Deco by Despont
At Claridge's, perhaps the Savoy Group's grandest dame, Thierry W. Despont reorchestrates the jazz-age public rooms
Mary Killen -- Interior Design, 6/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Were one to assert that Claridge's has been the epicenter of sophisticated London social life since 1812, it would probably stand up in a court of law. At times, however, the Mayfair hotel has been more of an epicenter than at others. We are now experiencing one of those epicentric moments, thanks in large part to the recent revitalization by Thierry W. Despont.
First, in 1998, the David Collins redesign of the bar turned it into one of the hottest spots in town. In 2000, the Savoy Group, which owns Claridge's, decided that the Victorian-Edwardian-rococo-deco mishmash of the other public rooms was becoming a little tired. Management therefore sought the guidance of English Heritage to preserve the integrity of the Grade II building. Also needed was an architect with enough international vision (and a degree in urban planning from Harvard's Graduate School of Design) to pay tribute to the hotel's triumphant past while creating a rejuvenated backdrop for a new era of social history.
"I had never worked on a hotel," says Despont, who specializes in fine residential work for clients such as Hubert de Givenchy, Calvin Klein, Spyros Niarchos, and Bill Gates. "But I saw that Claridge's already had a strong residential feeling." The French-born, New York–based Despont's only major source of hesitation was the fear of being dismissed by the British as a foreigner. For this reason, he says, "I thought it very important to understand the history and culture of Claridge's and spend hours absorbing the atmosphere before deciding how to proceed." And how did Despont react to the restrictions imposed by English Heritage? "Some people think they are policemen, but I have only praise for their dedication."
Archives in a dusty, remote corner of Claridge's as well as at the Victoria and Albert Museum provided extensive pictorial references, leading the designer to showcase the hotel's unique deco features. He restored Oswald Milne's brushed-silver stag lamps, which grace the lobby, and Basil Ionides's etched-glass panels in the restaurant. Because Marion Dorn's original carpets are copyrighted, Despont created new ones inspired by samples at the V&A and vintage photos of the hotel interior. Meanwhile, he commissioned adaptations of an exquisite ecru-shaded silver-plated lamp, found elsewhere, to adorn tables in the reading room and foyer.
The pièce de résistance, the foyer—formerly a winter garden—is dominated by a magnificent Dale Chihuly light sculpture whose 800 handblown pieces of silver-white glass are suspended by 800 individual wires from the 20-foot ceiling. Beneath, people have tea off custom Limoges by Bernardaud while sitting in seats upholstered with Betty Joel's geometric fabrics.
The restaurant, once somewhat dreary, now provides a stage for theatrical chef Gordon Ramsay to attract such fans as Sam Taylor-Wood and Kate Moss. Despont enlivened columns with ornamental plaster casts finished in white-gold leaf but felt that the ceiling was still too high for intimacy. "It was out of the question to drop the ceiling, therefore we used the device of lamps that would seem to lower it—but not too drastically." Three-tiered apricot-shaded chandeliers focus soft, intimate light on the tables as unclattering staff glide seamlessly around on the Vorticist carpet.
Despont gave the restaurant greater definition by carving out a dramatic anteroom in the form of the aubergine leather-clad Macanudo fumoir, with its ebonized horseshoe bar. Right inside the hotel's main entrance, Despont was not so reverent as to retain the faintly kitsch tortoiseshell paint on the crenellated top of the revolving door; he chose simple white-gold leaf instead. In the reading room, a favored place for light meals and tea, pillars are upholstered in Italian leather, high-backed banquettes covered in mohair absorb sound, and black-and-white photographic portraits of Claridge's past guests such as Audrey Hepburn and John Huston adorn the walls.
The public spaces are still grand, but Despont's version of art deco is not so much about opulence. Open shirts are increasingly appearing in the restaurant. In the winter-garden-turned-foyer, now a more approachable place, guests seem to feel at home enough to flip open their laptops.