Nights in the next millennium

PART 1: MODERNIST HOTELS: In the first of a three- part hotel series, Jonathan Futrell sees the design-led shape of things to come, courtesy of Messrs Starck and Conran, and visits Anouska Hempel's new venture
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Close your eyes and imagine for a moment that you've just checked into one of London's five-star hotels. The doorman is wearing a top hat and tails, the brocade drapes are held with satin cord, there's a faux Stubbs painting on the wall and leather-bound volumes with gold inlay on the sideboard, and the carpet has one of those nasty floral patterns that clash with absolutely everything.

Venture into the sombre, wood-panelled dining room where, even though you're paying through the nose for the privilege, you have to wear a jacket and tie and are offered the sort of meal Henry VIII would have tucked into after a hunting expedition. It's all too familiar because we've all been to such places and laughed at the archaic formality of traditional hotels - the ones we are told Americans flock to see, like the royal family and Harrods.

But the end may be in sight for these temples of chintz. Contemporary design is gaining currency in London and the designer generation, with its hands immersed in a post-rcession brimming pot of venture capital, is ditching all the established hotel practices and doing the unthinkable; it's going Modern.

Over the next three years a raft of smart new designer-led hotels is opening, without a single shred of lace or a stick of reproduction furniture between them, to augment the growing ranks of modernist bars and restaurants. Ahead of the pack, and opening its doors in the next few weeks, is the Hempel, former actress Anouska Hempel's shrine to white and minimalism, concealed within five stuccoed Regency houses in Bayswater, London.

In January the scaffolding and wraps come off the Metropolitan in Park Lane, where the former Londonderry Hotel, in what was a rather drab Sixties block next door to the Hilton, has been given a major end-of-the- century designer make-over.

By which time a consortium headed by Sir Terence Conran, who some people claim has done more for the look and taste of the capital than any other individual this century, will begin work on another hotel project close to Liverpool Street Station in the City.

Other hotels are in the pipeline for Soho and Fitzrovia, and there are also plans to build on a site that is presently occupied by a refuse-recycling plant adjoining the Grand Union Canal in Camden.

And while all of this fevered activity is going on, Ian Schrager, the British hotelier who defined the concept of designer hotels in New York - first with Morgans and subsequently with the Royalton and the Paramount and most recently with the Delano on Miami's Art-Deco South Beach - aided and abetted by French designer Philippe Starck, is turning up the heat and is reported by reliable sources to be closing a deal on a property here too.

"It's not really surprising that various people should be planning modern hotels for the capital," says Sir Terence. "After all, London has plenty of very successful modern restaurants, but where are the hotels to match?

"It's also obvious from the success of the Schrager hotels that there's a frustrated band of travellers who want to stay in hotels that reflect the modern world rather than stay in hotels that look like their grandmother's parlour - all floral chintz and ersatz Georgian furniture and luridly patterned carpets that disguise the stains."

There's nothing remotely grandmotherly about Anouska Hempel's stunning new hotel. From the outside, 31-35 Craven Hill Gardens appears to be little more than five beautifully maintained London town houses, and only a discreet and solitary "H" fixed to the side of one of the front doors gives any hint of what lies beyond. Understatement it seems is the first rule of true modernism.

Anouska Hempel defined the look, feel and style of Eighties town-house hotels with her first venture, Blakes, in South Kensington. At the Hempel she's eclipsed even that remarkable achievement with a hotel for the millennium that almost beggars belief.

The pure white reception area, reached via a small anteroom containing a carpet of white orchids, is devoid of any of the usual communications and accounting machinery that clutter such places as a rule. At each end of the space there is sunken seating and fires with flames that seem to appear from thin air. Hovering above this surreal scene, and funnelling through the centre of the hotel to the roof, is a large white atrium, a sort of cooling tower with daylight at the top: there is a smaller version above one of the beds upstairs.

The bedroom doors are nine feet tall and move with the slow, almost fluid gracefulness of ships. Behind them the rooms are all unique. Some have beds that appear to float; others have four posters that spiral up to the ceiling; monastic bathrooms and white panels to disguise wardrobes.

