Alpine Mountain High
François Champsaur mixes modernity with rusticity to make a 257-key Club Med feel intimate
Ian Phillips -- Interior Design, 6/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
François Champsaur isn't particularly keen on big resorts. La Maison Troisgros, an 18-room inn he designed in Roanne, France, is more chic country house than hotel. And his collaboration with Grace Leo-Andrieu on a renovation of the 56-key Hotel Montalembert in Paris? Lauded for its intimacy and Christian Liaigre accents, which are hardly feasible on a larger scale. "I prefer small, charming places—no more than 30 rooms," the designer says.
But when hotel giant Club Med asked him to update a 257-room resort in the French Alps, the challenge was so intriguingly different from his previous work that Champsaur couldn't resist. "The thrill of such a big space," he says, "is that you must find ways to still retain a dose of intimacy."
Built in 1989 by architect Jean-Pierre Chiantello, the exterior of the hotel in Val d'Isère, France, emulates the charm of local farmhouses—slate roof, stone walls, and fir balconies. But the interior was an afterthought, says Champsaur. "The lobby was illuminated like an office, the carpet was gray, nothing was on the walls, and furniture was covered in a dull vinyl. Not much effort had gone into it," he recalls.
Not surprising, because, at least in the public areas, the hotel's steady stream of charter groups makes taking time to luxuriate difficult if not impossible. "Most guests arrive or depart on Sundays. So you can have 500 people leaving and 500 arriving simultaneously—1,000 people in the lobby with luggage on the same day," Champsaur explains.
But even this populous space needn't appear cold. The designer was convinced he could give the client the contemporary coziness it requested—and humanize the weekly lobby scene. To encourage socializing instead of the Sunday logjam, Champsaur broke up the originally monolithic lobby into five small lounges with brown leather-upholstered armchairs, beech side tables made from tree-trunk segments, and oak coffee tables to encourage, as he and the hotel hoped, more relaxation than restlessness. "You don't want the impression of being in an airport terminal. So I created little spaces where two or 'three people can sit down for a chat."
Ditto in the dining hall a level below the lobby, where the designer created so-called confidential zones with custom long banquettes upholstered in purple faux leather with 5-foot-high backs. These are similar to some he used in Montalembert. "Before, it was like eating in a school canteen," he says.
With intimacy provided in these vignettes, familiar emblems of Alpine and Adirondack lodges in their heyday brought a kind of comfort. Champsaur pored over hundreds of old ski-resort photos from an archive store in Paris called Roger-Viollet. The images he found inspired the few overtly lodge-theme accents—wall-mounted vintage skis and poles in the bar-lounge, Adirondack-style chairs with a bronze bear sculpture in the lobby, and witty twig- and timber-work feature walls. Piles of fir logs comprise an 8-foot-high wall in the lobby, while fir cladding another bar-lounge zone to the right of reception is stacked, resembling a log cabin. On a third wall in the dining hall, Champsaur arranged chestnut twigs in a repeated chevron pattern.
In guest rooms, he continued the woodsy influences on bedspreads bordered in a pastoral fir-tree print, and on chairs and cushions covered in cream-and-red toile de Jouy. The Adirondack style shows up again as chestnut benches in the living areas of suites. Windows use both wood blinds and curtains, the layering adding residential softness. And the use of dimmers, after a day spent surrounded by the whiteness of snow, "gives the impression that spaces are lit by candlelight," the designer says.
Not everything, however, should remind travelers of the past. For example, to mitigate the rooms' relatively small size—130 square feet—the fir headboards framed in larch were extended to the ceiling. ' Their bases cleverly conceal storage for bulky luggage. And choosing contemporary clean lines and colors for most of the seating kept the rusticity from seeming lampooned: Purple velvet, for example, upholsters throw pillows on a gray sofa near the entrance, as well as chairs and banquettes in the dining hall. A witty pendant fixture made from antlers appears vintage. But look closer and you'll see it's lit by tiny LEDs. "You can have both an idyllic setting and advanced technology at the same time," Champsaur says. And thanks to his ability to carve calm from chaos, perhaps 500 skiers a week really can achieve nirvana untarnished by check-in.