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Complexity of design

Since its launch in 1999, MKV Design has become a go-to design studio for hotel projects and resorts around the world, particularly historical renovations. Founder and managing director, Maria Katsarou Vafiadis, talks us through some of the group’s recent commissions, including the renovation of the Hôtel Royal Savoy Lausanne and the upcoming Burgenstock Resort.

One hundred years ago, the Hotel Royal Savoy Lausanne was the very definition of a European ‘Grand Dame’ hotel. Having opened in 1909, this imposing Art Nouveau building sat on the shores of Lake Geneva, with set-piece views onto the French Alps. The surrounding city was too stylised to be called chocolate-boxy, and the hotel itself was too distinctive to be described as ‘fairytale’.

In the following years, it became a refuge for exiled royals and aristocrats, with both the royal family of Spain and King Bhumibol of Thailand spending time in residence here. What it lost in up-to-the-minute ritziness it gained in prestige, with a roll call of rock star guests adding to its legendary status.

Unfortunately, as the hotel grew older it fell on hard times. While it still looked just as striking on the outside, with its Grand Chateaux stylings fully intact, the interiors had lost their pizzazz.

“Architecturally the building is great, but with time, and the various refurbishments that had happened internally, there was almost nothing left from the good times,” recalls Maria Katsarou Vafiadis, founder and MD of MKV Design. “The owners wanted not only to renovate it, but also extend it, which posed many different challenges.”

Having bought the hotel in 2007, the Qatari operator Katara Hospitality was intent on returning this historic monument to its former glory. With the help of the London-based MKV Design, they embarked on five years of renovations, alongside a new wing, costing 100 million francs ($98.6 million) in total.

Now newly reopened – with a spa and Sky Lounge set for completion in 2016 – the 196-key hotel integrates old with new, in a bid to recapture the glamour of days gone by. Though the building itself is protected, and the façade remains untouched, the interiors have seen a major reconstruction complemented by a new conservatory area and extension.

“We tried to be as true as possible to the old building to its history; having said that, we didn’t want to recreate the old Savoy,” explain Vafiadis. “We tried to bring the atmosphere it had in olden times and somehow make it present in the new hotel. So we tried to use a couple of old elements that had existed in the building, taking inspiration from the exterior.”

Belle Epoque

The lobby, for instance, incorporates a simpler version of the stencilling work from outside. The furniture has Belle Epoque flourishes; and old tiles have been unearthed and then restored. All in all, the feel is one of expressive re-rendering rather than straightforward homage, with the new wing providing a sleek and understated counterpoint to the otherwise theatrical design.

For MKV Design – a firm known for its historic renovations – this is just the latest in a long list of acclaimed hotel and resort projects. Founded in 1999, the firm now comprises around 20 architects and interior designers, who have worked all over the world on projects as far-flung as India, Austria and Azerbaijan.

Vafiadis herself, who trained as an architect before gravitating towards interior design, is known for her versatility of approach. She tackles each project as a one-off challenge, without being fettered by ‘house style’.

“If we have a trademark, it’s that we always try to create spaces that move people emotionally – we go beyond aesthetics to captivate people and somehow connect with them, as well as connecting with the location and culture,” she says. “This is conveyed not just in the bigger picture, but also through our attention to the tiniest detail.”

One key project, due for completion in 2017, is the Burgenstock Hotel, Palace Hotel, and Alpine Spa at the Burgenstock Resort, Switzerland. Like the Royal Savoy, this resort is operated by Katara Hospitality, overlooks a Swiss lake, and comes with a prestigious past. It also blends the old with the new: the Palace Hotel, which originally opened in 1904, is being recreated as a boutique hotel, whereas the Burgenstock Hotel is being built from scratch.

“What’s unusual about the Burgenstock Hotel is not just the location, but also the architecture,” says Vafiadis. “It’s a box that blends almost seamlessly with the surrounding nature – it sits right at the edge of the mountain, and has the most amazing views over Lake Lucerne, meaning when you’re inside the hotel you’ll feel as though you’re flying over the lake.”

The hotel is notable for its oversized windows, meaning the views in question are, in essence, a facet of the interior design. With simple materials, unusual textiles, and an earth-toned colour palette, it works to dissolve the distinction between the inside and outside world.

Alpine Spa

The nearby Alpine Spa does something similar. Inspired by the resort’s natural terrain, it reinterprets local materials and crafts, and draws deep from its Alpine heritage to create something entirely new.

“The design really follows the views,” says Vafiadis. “It’s very simple and natural – we use just stone and timber and a little bit of metal, and tried to integrate techniques that were used in that part of the mountains. So they’re both very modern projects, but at the same time very natural and fitting for the environment.”

Although projects of this nature have become something of a specialty in recent years, MKV is too interesting a firm to be pigeonholed as ‘non-twee mountain hotel design’. Its current projects also include Sheraton Park Lane in London, Victory House in London, and the Grand Hyatt Abu Dhabi Hotel & Residences, which Vafiadis describes as ‘a modern interpretation of the Arabic lifestyle’.

The team also recently completed two hotels in Baku, Azerbaijan, which opened in June 2015 just in time for the European Games. The Intourist Hotel, part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, is glamorous and intimate, with allusions to an older building of the same name. The Boulevard Hotel, meanwhile is a large business hotel that is intended to serve the new Baku White City development as it moves towards completion.

Aside from its design nous, MKV is a highly business-minded practice. It understands the hospitality industry deeply, and always endeavours to strike a balance between commercial demands and creative possibilities. This means working side-by-side with architects and clients right from the outset, to make what was envisioned a reality.

“We try to be very intelligent with our design and add value,” says Vafiadis. “I think design nowadays is not just about aesthetics – it has become so much more complex than that. And when we talk about experiences, or creating something that moves people emotionally, you have to be involved from day 1. You have to be part of a team that shares the same goal, and sets in place all the ingredients for the product that needs to be created.”

Favourite project

Vafiadis thrives on complexity; the chance to go beyond the creation of pretty spaces. At the heart of her work is a deeply-felt appreciation of architectural principles and cultural sensibility.

To that end, she cites her all-time favourite project as the Costa Navarino Resort in Greece, which opened in 2008 and involved the creation of an entire destination. In keeping with the client’s request that the design should tell a story, it combines classical architecture with contemporary stylings and closely interweaves aspects of the resort with aspects of the hotel. That, she says “was very rewarding for us”.

Given the diversity of her portfolio, one might think there was no new ground left for Vafiadis to broach. However, she says that with so much happening in the hospitality world right now, there is plenty remaining to discover.

“Traditionally, we have always worked in the five star luxury segment but there is so much happening in other segments – not just pure hotels, but hotel and residential, apartments, and even hostels that are being designed at the moment, and they really look fantastic,” she says. “We keep our eyes open, and as the stereotype of the hotel is changing, we definitely would like to explore more aspects of hospitality design.”

In the meantime, with the Royal Savoy soon to open in its entirety, MKV Design is gearing up for a busy time. While her resume may currently be light on hostels, Vafiadis can at least be assured that she has five-star luxury covered.

This article appears in the Winter 2015 edition of Hotel Management International

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