Architecture & design Hotels & hospitality

Room with a view

For a growing number of hotels, displaying art is no longer a simple matter of hanging reproductions on the walls. Instead, they are employing curators and placing artwork on a par with interior design. We talk to designer and curator Rabih Hage, Four Seasons Firenze general manager Patrizio Cipollini and Oetker Hotels’ Didier Le Calvez, to ask how art can project independence and foster a sense of place.

Picture the scene. It’s 3am and you can’t sleep, not unusually for a jetlagged business traveller. You count your losses, get out of bed, and resignedly pace up and down the corridor. Ordinarily, there’d be little to distract you, but this particular hotel is rich with visual stimulation. Artwork after artwork festoons the walls – a panorama of modern pieces by local rising stars. You admire an installation, eye a sculpture, run your fingers over a wall hanging. While the other guests slumber, you’re enjoying what amounts to a gallery private view.

How does this vignette end? Typically, it would involve the phrase “I woke up and it was all a dream”, but depending on where you’re staying, you might prowl those corridors until dawn. For a growing contingent of hotels, artwork has acquired a new centrality, with ever-more operators opening their eyes to what it can help them achieve.

Take Rough Luxe Hotel in London, which opened its doors in November 2008. Formerly a grade II-listed home, the hotel was revamped by designer and curator Rabih Hage, who kept many original features intact. With layer upon layer of scuffed wallpaper, the rooms expose what Hage calls ‘an archaeology of interiors’. But as well as paring back the building’s history, Hage also nodded to the contemporary art scene with a striking array of modern pieces.  

In the lobby sits a photograph of dapper establishment icons Gilbert and George. The breakfast room contains murals by Massimo Listri, creating the illusion of extended perspective. There are flower-themed images by Japanese artist Aki Kuroda and oil paintings by the American Susan Shup. All such works, rather than being afterthoughts, are integral to the design.

“The artwork is part of the design process,” explains Hage. “You know what impression you want to make, then you go and find the artwork, and build the interiors around that. It’s not decorative – it’s meaningful. And it’s the prime message in the room.”

Four Seasons Firenze is a 'living museum of art history'
Four Seasons Firenze is a ‘living museum of art history’

Sense of identity

Through giving primacy to artwork, Hage inverted the template typically adopted by hotels. In the past, it was low down the agenda; an optional finishing touch once the rest of the interior stylings were arranged. At best, this meant a range of pieces selected to complement the themes; at worst, it meant drab reproductions – dull identikit prints darkening multiple rooms.

But as the luxury hospitality market grew more saturated, the need for differentiators emerged. With design hotels proliferating, the more ambitious among them began to blur the bounds with a gallery.  

Earlier that year, the Four Seasons Firenze completed a painstaking seven-year restoration process. Composed from two Renaissance buildings – the 15th-century Palazzo della Gherardesca and the 16th-century Conventino – the Florentine hotel was widely described as a ‘living museum of art history’. It brims with art and artefacts from centuries gone by.

This is no ordinary Four Seasons offering. The courtyard boasts a frieze of bas reliefs; the 11-acre garden is packed with sculptures; the former palazzo adorns its 15th-century structure with 16th-century flourishes. Even the guestrooms contain masterworks, with the Royal Suite flaunting 233 sq m of art in the form of frescoed ceilings and stuccoed walls. “It’s as much a museum as a hotel,” says general manager Patrizio Cipollini.

In most respects, the Four Seasons Firenze is poles apart from the Rough Luxe. Rather than being creatively curated, the hotel simply took what was already there and polished it up to its former glory. And rather than showcasing current favourites, it offers a piece of the past suspended in time. What both hotels do, however, is use art to tell a story, conveying a sense of heritage and place.

“It is easy to create a sense of identity with art, because there is such a great mix of disciplines and subjects, you can pick and choose your own style,” says Hage. “That’s the fun part – you choose the movement that you like and you create the theme of your hotel around it.”

