De Matos Storey Ryan brings London sophistication to country hotel-spa Cowley Manor
Shan Kelly -- Interior Design, 10/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Finding Cowley Manor is not easy. One can end up driving down endless tree-lined roads dotted with stone cottages, because the turnoff to the Cotswolds hotel and spa is unmarked. Many of those who stay at the new 30-bedroom establishment prefer it that way, thank you very much.
In recent years, few people would have been interested in locating this Gloucestershire estate two hours west of London. The house was being used as a government-run training center, then as a residential-care facility, a sad fate for a building with such a grand history. Built by architect George Somers Clarke in the 1850s, Cowley Manor betrays the early Victorians' obsession with Italy: The house is loosely modeled on Rome's Villa Borghese. In the 1880s, baby-food magnate Sir James Horlick added a west wing, a coach house, and lavish decor. Ceilings were embossed; elaborate plasterwork that mimics carved hardwood paneling was installed in what is now the hotel dining room. Sir James also planted thousands of trees and built the lakes and cascades that make Cowley Manor such a restful retreat, and it was in these gardens that Lewis Carroll allegedly met Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Guests can now contemplate Horlick's four lakes while sipping afternoon tea or cocktails on the hotel's terrace, seated in Ron Arad chairs in bespoke sage green.
The transformation began in 1999 when Jessica Sainsbury—supermarket scion and hospitality novice—bought Cowley Manor with her husband, Peter Frankopan, and enlisted Cambridge University friends José Esteves de Matos, Jonathan Storey, and Angus Morrogh-Ryan of the London architecture firm De Matos Storey Ryan. Each room was individually conceived by the architects with furniture design firm Kay + Stemmer and fabric design firm Govindia Hemphill Tsang. The team debated everything from the types of ashtrays to the textures and colors of wall and floor coverings.
Results can be challenging. One bathroom, larger than most house's bedrooms, features a freestanding toilet. In another suite, the tub is positioned at the foot of the bed. "You might want to watch TV while you're in the bath," reasons De Matos.
Boiled-wool and cotton bedspreads—sold in the spa shop—are by Govindia Hemphill Tsang. The firm also used handwoven horsehair to construct simple cylindrical shades for the dining room sconces. They glow with a subtle green sheen, which perfectly illuminates the lovingly restored paneling.
The lobby is dominated by a crystal installation illuminated by fiber-optic up-lights. An "exploded chandelier," according to the architects, it represents much painstaking work. In the leather-paneled smoking and billiard room, a colossal black fiberglass ceiling fixture hangs above the center of the space. Sleek, spirited lighting elsewhere at Cowley Manor is mostly Italian or Spanish.
After dinner, guests can relax in the sitting room's massive oak chairs with incorporated shelving; these blend seamlessly with Claudio Silvestrin sofas upholstered in pale cotton. Cowhide covers Jean-Michel Frank chairs near the reception desk and Peter Mogensen's seating in the bar, where papier-mâché "hunting trophies" by David Sarrar adorn one of the walls. "The idea was to be tongue-in-cheek without creating offense," explains De Matos. Like all art on display, the faux trophies were chosen by Sainsbury, who actively participated in the design process as a whole.
Cowley Manor managing director Tim House was the practical voice, insisting that materials and furnishings be rigorously tested. "It took us six months to find a conference chair that you could sit in for hours, looked good, and stacked neatly," he reveals. The fruit of the team's search: a leather-covered model by Lievore Altherr Molina.
It's just a short walk from the Italianate to the very contemporary. Cowley Manor's spa, C-Side, occupies a three-sided structure built by De Matos Storey Ryan for the equivalent of almost $2 million. The project started with a 13-foot-deep excavation. Three years later, a curved white wall of precast faux limestone blocks encloses one side of the spa, while another wall is of reinforced concrete, and the rest is glass—exhibiting the architects' joy in contrasting materials.
The gauze-curtained treatment rooms and the changing rooms are paneled with red alder. For the shower units, both here and in the main house, the architects chose blue Ceramelite, usually found cladding the facades of buildings. The material is manufactured by coating glass with enamel paint and subjecting it to a heating and cooling process that provides not only strength but also luminous color.
Lining the indoor pool, dark gray-green slate from Wales creates a connection to nature, enhanced by glass walls on two sides. The outdoor pool is lined with white mosaic tiles that reflect the blue of the sky. To help the spa building blend still further into the landscape—its idyllic features including a 14th-century church in addition to the lake-studded historical gardens—De Matos Storey Ryan even covered the spa's roof with fragrant lavender plants.