a hotel, it’s a huge capital investment and it has to withstand the test of time."

Since the advent of the 20th century, it has become increasingly difficult to find interior design practices able to offer this level of architectural expertise. "I think we are unique in the sense that we are both architect and designer," Despont says of his 40-strong design firm, The Office of Thierry W Despont.

"Up until the beginning of the 20th century, great designers and architects, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, would not have dreamed of designing a house without also designing the rooms and the furniture. But there is now a split between the two professions, which I either regret or I take advantage of; I’m certainly unable to tell you where architecture stops and interior design starts."

Although Despont now boasts an impressive portfolio of hotel and museum projects, his true passion still lies in the design of large private residential homes. "I came into hotel design because of my residential experience," he admits. "The notion is that when you go into a hotel suite, you want to find all the comfort and amenities you would like to have in your own home."

At 45 Park Lane, the feeling of being in a private residence begins even before guests reach their rooms. The almost concealed reception in the hotel’s welcoming lobby puts guests instantly at their ease, while the striking tapestry of an imaginary planet created by Despont himself portrays a subtle message. "It’s in the lobby as you enter," he elaborates, "and the subliminal message is that you are walking into your own world."

Same difference

It’s these delicate touches that give Despont’s designs the unique personality he always strives to achieve. "When I design houses, I’m first and foremost concerned about doing my client’s house, not having some sort of design label that is immediately identifiable," he stresses. "If there is an underlying theme, it’s that each one is unique and has a completely different personality."

Reflecting on other Dorchester Collection projects on which he has worked, it becomes clear that this philosophy extends to hotels. The Victorian-inspired public place Despont created in the Dorchester itself contrasts markedly with 45 Park Lane’s art deco design, while the Despont-designed public space and bar at Milan’s Principe di Savoia couldn’t be more Italian.

"The one thing I’m really obsessed with is, each time, giving a sense of place and identity," he declares. "A design hotel cannot be created using a cookie-cutter formula; it’s simply not a design you will find in another place."

Yet innovation can go too far, and for Despont, it’s essential to find a balance between innovation and lasting appeal. "In hotel design, I think there is a shift away from designing hotels that are too much ‘of the moment’," he observes. "Some hotels have tried too hard to emulate the latest design trend, and very shortly afterwards, they look passé. When you design a hotel, it’s a huge capital investment and it has to withstand the test of time."

There’s no doubt that Despont practices what he preaches; while 45 Park Lane is clearly contemporary, there have been no sacrifices when it comes to hotel guests’ number one priority. "I would never dream of designing a minimalist space that reduces comfort; that becomes so quickly dated," he explains. "Even if people are initially curious and want to go and see it, they quickly run away – back to comfort."

Not that Despont could ever be accused of staying within his comfort zone. "I always love to go to places I haven’t been or where I haven’t done a project," he confirms. "I love discovering new cultures and drawing from those." While he remains coy when asked about his upcoming work, it’s not difficult to detect the excitement in Despont’s voice when he mentions the next three projects he has on the horizon; one in Paris, one in Singapore and another in New York: "My best project is always the next one," he grins.

And with a growing number of luxury hotel groups moving away from the safety of formulaic designs to embrace the idea of individual design pieces, if Despont’s concluding prediction is to be believed, there is little doubt that the commissions will keep on coming.

Hotel Management InternationalThis article was first published in our sister publication Hotel Management International.

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