Of course, it may not always be possible to make like Hage and consider the art from the outset – if your atrium is going to be used as a temporary exhibition space, the chicken that is interiors will come first. That, however, is no slight on the egg. There are as many different approaches to exhibiting and curating art as there are hotels.

Hotel du Bristol disallows artistic reproductions
Hotel Le Bristol disallows artistic reproductions

Local flavour

The James in SoHo, New York, made waves when it opened in 2010, thanks to its involvement with local artists. It hired a young curator, himself a photographer, to select a different solo show for each of the 14 floors, thus giving a platform to emerging talent and enmeshing itself in SoHo’s cultural microclimate.

Then there is the Rome Cavalieri, which boasts over 1,000 original pieces from the 16th to the 20th centuries, including Andy Warhol’s famous Dollar Signs. There is the Thief in Oslo, with contemporary art and video installations curated by the former director of Norway’s National Museum of Art. There is even PPHE Hotel Group’s art’otel brand, whose constituent properties focus on a single designated artist.

And this is not to mention Rabih Hage’s upcoming projects, which, he promises, “will revolutionise the hotel industry like we did with Rough Luxe in 2008”.

At the more opulent end of the spectrum is the Oetker Collection, notable for its links with the art world. Under the auspices of owner and style maven Maja Oetker, each hotel has a policy of disallowing reproductions, instead decking itself in pieces from the Oetkers’ substantial private collection. 

“Exhibiting art is a token of authenticity, luxury and elegance à la française,” says Didier Le Calvez, senior vice-president of operations. “It makes each room different from the rest, as there is no standardisation. All the seven hotels belonging to the collection keep their own identity.”

In addition to his role at the brand, Le Calvez is also president and managing director of the Parisian property, Le Bristol. This hotel has been heavily renovated over the last three years, with art selection forming a critical part of the revamp. While sticking mainly with 17th and 18th-century pieces, it also took the opportunity to introduce more contemporary artworks, conspicuously a 28m sculpture of the designer Jan Pauwels. Each was cherry-picked by Oetker herself.

“All the artworks are chosen to be in perfect keeping with the places they are exhibited,” says Le Calvez. “They come to complete the whole atmosphere of a room and reinforce the spirit of the hotel.”

Importantly, this art is not intended to be passively consumed. Le Bar du Bristol runs a contemporary art-appreciation programme, with videos displayed each evening on a supersized mirror screen. Exploring themes such as architecture, urbanism and landscape, the hotel opens a window onto the Paris art world and engages guests in the process.

Full absorption

Many other art hotels are veering in the direction of the interactive. Starwood’s Le Méridien brand offers a multisensory experience in the form of artist-designed doors, soundscapes for the elevators and special scents in the lobby – these touch points were transfigured by provocateur Jérôme Sans. And Hotel Lone in Croatia encourages guests to play with materials, engrossing themselves in the tactile aspects of the design.

Even without the gimmicks, however, art hotels through their nature can provide a deeply immersive experience. While galleries can be relatively stuffy places, with an ethos of ‘look, don’t touch’, hotels allow guests to get up close and personal. For many guests, keen to explore the artistic heritage of a city, it makes sense to start that quest in their suite.

“The ultimate experience would be to sleep in a gallery or museum,” says Hage. “It’d be like an 11-star hotel. Anything you can do to get close to that is good.”

At Four Seasons, Firenze too, this sense of full absorption is key. “For our international clients in particular, the historical aspects and background of our property are a decisional factor in visiting,” says Cipollini. “The first time our guests enter, they feel like they are stepping into the Renaissance, which is why its charm is impossible to find elsewhere.”

As more hotels note the benefits of exhibiting art, the old paradigm of standardised prints is beginning to lose its lustre. Art connoisseurs and insomniacs, take note.

This feature appears in the Summer 2013 edition of Hotel Management International

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