To follow up our recent feature on the Top 10: Boutique Hotel Designers, we thought it would be great to talk to the top triumvirate of designers about their inspirations and aesthetics. Kicking off our interview series is design doyenne Anouska Hempel, who came in at Number 1 for the longevity of her legendary London boutique hotel, Blakes. Despite having dozens of projects on the go, she kindly took time out of her hectic hotel-design schedule to talk to us about the ultra-modern Brazilian retreat Warapuru, exploding pianos, and the Moomins…
I’m not really an interior designer: Anouska Hempel Design is an architectural practice. I never wanted to be just an interior designer – I wanted to be a designer full stop, from the age of five, I think.
You’ve styled some of our favourite city luxury hotels (Blakes, for example, where Mr & Mrs Smith’s founders James and Tamara got married, as well as the iconic Hempel). How vital is the decor of a hotel to you?
If you’re choosing a hotel for romance, or to have fun in, its interior decoration is very important, because it sets the mood for your stay. And it indicates what sort of person you are: I think the people who are pulled towards our hotels are more theatrical than most, and not of the corporate ilk.
Do you have any hotel hates?
I don’t like checking in. I hate being hassled: I hate having to fill in that damn form, and I hate having to get the passport out, all that paraphernalia – that doesn’t work for me.
It’s certainly not conducive to relaxation!
[Laughs] No! It has to be done, but there are better ways of doing it. For example, at another project I’m working on – La Suite London, in Nottingham Place, which is a really fantastic young business hotel in the West End – check in will be very different, even though it’s a corporate hotel. You’ll get checked in at the airport, or at a café round the corner, or in a bar. Not at reception, all lined up with all your stuff, as though you were going in for a jail sentence.
Another of your ongoing projects is Warapuru, a highly anticipated state-of-the-art hotel and villa complex in Bahia, due for completion in 2010 – I take it arriving there will pretty special?
Yes, it’ll be quite a different thing altogether. You’ll travel there in a lovely old truck, and you’ll be checking in lying on a mattress, with a mojito in your hand – it’s all done for you, so that when you get there, you can just relax.
Warapuru has already created a lot of buzz in the press – our Smith spies visited the site earlier this year when they were researching our Brazil hotel collection, and they were blown away by what they saw. What’s the concept behind the project?
A complete extravaganza of architectural space: there’s a lateral element of extraordinary length, and a vertical element that drops down about five or six storeys, all the way down to the centre of the rock. You have fire and water and ice, and a fantastic spa, where I’m also designing the spa products – it’s the best and biggest thing that we’ve ever done.
Yes – that’s the most important thing about it. You stand out in the jungle as yourself, but you still belong to it.
What excites you most about Warapuru?
It will be amazing to see people’s faces when they walk into the hotel – across a body of water and through those extraordinary citadel walls. It was just the same at the Hempel all those years ago: when you got to the middle, you looked up at this incredible space and – my goodness – it just took your breath away.
A real sense of drama, in a very architectural, spiritual way – nothing to do with interior decorating – it’s to do with space, harmony, and how you use that nothingness to be something very important.
I really like that idea of using absence to suggest presence…
So do I. It’s all or nothing with me, it’s either completely contemporary with very little, or it’s a brilliantly mad and rococo and over the top. The in-between situation doesn’t really suit my personality – I can’t just do the middle ground, it doesn’t work.
Which other designers or artists do you admire?
I like Tadao Ando, he’s my favourite architect in the world; Mario Testino for his great artistic flair and his world of photography; and I like Norman Foster’s work – understated and clean. I can’t do what he does (and I don’t want to), but I love what he does. I don’t even mind Damien Hirst and his hollow skull, and I like Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvases [see below ]… all kinds of weird things.
And the wonderful German artist Rebecca Horn – she’s the one who had the exploding upside-down piano at the Tate [Concert for Anarchy], and those kinetic sculptures with the rivers of blood and mercury that scare the hell out of everyone! She does this all-singing, all-dancing feather couture work too – surreal couture.
Your interiors are poised, refined and glamorous, with a hint of theatricality – much like some of the women you design couture for. Do you ever have a particular persona or character in mind when you design?
Well it depends what the project is and who you’re designing for – it’s very personal, because couture is couture at the end of the day. It’s to do with making a person feel fantastic in themselves: you have to make them comfy, make them feel that they are the only person in the world. I think that’s what the Anouska Hempel Design company is expert at – otherwise it wouldn’t have been going so long.
Do you have a favourite place in the world?
I love Egypt and I love old Cairo, where they have the most extraordinary air-conditioning systems. I kept pottering around and looking at all the ancient buildings, up in the attics, where they used to pull and push screens and fans to get cool air inside…
Like Arabic wind-towers?
Yes – beautiful things. I’m also pulled to Egypt because of the boating, because of the water. And I just love to go to Luxor; I’m very much inspired by the ancient Egyptians. It’s that volume and space thing, obviously.
What are you reading at the moment?
A Winter Book by Tove Janssen – it’s the most glorious little book. It’s all to do with icebergs and stone, and colours and lights… it’s almost as though it were written especially for me.
She wrote the Moomins, didn’t she? I loved those books as a child
Yes that’s it! This one is a whole collection of short stories – it’s beautiful. There’s one story that really recaptures my childhood fantasies, about flying – an escape from reality.
Sitting on Beluga 1 – our Turkish gulet – in Corfu, with [my husband] Mark, in the mists of the morning, with a calm mercury sea, is the most glorious and most romantic thing. Just freedom… on our own. And then to have a fire at night, with gypsies perched on the bow of the boat playing old balalaika music – maybe a blue moon if we’re lucky! Pure heaven.