There was a time, not so long ago, when you couldn’t walk into the lobby of a new London hotel without seeing polished brass everywhere – for that you can thank Tom Dixon, whose vision for the Mondrian kick-started the trend back in 2014. Around the millennium it was all billowing, celestial white net curtains, courtesy of Schrager and Starck. And somewhere in between, chintz and Victoriana prevailed, thanks partly to Russell Sage.
It’s 40 years since Anouska Hempel opened the dark, sexy, boîte-style Blakes in Kensington, thus single-handedly inventing the boutique hotel. Hempel showed her competitors that hotels didn’t all have to look the same, and inspired a host of copycats. Since then, hotel interiors have evolved with the seasons, new openings in every city often taking a design cue from whichever big-name arrival that year set the standard.
But right now we’re in thrilling, uncharted territory. In the past year, the UK capital has seen more hotels opening in more locations, boasting more styles, than ever before – from the futuristic Japanese gunship exterior of Nobu Shoreditch and the vast marble banking hall of The Ned to the cool and minimalist Pilgrm in Paddington. What’s fascinating is that no single aesthetic holds them together: all of them, around 15 at the last count, are marvellous in very different ways.
These openings, combined with its established classic institutions, have made London one of the most exciting places in the world to stay right now. The variety of styles, and experiences, is exhilarating – and much of this is down to a conscious decision to excite guests as soon as they walk into the lobby. “There is a unique approach to the operation and design of London hotels,” says Tim Kemp, MD of Firmdale Hotels which runs, among others, the Ham Yard, Haymarket and Soho hotels. “It gives a real sense of arrival and an aura of adventure. This is so often forgotten in the hotel world of today. We like the idea of creating spaces that are quirky and a bit eccentric, and yet personal.”
But why now? Part of the story has, prosaically, to do with numbers. London has never had more visitors: according to last year’s Global Destination Cities Index, the total number of visits rose 2.6 per cent from 18.6 million to a record 19.1 million, making it the world’s second most-visited city. And so it stands to reason that extra capacity is required.
More importantly, these visitors are venturing further than ever before. Back in the 80s it was all about tourist hotels around Russell Square, or Mayfair’s luxury grand dames, as visitors tended to spend their time in the West End and its immediate environs. Now the East End is a bona fide draw, thanks to Columbia Road flower market and the boutiques, bars and restaurants of Shoreditch, while the southern side of the Thames boasts Bermondsey and the South Bank. Then there’s the historic City of London; not too long ago it had fewer than 10,000 actual residents and was deserted after the pubs closed on a Friday.
“Visitors have traditionally always flocked to the West End,” says William Sloan, concierge at the new Four Seasons property on the very edge of the City. “They’re now much more open to exploring other areas, and there is so much on offer. Previously people thought of the area where we are as being quieter at weekends, but now there’s a great vibrancy.” “Initially we had a problem attracting international clients,” says Simon Gilkes, who has overseen sales at the Mondrian on the South Bank since its pre-launch. “Londoners came immediately, but people abroad didn’t understand what the area was. Now they do.”
The history of London’s boutique hotels has, of course, always been defined by big, buzzy openings. When Ian Schrager – who invented the concept of the Mondrian in LA in 1996 – arrived at the turn of the century with his St Martins Lane and Sanderson hotels, Londoners reacted with a wildly impressed gratitude. But today such a level of launch is commonplace. Last year we saw The Curtain, The Ned and Nobu Shoreditch appear, and two of these have rooftop pools. A rooftop pool? In London? This would have seemed unearthly in the 90s, but now – why not? The capital has a new and dynamic visual vocabulary.
Lavish interiors continue the visual drama. The Coral Room cocktail bar at the revamped Bloomsbury hotel, with its pink gloss interior by Martin Brudnizki, is conceived as much for social media punch as for any in-real-life wow factor. This summer, Jacques Garcia opens L’Oscar in a deconsecrated church a few streets from the Bloomsbury. Garcia is the man behind Hotel Costes, NoMad and La Mamounia, so don’t expect understatement.
Russell Sage, the star designer behind two London Zetter properties and the interior of the Goring, believes new hotels in London are about narrative as much as thread count. “The market requires far more than generic international luxury now,” he says. “There is a real desire from clients to tell authentic stories which connect with guests.”
You can see what he’s talking about at The Mandrake, furnished in a hallucinatory Victorian manner by Tala Fustok. The heart of the hotel is the restaurant – the restrained, soft pink space of Serge et le Phoque, sibling to the Hong Kong original. But step into the hotel’s Waeska Bar, and you’re on a different journey. “That space is a great example of the hotel’s transformative energy,” explains Fustok. “We mixed rich
jewel-coloured marble with a gentle riot of Parisian fabrics, feathers, chandeliers and trippy artworks. Above the bar is the specifically commissioned mythical gazelcock (part-impala, part-peacock) by Enrique Gomez de Molina.”
Fustok’s own favourite hotel in London is 40 Winks, in Bethnal Green. “It’s a reimagining of Marie Antoinette meets Dangerous Liaisons,” she says. “They put on bedtime story nights where participants lounge about in pyjamas.”
As well as telling a tale that resonates with the guests, a favourite hotel is also sympathetic to its surroundings. Alice Lund, who created the interiors of the $280m Ned, took her inspiration from the old bank’s spatial qualities. “We looked to transatlantic liners as one of the starting points,” she explains. “We studied the SS Normandie, as well as the Orient Express. We also trawled the bank’s archives to find out what the building looked like in its 1930s heyday.”
What links most of these stories is a sense of occasion, which is, of course, what a lot of people want from a hotel. When design practice 1508 London reworked The Langham’s Club and Spa they kept it straightforward and opulent, explains 1508’s creative director, Louise Wicksteed: “It was inspired by the Roman bath spa. There were always rhythmic ceremonial spaces carved from one material, offering a sense of luxury, so we used marble. But we also created a uniquely British spa – reflecting the Georgian period of the property.” The new London hotels also draw on the city’s renowned colonies of artists. Nobu Shoreditch is vastly different from its siblings in Vegas and Ibiza. The exterior is edgy, a little post-apocalyptic, while the interior is full of tactile flourishes as varied as the textures in a Japanese kaiseki meal. Carolynne Shenton, director of Studio Mica, looked to east London’s creative community for certain details. “This is an energetic art neighbourhood with a distinct character,” she says. “We worked with a local artist, Sichi, and his work was integrated into full-height sliding blackout screens in each guest room.”
So people want more from hotels than miniature Molton Brown shampoos and ill-fitting towelling slippers. But where will it end? Perhaps the superlative ROOM by artist Antony Gormley holds a clue. Part of The Beaumont, the hotel from the team behind The Wolseley, it is as much an immersive art experience as it is a suite. You are invited to disrobe in the bathroom, before ascending stairs to a high-ceilinged, wood-lined space. At first it appears pitch dark, apart from the glowing white linen of the bed in the middle. Then slowly your eyes adjust to the silhouettes above. “It is a space of almost monastic simplicity, something much desired in these days of constant noise and overstimulation of the senses,” explains restaurateur and hotelier Jeremy King, one half of the team.
In a global hub such as London, full of penthouse bars and basement clubs, it’s also a radical way to spend the night. And if there’s a unifying trend among London’s new wave of hotels right now, that’s it – each offers something radical.