This is serious design. Like arriving in a virtual world of - white, and little else. Here the beautiful people who previously stayed at Blakes will appear as exhibits in a gallery, there for the viewing, and the unkempt will appear as dandruff upon a pristine couture shoulder.

"I saw the buildings and the garden square and the possibilities were so endless," explains Anouska Hempel. "I was inspired by pyramids, igloos, the desert, the Great Wall of China, Indian palaces, Bali, the inside of a shoe box... light dancing through the leaves of trees in my garden, sitting in a puddle and staring upwards, a ship's funnel, the swish of crisp white cotton... The space and height, though, were the most important things right from the beginning of the project ... pure space, pure altitude, pure fantasy and huge surprises."

While the Hempel is tucked away in a quiet, elegant part of Bayswater, with its own garden square for the exclusive use of its guests, the Metropolitan Hotel on Park Lane, close to Hyde Park Corner and the Hard Rock Cafe, couldn't be more in the thick of it. And unlike the Hempel, which is aimed at that elite group of travellers who seek their high style behind closed doors, the Metropolitan will be casting its net wider.

Behind the project are Mr Beng Seng Ong and his wife Christina, the fabulously wealthy Singaporean couple whose British business interests include the distribution and retail rights to Donna Karan, Giorgio and Emporio Armani and Prada. Their other hotel is the purpose-built five-year-old Halkin, nearby in Belgravia, which quickly established itself as one of the finest and most discreet places to stay in the capital - and modernist with it.

Architectural firm Mark Pinney & Associates has overseen the project, which has involved scrubbing clean the exterior and replacing the windows, so that by the time the wraps come off in the New Year, the Metropolitan will look, to all intents and purposes, like a brand new building. The crisp modern look and feel of the interior of the 155-room hotel is being handled by London's United Designers, whose track record includes Sir Terence Conran's restaurants Quaglino's and Mezzo.

According to hotel publicist Rupert Sellers, the Metropolitan will provide "an experience" for people who feel uncomfortable with chintz. All the rooms will have something called ISDN data transmission technology (a generation beyond modem) and fax machines will be available upon request. The staff will be kitted out in DKNY suits and be instructed to be chatty and "interrelate" with guests.

"We're going to break the mould and have a refreshingly different attitude to guest service," Sellers explains. "For example, at the reception desk, rather than have someone behind it and you, the customer, stuck there in front, why can't they come around to the other side? Be a bit more human about it."

Hotel pundit and publicist Nigel Massey, of the Massey Partnership in London, says, "If you're in the media, music, fashion, or computers - any of what I call the 'new businesses' - you'll have a choice about where you stay and people will stay in hotels that befit their lifestyle and their culture. I think you are seeing an interesting situation where the modernistic, designer-driven hotel will appeal to those who feel it is essential that their lifestyle is reflected by where they decide to stay."

The Metropolitan is clearly setting out to be the place where youngish, modish, hip-ish people will want to spend their leisure time. And to discover where it takes its cue from you need to look to the other side of the Atlantic.

During the Seventies, Ian Schrager ran the highly successful, and much imitated, Studio 54 nightclub in Manhattan and he is on the record as saying that for him "hotels are the nightclubs of the Nineties". His work with designer Philippe Starck, who has designed everything from kettles and fruit juicers to motorcycles and breweries, bears this out.

Any new Schrager project generates as much excitement as a new Galliano collection for people who move in such rarefied circles and for them it's a race to be the first to stay there. At the opening-night party at the Delano last year, where the guest list included Madonna (who has money invested in the hotel's restaurant), the door policy was every bit as elitist, brutal and ruthless as the one at Studio 54. A year later the Delano still has the coolest bar on a very cool and competitive strip.

Schrager came close to getting his hands on the former headquarters of Sanderson Fabrics in Berners Street, London but was pipped to the post by the British property company Burfords. It has a property portfolio which includes the Trocadero Centre in Piccadilly Circus. This 70,000 sq ft Grade II listed building is typical of the Sixties and Seventies modernist blocks currently being sought.

