The Royalton in New York started the trend five years ago. That was designed by Phillipe Starck, the Frenchman who says a chair is no good if it takes him more than two minutes to design and who has persuaded hundreds of thousands of otherwise sane people to spend almost pounds 10 on one of his offbeat and overpackaged curly plastic toothbrushes.
Starck's imprint - from the uniforms of waiters and bell-hops to the updated art deco armchairs in the cinematically-lit lobby - is inescapable. and The Royalton became as the hip place to stay; it was soon packed with silk-suited Japanese fashion designers, sleek young architects, record producers and the younger generation of pop stars.
Before the Royalton appeared, hotel design in the world's major cities had become stale: the chintzy, would-be Ritz look was standard, and only rarely convincing. London has suffered as badly as anywhere else and because actually staying in a big hotel can be so disappointing (lobbies, bars and restaurants may look wonderful, but wait until you see the dreary rooms), designers such as Mr Nevile are being asked to rethink the way people stay in the centre of town.
Fountains is extremely central; so, as with a new generation of small and stylish hotels (Hazlitts in Frith Street, Soho, prominent among them), it has no restaurant. But then, who needs a second-rate, international-menu hotel restaurant when you can step into the street and be faced with a multitude of inspired alternatives, from Lebanese juice- bars to some of the best Chinese restaurants in town?
Before Fountains, the small and distinguished new hotels and suites of rentable apartments in Britain tended to have the country-house look - or, in the case of Hazlitts, crammed into the old architecture of Soho, an 18th-century town-house look.
Fountains is a small step towards reconciling international travellers with some of the more esoteric trends in new British design and decor. Mr Nevile has worked with Mark Brazier-Jones to produce rooms at Fountains that are both comfortable and quite unlike the rooms of any other hotel or suite of short-stay apartments in London. Mr Brazier-Jones is a motorcycle fanatic, animal- lover and designer of metal furniture inspired by what appears to be a combination of Victorian sci-fi and modern anatomy.
'It's not perfect by any means,' says Mr Nevile. 'Tracey Lowy, daughter of the chairman of the Vienna Group of Companies, approached us and asked if we could redesign what was a developer's block of flats opposite the Lancaster Gate Hotel overlooking Hyde Park in only six weeks.
'A tall order? Quite mad really, but we did it. The haste did mean, however, that we were unable to work on the actual architecture of the existing building and had to concentrate our efforts on the rooms themselves. The public spaces inside Fountains are minimal anyway, so the fact that they are anonymous and give no hint of what lies behind each numbered door is not such a bad thing.'
The Vienna Group of Companies has three three-star hotels in the Bayswater/ Lancaster Gate area: the Henry VIII, the Westminster and the Pavilion. 'We've decided to go upmarket in the recession,' says Tracey Lowy. 'We are a young company and we can see there is a younger generation of business travellers who want something different from the ordinary, international-style hotel. Fountains has got off to a good start in terms of bookings, so we now hope to rework our other hotels and plan ahead using designers with fresh and even radical ideas.
'I think Fountains is an ideal alternative to the rather dull hotel that you get for the equivalent money. You get a lot of space and some real style.'
Given the inventive and even extreme work of both Nevile and Brazier-Jones elsewhere, the decor and furniture at Fountains are restrained. The overall design was in several obvious ways a compromise - the decor of the stairwell and the banal treatment of the woodwork throughout reflect the fact that they were working on a developer's shell.
But the pair have between them created a guide to what a good modern hotel room could be. 'Given the pace we had to work at and the limitations of the original building,' Mr Nevile says, 'we decided to use furniture in what I hope you don't mind if I call an 'iconic' way.
'The shapes of the rooms are quite ordinary, what you'd expect in an Eighties' developer's block; but there's nothing anonymous about Mark's beds or Justin Meath-Baker's sofa-beds and bedside tables. The furniture draws attention to itself and away from the surrounding architecture.'
Certainly, once inside the rooms, you are very aware that everything has been either custom-designed or chosen with critical eyes. 'We wanted the furniture and fittings to be highly distinctive,' Mr Nevile says, 'yet we also had to replicate several pieces and to ensure that, rather than being exciting, one-off curios, they were functional and comfortable. The way we did this was to make prototypes of every piece - chairs, bedheads, light- fittings, the lot - and get them produced in just six or seven weeks. I think that's something we can feel quite proud about.
'In those few weeks we also thought about how the rooms would look during the winter months. A lot of hotel rooms in London - and a lot of houses and flats - look dark and dreary for much of the year. The rooms at Fountains are designed so that they look warmer and brighter as the year wears on.'
The temptation to rent a suite at Fountains is strong, even if you live permanently in London. It costs less than many a mortgage: pounds 800 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, falling to pounds 700 if you take it for between one and six months, and to pounds 525 if you rent for more than six months at a time - which international companies tend to do. For that, you get a beautifully designed interior in a hotel-style block next to and overlooking Hyde Park with a 24-hour-a-day concierge service.
Fountains, 071-706 7070.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content