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  • Writer's pictureRuth Arad

Hotel Design Blog – My English Love Affair Part II

Updated: Jan 27, 2021

By: Ruth Arad | Architect and Interior Designer specializing in hotel design

Hotel design is a field that contains both private and public facets. Its spaces are a blend of commercial, personal and domestic characteristics. The occupation of hotel design allows the creation of unusual stories. Together, the guests, hoteliers and chain of people involved in the process create a personal story – an all-encompassing and complete hospitality experience.

This is the sixth blog in a series being written as I travel around the world in the wake of hotels that excel through exceptional design. Hotel and hospitality design has been my discipline and my business for a decade. I invite you to come along to wonderful, faraway places. In each blog, we’ll take a short trip together toward extraordinary experiences that will be etched into your memory. Each journey will be accompanied by professional explanations that will add another layer to the hospitality experience.

This is the second article in the series of my English love affair – my connection to England was born when I was first exposed to the art of William Turner and became acquainted with the history of the kingdom. They captured my heart and took me to England at the age of 18 on a trip to visit the castles of Wales.

Now, as we approach the Festivals, and everyone is thinking about where to spend them, I want to propose that you think about a holiday in the cool and cultured part of Europe that is the British Isles. In terms of hotels, the reward of staying in hotels renowned for unique design creates unforgettable experiences and disconnects us from the reality we’ve come from, almost as if we are stepping back in time and feel a part of history.

This time we’ll start our trip in London, a city and a shining example of culture, art and design. I came to this city to fulfil a dream of life and experiences in a new milieu. Throughout the history of art, its great centres have shifted in different periods – the centre of art that existed in Italy during the Renaissance moved to France during the era of Impressionism and from there to New York during the Modernist era. Today, to my mind, the global centre of art belongs to the English, and to London in particular. The intercultural melting pot creates a cosmopolitan variety and a wonderful platform of culture and art.

In different spaces the connection between old and new is expressed in interior design in a different way – each designer gives his or her personal interpretation to historical heritage, to the local place and to the experience that he wants guests to envisage.

A leading player has taken up central position on this stage in the form of Firmdale Hotels a London hotelier group that designs unique boutique hotels based on English design with a refreshing interpretation and working with motifs that serve as a meeting point of east and west, old and new, contemporary art and historical art.

The hotels I review here are designed by Kit Kemp who, in partnership with her husband, owns this chain comprising eight boutique hotels in London and another recently opened one in New York.

I have chosen to share with you the Haymarket Hotel, which was the first of their hotels I got to know, and the recently opened Ham Yard Hotel, which I had the pleasure of visiting recently. Both hotels totally fascinated me, each in their own particular way.

Haymarket Hotel

The Haymarket Hotel is located in the heart of London, next to the Theatre Royal Haymarket which was originally built in 1720. In 1820, by royal command, a new theatre was designed by architect John Nash, who also moved the Theatre slightly to its present location midway between Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus. The Regency facade of the hotel building was popular in the late Georgian period, when design maintained precise symmetrical proportions, with the front door in the centre of the structure, large windows, carved stone decorative elements, and sloping roofs. In contrast to the restraint of its exterior, the interior of the hotel promises a design adventure.

View of the front facade of the Hotel built in classic architectural style Photo credit: Simon Brown

On entering the lobby, we encounter two seating areas, one in a traditional style, with a large black and white landscape painting by artist John Virtue, while opposite the second seating area transmits a more contemporary flair: with a sofa of Swedish design from the 18th century and a work of art that I especially love by Sue Lawty, an artist who created a 6-metre long composition made of natural pebbles glued in a crisscross (warp and woof) pattern along the wall, using fabric to connect between past and present.

In the centre of the space there is a shiny, nickel-plated, steel sculpture by the sculptor Tony Cragg. The artworks chosen for the lobby space is most impressive and enables a close-up acquaintance of the rich art world of contemporary English artists.

Kemp tends to select a strong focal point that draws the eye in and alongside it she creates a harmonious symmetry – look at the artwork in black and white and notice the consoles on either side of it with their unique vases and floral displays that take up the entire wall and generate interest in the lobby space.

One end of the lobby seating area displays a classical John Virtue painting and contemporary Tony Cragg sculpture Photo credit: Simon Brown

The seating area at the other end of the lobby allows Sue Lawty’s contemporary art to frame classical Swedish design furniture Photo credit: Simon Brown

The lobby continues towards the reception desk and a series of rooms – one space leads to another, and in each the design is different. My favourite space was designed in the style of a conservatory and, without containing any vegetation, the designer has succeeded in conveying the mood by using a wonderful botanical wallpaper and overhead lighting that conveys natural light. The use of driftwood lights suspended from the ceiling and repeated in the stools, the sheer immensity of the urns that look as if they have been made of clay, and the muted palette of tones in the space all interact to form a natural botanical design.

The design of the conservatory particularly appeals to me Photo credit: Simon Brown

The library Photo credit: Simon Brown

The bedrooms, designed by Kit Kemp, rely on the classics with a twist. She has her own way of introducing her interpretation such as, for example, choosing a wallpaper with a unique print or creating a bed headboard of a classic shape covered in a quirkily embroidered fabric. Or as Kit Kemp says: “Every room is like a painted canvas, it has to tell a story.”