According to Trevor Watson at property agents Davis, Coffer, Lyons, the prohibitive costs of building from scratch make these otherwise unwanted office blocks attractive propositions. Watson told me he has a list of clients all looking for similar properties in the City and west London. "The main reason is that many Sixties offices are absolutely useless now, by current specification standards, but they subdivide into hotels very conveniently - and in fact, once you've done them they look purpose built and modern," he says.

Chintz-free hotels in Britain are not as new and revolutionary as they seem. The first was 42 The Calls in what was a derelict corn warehouse overlooking the canal in Leeds. It opened in April 1991 with acres of steel and glass, hi-fi sound systems in each room, brash modern art on the walls, an imaginative restaurant, and staff who looked like models, except they had smiles instead of pouts on their faces.

"We were early," confesses Jonathan Wix, the manager of 42 The Calls, "but when Anouska Hempel opened Blakes in London in the Seventies it was simply revolutionary. Of course they've got stacks of modern hotels on the continent and when the designers came to work here I took them around to show them what I did, and didn't, want. I showed them the Jeu de Paume, in Paris, La Villa, on Rue Jacob - stunning in black and white but with corridors so dark I had to grope along them. And the Montalembert in the seventh arrondissement - just stunning, totally modern and everything about it is exactly right.

"Design," adds Wix, "is something that creates a good background feeling but it's not the be all and end all. It's the staff that make a really great hotel - that's what's really important."

Oliver Peyton, the former nightclub entrepreneur and owner of London's Atlantic Bar & Grill and Coast restaurants, makes no secret of the fact that he also wants to join the hotel club. But having been gazumped once, he is sensibly remaining schtum about another 200-room property, currently trading as a hotel and somewhere in the West End, until the ink has well and truly dried on the contract.

What can we expect from him? "I think there is a market for five-star trendy hotels - not three- or four-star, but something really smart," says the fast-talking young Irishman. "Trying to get into the Four Seasons in New York is impossible, and that's a big hotel and it's real money. Its room rates are $350 to $500 minimum, and you can't get in. The trouble with some trendy hotels is they deliver space but the service is crap. I want to deliver very expensive, very upmarket service, in a modernist way."

Sir Terence Conran and a number of other would-be hoteliers have been locked in a legal tug of war for months over an ideal property for conversion at 1 The Aldwych - just bridging that divide between The City and the West End. But while the legal writs fly, London's most successful moderniser has turned the young design team at his CD Partnership to the task of renovating the rather jaded Great Eastern Hotel, which sits alongside London's revamped Liverpool Street Station.

A budget believed to be in the region of pounds 30m has been set aside to transform the only hotel that is actually inside the Square Mile from a sad 19th-century monument of neglect into something more in keeping with the futuristic steel and glass towers dedicated to Mammon that surround it.

In some ways The Great Eastern, which should open in about 18 months time, is typical of Sir Terence's previous projects of sympathetic modernising within traditional frameworks: The Conran Shop was shoe-horned into the listed Michelin building and his only other hotel commission to date, Das Triest in Vienna, is in a former stable block.

"The feeling is very much that we've waited far too long for something like this to come along," says CD Partnership architect James Soane, who worked on Das Triest and is now actively engaged upon the Great Eastern.

"We're working closely with English Heritage and what we want to do is restore a grand hotel for the next century. But this doesn't mean that you have to have fill it with chandeliers and chintz. Because we think you can interpret that and still make an environment that's both discreet and glamorous, contemporary but luxurious.

"Ian Schrager has singlehandedly changed the perception of hotels from being either international luxury or tourist Travel Lodges into places where people want to be, where they want to be seen. And while we wouldn't be taking on board aesthetically any of the things that he has done, I think what one should learn is the lesson that attention to detail pays off."

For the time being the Hempel is London's temple of modernity, one woman's vision of the future. "We wanted to create something strong and true - that was obtainable," says Anouska Hempel of her white palace.

