Architecture & design Tourism & hospitality

New love for the pre-loved

An increasing number of hotels are beginning to use reclaimed and repurposed furniture, rather than buying or commissioning new items. The goal is to ensure sustainable sourcing and create a sense of place – but what are the challenges and advantages of such an approach? Abi Millar speaks to PJ Gilbert of Kempinski and Accor’s Eve Bourguignon. 

For guests staying in the greet Hotel de Beaune in Burgundy, France, the décor might contain a few surprises. Rather than the uniform design and standardised furniture that characterises most economy brands, the hotel is filled with mismatched items, many of which are sourced from flea markets.

Your room might feature a mirror from a garage sale, a bedside lamp that was once a mason jar, and a chair that started life in a classroom. Tin cans have been converted into flowerpots, a wheelbarrow into coffee table and a washing machine drum into a lampshade.

This distinctive hotel, which opened in April 2019, is expected to be the first of many. Accor hopes to open 300 greet hotels throughout Europe by 2030, although there may not be that much continuity from one to the next. Owners are free to express themselves however they like, provided they stay true to the brand ethos of eco-friendliness and social responsibility.

This will mean salvaging objects sourced via second-hand networks, and upcycling unusual decorative items. It might also mean connecting with greet’s partner charities: Emmaüs, which will help owners find second-hand pieces, and Valdelia, an eco-organisation that recycles and re-uses old furniture.

More than an afterthought

The upshot is a unique design that provides a genuine sense of place. After all, local colour is evidently more than an afterthought when your china was previously used at a neighborhood café.

“In greet, repurposed design belongs to the DNA,” explains Eve Bourguignon, design project manager at Accor. “The idea is really to give a second life to a building and furniture, through a positive and fun design style. In our lifestyle brands, we like using pre-loved materials and furniture to set the stage for more personal experiences.”

She adds that Accor sporadically integrates these kinds of features into brands other than greet. 25hours, for instance, mixes vintage objects with custom-designed furniture. And at the ibis hotel in Barcelona, the designer teamed up with a local maker association to create some lobby chairs from old fridges.

“It looks great and really in line with the contemporary design philosophy of ibis,” says Bourguignon. “Where it fits the brand personality and design need we encourage this creativity. It can really give sense of place, through the story you tell of course, but also through the character an old piece of furniture can bring.”

Accor isn’t the only hotel company to abide by this logic. The Hoxton brand, which features interiors by Ennismore Design Studio, is well known for its eclectic, theatrical designs, in which bespoke and reclaimed pieces sit side by side. Marriott’s Moxy East Village, which opened last year, features a wide selection of vintage found furniture. And many of the interiors at Firmdale Hotels – a luxury brand designed by Kit Kemp – include antique furniture and found objects restored to their former glory.

“It’s easier to integrate into eco and midscale brands, depending on the design philosophy,” says Bourguignon. “However, for luxury brands it can be easier to integrate local, bespoke items, made from existing objects by local experts. At our luxury brands we could integrate heritage furniture pieces in signature locations.”

Bring something authentic

PJ Gilbert, vice president of technical services at Kempinski, agrees that the precise meaning of ‘local’ or ‘repurposed’ is dependent on the brand positioning. (For his part, he typically prefers to use the word ‘antique’.)

“The reclaimed furniture trend is more focused on lifestyle or trendy product brands, which are aimed at a different segment from luxury products like ourselves,” he says. “The way Kempinski has often approached projects is to make high-quality, fantastic pieces of furniture that then get repurposed through their life as the hotel evolves. In our Palace Hotels in particular, you often see really antique pieces of furniture, which we can adapt or reuse within the public areas.”

He adds that, since there is very little cost difference between a new and an antique piece of furniture, you would typically choose the antique for reasons other than its price point.

“We know we’re bringing something with an authentic history to the hotel, which we can talk about to guests and really is an added value,” he says. “Not everyone is going to pick up on it but local guests will be able to understand that we’ve really taken time to understand the location, and that will naturally bring more footfall to the public areas.”

There’s always a chance that using these kinds of pieces will add an unwelcome eclecticism to the design. Not every brand, especially those with a very defined signature style, will benefit from the whimsy of the greet brand.

Refreshed for enhancement

However, Gilbert thinks that a carefully chosen antique is more likely to enhance than dilute a hotel’s identity. At the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten Kempinski Munich, which was recently refurbished, the designers included a Nymphenburg Room in homage to the porcelain manufacturer.

“Nymphenburg has a long association with the hotel, and they helped us refresh the pieces the hotel already had in terms of porcelain,” he says. “But they also had chandeliers within their storeroom that fit within the space – they were better at anything new we’d been looking at, so we refurbished them and made sure they were electrically sound. We now have these beautiful antique chandeliers hanging within the space, and it adds another layer onto the existing story of the hotel.”

Of course, incorporating some local references is only part of the impetus for this trend. The other reason is clear: re-use furniture and your design won’t just be ‘authentic’, but sustainable too.

“From an environmental point of view, it is a big advantage – you minimise your impact on the environment by diminishing the amount of raw material needed,” says Bourguignon. “Your carbon footprint is also reduced as you don’t create a new product but use existing ones.”

That said, it might be easy to overstate the case here. If you’re trying to build a sustainable hotel, it isn’t as simple as ‘old furniture good, new furniture bad’ – you need to take a few different criteria into account.

For Bourguignon, it’s important to ask about the materials used (is it local and / or recycled?), along with the furniture’s health impact and carbon footprint.

“Accor has 39 brands each with a different design personality, from economy hotels through midscale and lifestyle to luxury,” she says. “With each brand there are different solutions and different sourcing considerations to meet the needs of the brand, the community and the customer.”

She adds that Accor includes its ‘eco-design criteria’ within all its design briefs and documentation, and holds its suppliers to stringent criteria.

“For it has to start with the design and filter from there – if a building is designed green, it’ll be built green down to the last detail,” she says. “A large part of the process is dialogue, and impact forecasting with our partners and hotel owners to source the best solution for them. Sustainable design is a essential now and should be considered a competitive advantage.”

Gilbert believes that the most important piece of the puzzle is having a controlled procurement process, and being very clear from the outset what kind of standards you require. Kempinski takes a broad view of what sustainability means, looking at where factories are sourcing their raw material and how they’re delivering to the hotel.

“I’m not sure that it’s simple to create a truly sustainable piece of furniture, but what we do at the luxury end is to buy high quality pieces of furniture, where we can do ongoing maintenance to try to extend its lifespan for as long as possible,” he says. “And what we’re starting to do is to look into how the supplier can collect the furniture at the end of its life and reuse or recycle as need be.”

He thinks we’ll see a greater and greater emphasis placed on the circular economy, with hotel brands starting to insist that suppliers have a policy for recycling furniture. That said, he warns against getting caught up in a conversation about a small item and missing the bigger picture.

“Sustainability needs to be tackled in a holistic way across the whole building,” he says. “It’s not just about the furniture.”

This article appears in the Spring-Summer 2020 edition of Hotel Management International

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