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As one of the world’s most feted interior designers, Pierre-Yves Rochon has spent over 30 years at the forefront of five-star hospitality. With a dizzying array of luxury commissions, he explains how his name has become synonymous with quietly sumptuous European style.

Pierre-Yves Rochon is well-placed to theorise on luxury. With a glittering roll-call of past projects, his CV reads like a bitesize guide to high-end hospitality. Four Seasons is represented prominently; Sofitel and Ritz-Carlton make appearances; the likes of the Savoy give pause for thought. This, however, is a poised sort of grandeur, the sort which wears its credentials only lightly.

“Luxury is an atmosphere, an experience,” he opines. “It means space in all its dimensions; how the light is entering, the ceiling height, the view. And it’s never aggressive or pretentious. The challenge is to avoid excess, which is a great temptation – luxury needs to be discreet.”

In an era of flashy design hotels, this credo may seem almost old-fashioned. Certainly, looking at a Rochon interior, you wouldn’t be inclined to call it avant-garde. Take the Parisian hotel Le Bristol, renovated last year. With its gilded mirrors and Louis XVI fauteuils, the opulence is drawn from an earlier, statelier era. Nowhere is it ostentatious for ostentation’s sake.

Then there’s the Savoy Hotel in London, which reopened two years ago following a protracted restoration process. While the suites have been modernised, they are decked out in period styles – art deco for some and Edwardian for others – and the public areas nod towards their legendary history. Not too glitzy, not too faddish, the refurbishment won plaudits for its contemporary spin on the Savoy mythology.

The Savoy, Edwardian room

Eclectic portfolio

Modishness, then, has never been high up the agenda, but Rochon’s sensibility has always stood his practice in good stead. Since its inception in 1979, PYR Design has taken on a staggering range of commissions, each of them personally supervised by its founder. Although he has worked on private residences, restaurants, and product design, it is for five-star hospitality that Rochon is best reputed.

“I love to work on many different projects – modern, classic, Asian, French – and I often jump around from one to the other,” he explains. “Whether the project is a century-old castle or a modern hotel, no matter where in the world, I am working. But my greatest satisfaction comes from providing an education, so that one may see something differently or appreciate beauty in a new way.”

Artistic eye

Born in Brittany, Rochon spent his childhood perennially on the move – an experience that gave rise to a love affair with other cultures. Artistically and musically talented, he wavered between a career in classical music or film before settling on interior design. His early passions, however, were not discarded, and his love of cinematography found an unexpected outlet in the form of PYR Design.

“Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by the mise-en-scène,” he explains. “I always loved drawing, painting, music and fine arts in general. So my designs consider everything from the concrete to the flowers. Architecture, volumes, light design and furniture become the characters in the story I am relating.”

As applied to cinema, mise-en-scène encompasses set design, framing, camerawork – the entire visual environment of a shot. Similarly with interiors, Rochon plays the role of director, co-ordinating the technical and artistic elements to create a framework for the guest experience.

Peninsula Shanghai

Career favourite

But a Pierre-Yves Rochon interior does more than set the scene, and many of his designs come perilously close to stealing it. Take the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris, an ultra-luxury property that is anything but subdued.

“If I had to choose only one project in my whole career, I would definitely choose the George V,” affirms Rochon. “This project was a real challenge; it was the first palace in Paris to enter the new generation thanks to its renovation.”

Closing its doors in 1997, this famous art deco landmark reopened several years later with a new look and a Four Seasons rebrand. Owned by Prince Alwaleed of Saudi Arabia, it needed to appease royal whims as well as the stylistic prescriptions of Four Seasons.

While ‘palace’ in this sense refers simply to a luxury French hotel, Pierre-Yves Rochon’s interiors would be equally suited to olden-day monarchs. Lavished with trompe l’oeil effects, silk damask and glossy marble, George V provides the ultimate distillation of traditional Parisian grandeur – all pomp and circumstance and 18th century overtones, with shades of ‘let them eat cake’.

Nor was its upgrade a one-time event. 2012 saw the opening of the Penthouse Suite on the hotel’s eighth floor. With six terraces offering 360° views of the city, the suite is designed to convey openness, blurring the bounds between inside and out. Highlights include a marble bathroom, sycamore-covered walls and travertine flooring – sumptuous, for sure, yet light and understated.

This commission represented just another episode in what has been a packed year for Rochon. He has also completed work on the Ritz-Carlton Tianjin – “a very wonderful and ambitious project” – not to mention winning the competition for the Four Seasons Roma.

“The project has a strong cultural identity, so we need to respect the local materials and the traditions of Rome,” he says of his 14th commission for the chain. “Ultimately, the contribution to the project should be seamless; a distinct disconnect from the traditional isn’t a successful transformation.”

Rochon’s feeling for tradition is key to his approach, and lends itself well to the image of a quintessentially European designer. Certainly, he has worked extensively on the continent, allowing him to draw upon resonances to which he is peculiarly well attuned.

“In Europe, grandeur is widely accepted – our sense of history is part of our identity,” he says. “Not everywhere has this feeling for grandeur, and in North America the style tends to be more intelligent and pragmatic. But other places are interested in it, particularly China.”

The Peninsula Shanghai, for instance, called upon Rochon to recreate the glamour of the 1920s and ’30s. A newbuild property that opened in 2010, it fuses old Chinese elements with Shanghai Art Deco, and honours the years when the region was known as the ‘Paris of the East’.

Looking to the future, PYR Design plans to make further strides into emerging markets. With offices in Paris and Chicago, the practice has completed projects as far afield as Tokyo and Buenos Aires – giving the lie to anyone who associates Rochon with hardened Francophilia.

After all, his designs do more than stamp Euro-chic on all they touch. Rather, they emerge from the context, be that a 15th century Florentine palazzo or a Parisian Shangri-La with Asiatic stylings.

Rochon takes an academic approach to interiors, immersing himself in the building’s history before deciding on the appropriate interventions. And here we find the root of a seeming contradiction – the fact his interiors can be so unobtrusive, and yet so grandiose.

“I think luxury exists deep inside every one of us, although it may never surface,” he says, delving further into the paradox. “Luxury means transcending the ordinary, the everyday, living elsewhere. For me, working in the hospitality industry means creating an escape which is totally different from day-to-day life.”

Quotidian, these designs are not.

This is the cover feature for the Autumn 2012 edition of Hotel Management International

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