"I wanted our guests to feel inspired, to stop for a moment and take it all in, to feel like they are at the start, and part of, a magical journey. To feel the strength of the building, the architecture, the theatrical side, the humour and the fun - and to be greeted warmly and feel that they are at home. And," she adds, "to be comfy. It's a tall order."

NIGHTS IN WHITE SATIN: THE FACTS

At the ultimately modern Blakes Hotel (0171 370 6701, 33 Roland Gardens, SW7 3PF), single rooms cost from pounds 135 per night, "directors" doubles from pounds 330 and luxury suites pounds 620. Each room is individually themed by Anouska Hempel whose second London hotel, The Hempel (0171 298 9000, 31-35 Craven Hill Gardens, London W2 3EA), is due to open this autumn. There, monochromatic double rooms are to cost from around pounds 230.

The Halkin (0171 333 1000, Halkin Street, London SW1X 7DJ), complete with Michelin-Star-rated restaurant and a fax machine in every room, charges from pounds 220 for one of the 30 double rooms and from pounds 450 for a suite.

Jonathan Wix's 42 The Calls (0113 244 0099, 42 The Calls, Leeds LS2 7EW), in a converted warehouse in central Leeds, has just 41 rooms which cost from pounds 95 for a single to pounds 195 for the penthouse.

Across the Atlantic the first hotel collaboration between Ian Schrager and the late Steve Rubell in 1983, Morgans (00 1 212 686 0300, 237 Madison Avenue, New York, NY10016) was refurbished in 1995 in "shades of taupe, camel and ivory... in materials such as corduroys, silks and suedes". Staying at Morgans costs from $195 (approximately pounds 130) for a single room to $550 (pounds 370) for a one-bedroom apartment. Rates for the penthouse are available on request.

In 1988 Rubell and Schrager opened their second hotel in Manhattan, The Royalton (00 1 212 768 5000, 44 West 44th Street, off 5th Avenue, NY10036), originally built in 1898, with 168 rooms and common areas famously remoulded by French designer, Philippe Starck. Prices range from $210 (pounds 140) for a "standard" room to $2,100 (pounds 1,400) for the 1,700-square-foot penthouse with 72-inch king-sized bed and, among other amenities, two televisions and four phones.

Next came their "cheap chic" hotel The Paramount (00 1 212 764 5500, 235 West 46th Street, NY 10036) where the 600 rooms are priced according to bed size, starting from $130 (pounds 85) for a single room.

Moving from New York, Schrager opened the 238 room, 16-storey resort hotel, the Delano (00 1 305 672 2000, 1685 Collins Avenue, Miami, Florida, FL33139), a further collaboration with Philippe Starck, and in Los Angeles the Mondrian (00 1 213 650 8999, 8440 Sunset Boulevard) is having the final touches of its latest refurbishment.

Re-opened in 1993 the Four Seasons Hotel New York (00 1 212 758 5700, 57 East 57th Street, NY 10022) houses 370 guest rooms over 46 floors each with its complement of fax machine and computer link-ups and "oversized marble bathroom with steeping tub". The entire 52nd floor is given over to the Presidential Suite, complete with private entrance and living and dining rooms.

Sister hotels are located world-wide, including the Four Seasons Hotel London (0171 499 0888, Hamilton Place, Park Lane, London W1A 1AZ) and Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles (00 1 310 273 2222, 300 Doheny Drive).

At Terence Conran's only foray into hotels, Das Triest in Vienna (00 43 1 58918, Wiedner, Hauptstrasse 12, 1040 Wien) rooms cost from around pounds 130, and "throughout the building specially commissioned pieces of furniture and art... allow it to be somewhat quirky".

In Paris at the Hotel Jeu de Paume (00 33 1 43 26 14 18, 54 Rue Saint- Louis-en-l'Ile, Paris 75004), each of the 32 rooms face onto the garden courtyard and cost from around pounds 100 a night. And at the Hotel Montalembert (00 33 1 45 49 68 68, 3 Rue de Montalembert, Paris 75007) double rooms cost from around pounds 200 a night.

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