A ‘typical’ bedroom design from among the rooms decorated in unique style Photo credit: Simon Brown

Kit Kemp’s working method is built on the good old classic tradition where every fabric and detail is chosen, including finishes, decorative elements, and laid them out in the form of a professional tender – she tends to hang the mood boards for each room in the corridors of the hotel so that guests are presented with the work process involved in reaching a different result in each room.

It is absolutely apparent that this is painstaking work which shows a lot of love for the profession and the work processes.

A sample mood board Photo credit: Ruth Arad

The Shooting Gallery is a glamorous multi-purpose room for private dinners and cocktail parties. Historically the Gallery was the venue for members of a gentleman’s club that frequented it for early morning shooting practice in the John Nash era. It’s a hall of generous proportions – 18 metres in length and a ceiling that is 6 metres high. Designed to create an atmosphere of the light before dawn breaks, the walls are covered with a dramatic painting of mythical scenes in shades of sepia. The space contains an eclectic mix of furniture, including Perspex tables and lamps from the 1970s, and original fine drawings created by British stage designer Oliver Messel for the staging of Caesar and Cleopatra. It is a space that can easily be transformed from a luxury private dining room into a banquet room or a cocktail party event.

The multi-purpose Shooting Gallery Photo credit: Simon Brown

Ham Yard Hotel

Another of the esteemed Firmdale Group hotels is Ham Yard Hotel, the newest of its London hotels, which opened in 2014, and is located at the intersection between Regent Street and Soho. The designer wanted to create a courtyard that would serve as a meeting place – a kind of urban village, and to achieve this she placed small boutique shops around the square. In the square’s centre there is an impressive sculpture by Tony Cragg, winner of the prestigious Turner Prize for Contemporary Art, an artist whose work we have already encountered in the Haymarket Hotel.

The Tony Cragg sculpture in the Hotel’s urban courtyard Photo credit: Simon Brown

Ham Yard comprises 91 bedrooms, each of which is of different design, as well as 24 apartments for short-term lets. The restaurant and various seating areas are located on the ground floor and the Hotel also has an underground space containing a spa, fitness room and a number of places dedicated to private functions. There is a blue screening room with 176 orange seats and a full-size 1950’s bowling alley all the way from Texas, which boasts a bowling chute along which the balls are mechanically returned to players.

A view of a couple of bowling lanes and the display of historic bowling shoes Photo credit: Simon Brown

As soon as you enter the Hotel’s reception area, you get a promise of things to come – a cornucopia of artworks, traditional jugs imported from faraway countries, and combinations of contemporary art. The full-height windows here with their black aluminum frames form a dominant focal point towards the central courtyard from which we arrived.

Entrance to the reception area with Hermione Skye’s thread installation “Loom” above the desk Photo credit: Simon Brown

The design of the restaurant is wonderful – it’s a space that is both long and wide and has a ceiling that soars to a height of six metres. A central skylight brings natural light into the space. When designing large spaces, the challenge is to create intimate spaces within the whole. This is achieved here through partitioning and the creation of a unique design within each individual part of the large space.

Kemp’s creation included spaces that serve as a separate part of the large space without being closed off by a door. An example of this is a space in which a wall has embedded porcelain jars with leafy patterns forming pleasant and inviting beams of light.

Soft lighting emanates from delicate porcelain jars Photo credit: Simon Brown

A central bar divides the space in half – behind it the restaurant’s tables are spread out and the kitchen is exposed to all with the food being prepared by the chefs in full view. And set against this is the lively bar. The bar’s display units are constructed of simple wooden crates painted with abstract shapes in black and white that give it an oriental look that beautifully connects with Kemp’s eclectic design language.

The bar with its wonderful crates which serves as a display element and a space divider Photo credit: Simon Brown

The restaurant’s walls and pillars are covered in “Willow” a yellow, grey and brown fabric designed by Christopher Farr, building a sense of three-dimensional space while highlighting the level of care taken in every aspect of the design, down to the last detail.

Design down the centuries blend in the Drawing Room Photo credit: Simon Brown

The drawing room is another room displaying the unique work of bringing together fabrics with abstract designs, alchemical pottery pieces, an antique Swedish wedding cabinet engraved with a floral motif and many more unique items. Here the designer’s intention was to create a sense that the Hotel and all its spaces have been in use for many years and recount a piece of history. She avoids creating something new that may cause us, even subconsciously, to feel uncomfortable, or detached, or needing to be careful about using the Hotel’s facilities.

My favourite area where I chose to sit one spring afternoon is the interior patio where it is particularly pleasant to take afternoon tea. The suspended light fixture that look like upside down wicker baskets, are the work of Lamp Pet, and corresponded harmoniously with the pink armchairs.

The enchanting patio at the heart of the Hotel is perfect for taking the traditional afternoon tea Photo credit: Simon Brown

The entire Hotel is full of world art – it is a meeting point of folklore, tribal sculptures and ancient cabinets – every way you turn there is something to draw the eye, something we’ll want to touch. It is a singular experience of timeless design. Kit Kemp’s design is unique to her, and does not correspond with other design styles. Instead it uniquely creates itself in an endless collection of eclectic furniture, tribal art from distant places, and an outstanding connection with both classic and contemporary English art and design.

Further articles in the English series will follow shortly.

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